Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book: Pendragon

(Image from C/W Mars Catalog)

Pendragon: The definitive account of the origins of Arthur by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd (2002) is a fascinating academic book that puts forth the theory that there was a historical Arthur, a 6th century Welsh warrior, whose prowess on the battlefield spawned a tradition of legends in Wales which was later adapted and expanded into the legends of King Arthur that are so familiar to audiences today. Using textual evidence from early Welsh poems and histories, as well as current place names and archaeological evidence associated with Arthur and his family, Blake and Lloyd build an argument placing Arthur in North Wales, possibly as the warlord under King Maelgwn (p. 180). Additionally, Blake and Lloyd point out that that the Welsh traditions never have Arthur fighting Saxons or Picts as he does in later Latin texts, but instead is focused on fighting enemies of local, British origin (p. 161).
The book is focused on presenting, in detail, the Welsh materials that support this theory of the origins of Arthur. The way the evidence is laid out and built up, going from the birth of Arthur, through his family and battles, all the way to his death, makes for a very convincing argument. Anyone interested in the historical origins of the Arthurian legends should absolutely read this book.
However, the importance of this book does not necessarily lie in the argument it ultimately presents, but more in the perspective that it gives on the generation and growth of Arthurian legends themselves. Blake and Lloyd are not concerned with the later romances that have become the standardized versions of Arthurian legend, such as the work of Chretien de Troyes and Malory. However, they continually reference these tales, and especially the Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, in order to illustrate the differences between the Welsh Arthurian tradition and the elements that were added for propaganda and entertainment as the stories were adapted for British and French medieval audiences. Ultimately, Arthur is proven to be the perfect example of the way in which legends and heroes can be created and their exploits expanded and adapted generation after generation and across various cultures, to the point where any historical remnants are greatly obscured by time.
This book really opens the doorway for some new interpretations of Arthurian legend. It gives us the opportunity to explore the story of the warlord under a (potentially tyrannical?) king’s command, who through his skill and leadership is able to build his own reputation up to eventually eclipse his king, either during his own lifetime or in the pages of history. As an aside, this seems to be one of the goals of the BBC television series “Merlin,” which tells the story of how a teenaged sorcerer Merlin and prince Arthur grow into the legendary men of the romances while under the rule of Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon. I will admit that at first the show seemed rather ridiculous for taking this approach, but having read this book, it actually makes much more sense (even if I do not agree with everything that happens).
This book also makes me think that the story of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the political situations that caused him to develop his version of Arthur’s life would make an interesting example of the process of storytelling. It would be wonderful to see more exploration into the history and social implications of the various Arthurian traditions, especially as they pertain to political and cultural identities that have grown around the figure of Arthur as a hero.
All in all, Pendragon is an important book for anyone interested in understanding more about the origins of Arthurian legend, both in terms of the historical man and how the legends grew over time. It provides some great points of reference for looking at current incarnations of Arthur, such as that on BBC’s “Merlin” and other movies.
Blake, S and Lloyd, S. (2002). Pendragon: The definitive account of the origins of Arthur. Guilford, Connecticut; The Lyons Press.

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