The Grail Code 

Archive for June, 2006

Geoffrey and the Very Old Book

Sunday, June 25th, 2006

“Whilst occupied on many and various studies, I happened to light upon the History of the Kings of Britain, and wondered that in the account which Gildas and Bede, in their elegant treatises, had given of them, I found nothing said of those kings who lived here before the Incarnation of Christ, nor of Arthur and many others who succeeded after the Incarnation, though their actions both deserved immortal fame, and were also celebrated by many people in a pleasant manner and by heart, as if they had been written.”

That was how Geoffrey of Monmouth introduced his History of the Kings of Britain. It would be a book about the great deeds of the kings of Britain; it would tell stories that simply aren’t to be found in other books; and in particular it would tell stories of Arthur.

“Whilst I was intent upon these and such like thoughts, Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, a man of great eloquence, and learned in foreign histories, offered me a very ancient book in the British tongue, which, in a continued regular story and elegant style, related the actions of them all, from Brutus the first king of the Britons, down to Cadwallader the son of Cadwallo.”

From Brutus to Cadwallader is exactly the range of Nennius’ History of the Britons, so it’s remarkable that Geoffrey doesn’t mention Nennius at all—especially since the number and variety of the manuscripts suggest that Nennius was very popular. It’s more remarkable when we find that parts of Geofrey’s book parallel Nennius very closely. Did Geoffrey really not know about Nennius? Or was this “very ancient book written in the British language” a translation of Nennius? Or was it one of Nennius’ sources?

Geoffrey was someone who could recognize elegant style, and elegant style is certainly one thing we can’t accuse Nennius of. (In my own translations of Nennius, I tried to convey some idea of the way he writes, stringing whole stories together by beginning every sentence with “and,” and showing no concern for inelegant repetitions and confusing pronoun references.) I suppose a Welsh translator might have decided to take just the stories and not the language from Nennius, producing an elegant and continuous narrative, but my inclination is to reject Nennius as a candidate for the “very ancient book.”

Most modern scholars simply dismiss Geoffrey’s “very ancient book.” They usually suggest that most of Geoffrey’s stories came out of his own prodigious imagination, and we can’t help thinking they really mean to call him a prodigious liar. He has been credited with, or accused of, fabricating most of the characters and stories in his History. Some writers have gone so far as to call the book a “novel.”

But perhaps we should give him a little less credit for imagination and a little more credit for honesty. Wherever we do have an older source for a story, Geoffrey’s version is more elaborate and more polished, but recognizably the same story. Many of the stories appear in Nennius, for example. Either Geoffrey based those sections on Nennius, or both Geoffrey and Nennius had access to some other source now lost to us—perhaps a very ancient book in the British language. Either way, comparing Geoffrey and Nennius gives us a good idea of Geoffrey’s technique: the stories are the same, but Geoffrey is a master entertainer, bringing out the drama and suspense at just the right points to keep us panting for more.

In other words, where we know he has a source, Geoffrey embellishes it but doesn’t change the basic outline of it. So we may take those examples as an indication of his technique as a whole. The number of lost books from the Dark Ages is far greater than the number of survivors. We have no reason to assume that Geoffrey had no source just because we can’t find the source ourselves.

There would also have been some strong incentive for honesty in that paragraph about the ancient book. Geoffrey was associated with Oxford; Walter the archdeacon was still alive, and would doubtless read Geoffrey’s book; most of Geoffrey’s initial readers would at least know of both men. If Walter had not given Geoffrey that old book, he would only have to say he hadn’t, and Geoffrey would be in a very embarrassing pickle.

So, in spite of what is probably the majority opinion of people who know far more about these things than I do, I’m going to say that I believe Geoffrey when he says he had a very old book in the British language. I’m not aligning myself with the Galfridian literalists, but I do take him seriously here.

None of this means that Geoffrey is a reliable historian. What it does mean is that he may be giving us evidence of how the Welsh legends had developed at a somewhat earlier time than his own, and from that equivocal evidence we may be able to make some guesses about what real history lies behind the legends.

So let’s see what Geoffrey has to say about Merlin and Arthur, and from there we can decide whether we’ve learned anything at all about history.

Postscript: I’ve departed from my usual practice of scribbling my own translation, for the simple reason that I don’t have a Latin text of Geoffrey in front of me, and I didn’t have time to go looking for one. The translations are from the version by Aaron Thompson, as revised by J. A. Giles. A comparison with these interesting images of the original edition of Thompson suggests that Giles’ revisions were extensive and not necessarily for the better, but I work with what I have.

Winchester Manuscript of Malory on line

Friday, June 23rd, 2006

The British Library is promising us something really extraordinary: the unique Winchester Manuscript of Malory’s Arthurian cycle, every page of it, in high-quality photographs on line. Right now only a few sample pages are up, but the whole thing is “coming soon.”

Here, I think, we have a glimpse of the future of the Internet. Think of it: instant access to the treasures of the British Library, the Library of Congress, and every other storehouse of culture, all from your own desk. At last, the Internet is beginning to live up to its potential, just as my high-school teachers were always trying to get me to do.

Introducing Geoffrey of Monmouth

Thursday, June 22nd, 2006

It may surprise you to learn—I confess it scares the willies out of me—that there is a kind of cult or subculture devoted to proving the literal truth of Geoffrey of Monmouth. The cult members are all biblical literalists, and apparently they see the literal truth of Geoffrey as a necessary corollary to the literal truth of Scripture.

I can’t make the connection myself. If you want to argue for the literal truth of the Bible, I think you can do it quite neatly without dragging Geoffrey of Monmouth into the fray. But it’s some measure of the success of his book that, nine centuries after he wrote it, it still draws absolutely fanatical admirers. I won’t link to their Web sites, but if you’re really curious, just type geoffrey monmouth flood into your favorite search engine. You’ll get some very interesting results. (Did I mention that there’s a conspiracy among orthodox historians to withhold the truth from you? But I probably didn’t need to tell you that.)

So who is this Geoffery upon whose veracity the Bible itself depends? Well, although most people today haven’t heard of it, his History of the Kings of Britain was one of the great bestsellers of all time. It was more than a bestseller—it was a phenomenon. It was Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code all rolled into one. That’s an apt comparison, I think: the History promised both magical fantasy and ancient secrets revealed.

All the great stories are in Geoffrey: Arthur, Merlin, King Lear, Cymbeline, Gorboduc—even Old King Cole. Ambrosius Aurelianus has a big part, though he appears under the curiously juggled name Aurelius Ambrosius. Vortigern makes a fine mustache-twirling villain.

But two of those characters in particular grabbed the public imagination: Arthur and Merlin.

Arthur in Nennius is reduced mostly to a list of battles, but Geoffrey has a wealth of detail about him. Arthur’s life is full of dramatic confrontations, exciting battle scenes, gripping adventure, love, betrayal, and all the things that make a perfect action blockbuster.

Merlin brings in the fantasy element and the ancient secrets revealed. As a wizard, he can always be relied on for breathtaking special effects. And as a prophet, he can spout enigmatic pronouncements with the best of them.

Geoffrey repeats Nennius’ story of Ambrosius and the dragons, but now the name of the little boy is Merlin (who is also called Ambrosius, Geoffrey adds parenthetically). And instead of the quick and simple prophecy of the victory of the Britons, we get a whole book of Merlin’s prophecies. It probably won’t surprise you at all to learn that, even as a certain school of Christian fundamentalists is trying to yank Geoffrey into the biblical orbit, an equal and opposite school of pagan new-agers and paranormalists is trying to prove the supernatural prescience of Merlin’s prophecies.

That’s no easier and no harder than proving the supernatural prescience of Nostradamus. Like every successful seer, Merlin makes his prophecies sound specific until you examine them closely. They’re like newspaper horoscopes: they’re an amazingly close fit for pretty much anything that comes up. (A relative brings you news of an opportunity this week, but exercise caution: things may not be what they seem.) It’s also true that the prophecies are much more specific for events before Geoffrey’s time than for events after his time. None of which will stop the true believers from insisting that Merlin predicted the fall of Communism or the rise of Pauly Shore.

At any rate, Geoffrey gives us a lot to read about Merlin and Arthur. And that naturally raises a question: Where did he get all those stories? Did he have some older source that recorded the traditions of his British ancestors? Or did he just make them all up?

You might be sorry you asked that question pretty soon. It takes us into a minefield of scholarship, where any false step will set off an explosion of academic tempers.

But we’re all brave souls, aren’t we? So let’s strap on our bucklers, buckle on our straplers, and get ready to tackle the Mystery of the Very Old Book.

Ambrosius the Wizard

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

Ambrosius Aurelianus, you may recall, was the one Briton in all of history about whom Gildas had anything good to say. He was the noble Roman who pulled together a workable army from the scattered remnants of the British. Ambrosius saved Britain from despair: with him in charge, it began to seem possible to fight the English hordes.

We might expect that Ambrosius would be a powerful figure in legend, but in fact there doesn’t seem to be much about him in the early medieval stories. A few place names may preserve his memory, but, on the whole, the only hero in Gildas’ history seems to have been eclipsed in legend by Arthur.

Unless, of course, we’re looking for the wrong sort of character. From reading Gildas, we get a notion of Ambrosius as a powerful general who restored something like Roman order to the British forces—a figure, in other words, much like the legendary Arthur.

But we did find an Ambrosius in Nennius: that strange little boy who seemed to know everything. At first glance, he doesn’t look at all like the great general Ambrosius Aurelianus in Gildas. But if we take a closer look, we might find a couple of hints that they could be the same character.

First, although Nennius’ story begins with Ambrosius as an unknown boy, by the end of it he’s in charge of “all the kingdoms of the western part of Britain.” Just as Vortigern is beginning his final downward spiral, Ambrosius has acquired a big chunk of the country. The chronology would be about right for the real Ambrosius Aurelianus, who would have been a young man in the reign of Vortigern, and must have begun to establish his reputation (and his power base) at about that time.

The second thing to note is his ancestry. In Nennius, the boy Ambrosius comes from a line of Roman consuls. Now, Gildas tells us that the parents of Ambrosius Aurelianus were “clothed with the purple,” meaning that they were of the very highest rank of Roman society. Ambrosius Aurelianus was not just a noble, but a Roman noble: Gildas takes pains to make that clear. The boy Ambrosius in Nennius is distinguished in exactly the same way.

Nennius had read Gildas, so he’s not an entirely independent source. It’s conceivable that Nennius, having heard a story of the magical boy Embres—Ambrosius in Latin—connected it with the character of the same name in Gildas, and filled in the details about his ancestry from what Gildas said.

On the other hand, it is just possible that Nennius was, in his usual way, simply recording what he had heard or read without spending much time editing it. I say “in his usual way” because it seems to be characteristic of Nennius not to put much effort into making his narrative consistent. He finds two completely different and contradictory stories of Brutus, the eponymous founder of Britain, so he gives us both with no attempt to reconcile them. He introduces the second simply by announcing, “I have found another account of this Brutus in the old books of our elders.” Again, he gives us two completely contradictory accounts of the end of Vortigern, separating them with “Now others have said otherwise.”

Changing the details of a story to make it fit better doesn’t seem like Nennius’ style.

So we’re left with the possibility that there were strange stories circulating about Ambrosius Aurelianus—stories that painted him less as a warrior than as a prophet and a wizard.

And why have we spent so much time with Ambrosius—even if he was a wizard? For a simple reason: because we’re about to look at Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey repeats Nennius’ story of Ambrosius and the dragons. But he adds one interesting detail. In Geoffrey, Ambrosius has a second name: Merlin.

Battle of the Dragons

Sunday, June 18th, 2006

Well, we left our poor fatherless boy in frightful peril: about to be slaughtered so that his blood could be sprinkled around wicked King Guorthigirnus’ fortress. That, the king’s magicians have told him, is the only way the fortress will ever be built.

But the boy is about to turn the tables on those magicians. In approved movie-serial fashion, we’ll reel the film back a few feet and start just before where we left off.

And the boy said to the king, “Why have your men brought me down to you?”

To which the king said, “So that you may be killed and your blood sprinkled around that fortress, so that it will be possible to build it.”

The boy answered the king, “Who told you that?”

And the king: “My magicians told me.”

And the boy said, “Call them to me.”

And the magicians were summoned, and the boy said to them, “Who revealed to you that this fortress should be sprinkled with my blood, and that without being sprinkled with my blood it will never be built? So that it may be known to me, who disclosed this to you?”

Again the boy said, “To you alone, sire, I shall soon elucidate everything; but I inquire of your magicians, What is in floor of this place? It will satisfy me if they show you what is under the floor.”

But they said to him, “We know not.”

And he said, “I shall discover it to you. There is a pool in the middle of the floor: come and dig and so you will find it.”

They came and dug, and it fell in.

And the boy said to the magicians, “Disclose to me this: What is in the pool?”

But they were silent and could not reveal it to him.

And he said to them, “I shall reveal it to you. There are two vases, and so you will find.”

They came, and so they saw.

And the boy said to the magicians, “What is enclosed in the vases?”

But they were silent and could not reveal it to him.

And he explained, “In the middle of them is a tent; separate them, and so you will find it.”

And the king ordered them to be separated, and so it was found: a tent folded up, just as he had said.

And again he asked the king’s magicians, “What is in the middle of the tent? Tell us now.”

And they were not able to know.

And he revealed, “There are two serpents in it, one white and one red. Open the tent.”

And they spread it out, and two sleeping serpents were found.

And the boy said, “Attend and consider what the serpents will do.”

And the serpents began trying to expel one another from the tent; and the other one raised himself up, to expel him from his half of the tent; and so they did three times. Yet at last the red serpent, which had seemed weaker, was stronger than the white and expelled it from the bounds of the tent, and then pursued it across the pool and vanished into the tent.

And the boy turned to the magicians and said, “What does this marvelous wonder mean, which happened in the tent?”

And they replied, “We know not.”

And the boy answered, “Indeed? But this mystery has been revealed to me, and I shall disclose it to you. The tent is a figure of your kingdom; the two serpents are two dragons. The red serpent is your dragon, and the pool is a figure of this world. And the white one is the dragon of that people which has seized so many nations and provinces in Britain, and will possess it almost from sea to sea; and afterward our people will rise and manfully drive the English people across the sea. Nevertheless, you, sire, go from this fortress, for you cannot build it; and travel through many provinces, so that you may find a safe fortress. And I shall remain here.”

And the king said to the young man, “What is your name?”

He answered, “I am called Ambrosius; that is, Embres Guletic.”

And the king said, “What is your ancestry?”

And he said, “My father is one of the race of Roman consuls.”

And the king gave him the fortress, with all the kingdoms of the western part of Britain. And the king, with his magicians, arrived at the left-hand part, and came to the region called Guunnessi. And there he built the city called, after his name, Cair Guorthigirn.

This is the story of the boy Ambrosius, one of the strangest stories in a book filled with strange stories. But does this Ambrosius have anything to do with the Ambrosius in Gildas? And—more to the point, considering what we’ve been up to for the past few days—what does he have to do with Merlin?

The Case of the Fatherless Boy

Friday, June 16th, 2006

Vortigern was wicked even by the debauched standards of post-Roman Britain. He was so memorably awful that Gildas actually mentions his name, so we know for a certainty that he was a real figure of history. He was the dreadful tyrant who brought in the English mercenaries—and that, as we all know, brought on the ruin of Britain.

It’s not surprising, then, that later legends make him out to be even worse than he was.

Vortigern, or Guorthigirnus, is the villain in one of the stranger stories in Nennius’ History. It’s a longer story than most of the stories in Nennius, so I’m going to divide it up like an old movie serial. We’ll call it the Case of the Fatherless Boy.

And afterward the king summoned his magicians, so that he could ask them what he should do.

But they said to him, “Go to the farthest ends of your kingdom, and you will find a walled fortress, so that you may defend yourself: for the people which you have taken into your kingdom envies you and will kill you through trickery, and will seize all the regions you rule, with all your people, after your death.”

And afterward the king, with his magicians, went to find a fortress. And they wandered through many regions and many provinces; and, not having found anything, they finally came to the region called Guined. And traveling across the mountains of Hereri, at last he reached a place in one of the mountains, in which it was suitable to build a fortress.

And the magicians said to him, “Build a fortress in this place, for it will be safe from the barbarian peoples forever.”

And the king brought together craftsmen—that is, masons—and brought together wood and stones; and when all the material had been brought together, in one night all the material was taken away.

And three times he ordered it brought together, and nothing was there.

And he sent for the magicians and demanded of them what was the cause of this devilment and what would be the outcome.

But they answered him, “Unless you find a child without a father and kill him, and the fortress is sprinkled with his blood, nothing will ever be built.”

And the king sent representatives from the council of magicians through the whole of Britain, to see whether they could find a child without a father. And traveling over every province and multitudes of regions, they came to the plain of Elleti, which is in the region called Glenguissing.

And some boys were playing a game of ball, and, behold, they were arguing among themselves. And one said to another, “Man without a father, no good will come to you.”

But they thoroughly interrogated the boys about the boy, and when they asked his mother whether he had a father, she denied it and said, “I know not how he was conceived in my womb, but one thing I do know, that I have not ever known a man.” And she swore to them that he had no father.

And they brought him with them to Guorthigirnus the king, and they conveyed him to the king secretly.

And on the morrow a meeting was held so that the boy could be killed.

And the boy said to the king, “Why have your men brought me down to you?”

To which the king said, “So that you may be killed and your blood sprinkled around that fortress, so that it will be possible to build it.”

Is this the end of our poor fatherless child? Will the wicked tyrant Guorthigirnus really spill the blood of an innocent little boy?

Don’t miss the next thrilling chapter:

Battle of the Dragons!

Coming soon to a weblog near you!

The historical Merlin?

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

While we were looking for the historical Arthur in the Annals of Wales, we ran into another familiar character:

Battle of Armterid between the sons of Elifer and Guendoleu son of Keidiau, in which battle Guendoleu was killed; Merlin was driven mad.

Quite a few people, we’ve discovered, are searching the Web for something about the “historical Merlin.” (The NSA has kindly provided us with your names and addresses, and you’ll be hearing from us shortly.)

We always think of Merlin as a wizard with almost unlimited supernatural powers. But is there a real person behind the legends—some learned Briton, perhaps, whose astute advice to kings and warlords earned him a reputation for a wisdom more than human?

Before we get too far into our search for Merlin, let me confess a few of my prejudices.

I think it’s very likely that there was a real Arthur whose life followed the skeleton outline we came up with a while ago. The historical sources and traditions, meager though they are, all seem to point toward one historically plausible man.

Merlin, on the other hand, is an entirely different sort of character. By the time we hear any details of his life at all, he’s already firmly stuck in the world of myth and legend. The stories that surround Merlin are all so fantastic that it’s hard to imagine them as even distorted memories of historic events.

Except for that one. The entry in the Annals of Wales looks plausibly historical. After a certain battle in which two famous people died, a certain Merlin went mad. People do go mad, and grief following a disastrous battle is just the sort of thing that sets them off.

But we can’t be too quick to accept the madness of Merlin as historical fact. The entry in the Annals is sparse and bare, but other versions of the legend (which we’ll hear soon) give us more details. Merlin went mad and became a wild man of the forest; after some time his sanity was restored. Now, that wild-man story is common in legends all over the world. It also reminds us very much of the story in the book of Daniel, in which Nebuchadnezzar becomes a wild man of the wilderness until his sanity is eventually restored.

We can easily imagine the story of the wild man of the forest attaching itself to some famous figure of legendary history, acquiring a definite date, and getting itself set down as history in the Annals of Wales, even if it was never true.

So if anyone asks me how many real historical facts we know about Merlin, I have to reply in the words of the fellow in the Monty Python sketch: “Nearly one. Call it none.”

Nevertheless, that won’t stop us from chasing Merlin through history for a while. And the first place we’ll look is back in our old friend Nennius, who gives us a marvelous story of a strange little boy whose name isn’t Merlin at all.

What we think we know about Arthur in history

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

It’s time to take stock of what we think we know about Arthur so far, because we’re about to enter an entirely different phase of our quest. Specifically, we’re about to meet Geoffrey of Monmouth, and after him everything changes.

So here’s what we’ve seen so far:

1. Gildas leaves an Arthur-shaped hole in history. He doesn’t mention Arthur’s name, but Gildas is not in the habit of mentioning names. We do know from Gildas that the battle of Badon was historical, because Gildas mentions that he was born in the very year that great battle took place.

2. The Annals of Wales mention Arthur as the hero of Badon. They also mention his last battle, Camlann, when “Arthur and Medraut fell.”

The trouble with the Annals is that we don’t know when they were first written down. And as a literary form, annals are particularly inviting to interpolators. The Annals could even have been written after Nennius, or the Arthurian references added later by copyists who thought Arthur shouldn’t be left out.

3. Nennius gives us a list of Arthur’s battles.

It seems reasonable to take Nennius at his word when he says that he merely compiles old traditions. He seems to have put a lot of work into collecting them, though little into sorting them out.

Both Nennius and the Annals of Wales have Arthur going into battle with an image on his “shoulders”—which sounds unlikely, unless some translator misinterpreted the old British word for “shield.” That seems very likely, and if it’s true, it suggests that the original British source was much older than the translation—old enough for the language to have changed considerably. That would put the original source much closer to Arthur’s time.

That Nennius and the Annals have Arthur carrying different images in different battles suggests that one is not derived from the other, but both from a common original source, and at least one through several intervening layers of copying and interpretation. That again suggests some distance in time, putting the first Latin translation of the British source considerably before Nennius or the Annals. And, as I said, that Latin translation must have been made a long time after the original British source was written. Just to have enough time for all these evolutions in the text, it looks as though we’ll have to put the original British source fairly close to Arthur’s time.

4. Miscellaneous scraps of Welsh tradition mention Arthur as the pattern of the perfect warrior.

5. Other scraps of Welsh tradition paint Arthur as a bloodthirsty tyrant.

The conflicting portraits of Arthur fit well with Gildas’ picture of Britain as divided by civil war in Arthur’s time. And the fact that Arthur is often portrayed as a villain in saints’ lives may give us another reason why Gildas doesn’t mention him: he might not have been popular in the British church,

So what’s our conclusion? The historical evidence for Arthur is a bit meager, but it all seems to fit together. It’s consistent and on the whole persuasive. Considering the evidence, I’m inclined to say that our skeleton outline of Arthur’s life is probably true history:

1. He united the previously disunited Britons.

2. He defeated the Saxon English at the famous battle of Badon.

3. He ruled in peace and security for some time after that.

4. He died in battle with Mordred.

(I’m a little less sure about the fourth item, but I’ll leave it there for now.)

When William Caxton printed his famous edition of Malory, he wrote in his preface that he had at first thought that Arthur was nothing but legend. But he was persuaded by a certain noble gentleman that “in hym that shold say or thynke that there was neuer suche a kynge callyd Arthur myght wel be aretted grete folye and blyndenesse. For he sayd that there were many euydences of the contrarye.”

I’m not ready to accuse people who say there was no Arthur of “great folly and blindness.” But I do agree with Mr. Caxton’s friend that there are “many evidences to the contrary,” and the evidences are enough to make me think that there probably was an Arthur, and that he probably did the things tradition says he did.

Now that we’ve taken stock of the oldest traditions, we can move on to the wonderful world of Geoffrey of Monmouth. But first, we’ll have a bit of a digression. Before we meet Arthur in Geoffrey, we’re going to take stock of what we know about another famous character in Geoffrey: Merlin, the wise man and wizard.

Introducing Arthur the tyrant

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

So far we’ve seen an Arthur who looks familiar: the conquering hero, the Christian warrior, the savior of Britain.

But there’s another Arthur who’s not as familiar: Arthur the proud and bloodthirsty tyrant, sometimes even Arthur the buffoon.

We get a hint of this other Arthur from our old friend Nennius. In his list of “Marvels of Britain,” Nennius mentions a curious grave:

There is another marvel in the region called Ercing. There you will find a grave next to a spring which is named Licat Anir, and the name of the man who is buried in the tomb was Anir. He was the son of Arthur the warrior, and Arthur killed him in that same place and buried him. And people come to measure the tomb, sometimes at six feet, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. Whatever measurement you find when you measure it, you will not find it the same measurement again, and I have tried it myself.

The variable grave is striking enough, but probably not inexplicable. (Go into an old cemetery with nothing but a stick, find any grave, and try to measure it with the stick three times. I’m betting you’ll get three different measurements, though perhaps not varying over quite as broad a range as six to fifteen feet.)

What strikes us modern readers most, however, is the idea that Arthur murdered his own son. This isn’t Mordred the traitor, who fell in the battle of Camlann, when Arthur fell as well; no, this is a son whom Arthur killed and lived to bury. That doesn’t sound like our perfect Christian warrior.

Arthur has occasional guest spots in lives of British saints, and he often comes across as a tyrant. Sometimes he’s a clownish tyrant, whose foolish cruelty is outwitted by the saint’s godly cleverness.

At first sight, this other Arthur seems almost unaccountable. But a little thought will convince us that this is exactly what we should expect to find. The two apparently irreconcilable traditions are both necessary consequences of Arthur’s career, if Arthur really did what our skeleton outline of his life says he did.

The Britons were divided, and Arthur united them: all the traditions agree on that. If Britain was anything like the way Gildas painted it, then it’s most likely that the way Arthur united the Britons was by defeating the recalcitrant warlords in battle. In other words, Arthur was the winner in a civil war.

Here in the United States, schoolchildren learn to revere Abraham Lincoln as a hero: the Great Emancipator, the savior of the Union. It comes as quite a shock to us to read what writers on the other side of our Civil War had to say about him. The man who shot Lincoln shouted the Virginia state motto as he fled: “Sic semper tyrannis”—“Thus always to tyrants.” Even today, about a century and a half afterward, you can find good, patriotic Americans in the South who loathe the name of Lincoln.

If there was a civil war in Britain in Arthur’s time, then there was a losing side; and if there was a losing side, then there must have been a large number of disgruntled Britons who loathed the name of Arthur.

Over time, we can imagine, the reputation of Arthur must have developed just the way the reputation of Lincoln has developed. The broad tradition would paint Arthur as hero, but the stories of Arthur as tyrant would not have been forgotten. Somewhere between those two traditions would lie the truth.

Did you know…?

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

Did you know that, in 374 a.d., the emperor Constantine suppressed the most important pagan festival of the year by simply striking those three days out of the calendar? To this day, February is three days shorter than the other months—all because Constantine was determined to impose Christianity on the Roman Empire at any cost. You didn’t know that, did you?

Well, of course you didn’t know that. I just made it up. Constantine wasn’t even alive in 374. Not a word of it is true.

But how many times would I have to say it to make it true?

Some of you—the hopelessly naive ones—may answer that I can’t make it true, no matter how often I say it. I am touched by your childlike innocence, and I hope you live your whole lives without ever having to read a book by a conspiracy theorist.

The answer, actually, is twice. To make any statement true in the world of conspiracy theories, you have to say it twice, in two different books or articles. That works no matter how easily disprovable the statement is in itself. I call it the Two-Statement Rule.

Let me explain how it works. First I make a ridiculously false statement, like the one about Constantine striking three days out of February. Then, under a different name, I make the same statement in another book, citing the first book as my source in a footnote.

Now I’ve made the statement true, because it’s based on research. (“His research is impeccable,” one reviewer said of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.) Other books can cite my second book, and still other books can cite the other books, and so on. Will any of them ever try to figure out where the original statement came from? Of course not. It’s in a book, and the book has a footnote. What more do you need? Soon the popular media will report both sides of the “controversy” about Constantine and February, and the real historians who attempt to set the record straight will generally be dismissed as cranks, if not conspirators.

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown introduces us to Sir Leigh Teabing, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Holy Grail. Where does his vast knowledge come from? Does he spend his days poring over ancient Welsh poems, or French and German romances? Hardly. Mr. Brown helpfully describes the most-used books in Sir Leigh’s library, so we can see for ourselves what kind of research a Royal Historian does. All the books are conspiracy-theory books, most of them based on other conspiracy-theory books. You won’t find Chretien de Troyes or Walter Map—or the Bible, for that matter—anywhere among them. Original sources only cloud the issue.

This is why Mike and I both have such an obsession with reading the original sources and forming our own conclusions. When it’s possible, we prefer to hear what the original writers had to say for themselves. The Two-Statement Rule is especially hard at work in the world of Arthur and the Holy Grail, where the original sources are meager compared to the huge libraries written about them.

So we’ll be getting back to Nennius and his friends soon. I apologize for the long delay between postings; we’ve had more illnesses in our household than we expected. But more will be coming soon. We’ll be searching for Arthur in saints’ lives and local traditions, but we’ll also be hunting an even more elusive quarry: the historical Merlin.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey