Reviewed by: Ryan Lavelle Author: Guy Halsall Publisher: Oxford University Press Price (RRP): £20
If there were a prize for the most misleading history book cover, Worlds of Arthur would already be a contender to head the 2013 shortlist. In faux-antique typeface, the title would not look out of place on a historical novel. The ghostly image of a sword that looks more 15th century than 5th overlies an image of a distant Glastonbury Tor – the mythical ‘Isle of Avalon’ – seen in the twilight (or dawn?) from the rippling marshes of the Somerset levels. I can’t help but feel that the author, perhaps at the expense of some unwitting graphic designer, is using the cover to make a rather ironic point. The irony is that this book will sit alongside many of the works that Halsall discredits, perhaps even among ‘Arthurian’ shelves in Glastonbury itself, to be picked up by die-hard Arthur fans hoping to find some ‘truth’ among the myths.
Such fans are in for a shock. Halsall sets out his points clearly: there is no evidence of a ‘historical King Arthur’. Early medieval authors who have been cited to argue this – Gildas, Bede, ‘Nennius’ and the like – cannot be used in this way and to call on them for Arthurian ‘proof’ is to fundamentally misunderstand their purposes. So far, so good: Halsall picks apart some of the academic studies of ‘Arthurian’ contexts as he sweeps aside the crazier arguments. Furthermore, Halsall points out there is no binary opposition between Romano-Britons and Saxons in late Roman and post-Roman Britain; therefore there was no environment in which anyone like a Romano-British ‘King Arthur’, fighting invading Saxons, could have existed. Post-Roman societies were more complex than this, especially given that Halsall argues that ‘Saxons’ were present in Roman Britain at least a generation earlier than the fifth century date normally assumed.
Worlds of Arthur has a lively, entertaining and even conversational tone. It presents a convincing thesis, if over-argued in places: the reader is often returned to an earlier point in order for it to be re-emphasised when it has been made convincingly enough in the first place. Details of archaeological evidence resurface where a single discussion might have sufficed. But, among trenchantly established views and a range of ways in which evidence might be interpreted, Halsall’s approach to the book’s structure is reasonable and, indeed, helpful. Points emerge slowly but surely. By the final chapters each new revelation is genuinely exciting and the picture of post-Roman Britain is, in many ways, original and very plausible.
Halsall’s irreverent style will not appeal to everyone, but the humour and apparent ease with which sacred cows are put out to pasture is refreshing. Not all details will be agreed with, but that should hardly be expected. The value of Worlds of Arthur is the new perspectives that it offers on a difficult period of British and – importantly – European history.
Ryan Lavelle is senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Winchester