The answer as to why the narrative of Arthur would change over time is not really anything complex, shocking or surprising. The question can be answered through pure reason alone:
No human being is able to be entirely objective, thus no interpretation of any event in history is completely accurate – everything we view is through a lens of our own desires and interests.
Not even science escapes this fatal flaw, are scientists not individuals with their own theories they wish to prove? If they see evidence to prove their theory, they will turn their focus to that and ignore all that surrounds it. After all, don’t we all wish to be correct? Nobody likes to be proven wrong. We may accept our theory to be false, but we do not wish it to be so. This is an inescapable element of human which most likely works as an unavoidable hindrance to our own advancement.
The focus of this essay is on Intention and the effect it has on the recording of history. Our subject will be Gildas and his text De excidio Britanniae. Especially the pointless criticisms directed towards it and the omission of Arthur. This essay is more philosophical in tone. It begins by first discussing why human beings in general are inaccurate and inconsistent in our approach to everything – we are interpreting existence through our own existence. Then the discussion turns to Gildas, a critique of his own work and those who have wrote about him.
§I – The Subjective Lens
We view the world through a lens of our own creation. Our perception of what lies outside of our own Being is formed through our own life-experience. What shapes how I see the world is my socialisation, personal experiences, all that plays part of my own Self-history. Thus, what I create in artistic-form is my conscious in material-form.
By this I do not just mean what we normally consider when the term art. Just as Van Gogh turned his pain into painting, a scientists proposes a theory which arises from their subjective interpretation of a phenomena. That phenomena itself may be provable through empirical research, however, in the search for empirical research we search for what proves our own hypothesis. Hence why theories that may be at one point correct can be, later down the road, proven to be false. History is not exempt from the imperfection of human observation.
§II – Intention
From the inception of recorded history as an oral tradition, before the development of written word, the tales of battles and heroic deeds were turned into grandiose retellings of events long passed with a majority of said tale never truly occurring. They became a myth for the passing of morals and values through captivating narrative. For historians, changing sections of event or the complete negation of large sections sadly occurs as well.
“The most serious danger for the historian is the scribe who knows, or thinks he knows, more than the original, and who cannot resist the temptation to insert his knowledge.”1
In determining the credibility of a source, we must ask questions about the Intention of the author. What do we mean by Intention? Surely the intention of a historical author must be the conveying of a historical Event? Not quite, we must be critical of every, no matter their status, or the reliability prescribed to the author. I am sure that a lot of historians may present their work with good intentions, a desire to present an objective telling of an Event. However, we each have our own lens through which we view the world, a lens shaped by our own socialisation, personal history and thus our own goals.
Take a well-intentioned historian who spends a long period writing a text of which they do their best to present an objective recounting of a historical event possible – they still have to filter through sources, of which some may indeed be very close to the truth, while others may be as fabricated as possible.
I do not make these statements to be rude, nor antagonistic, but because nothing on earth should be free from scrutiny. Idols are not exempt from Nietzsche’s hammer:
“The spirit grows, strength is restored by wounding.”2
The only way to prove the validity of any argument is to subject said argument to brutal scrutinization. If the argument proposed is indeed correct it will now stand stronger than before.
§III – On Gildas
The question of Intention with Gildas’s text is, as noted by John Morris in The Age of Arthur:
“[De excidio Britanniae is] a sermon, not a history.”3
The book in question is more of nihilistic call to action; a call for the people of Britain in that period to change their behaviour and shift away from vanity and hedonism. Historical accuracy would be counterproductive in striking fear amongst the general public. It is in a sense understandable why he would structure the text in the form he did when we consider his Intention. In relation to this, Morris states:
“[Gildas] was dependent on the memories of men who were old when he was young, and grotesquely ignorant of earlier generations. […] Gildas, like his readers, knew little and understood lass of the Roman past. He had no conception that there has ever been a standing Roman army in Britain.” 4
The historical accuracy is not only subject to harsh criticism from Morris, similar comments are made in each commentary I looked over. Quoting Leslie Alcock:
“Its historical section […] is largely untrustworthy. [It] is written in Latin which though technically correct is so involved in style and so obscure in vocabulary.” 5
These criticisms of Gildas are valid for discussion on historical accuracy, however, is there really any point in any historian making such remarks? Let’s consider a point made by Hegel in his Philosophy of History:
“[M]onks monopolise this category [original historians] as naïve chroniclers who were decidedly isolated from active life as those elder annalists has been connected with it”6
Monks are separated from everyday life, (I should note that Morris refers to Gildas as a priest in his text, 7 but I will continue to refer to Gildas as a monk). When they do communicate with members of the public it is going to be people who are of like mind, this is just how people in general operate, we associate with people who are like ourselves. As a monk, Gildas will also Enframe his historical writing in a religious context, especially when his desire is to shape society into following a specific lifestyle.
§IV – Gildas & Arthur
We move onto Gildas and Arthur and Gildas’s omission of Arthur at the battle of Badon. If there was indeed a warlord hero Arthur, as proposed by Nennius,8 why would Gildas leave out Arthur and focus on Ambrosius Aurelianus? What is the Intention?
“The many tales about Gildas have led some to believe that there were at least two people of this name, Gildas son of Caw, and the Gildas who wrote De Excidio Britanniae […] this only confuses the issue. It may, though, explain why the Welsh Annals chose to describe him as Gildas the Wise, as if to distinguish him from another, but we may simply accept that as an endearment written by one who knew him.” 9
Here we encounter further difficulties. While we have the intention of Gildas in writing such a text, we also have the possibility of two different Gildas’s, one with close relations to the historical Arthur:
“In his youth in south Wales, Gildas studied under Illtud, whom legend makes a cousin of King Arthur.” 10
Many theories are proposed as to why Gildas did not mention Arthur, everything from the non-existence of Arthur, to personal dislike, to historical Arthur being born after Gildas wrote the text. 11 The list of possibilities seems endless. If we take into consideration the development of language across time, I personally believe that it the changing of the Arthurian narrative (or any number of historical narratives) occurs through linguistical development.
Communication is the most complex phenomena there is. If you think about it, our entire existence is based on interaction between not just Beings but Things. How I approach an object displays how I relate to that object. If I approach a tool with confidence it displays my aptitude and certainty of the functions of that tool, or even a gullible naivety. How we act around another displays our relations and emotions towards that person, even something as simple as the direction of my toes. If you are sitting in a room and there is someone attractive near you, your body orientates towards that person, they are the focus of your desires. We can here relate the concept of Intention as discussed in this essay. The true Intention of the interaction is revealed in all forms of communicative action towards that other Being. An unconscious smile, an unsuppressed laugh, nervousness and even adjustment of pupil dilation – all which convey a message that we do not wish to put in words but cannot consciously suppress. How we communicate things is an unveiling of Intention. (Or as Ludwig Wittgenstein points out in his Tractus Logico-Philosophicus: sometimes it is what we do not say that says it all).
The development of language may indeed hide the truth of a historical Arthur:
“Gildas reports that the Saxons soon turned upon the British, […] There was another wave of refugees from Britain to Armorica about this time [449-455]. Around this time, too, emerges the mysterious character of Riothamus, a “king of the Britons” fighting in Gaul, who has been suggested as another candidate for Arthur”12
Comparing the name ‘Arthur’ with ‘Riothamus’ shows slight indications. The Roman-esque extension of ‘-amus” and the development of the Roman name Artorius do seem to show the possibility of Riothamus being the origin point of Arthur: ‘Artor-‘ (‘-ius’ being a typical Roman extension, much like ‘-amus’). Phonetically they do seem to shows a potential development into Arthur. As noted by Morris:
“The name itself says something of its origin, and of its reputation, for Artorius is a normal Roman name. It is not previously reported in Britain, but the half a century after his death, half a dozen rulers have their children the name Arthur. […] Arthur was a great name, held much honour.”13
With Gildas omission being possible for many potential reasons, with the tangle web that is left for historians, it seems that really it is a text that is not worth considering in the future. The intention of the text has faced a lot of justifiable criticism, its historical content does not hold value, it is a polemic par excellence. It should only be considered as such.
The base human drive is Intention in all our endeavors, the recording of historical events is no exemption. We can strive towards objectivity, but it will always lie outside our grasp, the only way we can really dampen subjectivity in the pursuit of objectivity is to state openly our own wishes, desires and beliefs at the beginning of writing a text to allow the reader to take those admissions into account when judging the objectivity and reliability of your piece.
When taking into consideration older material we must locate the intention of the author. This does not mean we should be polemical about what they propose. All I have read on Gildas involves harsh criticisms which are entirely redundant and merely a waste of words on a page. It is like they have introduced his work with the sole purpose of trying to mimic Nietzsche yet fail embarrassingly.
- Leslie Alcock, Arthurs Britain (USA: Classic Penguin, 2001), pg. 4.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols & The Anti-Christ (Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1971), pg. 21.
- John Morris, The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 (USA: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), pg. 35.
- Leslie Alcock, Arthurs Britain (USA: Classic Penguin, 2001), pg. 21.
- G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History (NY: Dover Publications, 2016), pg. 3.
- John Morris, The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 (USA: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), pg. 35.
- Richard White (ed), King Arthur in Legend and History (NY: Routledge Press, 1998). Pg. 3.
- Mike Ashley, Mammoth Book of Arthur (London: Constable & Robinson, 2011), pg. 147
- ibid. pg. 146
- ibid. pg. 162-163
- ibid. 147
- John Morris, The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 (USA: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), pg. 116
Alcock, Leslie, Arthurs Britain (USA: Classic Penguin, 2001).
Hegel, G.W.F., The Philosophy of History (NY: Dover Publications, 2016)
Morris, John, The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 (USA: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973)
Nietzsche, Friedrich, Twilight of the Idols & The Anti-Christ (Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1971)
White, Richard, (ed), King Arthur in Legend and History (NY: Routledge Press, 1998).