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Professor Oliver J. Padel (in "The Nature of Arthur", Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, Summer 1994, p. 1) says of Arthur that "He may very well not have existed; and, indeed the cumulative evidence is such as to make that a probability."
Padel begins his attack on a "historical Arthur" by stressing the dual nature of the Arthurian material embedded in the Historia Brittonum. For side by side with the Arthur of the battle list is the folkloristic Arthur of the Mirabilia. In the latter, we are told of two Welsh sites, one a stone named for Arthurs horse, which supposedly left a footprint on it during the chase of the fabulous boar-monster Troit (the Twrch Trwyth of Culhwch and Olwen), and the other a "Neolithic or Bronze Age burial-chamber or tumulus" with magical properties, supposedly the grave of Arthurs son Amr.
To quote Professor Padel on this dualistic nature of the Historia Brittonums Arthuriana:
"This contrast, found in our earliest Arthurian text, needs to be emphasized. It has usually been explained on the basis that here we also see the historical Arthur already becoming a figure of local legend. This begs the question of what can be known of Arthur before the date of this, our earliest text; but for the time being what is important is the dual nature of the legend at its first appearance the mixture of magical folklore and apparent history."
The implication of the statement is that since we find the folkloristic Arthur and the "historic" Arthur together in our earliest source, the battle list must be viewed as being no more historical in the truest sense of the term than Arthurs hunt of the boar monster, or the Neolithic or Bronze Age funeral monument, which could not possibly have belonged to his Dark Age son.
Such an implication can be misleading. There is no way for us to know whether the battle list and the Mirabilia derive from the same strata of tradition. A battle poem available to the author of the Historia Brittonum may well have been significantly older than the stories concerning the folkloristic Arthur which imprinted themselves on the Welsh landscape.
Examples of extant poems like the Gododdin show how very ancient pieces of literature could survive into the later period. Let us suppose we had a Culhwch and Olwen type version of the Gododdin. Would we then compare the poem and the story and conclude that grave doubt must be cast on the historical significance of the former? Or would we recognize that the one was a natural outgrowth of the other? That a heroic narrative based upon a historical event had been turned into folkloristic fiction?
Padel also tackles the validity of the battle list and the two Arthurian entries in the Annales Cambriae. Of the former he says:
'It is generally agreed that, insofar as they can be identified at all, they cannot all have been the battles of a single commander against the English, since their geographical span (and chronological span, where known) is too great. The identification of place-names in a text such as this, where there is little or no circumstantial evidence, is so insecure that the list can be used to fit any theory about Arthurs campaigns."
There are a number of contradictions inherent in this statement. Padel tells us that the geographical and chronological spans of the battles "in so far as they can be identified at all" are too great to have been fought by one commander. In the first place, you cannot say this unless you have reasonable identifications for the sites before you. Padel cannot make this claim. And even if we hold to the standard view that some of the battles are, indeed, great distances from each other like Urbs Legionis as Chester or Caerleon and Celidon Wood as a wood in Lowland Scotland any number of later campaigns by British and English rulers clearly show that such distances were not uncommon during times of war (see Leslie Alcocks Arthurs Britain).
The argument from the standpoint of chronology is also not convincing. Breguoin is often related to the Brewyn (Bremenium?) battle of Urien, a king who ruled well after Arthurs supposed floruit. But there is another possibility for Breguoin (see below), and even if Bremenium is meant, there is nothing to prohibit us from allowing more than one battle having occurred at the same place at different time periods.
Arthurs Urbs Legionis battle is also often linked with the Battle of Chester in 613. The reasoning on this battle is, frankly, ridiculous, for it is thought Arthur could not have possibly fought at Chester is 613! No one seems to have bothered to ask why he could not instead have fought at Chester or another Urbs Legionis (see below) at an earlier time.
Padels suggestion that Arthurs Celidon Wood battle might be a reference to the battle of Arfderydd fought c. 573, from which Myrddin/Merlin fled to the Celidon Wood, need not be considered, as Welsh tradition never seeks to place Arfderydd in the Celidon Wood.
Finally, while it is true that the battle list can be used to fit any theory, Padel is quick to add that "such theories, of which there have been many, are mutually self-cancelling." Why are they mutually self-cancelling? Well, obviously, because they all represent Arthur as fighting in different places. But more than this, none has stood up to rigorous philological examination. Every theory to date has failed to match up the battle list place-names, as they have been etymologically analyzed, with real geographical sites, ancient or modern, in a way that will satisfy place-name experts.
Padel then goes on to make the bold claim that it was not Arthur who was the victorious commander at Badon, but Ambrosius Aurelianus. In Padels mind, this is a serious blow to the historic veracity of the Arthurian battle-list, which concludes with the battle of Badon. To prove his point, Padel discusses the 10th century Cotton Vitellius A.vi version of Gildass De Excidio. This earliest MS. of De Excidio lacks a paragraph division of other MSS. between mention of Ambrosius Aurelianus and Badon.
According to Padel,
"If the paragraph-break is removed, and the whole passage taken as one, then Mount Badon reads naturally as the victory which crowned the career of Ambrosius Aurelianus himself."
The problem here is that I have elsewhere shown that Ambrosius Aurelianus had been anachronistically placed in the fifth century when, in fact, he belongs in the 4th. He is none other than the father of St. Ambrose, who was the Prefect of Gaul (see my article about Ambrosius). The Gaulish prefecture included Britain and it is this man to whom Gildas alludes. If I am correct, and I believe a good case can be made for this, then Ambrosius Aurelianus cannot possibly have fought at a battle which happened in the year of Gildass birth, i.e. c. 500 AD.
The remainder of Professor Padels paper concentrates on drawing parallels between the development of Arthurs legend and that of the Irish Fionn. The sole point of this comparison seems to be to cast doubt on the Annales Cambriae entries on Arthur. And how does Padel accomplish this? He treats rather exhaustively of the said parallels and then lets us know that Fionn, a wholly legendary character, had his death-date entered in the Irish annals, just as Arthurs was entered in those of the Welsh.
This whole approach is deceptive at best. For Fionn, unlike Arthur, does not have a battle list ascribed to him. The Arthurian materials, which Padel selected to compare with those of Fionn, were decidedly folkloristic in content and do not include the battle list.
Padel does not see fit to remind us that other great early Medieval military heroes, like Charlemagne of France, were subjected to the same kind of folkloristic and literary treatment as Arthur yet this in no way impugns their basic historical nature.
Padel and the battles of Arthur is Copyright © 2002, August Hunt. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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