A Candle in the Darkest Age – Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

Oxford University Press384 pages, Publication date: April 4, 2013

King Arthur is by far the most popular and most written-about king of England who never was. Legends of Arthur have multiplied not only in the British Isles, but in France, in other European countries and more recently, in North America. Tales of Arthur began appearing in the early ninth century and continued to appear through Victorian times to the present day. In fable and books, around medieval campfires and flickering on the silver screen and TV sets of the 21st century, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round table are ever with us. On the literary scene, recent years have produced a virtually continuous flow of books about Arthur,  each “scholarly tome” claiming to have unlocked the truth about the “once and future king.” We apparently have an insatiable appetite for these stories.

The author of Worlds of Arthur is Professor Guy Halsall. Halsall joined the History Department at the University of York (UK) in January 2003. His doctoral research — carried out at York — was on the archaeology and history of the Merovingian region of Metz (north-eastern France and southern Germany), c.350-c.750. It was perhaps inevitable that his researches and the putative world of King Arthur would collide. And so they have. Worlds of Arthur is the result.

Guy Halsall makes a valiant and largely successful attempt to sort through the evidence — reality and myth — as it pertains to the Arthurian legends. He bravely takes on both the “historical” Arthur — the man waging a glorious but doomed struggle to save civilization from the incoming Anglo-Saxon tide — and the mythical King accompanied by his legendary retinue: Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad and Gawain, Merlin, Excalibur, the Lady in the Lake, the Sword in the Stone, Camelot, and the Round Table.

Knowing in advance that no one wants their favorite stories debunked, he starts with a cold splash of reality. In all likelihood, “King Arthur” never existed. In the unlikely event he did exist on some level somewhere — even as a prototype — we know zilch about him and thus no one, including the author, is going to reveal any exciting new evidence of Arthur’s existence. There is no evidence to reveal. This position is driven home repeatedly, so if you are waiting for an Arthurian revelation, you are bound to be disappointed.

Arthur is a literary and mythological figure, not a real one. Not even loosely based on an historical person(s). Halsall states up front any book claiming to know the real Arthur is bunk. Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur and all his knights did not exist. Guy Halsall makes it absolutely clear and repeats his position over and over: There is no evidence supporting an historical Arthur.

“The Death of King Arthur”

Having put up front, Dr. Halsall sets himself a rather difficult literary task. How can you keep a reader’s interest for the remainder of the book? Before you have gotten a quarter of the way through, he has declared his position, debunked what is currently the only “evidence” on the “proof” side of the Arthurian equation. What is left?

Halsall writes with humor and wit. Academic though this book is, he tries hard to be understandable by those who are not Ph.D. levels in archeology. In this, he is modestly successful. I’m fascinated by archeology and have read a great deal of archeological stuff over the years. I understood most (not all) of the technical terminology. I’ve explored ruins and attended lectures, but this is dense material. No matter how light-hearted and humorously approached, there is no avoiding the essentially academic nature of the book. It’s not for everyone. You need a background in archeology to understand the author as well as significant personal interest in the subject to stay with the book.

If you have the interest, there is much to learn. Worlds of Arthur is a thorough examination of the evidence and more to the point, a thorough dismemberment of what has been called evidence by other authors. Ironically, one of the unintended results of reading this book was it piqued my interest in reading the books the author is debunking, not because I think they contain “real evidence” but because they sound intriguing as fiction.

If you are passionate about Camelot, Arthur and the gang, this is a thoroughly researched, well-written book that picks apart all previous writings on the subject with minute care. It belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who claims to be a fancier of medieval British archeology. It’s not a riveting tale with lot of surprises. There is no question about where the author is heading since he lays out it all out in the introduction.  The author is a better writer than most academics and makes the going easier with a light touch and a sense of humor. But in the end, this is an academic treatise.

I enjoyed it. Having read many books of this type over the years, I knew what to expect and was prepared to do some mental calisthenics. Give my brain a bit of exercise. There are no revelations in the book. From a broad perspective, I knew at the end of the book what I knew at the start —  that there never was a real King Arthur or Round Table or any other of the well-loved mythical characters. Since I never believed the characters were real in the first place, it was no shock. There is nothing shocking in Worlds of Arthur. It allows no wiggle room to find a real Arthur somewhere in archeological or historical data. But if you are genuinely interested in the early medieval period in England, there’s a lot of well-presented information to digest about a time about which little is known and less has been written. The Dark Ages are dark. Worlds of Arthur: Facts & Fictions of the Dark Ages lights a candle in that darkness.

The book is available on Kindle and hardcover. There are illustrations that might benefit from viewing on paper rather than the smaller format of a Kindle, but the Kindle version does include them so the choice is yours. If you’re an armchair archeologist or medievalist … or just fascinated with the world of Arthur, give this a read. It’s worth your effort.

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