So Much Smoke
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 41 No. 1 · 3 January 2019
‘Legends of King Arthur have remained deep-rooted in popular imagination,’ Tom Shippey writes (LRB, 20 December 2018). He takes most of his examples from the 20th century, and doesn’t mention the fascinating ideological use of the King Arthur legend for the purpose of legitimising British colonial conquest and dominion in the late 16th century. A key figure setting this process in political motion was Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court mathematician and geographer since her accession in 1558. Dee had studied at Louvain under the Dutchman Jemme Reinerszoon, born in the Friesian seaport of Dokkum in 1508. Better known as Dr Gemma Frisius, this polymath was a major figure in the development of global geography. One of Frisius’s students (and collaborators) was the Flemish cartographer Geert de Kremer, who became famous as Mercator. The young Mercator had previously studied in ’s-Hertogenbosch, at the time a cosmopolitan cultural centre.
Located in what is now North Brabant in the Netherlands, ’s-Hertogenbosch is also associated with Jacobus Cnoyen, author of Itinerarium, a travel book, now lost but influential in the 16th and 17th centuries. Cnoyen not only described his own voyages but incorporated old narratives, including stories about King Arthur’s legendary seafaring voyages and conquests. The Antwerp book trader and geographer Abraham Ortels (Ortelius) owned a copy. He loaned it to Mercator, who used it for his map of 1569 detailing (largely imaginary) Arctic geography.
As Mercator explained, Cnoyen’s Itinerarium ‘makes some citations from the Gesta of Arthur of Britain’, but, significantly, ‘the greater and most important part he [Cnoyen] learned from a certain priest at the court of the king of Norway in 1364.’ In 1577, Mercator dispatched a letter to his friend Dee in which he had transcribed relevant parts of Cnoyen’s book identifying King Arthur as an ancient conquering ruler. Dee was an active promoter of British colonial exploration and expansion; he is thought to have been the first to deploy the term ‘British Empire’. He translated and abbreviated Mercator’s transcription, and incorporated it in his treatise Brytanici Imperii Limites (1578).
Soon afterwards, Dee’s fellow Brits expanded on his book, among them Richard Hakluyt, author of Principall Navigations. Hakluyt’s first volume portrays King Arthur as the brave and devout British conqueror of multiple ‘wild and savage’ peoples inhabiting Ireland, the Scottish Isles, Iceland, Greenland, Scandinavia, Lapland, ‘and many other Islands beyond Norway, even under the North Pole’.
Kansas State University