Christopher Snyder,
The World of King Arthur
(Thames & Hudson, 2000)

We have all heard the legends of King Arthur. Mystery buffs are already aware that a great controversy exists over whether Arthur is a fictitious character created by an imaginative bard or if he really existed.

The World of King Arthur is hailed as the most complete book ever published on the subject. The cover claims it to be "a new history of Arthur and the Arthurian legends" and "the latest archaeological discoveries at Glastonbury, Tintagel, Cadbury, 'Camelot,' Wroxeter and Hadrian's Wall." The book is 177 pages plus a directory of organizations, glossary, gazetteer of British sites and extensive bibliography, complete with Internet resources.

There is a unique table of contents for the 11 sidebars that tell the story of Arthur through a collection of resources, from photos of tapestries and pencil sketches of maps to photos of web pages and movies. It even includes roleplaying games and re-enactments.

The historical Arthur is cloaked in mystery. His time of existence has been narrowed to between the second and seventh centuries. The historians that believe in his existence doubt he was a powerful Christian king. They see him as some type of military ruler, a powerful one.

Myths are always based upon facts, although perhaps only one fact. Thus, historians look to the folklore of the time as proof that Arthur existed. Folklore predates, and feeds, the literary realm. Thus, the literary Arthur has been based upon the one of folklore, with each distinct period of writing adding more characters and details to the legend.

Arthur first appeared in writing as a "dux bellorum," or "duke of battles." Camelot, Guinevere, Lancelot and the great love triangle appeared during the period of romantization of literature in 12th-century France.

Merlin has been called everything from prophet to poet to wild man. There is evidence that he actually was a Celtic druid named Myrddin, who gained fame for his prophetic verse. But this evidence also puts his existence up to a century later than Arthur's. Again, the romantic poets of 12th-century France added him to the Arthurian legend.

So goes this book, examining (and destroying) the legend, while taking the reader deep into the history, politics and culture of the era.

I bought this book expecting to learn that new evidence has been uncovered that caused the history of King Arthur to be updated. Instead, I found this quote: "Indeed it is not my goal to unearth the 'real Arthur.' Rather, I hope to show for all those interested in Arthur that there was a very real and vibrant historical era at the beginning of his story. Whether he existed or not, this period would produce the stuff of legends, legends that would become the basis for one of the most important and lasting literary traditions in the West."

Was I disappointed? Definitely not! I read the entire book in one sitting and relished every page. I have to agree with the author; if we ever prove that he existed, we are surely in for a disappointment. No man could ever measure up to the one that 10 centuries of romantic writing has built. We would all be disappointed.

If you are interested in history, especially of the Britons, Celts, druids or the general period between AD 100 and 1000, this is a must read! Just do not buy it thinking that it will give you a definite answer about Arthur's existence.

- Rambles
written by Alicia Karen Elkins
published 24 May 2003

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