So Much Smoke

Tom Shippey

  • King Arthur: the Making of the Legend by Nicholas Higham
    Yale, 380 pp, £25.00, October 2018, ISBN 978 0 300 21092 7

Modern academic historians want nothing to do with King Arthur. ‘There is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books,’ David Dumville wrote in 1977; and he was backed up by, for instance, J.N.L. Myres in 1986: ‘No figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian’s time.’ In his new book, Nicholas Higham cites neither opinion but certainly knows of them, and indeed, in the end, agrees with them (except about book titles). Still, whatever historians may say, legends of King Arthur have remained deep-rooted in popular imagination, giving rise to whole libraries of fiction, and one Hollywood movie after another. Higham’s aim is, first, to demolish the wild theories that have gained currency in recent decades, and then to scrutinise the very limited evidence from early times and show its inadequacy. A question which remains unresolved is quite what powers the continuing appeal and often passionate adherence to the legend. So much smoke, there must be a fire burning somewhere. But one might well think that, nowadays, it’s recent politics that supplies the match and blows the flame, and not anything to do with the history of the Dark Ages.

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