Who was the real Arthur? Many authors today dig into history and piece together the fragments they find there. They offer us Arthur as Celtic chieftain or as Roman warlord. They find traces of him in the Mabinogion, and speculate on the possibility of his having used Libyan warhorses to give him the advantage over the Saxons. They give his name and the names of his knights the proper Welsh or Latin spellings. They try to show us an authentic Arthur, an Arthur we can believe actually existed. Graeme Fife is not one of these authors.
In his introduction to Arthur the King, Fife says, “I see Arthur as he was originally intended: a medieval king.” He argues that the stories about Arthur came into full flower at the time and place of the Crusades and the birth of chivalry–the medieval renaissance in Europe. These stories helped to create and sustain the world of that time and place, and provided as well a way for the people of that world to reflect upon and understand their lives. Fife’s book sets out to demonstrate the reason that Arthur, a figure more of legend than history, came to “so convincingly exemplify high authority, as feudal lord, defender of Christian faith, unchallenged king.”
Fife uses the first two chapters of his book to explore the appearance and development of the first great Arthurian romances, beginning with the earliest mention of Arthur in the sixth century, traveling forward through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britaniae and Chretien de Troyes Arthurian Romances in the the twelfth century, and ending at last with Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in 1460. He then spends the next six chapters teasing out individual themes within the romances: Camelot as the City of God, the Arthurian knight and his code of honor, love, the Celtic wilds, the quest for the Holy Grail, and hunting and heraldry. He explores each theme within the social, political, and economic contexts of the times in which the romances were developed.
As Fife explores each theme and passes to the next, Arthur the King reads like a fascinating history of the medieval renaissance, told from a unique perspective; one may wonder at first, “But what does this have to do with Arthur, really?” But as each chapter leads inexorably into the next, one finds mounting evidence within both the history and the stories themselves to support Fife’s introductory claim. The Arthurian romances were indeed shaped by–and took their coloring from–the lives of medieval rulers and crusaders. The romance of Tristan and Isolde, for example, sounds remarkably like the real-life love affairs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, Plantagenets in the twelfth century. And Malory’s Guenever is accused of attempting to poison Gawain in a manner paralleling Eleanor’s poisoning of her husband’s mistress. For another example, in the account of the Grail quest in Perlesvaus, the Fisher King’s castle is inhabited by men who, in appearance and raiment, are described exactly as members of the order of the Knights Templar.
If the Arthurian romances were shaped by medieval European events, they shaped those events just as profoundly. The twelfth century Norman kings took pleasure in hearing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s hints that their authority to rule descended from Arthur, the most perfect of kings. Crusaders were inspired in their hot, weary campaigns in the Holy Land by the chivalric and pious examples of the knights questing for the Holy Grail. And need it even be said that the romances were listened to avidly for heroes and heroines of perfect, courtly love to sigh over and emulate?
In the end, Fife believes that Arthur’s actual historical existence is not nearly so important as the role he played for those in the medieval renaissance, as both an inspiration and a justification for their wars, their ideals, and their daily lives. Fife points out that the Arthur of the medieval romances continues to play that role in our present time, as so aptly displayed by the fated “Camelot” of the Kennedy administration in the United States. Fife ends Arthur the King by saying, “There will always be a hero sleeping under the hill, ready to surge out to save the world. The best we can hope is for him, or her, to be of the stature of Arthur.”
If Fife’s thorough historianship makes Arthur the King compelling, his writing ability makes it wonderful. The constant shifting back and forth between complex historical details and the details of the romances’ literary themes could be as ponderous and monotonous as bad textbook writing; in Fife’s deft hands it dances and lunges as lithely as any fencing match. Fife delights in and clearly respects both the romantic Arthur and the medieval figures he describes–but he does not worship them solemnly and weightily. His way of setting a scene or recounting an event is vigorous, earthy, and delightful. He writes of Bishop Germanus, who in the fifth century helped Vortigern against a Saxon invasion, “Germanus, like countless others a soldier turned priest, swapped his crozier back for his sword without a flicker of conscience, announced his battle-cry (‘Alleluia!’) and rode into action down the Vale of Llangollen. As ruthlessly effective in the saddle as he had been forceful in the pulpit, Bishop Germanus knocked the pagans for six, reclaimed the lost territory for himself and, as an afterthought, for Christian Britain.” One can’t feel remote and reverential about Germanus after that, but one would love to meet him.