The best books about the origins of King Arthur

Nicholas J. Higham Author Of King Arthur: The Making of the Legend
By Nicholas J. Higham

Who am I?

As a university historian and archaeologist my focus has been the Early Middle Ages. In the 1990s I wrote several books about the fifth and sixth centuries which barely mentioned Arthur but popular histories and films based on his story just kept coming, so I decided to look again at his story and work out how and why it developed as it did. I have published three well-received books on the subject, each of which builds on the one before, plus articles that have been invited to be included in edited volumes. I disagree with much in the five books above but collectively they reflect the debate across my lifetime. It is a great debate, I hope you enjoy it. 

I wrote...

King Arthur: The Making of the Legend

By Nicholas J. Higham,

Book cover of King Arthur: The Making of the Legend

What is my book about?

According to legend, King Arthur saved Britain from the Saxons and reigned over it gloriously sometime around A.D. 500. Whether or not there was a “real” King Arthur has all too often been neglected by scholars; most period specialists today declare themselves agnostic on this important matter. In this erudite volume, Nick Higham sets out to solve the puzzle, drawing on his original research and expertise to determine precisely when, and why, the legend began.

Higham surveys all the major attempts to prove the origins of Arthur, weighing up and debunking hitherto claimed connections with classical Greece, Roman Dalmatia, Sarmatia, and the Caucasus. He then explores Arthur’s emergence in Wales—up to his rise to fame at the hands of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Certain to arouse heated debate among those committed to defending any particular Arthur, Higham’s book is an essential study for anyone seeking to understand how Arthur’s story began.

The books I picked & why

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The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650

By John Morris,

Book cover of The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650

Why this book?

John Morris was an ancient historian specializing in the later Roman Empire who late in life turned his attention to Dark Age Britain. I only met him very briefly at a conference in the mid-1970s, by which time he was already very ill. He wrote by far his best-known work while presiding over the translation of a host of source materials for early medieval Britain and their publication by Phillimore, all the time fighting his own battle against cancer. He didn’t just accept Arthur as a real historical figure but made him the pivotal figure of British history in the decades around 500, accepting as authoritative all sorts of stories written many hundreds of years later. In so doing he was largely responsible for bringing the Arthurian Period of British history into existence and certainly gave it enormous popular appeal. Rarely has one writer had such an impact on a period of history.

That said, of course, the effect was to set back our understanding of the period for several generations, for Arthur cannot serve this sort of function and is much better thought of as non-historical. So I see this as both a fascinating popularization of history and at the same time a case study in poor historical technique, worth reading for the ways in which it signposts all the Arthurian history which has followed on, as books and films. It is still worth reading for the fantastical claims it makes, the ways in which it misuses source material of all sorts, and for the grandiose (but largely false) vision of the past on offer, but please, please, don’t imagine it to be a fair reflection of the distant past. 

Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature

By O.J. Padel,

Book cover of Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature

Why this book?

Oliver Padel is a linguist specializing in early Welsh and Cornish and as such the ideal guide to Arthur’s presence in early Celtic literature. While acknowledging that the earliest datable instances come in the Historia Brittonum in 829-30, his view is that Arthur began as a figure of Celtic mythology and was only later converted into a pseudo-historical figure fixed in the past. In that sense, the early Arthur is the individual in the Historia Brittonum in the section called Mirabilia (Wonders), where he is used as a way of explaining landscape features and the names given to them, who has then been adapted to be a British general fighting 12 battles in chapter 56. This has strongly influenced ways of looking at the evidence in recent years and it deserves our attention.

Personally, I don’t agree with it for two reasons. First of all is the whole issue of the name, which is likely to derive from the Roman family name Artorius; it seems unlikely that a Welsh folk-hero or deity would carry a Roman name rather than a Welsh one. Secondly, it has more recently become clear that the Mirabilia were not part of the Historia Brittonum in its first iteration. Rather, they were written somewhere else and by someone else before becoming attached to the Historia decades later than that was initially written. We do not know, therefore, whether the Arthur of chapter 56 of the Historia came from the folk-hero of the Mirabilia or the reverse, but if I were betting I’d go for the latter.  Even so, this is a great way into Welsh literature featuring Arthur, written by an expert.   

Concepts of Arthur

By Thomas Green,

Book cover of Concepts of Arthur

Why this book?

Green’s book is a great read, very scholarly, and inclusive of a great deal of comparatively early source material on Arthur. If you want a good discussion of how you could go from a figure of Celtic myth to one of history, again and again in multiple stories, this is the best guide to that journey and deserves a hearing, whether ultimately you agree with it or not. You’ll probably not be surprised to hear that I am not persuaded, despite my considerable respect for the arguments made herein, largely for the same reasons as I noted in looking at Padel’s work above. It is extraordinarily difficult to determine whether Arthur passed from ‘history’ to folk-lore or folk-lore to ‘history’, better in my view to not distinguish these as two separate genres with this much clarity.

As usual, it all comes down to the Historia Brittonum, which is called a ‘History’ but is not one in anything like the modern sense, containing as it does large numbers of fictional characters. Arthur is best seen as one of these, developed by its author to fit a particular need as a British hero who triumphed repeatedly and with divine aid over the Saxon in-comers who stole Britain. 

The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature

By Rachel Bromwich (editor), A.O.H. Jarman (editor), Brynley F. Roberts (editor)

Book cover of The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature

Why this book?

This is a volume of papers by lots of different scholars each speaking to their own specialism. This provides a brilliant introduction to numerous parts of Arthur’s story as it began and was then carried through inside the Celtic World both before and after its eventual transmission to England and France, where it took off so spectacularly. Reading through this provides insight into the development of Arthur in what must be assumed to have been his original setting. The book is getting a bit old now and there is a replacement in the offing but it is still a great place to start and opens all sorts of exciting doors through which to pass and explore.

The History of the Kings of Britain

By Geoffrey of Monmouth, Neil Wright (translator), Michael D. Reeve (editor)

Book cover of The History of the Kings of Britain

Why this book?

Geoffrey’s History of the Kings is the work that picked Arthur up from the somewhat obscure backwater of Welsh story-telling and launched him onto the European stage, in the process creating a story that had an enormous influence on how the insular past was understood across the rest of the Middle Ages. Geoffrey was writing for the new Norman elite, who welcomed a view of the past which downplayed the Anglo-Saxons and centred instead on their rivals for control of ancient Britain, the Britons. He based his magnificent new work on the Historia Brittonum, a set of Welsh genealogies and various stories, all of which he embroidered from his own fertile imagination to construct a complex vision of insular history no closer to what had really happened than modern works such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars

But by tapping into political and cultural needs in the twelfth-century present, Geoffrey set hares running. The fact is that they still are running, both in fiction and many works that their authors consider historical. Arthur was Geoffrey’s particular hero, dominating book nine of his work, and by far his most successful British leader, who he presented as not just beating the Saxons into submission but an imperial figure dominating Western Europe and defeating the might of the Roman Empire. A parody of history, of course, but a brilliant read and a work that took the message of the Historia Brittonum to an extraordinary conclusion. In my view, this is the best edition and translation currently on offer.

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