Arthur's age at death

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
8,130
Cornwall
I think this old thread has been hijacked by plague, for no clear reason, although I got sucked in too.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,725
Westmorland
I was under the impression that Arthur was fictional. So really, you can make up whatever you want about him, including his age of death.
A fair point. Nonetheless, close reading of a text does permit such questions to be asked. The close reading and analysis of texts is a staple of literary criticism. Notwithstanding that no-one would ever seek to argue that Tess of the D'Urbervilles was real, asking how old she was (within the milieu created by Thomas Hardy) is a valid question if one wishes to ask it.

The issue for us is, I think, that too many of those who would hunt down Arthur through an analysis of the texts do not appreciate that they are involved in literary criticism rather than in the writing of history. An analysis of our surviving texts, NONE of which are even near-contemporaneous with when Arthur is supposed to have lived and many of which show all the signs of having drawn from one another as the Arthur story steadily evolved (which it continues to do) is an entirely valid exercise for understanding things like character development, the preoccupations of early medieval writers, the nuances of early medieval folklore, the power of good storytelling etc. It is, for example, possible to track certain parts of the Arthur legend back to folkloric stories of the seventh century. Personally, that interests me far more than attempts to find a 'real' Arthur.

In this context, asking how old Arthur was is an entirely fair question. Where it all falls down is when we persuade ourselves that we are not looking at stories but are, in fact, looking at history. It is testament to the skills of medieval storytelling that, more than 1,000 years on, we are still intrigued by Arthur and are still reimagining him. But let's stop chasing will o'wisps and accept that, for example, Bernard Cornwell's portrayal of Arthur is no less historically valid than the one offered up by the Historia Brittonum.
 
Sep 2015
351
ireland
A fair point. Nonetheless, close reading of a text does permit such questions to be asked. The close reading and analysis of texts is a staple of literary criticism. Notwithstanding that no-one would ever seek to argue that Tess of the D'Urbervilles was real, asking how old she was (within the milieu created by Thomas Hardy) is a valid question if one wishes to ask it.

The issue for us is, I think, that too many of those who would hunt down Arthur through an analysis of the texts do not appreciate that they are involved in literary criticism rather than in the writing of history. An analysis of our surviving texts, NONE of which are even near-contemporaneous with when Arthur is supposed to have lived and many of which show all the signs of having drawn from one another as the Arthur story steadily evolved (which it continues to do) is an entirely valid exercise for understanding things like character development, the preoccupations of early medieval writers, the nuances of early medieval folklore, the power of good storytelling etc. It is, for example, possible to track certain parts of the Arthur legend back to folkloric stories of the seventh century. Personally, that interests me far more than attempts to find a 'real' Arthur.

In this context, asking how old Arthur was is an entirely fair question. Where it all falls down is when we persuade ourselves that we are not looking at stories but are, in fact, looking at history. It is testament to the skills of medieval storytelling that, more than 1,000 years on, we are still intrigued by Arthur and are still reimagining him. But let's stop chasing will o'wisps and accept that, for example, Bernard Cornwell's portrayal of Arthur is no less historically valid than the one offered up by the Historia Brittonum.
I disagree with quite a bit of this. In reality the legends reached the pinnacle of their evolution with Mallory. There does seem to have been an explosion of interest that began again in the 1970s that saw some new ideas about who and what Arthur might have been but I would suggest that all of these have now lost their traction as they were over time more forensically scrutinized. Arthur seems to have now devolved back to at best a minor chieftain who wasn`t even known to Gildas.

Only those who are driven by agendas are trying to rewrite history. The rest of us by and large understand that we are attempting to interpret imperfect and sometimes synthetic medieval literature and that our conclusions can only be speculative. The only real evidence that might identify an Arthur is buried underground and may never be discovered. Some people like to chase will o`wisps. Sometimes they`ll even cause a stir. What`s the harm. There will always be the Peter Grahams of this world to reel them back in.
 
Nov 2008
1,445
England
Andrew Breeze is the only academic of note that I know of who believes in the historicity of Arthur. He is giving a talk on this subject in Manchester on the 21st of March.



 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,725
Westmorland
Andrew Breeze is the only academic of note that I know of who believes in the historicity of Arthur. He is giving a talk on this subject in Manchester on the 21st of March.
For a flavour of Breeze's arguments, people might also want to check out his article on the twelve battles of the Historia which appeared in Northern History a few years ago. Breeze can be good value, but it is worth pointing out that he is something of a controversial figure in academia. For balance, it might also be worth reading Kenneth Jackson's article Once Again Arthur's Battles, which appeared in Antiquity in about 1945 and which is a) short and b) freely available. Jackson made an important contribution on this topic which has been largely ignored since. He was the chap that argued that the battles can be found anywhere.

I do not agree with this. Cornwell was writing fiction whereas Nennius had a political motive.
True enough, but the point is that, whatever his motive, the compiler of the Historia was also writing fiction. Or, at least, he was repeating fiction. One school of thought has it that the battle list was prepared by the compiler of the Historia and that it didn't exist beforehand. Even if that isn't right (and it's difficult to prove either way), the recycling of motifs is well attested in early Welsh material. As we've discussed before, the battle list is a rag bag of real battles reassigned to Arthur (Badon, Bregouin, the unknown battles in Lindsey and probably Urbs Legionis) and fantastical battles already associated with Arthur in folklore (such as Cat Celidon orTribruit).