I Do Believe in Spooks (Thesis Thursday #6)

Luckily, the stone masons at Modena labeled all the characters for us.

If you look closely at the hole in the chronology, you’ll noticed it’s shaped exactly like Wales. That’s because I purposely left out the appearances that Arthur makes in the now mostly lost corpus of Welsh myth, the fragments of which come down to us from much later manuscripts with fanciful color-coded names: The Red Book of Hergest, The Black Book of and Carmarthen, and The White Book of Rhydderch. This is where the Arthur who hung out with Suck Son of Sucker lived, the Arthur said to have chased a giant boar across Cornwall in order to steal the magic shaving set he keeps between his ears. And while it’s nearly impossible to get scholars to agree for more than ten years at a stretch about the dates of these stories,1 they seem to have been first written and circulated in Wales during the period when the rest of Europe seems to have forgotten Arthur existed.

So the short answer to the question, “Where’d Arthur go for a couple hundred years?” is simple: he was in Wales starring in a long-running series of adventure stories in which he did pretty much everything, sort of an Everyhero who protected Britain from all manner of supernatural threat, from giant boars to giant cats to giant giants. And dragons, too.2

Listing of all those supernatural critters reminds me that I was supposed to be talking about ghosts.3 Arthur the heroic champion of Wales never has a run in with a ghost that I am aware of, but as I indicated before, there is a ghost haunting his stories. It’s just that we modern readers are the ones who summoned it.

We summon the Ghost of Arthur in reaction to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Between the list of the last page and the sketch of the Welsh heroic Arthur above, I’ve more or less laid out all the strands of the Arthurian story that we know about that predate Geoffrey’s Historia. As I’ve argued in previous entries in this series, Geoffrey wrote to please the Anglo-Norman aristocrats in charge of England at the time, offering them the story of Arthur in exchange for whatever spare bishopric they might have lying around. It’s doubtful that the French-speaking Latin-reading Normans knew much of Arthur from the Welsh myth, but they knew Arthur’s reputation among their more rebellious native British subjects. To the Normans, Geoffrey claimed (through the fiction of his “certain very ancient book written in the British language”) that he would be able to translate the true stories about Arthur from British into Latin, in effect translating the Welsh boar-wrestling action hero Arthur into King Arthur, precursor to the Norman kings who currently reigned.

Because we modern readers and scholars get so bent out of shape about Geoffrey’s fictitious source book and his tendency to (if you’ll pardon the colloquialism) just make shit up, we don’t want him to be the one responsible for giving King Arthur his big break. Even though the Arthur that’s knocking around the Welsh material doesn’t look much like Geoffrey’s Arthur or the Arthur that was in the historical tradition before Geoffrey, we want to believe that he must have existed in the Welsh anyway, just in the parts of it that we don’t have anymore. And if not there, then somewhere, surely. Anywhere but the Historia.

Flip through enough journal articles, or venture into the corners of the Internet where amateur Arthurians tend to gather,4 and you’ll find someone willing to argue that nearly everything that first appears in Geoffrey’s story must have actually derived from something earlier that is now mostly lost. Usually, these arguments are pieced together out of chains of similar names. Like so:5

In Concepts of Arthur, p. 197 […] it was argued that Arthur is the subject of the first part of the Book of Taliesin poem Kadeir Teyrnon, [and that the phrase…] o echen aladur should be read as a indicating that he (Arthur) was ‘from the stock/lineage/family/tribe of [the Romano-British war-god Mars] Alator’. […] Haycock […] notes that Uthyr Pendragon’s uncle — and thus Arthur’s great-uncle — in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, vi.4, Aldroenus, is given the name Aldwr in the brutiau, which could well be relevant and might help confirm that the description of Arthur as ‘from the family of (Mars) Alator’ was meant literally.”

And that’s from one of the more reasonable examples. But however reasonable these arguments may seem, they’re not much different than necromancy. We twist names and roots in order to fashion the right magic words to summon this unseen phantom, the unified pre-Galfridian Arthur. We work ourselves up to the point that we are sure we see his face staring back at us from across history, but there’s really nothing there but gaps and shadows. There simply isn’t an “original” or “real” Arthur whose story we receive in fragments. The fragments are all there ever was. There are fewer of the fragments left today, but just because the gaps have multiplied as time marched on is no reason to believe that there ever was a single original whole. The ur-Arthur is just a phantom, a ghost that we have summoned to avoid being faced with the messy way that stories actually arise.

If I knew what was good for me, I’d abandon the talk of ghosts and start preparing for the horde of angry Celticists that is bound to show up at my door any minute now.6 Maybe I’ll barricade the door while you’re waiting for the signal to switch pages.

[BOOOOOOP]


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  1. A useful beginner’s guide to them can be found here. []
  2. Normal sized dragons. Which are still pretty big, I’ll grant you. []
  3. And the metaphor buffers appear to have been flushed sufficiently to allow us to return to the subject. []
  4. If you count yourself among the Arthurian enthusiasts who aren’t churning out peer-reviewed journal articles in the desperate hope of tenure, I hope you’re not too offended by the tag ‘amateur Arthurians’. Just pretend I was looking at that guy from the forums you hate when I said it. []
  5. With apologies to Thomas Green et al. []
  6. Armed with chalkboards and dictionaries instead of pitchforks. Though after a few dozen etymology lectures, you’d wish it had been pitchforks. []

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Xander

    I just wanted to say that I’m a long-time reader, and this is pretty great. I’m genuinely excited to find out what the hell is up with Uther!

    • http://www.facebook.com/anya.stickney Anya Stickney

      Me too.  I never knew that the Arthurian story was so fascinating!  Great job
       Carl the half-dead blogger.

  • Anonymous

    I’m another long time reader and I’ve enjoyed this entire series so far and am eager to find out more about Uther and what Monmouth was doing with him!

  • https://profiles.google.com/104791269167429064986 Judy S

    As a very long-time reader of etymological and cultural ghost-hunters, I enjoyed this entry very much.

  • Jim Kepner

    Your blog is the most entertaining and informative avoidance of dissertation writing ever! My favorite on this post– your footnote warning on metaphor overload… brilliant. Please don’t stop as I too want to know what’s up with Uther. I now have a personal stake in warding you away from your academic writing: should you get a full faculty position you might be so taken up in the publish-or-perish rat race, that you’ll no longer unpack Medieval life for we modernists.

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