The Grail Code 
Arthur’s continental adventures

“I never said half the things I said,” Yogi Berra once said. Or at least it’s said that Yogi Berra said it. That’s the trouble with Yogi Berra: he’s the gold standard for colorful malapropisms, and eventually any particularly funny malapropism will be attributed to Yogi Berra, whether he said it or not. I won’t be surprised if I see some of the sayings of Mrs. Malaprop herself attributed to Yogi Berra.

I suspect it’s the same way with Arthur. He was the great hero of Britain, the standard against which every other hero was measured. If there was a good old heroic story being told around the campfires, eventually Arthur would become the hero of it.

Geoffrey of Monmouth places Arthur’s last battle in the year 542. There had been no Roman Emperor in the West since 476, and there was never an emperor named Lucius. If there was a historical Arthur, and he was the victor of Badon, he certainly never set out from Britain to conquer Rome.

But other men did, and it’s quite possible that their stories have got themselves absorbed into Arthur’s.

The most famous, of course, was Constantine the Great. He was in Britain when the legions proclaimed him Emperor, and, setting off from there, he did succeed eventually in conquering the whole Empire.

He wasn’t the only one who set out from Britain with imperial ambitions. Maximus, whom Gildas despised so much that he actually gives us his name, set out from Britain to take the Empire, though without the unqualified success of Constantine. There were other Britons, too, who meddled in Continental affairs. The Arthurian expert Geoffrey Ashe is a big fan of Riothamus, a British warlord who apparently had considerable success in Gaul.

Any or all of these heroes might have contributed his own feats to the story of Arthur. If I’m right about the way Geoffrey worked, he didn’t just make up the story of Arthur and Lucius. He would have taken it from some earlier tradition. But I think the earlier traditions are too mixed up by the time they get to Geoffrey for us to make any more definite conclusion. We can only suspect that they come from some half-remembered feat of some famous British hero who had the misfortune of being almost as good as Arthur.

There is, however, one interesting detail in Geoffrey’s account that sounds almost historical. Constantine succeeds Arthur, and we remember that there was actually a Constantine ruling some part of Britain in Gildas’ time. He was an awful villain, according to Gildas, but he was a Constantine. Could that be Geoffrey’s Constantine?

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