Evidence of Arthur
Fixing the Legendary King in Factual Place and Time
Flint F. Johnson
Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Co., 2014
Paperback. vii+245p. ISBN 978-0786476817. $40.00/£34.50
Reviewed by Alan Lupack
University of Rochester (New York State)
In his Evidence of Arthur, Flint J. Johnson takes on the ambitious project of attempting to prove the historicity of the legendary king. It is a laudable undertaking, even though Flint’s actual evidence is, ultimately, unconvincing. In his attempt to provide evidence for the historicity of Arthur, Johnson admits that Arthur’s historicity has been questioned because there are no contemporary literary or historical records documenting his deeds, because he and those surrounding him seem to be figures from folklore, and because there is no “dependable geographic location” for his exploits. His book, Johnson claims, is an attempt to counter these arguments.
In his review of the traditional “literary, pseudo-historical, and historical sources for the period in which Arthur might have lived,” Johnson recounts some of the standard arguments for why Gildas might not have mentioned him. But Johnson finds evidence for Arthur in the Gododdin; and he sees Nennius’s Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae as suggesting that what they say about Arthur “was a part of British history well before 900.” Johnson also argues that “the very fact that Arthur is part of the vita [saints’s lives] tradition testifies to his existence.” In analyzing this traditional evidence, Johnson does not examine counter-arguments in much detail—the argument, for example, that the reference to Arthur in the Gododdin might be a later interpolation.
In discussing the absence of Arthur from the literary and historical record, Johnson suggests that the survival of information about leaders like Urien and Gwrtheyrn is due to “dynastic motivations of several powerful families.” And he claims that for others “luck” is the most important factor in “a king’s retention in the strictly historical records.” The conclusion that no powerful family claimed Arthur and that “poor fortune” kept him out of the historical record does not seem a satisfactory explanation for Arthur’s absence.
Johnson’s argument against Arthur as a folklore figure is also unconvincing. As he observes, some critics have commented on the development of Fionn macCumhail and compared him to Arthur as a figure of folklore. But, according to Johnson, Arthur is different from Fionn, and therefore the argument for a folkloric Arthur is not valid. While Johnson answers one specific, though dated, line of argument, he does not thus prove or even offer real evidence for his historicity. Johnson’s conclusion is flawed, since it does not recognize that there is not necessarily a single pattern for a folklore hero. Moreover, Johnson does not allow for the consideration of Arthur as simply a literary creation (since not all literary characters are necessarily folkloric).
Unfortunately, Evidence for Arthur makes other unwarranted assumptions. This happens again when Johnson argues that the “superbus tyrannus” mentioned by Gildas as having invited the Germanic tribes into Britain is not in fact Vortigern but is actually Arthur. This would mean that there is an early source, Gildas’s De excidio, that refers to Arthur. But it is only by means of wishful thinking and strained logic that this conclusion is reached.
Most glaring, perhaps, is Johnson’s argument for locating Arthur in a particular place, one of the factors that Johnson has defined as necessary to proving Arthur’s historicity. So, after looking at the available texts, especially the pre-Galfridian ones, Johnson concludes that Arthur came from the North. Yet this conclusion about an actual location assumes that “it is known that Arthur existed” in the fifth or sixth century. The circularity of the reasoning undermines the conclusion: for Arthur to exist, one must prove he had a specific geographic location; but the assumption that he existed in a particular time is used to help prove he had a “dependable geographic location.”
Consequently, despite Johnson’s claim that he has “provided strong and consistent evidence that Arthur did exist,” he does not offer anything that convinces the objective observer. And so the question of Arthur’s historicity remains open; and scholars will remain torn between two positions, articulated by O.J. Padel and P.J.C. Field. The former, in his essay on “The Nature of Arthur” in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies suggests that Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson’s “possibility [that Arthur existed] has hardened into a probability. . . . A better answer to the question would be ‘He may very well not have existed’; and, indeed, that the cumulative evidence is such as to make that a probability.” Alternatively, in his Arthuriana article on “Arthur’s Battles,” Field observes that the overall effect of the passages traditionally used to suggest Arthur’s historicity is “entirely plausible.” Both Padel and Field are too careful as scholars to go so far as to claim absolute certainty. Taking into account the two camps represented by Padel and Field and the lack of any convincing new evidence in Johnson’s study, it seems best to remain an agnostic on the question of the historicity of Arthur.
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