King Arthur–whether he was ever really a king or not–eludes historical precision. But for some fifteen hundred years he was, after the Bible itself, the story, the earthly representative, of Christendom. That he has been almost forgotten, just in the past 50 years, shouts from the housetops the poverty of our culture.
Some new archaeological discoveries in France have shed more light on the legend of King Arthur.
Sites dated to around 300 B.C., when France was still Gaul, before the Romans came, include sacred ponds or bogs into which tribal rulers threw expensive items as sacrifices. Items like the Gundestrup Cauldron (above), from Denmark, represented no small portion of the ruler’s wealth.
They also threw in weapons, mostly swords or spearheads. The Icelandic sagas tell us of cheap swords available to anybody, that quickly got bent out of shape if you actually had to use them. But the swords cast into the bogs were kings’ swords, the best that money could buy: famous swords with names and pedigrees.
Young Arthur drew his first sword from a stone, which no one else could do. I believe that what he did was to invade a site worshiped by the crack Sarmatian cavalry left in Britain by the Romans. Originally from central Asia, the Sarmatians worshiped their pagan gods by heaping up a mound of wood or stone or earth, and planting a sword in the middle of it. I believe that what Arthur did was to seize that sword. Instead of killing him on the spot, the amazed Sarmatians became his followers. His knights.
But what about Arthur’s more famous sword, Excalibur? Where did he get Excalibur?
According to Thomas Malory, and for want of any contradictory account, Arthur went with Merlin to a “lake”, and there a hand and arm came up from the water, holding Excalibur: and it was given to Arthur for as long as he lived, although it had to be returned to the lake when he died.
Hmm… Could this have been one of those sacred lakes, a pagan holy place, where ancient British chiefs and kings sacrificed their most costly possessions?
If Arthur had such a sword, he would have aggressively demonstrated the ascendance of the Christian faith by appropriating well-known pagan relics to the service of Jesus Christ. By his time Christianity had made deep inroads into British paganism: in doing as he did, Arthur proclaimed the outcome of that religious struggle–victory for Christianity.
If Excalibur had been a sacred sword… the whole story begins to make more sense.
In any lifelong search for the reality of King Arthur, one is bound to stumble over someone called “Riothamus,” or “Rigotamus.” In the ancient British language it means “great king,” so it might not have been his name. We might not know his name.
Riothamus is a historical figure, in the sense that historians are confident that he really existed, they know certain particulars of his career, he was mentioned by other historical figures, and he was most active around the year 470–which would put him in the generation preceding Arthur’s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riothamus). We think, we are pretty sure, that he and his army invaded the European mainland to help the Romans against the Goths: and he then either settled in what is now Brittany, or returned to Britain and was killed by traitors there, or else was ambushed by overwhelming numbers of Goths and killed on that battlefield.
He might have been Aurelianus Ambrosius, who preceded Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, as the war-leader of the Britons. Ambrosius had much success against the invading Saxon tribes–until he was murdered.
This period of European history, when Rome was falling and tribes, not yet nations, were on the move, is a chaotic jumble and very hard to reconstruct. Arthur could have been Riothamus, if you adjust the dates accordingly. But then where do you put Uther, if you put him anywhere at all?
We live in hope that someday a few more ancient parchments will turn up in unlikely places, and provide some of the information that we lack.
All we can say for sure is that someone in Britain checked the invaders thoroughly enough so that a new nation, England, a Christian nation, could be born strong enough to survive in turbulent times. And that accomplishment has never been linked to any name but Arthur’s.
Much as I cringe at having to take issue with Tolkien, I can’t help it. I think he’s wrong for looking at the fall of Arthur rather than his long-term legacy. Our own time, that we live in every day, would be very different, had there been no Arthur in the 6th century. We do have many serious problems; but it would be worse, I think, much worse, had Arthur never lived.
I ordered this book last week, and have been devouring it. Just can’t put it down.
All right, I’m a King Arthur buff. It’s my mother’s fault for telling me stories of Sir Lancelot. She could’ve had no idea how intently I was listening–what was I, three years old? When I was a few years older, I read my King Arthur picture book over and over again until it fell apart.
Two things make Mr. Saklatvala’s 1967 book stand out from the crowd.
First, it’s really cool! He delves into the messy, jumbled records of Dark Age Britain and the Middle Ages and ties things together that I never saw tied together before. The fragmentary records left of the last gasps of the Western Roman Empire are especially illuminating. True, the confused state of the record makes it impossible to prove any definite conclusions about Arthur. But Beram Saklatvala makes me nod my head and say to myself, “Hmm! Y’know, it really might’ve been that way!” Anyhow, who doesn’t love an enduring historical mystery?
The other thing is the mystery of Saklatvala himself. He’s almost as shadowy a figure as King Arthur. All I’ve been able to find out about him is a) he wrote some two dozen books, mostly on English history, and b) he sometimes used the pseudonym, “Henry Marsh.” Oh–and his middle name was Shapurji–is that Indian, Parsee, or Iranian? But his writing style is a comfortable read. It makes me wish his book were longer.
So it’s raining really hard today, but I’ve got a door into the year 500 A.D. and I can easily escape before the Saxons get me, just by closing the book.
I am amazed by the number of primary or close-to-primary sources Mr. Saklatvala brings to bear, some of which I’ve seen no other writer use.
This has got to be the coolest book I’ve read this year.
Marge has asked me to explain how I figured out the story of young King Arthur drawing the sword from the stone, and thus becoming king, was a true story. Here’s my argument:
Herodotus said the nomadic peoples of South Russia, who had no real temples, used to worship their gods by heaping up a pile of stones and thrusting a sword into it. Among these peoples were the Sarmatians.
The Romans stationed Sarmatian cavalry in Britain. When the Romans abandoned Britain in 415 A.D., some of the soldiers chose to stay. The Sarmatian cavalry stayed.
All the old sources portray Arthur as a war-leader who won victories all over Britain. He must have relied on cavalry; foot soldiers couldn’t have reached such widely-separated battlefields in the time allowed. Hence the tradition of Arthur and his mounted knights.
Now imagine a young Christian war-leader, desperate to defend his homeland from invaders, casting his eyes on the Sarmatian cavalry troops, pagans, but also the best and most experienced cavalry in Britain–and seeing them praying to a sword thrust into a pile of stones. What would happen if he walked up and pulled the sword out of the stones, and called on these horse-soldiers to rise up and follow him?
I think they would have either killed him on the spot, or else been swept away by his boldness and become his men.
It could’ve happened that way.
I had this figured out early in the 1980s but hadn’t a clue as to how to publish it, or where. A few more years went by; and then, alas, I discovered that someone else had since come along with the same theory, published it in an academic journal, and left me twiddling my thumbs.
My mother was a voracious reader with a love of history and legend, and she passed it on to me. I grew up on stories of King Arthur and his knights, especially her two favorites, Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad. My brother and I had toy knights by those names: they wound up having a lot of adventures with animals, dinosaurs, cowboys, and cars.
In 1956-57 there was a TV show, Adventures of Sir Lancelot, which I made sure to watch. I remember particularly well an episode in which Sir Lancelot discovered an out-of-the-way Roman fort manned by legionaries who didn’t know the Roman Empire ended some hundred years ago. Very cool!
All these years later, thanks to my mother’s stories, I’m still a King Arthur buff, still reading and writing about him and his times. Someday I’ll have to tell you how I figured out how the story of the Sword in the Stone was very likely true, albeit somewhat garbled by the passage of centuries.
Oh, to put on my armor, sling that shield across my shoulder, hop up onto my mighty steed, snatch up my lance, and ride out on adventures! My mother lived long enough to see my Bell Mountain books in print: I hope she knows that she was the one who got me started.