Rebecca Swain wrote this review.
The good news is, Arthur did exist. The bad news, to devotees of Arthurian legend, is that he was a battle commander, not a king; he didn’t control all of what we now think of as Great Britain; and some sources called him lustful and perverted. But this excellent book says he existed. Woo-hoo!
If you are looking for a simple, straightforward description of who Arthur was and what he did, this is not the book for you. If you aren’t interested in history or archaeology, and don’t care for scholarship in your reading, you won’t be interested in most of this book. For a simpler, more direct description of Arthur’s Britain, its customs and landscape, you might be better served by reading a fictional account of his life. But if you want a cautious, detailed, yet readable examination of who Arthur might have been and what factors contributed to the formation of the society he lived in, you will find this book a valuable research tool.
Alcock begins his book with an examination of the evidence we have for Arthur’s existence. This includes manuscripts such as the Easter Annals, de excidia brittaniae, the British Historical Miscellany, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Alcock goes into detail about who created these documents and how reliable they are as history, pointing out the biases, errors, and customs that could contribute to their unreliability, while explaining which parts are probably true and why scholars believe what is written in those sections. Alcock devotes two chapters to the historical background of Britain from AD 367-634, describing the Roman desertion of the island, the Saxon invasions, and the various small kingdoms that existed in what is now England. It is important to understand the definitions and usage of the terms Picts, Celts, Britons, and English as you read this section; Alcock explains, but you might also want to keep your dictionary handy so that you always know who he is talking about.
Alcock then investigates the archaeological evidence that is available for this time period, and uses it to compare the culture of Roman Britain with that of the Britons, the indigenous residents of southern England who now live in Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, and Cornwall. He extrapolates this evidence to describe the daily lives and battles of groups such as the Scots, the Picts, and the English.
As I said above, this is a very readable book. Alcock has a clear writing style, repeats things several times in different places, and cites specific page numbers when he mentions something he has already discussed. There is an index at the back, and some black-and-white illustrations, including maps and a couple of pages of the Easter Annals, as well as some pictures of artifacts. I believe he presents other points of view and does a reasonable job of explaining why he disagrees or does not feel the opposing view can be embraced wholeheartedly. I’m not a historian or a scholar, so this is just my opinion as a lay reader.
Alcock does not go into the intriguing issue of how Arthur became a figure of legend, nor does he explore the existence of other characters in the romances, though there are some passing mentions of Mordred. He is concerned with examining who Arthur might have been historically, and what kind of civilization he lived in. I think he has written a fascinating and informative book on those subjects.