The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Monday, December 19, 2005

Taking away the car-keys to Avalon

While I'm on a "Fall of the Roman Empire" kick I figured I'd go after the "so-called Arthur King" legend next.

Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd wrote a book on the topic, Keys to Avalon, which proposed to subject the Arthur legend to philology. In this is it much like Babcock's plunge through Germanic legend and Byzantine redaction criticism in Attila. At the end of their book, Blake and Lloyd say that the Arthur legend, or rather the overarching Pendragon saga from Vortigern to Mordred, ought to be restricted to the Saxon border portions of pre-Offa North Wales.

They have made a number of assumptions which most "Grail hunters" have already made. They assume that the Celtic warlordism which plagued Welsh mediaeval history was a constant of British history going back to the pre-Roman era. From that, they extrapolate that Arthur's history ought to be considered in the context of such warlordism. That would further restrict Arthur's kingdom geographically - somewhere. So grail hunters should look for a nucleus of Arthurian sites, not individual sites scattered around all Britain from head to foot.

They also point out that Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the 12th century CE, was responsible for popularising the Arthur myth to a wider (read, Latin-speaking) audience. Monmouth claimed to have translated the book from "British" which in context meant "Welsh". It turns out that there were periods of pre-Stuart English history when claimants to the throne would emphasise native Celtic British ties over English. One such time was the Tudor period, when the king promised a "King Arthur II" after him - although that one unfortunately died while still in his Prince phase. But another such time was Geoffrey's: the heir Mathilda received her support from the Welsh frontier while the usurper Stephen was ruling from London and Normandy. During such pro-Welsh periods of British history, the authors claim, the Brittano-Saxon nationalists stretched the Arthurian legend to cover all Britain. Blake and Lloyd prefer local Celtic poetry to Geoffrey of Monmouth.

(As an aside, Arthur stories were far more popular in Wales, the Midlands, and the Continent than they ever were in the English heartland. This legend cycle posed intrinsic problems for the English which the national epics of Greece, Rome, Araby, and Judaea never did for their people. This is one reason Tolkien wrote his own myth-cycle, the Silmarillion: it is an alternative more friendly to the Saxon peoples. Besides, the Finns had cooked up a new epic of their own not long before Tolkien with their Kalevala.)

Geoffrey of Monmouth said that Vortigern invited the "Saxons" from "Germania" to settle in "Britain", and it was not just he who said it but also contemporary post-1066 Welsh and English chroniclers. Nowadays we assume that Vortigern was in charge of what is Britain now, and invited Saxons from what is Germany now. Blake and Lloyd, though, think that we should read this with the eyes of an early mediaeval Welshman. From this perspective, "Britain" is Wales (and Cornwall, Rheged, and Strathclyde); and "Germany" is the Saxon-speaking part of what was already starting to become England. Think of Geoffrey's "Germany" like we think of our France and Burgundy: they represent where the Franks and Burgundians ended up as of 500 AD, not where they came from.

That means the authors must posit a period of silent Saxon takeover of England east of the Severn, perhaps dating as far back as the late 300s AD. In that case, trueblooded Englishmen of Essex and Sussex (say) cannot point to Hengist, Horsa, and Vortigern for their origin myths. It was other Saxons who begat them. (Personally, I'm mostly of Staffordshire stock, so the Vortigern / Hengist legend still works well enough for me.)

Since the Arthurian legends refer to Saxon kingdoms north of "the Hwmyr", by a "wall", the authors propose that there was a third Roman wall separating the more Romanised portions of Britannia from the hillmen of Wales. This third wall was running through Roman territory and so was only meant to slow movement, rather than to stop it altogether as in Scotland. Therefore the authors propose an earthwork of Emperor Severus, following the track of that Wales-spanning dyke attributed to King Offa of Mercia. They further suggest that for a few centuries it went by the name "Ossa's dyke", after a Saxon king who settled there in the 400s CE. A combination of misprints ("Ossa" is spelled "Offa" in ancient texts and printed "Ofsa" in early printed manuscripts), mishearings, and - later - West Country chauvinism transplanted this to the King of Mercia. Therefore, so say our fearless authors: the Saxon kingdoms Deira and Bernica, alongside the wall, north of the Hwmyr, are not in the Northumbria of the late Middle Ages. They are instead north of the Hwmyr=Dee and alongside "Ossa's Dyke". (The river Dee would then have taken its name from the Roman city Deva, now Chester, which is fine by me; but then, they also claim that for the kingdom Deira, and for that the authors rely upon the reader's tolerance for place-name philology.)

Anyway, The Keys to Avalon wasn't taken as a serious work at the time; it didn't help that the authors worked for the North Wales tourist board. I can't find many reviews of the book, and I found several copies of the book in a used-book-store so it looks like I won't find very many more reviews. It also looks like not even Blake and Lloyd will stand by their 2002 book anymore. They wrote another one, Pendragon, which Ian Pegler has reviewed: it is apparently a good book but one which jettisons much of the authors' first foray into the field. The Keys to Avalon does at least manage to go without a picture of the Phaistos Disc on its cover.

Cattiness aside, the book's initial assumptions are far-reaching enough that they may even be falsifiable. For instance:

  • The Severan Wall - Is there a third-century Roman earthwork, did it really underlie Offa's Dyke, and when did it get Offa's name attached to it?
  • When is the first material evidence for Saxon settlements as far as, say, Wednesbury in Stafford? Is it before 450 CE (so before Vortigern) or after 535 CE (so after the Year Without A Sun and the plagues which followed Roman trade networks)?
  • All those placenames for Geoffrey of Monmouth: Were they ever placed in today's Kent and Northumbria before the Norman Conquest? or did the current placenames migrate eastward due to the influence of Arthurian romance among nationalistic and/or chivalric nobility?
  • If Cambria / Cymru at first referred to Venedotia / Gwynedd, how did the Romans refer to the region west of Severus's Wall / Offa's Dyke? When was "Cambria" extended beyond north Wales - and why?
  • Where are other Saxon records of their founders? Were Hengist and Horsa specific to the West Country or do references to them exist in Kent and East Anglia (say)?

If there was no Severan Wall, if the Midlands were full of Celts until the 600s, and if Cambria was always the Welsh name for what lay west of the Severn, then the book is bunk.

Personally, I expect to find that the Celts owned Bristol and the Severn basin until the mid-500s CE. I expect that the plague carried them off and let the Mercian English in. So: bunk. (But interesting.)

posted by Zimri on 17:10 | link | 0 comments

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