A GAME OF ARTHURS: The Romance of Arthur, edited by Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhelm

Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhelm (eds.) The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation (Routledge, 2013)

by R. A. Davis

Part 1: ‘…he was not Arthur’

“It is difficult to believe it was all the invention of a Welsh writer.”
– Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples [1]

To live in Wales, or to be in any way Welsh, is to dwell in a landscape of contradictions. For example, Welsh poet and scholar Tony Conran (1931-2013) translated historical Welsh poetry into English but was allegedly unable to conduct everyday conversation in modern Welsh. R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), the Nobel-nominated Welsh poet and nationalist became fluent in Welsh in adulthood but maintained English as the only language of his poetry. Remote from colloquial Welsh discourse, Conran gave readers of English access to the poetic inheritance of Welsh. Thomas could protest and persuade in Welsh, but contributed to the nation’s poetry in English. In this way, literary identities seldom align neatly with their national analogues. Observe Britain’s other “Celtic” nation today and the “ambivalent, charged and complex” relationship between literature and nationality.[2] It is from the literature of Wales and the earliest writings in its language that we derive the origin of an ancient and enduring contradiction which continues to trouble national and literary imaginations. The name of this contradiction is Arthur.

After twenty years as the standard Arthurian reader, the publication of a third edition of James J. Wilhelm’s The Romance of Arthur, co-edited by Norris J. Lacy, offers an opportunity to examine a modern readership’s encounter with original Arthurian sources. Focussing on the earliest transmission of Arthurian elements, this review concentrates on half of the anthology’s twenty-two chapters.

Modern historians and pseudo-historians alike have struggled to establish the historicity, or historical possibility, of a king or nobleman of post-Roman Britain bearing the name Arthur. The lack of any conclusive document or artefact to prove the literary figure true existence has left a vacuum, inhaling fourteen centuries of mythology and modern conjecture. To take a colourful example from the late nineteenth century: in the survey Arthurian Localities John Stuart-Glennie located his Arthur in southern Scotland and northern England, the Hen Ogledd (Old North) of Welsh tradition. His conclusion exemplifies Romanticism’s glorious project to reconcile progress and poetry:

as […] the old Greek legends, made an Iliad and an Odyssey of by Homer, furnished the poets of the great age of Greece with forms of their immortal dramas; so, I believe, will the Pre-mediaeval Celtic legends, as they have been prepared for us by the poetic romancers of the Mediaeval Age, be found to present the most varied and easily adaptable material for the European poets who will dare unreservedly to accept Science.[3]

During the twentieth century, despite advancements in archaeology, “Science” has only fed the appetite for romance, to the point of crisis. The most dubious milestone in the misdirection of Arthurian scholarship might be John Morris’s The Age of Arthur (1973), an extreme example of a tendency to overstate historical evidence. It is a candidate for “one of the greatest historical hoaxes ever perpetrated.”[4] While The Age of Arthur remains in print, the same cannot be said of its scholarly contemporary, Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain (1971). Alcock led excavations at so-called Cadbury Castle as head of the “Camelot Research Committee.”[5] In a revised preface to a later edition of Arthur’s Britain he solemnly retracted the thesis derived from the Cadbury-Camelot archaeology. Responding to the same criticism aimed at Morris, Alcock states:

[…] the new verbal critiques go far beyond the rather timid scepticism which I had expressed occasionally. Consequently, they have largely undermined the case which I had advanced for the historic Arthur: indeed, some scholars would claim that they have destroyed that case completely.[6]

The Romance of Arthur jacketAn admission of intellectual misadventure is a testament to academic discipline, a force to which many published “histories” of Arthur have never been subjected. Take for example 1999’s Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, republished in 2012, by the Scottish broadcaster Alistair Moffat. Early in its pages, Moffat (a graduate of St Andrews, in Medieval History) politely excuses himself from all responsibility to rigour: “I care nothing for academic reputation, the conventional wisdom or the weight of opinion. These researches are founded on common sense and sufficient erudition.”[7] This self-exemption is even more troubling when we consider how these non-fiction works of Arthuriana are marketed. Compare two recent book jackets: Moffat’s credulous Lost Kingdoms and Guy Halsall’s sceptical synthesis Worlds of Arthur (2013). Both books bear cover images of a ghostly sword-hilt floating before a murky landscape. Remarkably, The Romance of Arthur also adopts the sword motif, against a field of chivalric kitsch. Let us hope that academically-inclined readers discern history from fantasy by interrogating content. Undermining this hope is the tendency among certain academics to allow their boyhood fantasies (note: all the Arthurian fantasists pertinent to this review are male) to play freely at the cliff edge of doubt. Norman Davies, author of Europe: A History, does not miss the chance to perch his own Arthur on Dumbarton Rock in the “Alt Clud” chapter of his recent Vanished Kingdoms.[8] Flights of pseudo-historical fancy are not benign. Attempts to affix the historical Arthur to a geographical locale are inherently personal, and certainly political. This is the intellectual climate into which The Romance of Arthur is republished.

The material most relevant to the claims of Arthur-seekers is found in the first chapter of the anthology, “Arthur in the Latin Chronicles,” in which Wilhelm provides a summary of the possible point of origin of the legend of Arthur. A notable feature of the early material is the absence of Arthur in name. Sixth century British cleric Gildas gives names to other figures in his De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (On The Downfall and Conquest of Britain) but does not name Arthur. In describing the fifth century conflict he refers to one Ambrosius Aurelianus, inheritor of Roman status, leading the Britons against the Saxons. The name is first given to a British war leader by a Welshman, Nennius, in the Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), a text compiled three centuries after the time of Gildas or the supposed age of Arthur. The centuries lying between Gildas’ outlining of the role and the naming of the character as we know it provide the perfect plot hole to be filled. In the intervening period, the Britons who had formed the cultural majority of the island during the Roman period would gradually obtain the English designation “Welsh” and eventually appear to become a cultural minority in the history of Britain. Yet it is the Welsh sources which are the first layers of material to fill the fertile gap between Gildas and Nennius. These are drawn together by John K. Bollard in the anthology’s second chapter.

The earliest occurrence of “arthur” in all of literature survives (uncapitalized) in copied manuscripts made in the thirteenth century, of two versions of a poem written as early as the seventh century. Y Gododdin is a war elegy. Three hundred Britons fought against a larger, supposedly Anglo-Saxon, force. Only one or three of the warriors survived, including the poet himself. Even assuming the part of the text referring to Arthur was part of the original composition (it appears in only one of the two versions) and the author was in fact one of those warriors, he refers to “arthur” only as an abstract ideal, a measure for one of the fallen warriors of the Gododdin force:

He fed black ravens […] on the wall
of a fortress, though he was not Arthur                     
Among the powerful in battle,
in the van, an alder shield-wall – Gwawrddur.
(Y Gododdin, 1241-1244 )

This translation, offered by John K. Bollard in the anthology, is more restrained than a popular version by A. O. H. Jarman, which interprets the phrase “ceni bei ef arthur” as “he was no Arthur” [9] inclining the reader further towards the comparison. No competing interpretation has been widely advanced for this line of poetry, upon which the character of a literary tradition seems to pivot.

Also in the Welsh tradition, the anthologists begin to identify the names later adapted to populate Llys Arthur (Arthur’s Court). Gwalchmai will become Gawain, Bedwyr, Bedivere; Gwenhwyfar, Guinevere. Like the first occurrence of Arthur’s name, these pronouns appear next to abstract detail in list-like poems and elegies, rather than in narratives. It is tempting, though anachronistic, to imbue the first sight of a name with all its later literary connotations.

It quickly becomes unclear which culture is responsible for the specific additions to the jumble of names and attributes. The Trioedd Ynys Prydain (Triads of the Island of Britain) surviving from the thirteenth century, contain reference to “Lanslod Lac,” a charming Welsh phoneticism of Chrétien de Troyes’s hero Lancelot du Lac. Here a feature has been borrowed (or borrowed-back) into the Welsh literature from a source which appropriated the tradition.

The anthology contains, in its entirety, the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, the oldest complete narrative in history to contain Arthur as a character. Recorded in the eleventh century, the tale is something like a courtly pantomime. As in the other Welsh material, lists of names (such as “The catalog of Arthur’s companions”) are a major feature, comically convoluted and alliterated, as though their tongue-twisting recitation before an audience would provide as much entertainment as the tale itself:

[…] and Ffflewdwr the Flamelord, and Rhuawn the Strong son of Dorath, and Bradwen so of Prince Moren, and Prince Moren himself, and Dalldaf son of Cimin Cof, and the son of Alun of Dyfed, and the son of Saidi, and the son of Gwryon, and Uchdryd Protector in Battle, and Cynwas Cwryfagyl, and Gwrhyr Rich-in-Cattle, and Isberyr Cat-claw, and Gallgoid Gofynynad, and Duach and Brathnach and Nerthach, sons of Gwawrddur Cyrfach – from the uplands of Hell did these men come.

This is a tiny fraction of the “catalog,” a rhythmical and breathless sequence. It is possible that portions of the list were recited by alternating voices in a competitive scenario. However it was delivered, the humour is still palpable, the tale seems to satirise the same courtly and genealogical tradition it celebrates.      

The bulk of the tale (also known as How Culhwch Won Olwen) is also full of challenge and response. Culhwch, a nobleman (though his name means “pigsty”), applies to Arthur’s court to help him win the daughter of Ysbaddaden Chief Giant. Arthur assigns Bedwyr and Kei to the quest. Ysbaddaden charges Culhwch with forty impossible tasks to obtain certain anoethau (wonders) which are required in order to groom the giant for the wedding feast. The hero assures his foe each time: “It’s easy for me to manage that, though you think it’s not easy.” Before the giant counters: “Though you manage that, there’s something you won’t get […]” for a total of forty iterations. Mercifully, half the feats go unreported before Culhwch and company return to shave the giant: “the flesh and skin to the bone, and the two ears completely.” The giant’s last words before decapitation tell Culhwch he could not have won Olwen without Arthur’s help. Arthur therefore functions solely as the commanding officer and manager, the originator of power. In this Welsh context he occupies a defined role, but without a discernable character.

Part 2: Grooming Giants

A far more recognisable Arthur emerges in the anthology’s fourth chapter in excerpts from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century Historia Regum Britannie (History of the Kings of Britain). Using what might be taken for a novelistic device, Geoffrey claims to be translating a rare and ancient book written in the British language (that is, Welsh). He certainly knew Welsh folklore; a notable giant-killing/shaving sequence suggests a direct link to (or from) Culhwch and Olwen. The Arthurian chapters excerpted here show a sophisticated narrative in clear episodes, covering the same period described by Gildas. Features of Geoffrey’s style include material and faith-based magic, blow-by-blow martial violence, and some restrained humour. Paying tribute to the list-reciters of the older tradition but lacking their stamina, Geoffrey curtails the familiar roll-call of nobles with, “and many others whose names it is too tiring to enumerate.” Geoffrey’s Arthur is the King Arthur we know; not just a leader but a moral action hero. He wields Caliburn (Excalibur), is married to and betrayed by Guinevere, mortally wounded by Mordred and carried to the Isle of Avalon. Also entering the literature here is Merlin, based on the Welsh prophet figure Myrddin, renamed to avoid the unfortunate connotation in Norman French of the Latinization Merdinus. Merlin has no direct interaction with Arthur, but it is his very own futuristic Polyjuice Potion which allows Uther Pendragon to conceive Arthur while satisfying his lust for a fellow nobleman’s wife

In claiming to reveal the truth about a tract of obscure British history, Geoffrey of Monmouth is not at all unlike the modern pseudo-historians. Certain details suggest keen research embellished with fantasy, all delivered in the name of “history.” As the anthology notes, Geoffrey wrote for Norman patrons, conquerors of Britain mining British history for an identity. This is not the Arthur of resistance but the Arthur of empire. Geoffrey’s History gave us Shakespeare’s ancient British kings Cymbeline and Lear. It also gave us Merlin’s prophecy of the return of British rule, which helped launch Wales’s Tudor dynasty.

By the early twelfth century Arthur already belonged to an international literature. Geoffrey completed his Historia around 1138. Its translation into French was undertaken by Master Wace, also the author of Roman de Brut, a history of Britain, and “the first full account of the Arthurian story in a vernacular language; Old North French.” Though substantively a paraphrasing of Geoffrey’s Historia, the Roman contains literature’s first sight of the Round Table, emblematic of the enduring peace of his Kingship:

There sat his vassals, all in royalty and equality;
Roman de Brut [near Line 9751]

Though, evidently some nobles were more equal than others:

No man was considered courtly […] who did not come and stay for a while with Arthur in equality, and who did not have the clothing, trappings, and the armor of the sort that those who served at Arthur’s court had.  

Even in its earliest incarnation the Round Table was as much a device of exclusion as inclusion. Indeed, foreign kings “feared and trembled that he would conquer the whole world […]” – scholars employ the term pax arthuriana with some supposed measure of irony.

Part 3: “rex quondam rexque futurus”

The wealth of material presented in the anthology carries us eventually to the familiar works Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. In tracking a single theme across a rough millennium from 500 to 1500AD, the collection captures the ranging spirit of the European imagination between classical and modern worlds. How the name given to an anonymous British hero became the heading for a diversely appropriated and yet unified corpus of writing is a story worth the understanding, not least because its ancient tradition has weathered modernity.

The pseudo-historical quest for “the real King Arthur” continues, adapting to the agenda of each new researcher. Meanwhile, the fictional Arthur adapts to the demands of any audience, a legend continually recast in realistic and fantastic form (with or without dragons). We can also readily witness another, more diffuse, adaptation of Arthur’s world, that disputed Late Antique north-western Europe of legend, in the physical and magical parameters of “dark age“ or “medieval-“ fantasy, from J.R.R. Tolkien to G.R.R. Martin.

In the genre of historical fiction, history’s consumption of Arthurian fantasy becomes a story in itself, one of negotiated reality. In Hilary Mantel’s Tudor-era political epic Wolf Hall (2009) Thomas Cromwell’s son, reading in 1530, summarises Malory’s classic from the previous century:

Our king takes his descent from Arthur. He was never really dead but waited in the forest biding his time, or possibly in a lake. He is several centuries old. Merlin is a wizard. He comes later. You will see. There are twenty-one chapters. If it keeps on raining I will read them all. Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories.

Later, having made an appeal to King Henry’s family mythology, Cromwell responds:

Gregory, those Merlin stories you read – we are going to write some more.

Far from the fantasy genre, we have here a realistic fiction based on history, set at the outset of modernity, in which Arthurian fantasy is used to shape the political reality.

Milan Kundera writes of the modern novel (and by extension the modern era) in terms of “the depreciated legacy of Cervantes.”[10] At the dawn of modernity, reader-adventurer Don Quixote carries medieval ideals into a landscape which has forgotten them. In the diffuse appropriation of Arthuriana, the modern fantasists reverse Don Quixote’s journey. Not as Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee took the nineteenth century back to the sixth to compare their relative brutalities, but much as Walter Scott (one target of Twain’s satire) composed a tale of chivalry fit for the reader-adventurer. Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820), the first medieval historical novel in English, would have charmed Don Quexana. Indulging in fantasies of the medieval, the errant reader risks the fate of the deluded knight of la Mancha, ever destined to superimpose the medieval image on the landscape of the real.

To return to the learned misadventures of Lesley Alcock, the “common sense” of Alistair Moffat and the alleged hoax of John Morris; these are the twentieth century Quixotes who absorbed Arthurian fantasy and rode out in search of Camelot. The failure in their readings is to mistake this literature for treasure maps, when the literature itself is the treasure.

anoeth bit bet y Arthur

“[…] hard to find in this world, a grave for Arthur”; words from Englynion y Beddau (The Stanzas of the Graves) from the ninth or tenth century, found in the anthology’s second chapter. Arthur is a restless entity. John Bollard translates that “troublesome” Welsh word anoeth as “a thing difficult to find or obtain; a wonder.” We wonder at Arthur’s uncertain end. As we began with Welsh contradictions, so let us conclude: perhaps never having lived, Arthur cannot truly be said to have ever died. Diffused across borders, Arthur cannot be contained in any single landscape, perhaps least of all the land which christened him, be that Britain or Wales. Arthur survives in poetry and prose, is buried in writing. That is no resting place.


  1. Winston Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Volume 1: The Birth of Britain (London: Cassell and Company Ltd., 1956) p.46
  2. Scott Hames (ed.), Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence (Edinburgh: Word Power Books, 2012), p. 10
  3. John S. Stuart-Glennie, Arthurian Localities: Their Historical Origin, Chief Country, and Fingalian Relations (Edinburgh: Edmonton and Douglas, 1869), p.124
  4. Guy Halsall, Worlds of Arthur (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.8
  5. Christopher Snyder, ‘Arthurian Origins’ in Lacy, N. J. (ed.) A History of Arthurian Scholarship (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2006), p.8
  6. Leslie Alcock, Arthur’s Britain (London: Penguin, 1987) p. xvii
  7. Alistair Moffat, Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2012), p.3
  8. Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (London: Allen Lane, 2011), p.54
  9. Alfred Owen Hughes Jarman (ed.), Y Gododdin. Britain’s Oldest Heroic Poem. The Welsh Classics vol. 3. (Llandysul, Gomer 1988), p.64
  10. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (London: Faber & Faber, 2005), p.20



2 responses to “A GAME OF ARTHURS: The Romance of Arthur, edited by Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhelm”

  1. […] Here you will find a review I wrote for the Glasgow Review of Books, of an anthology of Arthurian literature. […]

  2. […] feature ancient Britain and (post-)Arthurian themes. Having written a previous review essay on Arthuriana for GRB, I was grateful for the chance to return to some of the same […]

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