King Arthur, Christopher Hibbert. New Word City, 2014.
Summary: King Arthur and the myth of Camelot have fascinated generations and continues to capture the imagination of Britons as their once and future king. Hibbert’s book both narrates the fiction and delineates what may be known of the historical Arthur.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Excalibur, Lancelot and more have captivated the imaginations of generations of readers of Malory’s le Morte d’Arthur and T. H. White’s Once and Future King. Indeed, many Britons look for the second coming of Arthur when the sceptered isle faces its greatest need.
Christopher Hibbert seeks to untangle the truth from the legends in this short history of Arthur and Arthurian studies. He begins with the various historical accounts of Arthur in chapter 1 and then proceeds to a summary of Malory’s narrative of Arthur’s life in chapter 2. Chapter 3 touches on the Grail Quest, added by Chrètian de Troyes in the twelfth century. Chapter 4 situates Arthur in the fifth century AD amidst the conflicts between Saxons and Britons. Chapter 5 explores the accounts suggesting that Arthur arose as a military commander leading the Britons against their Saxon enemies. Then chapter 6 focuses on the search for “Camelot” and considers the archaeological evidence found in Glastonbury at South Cadbury Castle.
Chapter 7 sums up what seem to be the “best guesses”. Hibbert plainly believes in the real existence of an Arthur, born around 475 AD, who became a military leader under King Ambrosius, uniting surrounding kingdoms under his leadership and winning a decisive victory at Mount Badon, near the Wansdyke, in 516. The victory ushers in a fifty year peace, broken only by civil war between him and his illegitimate son Mordred, leading to his burial in Avalon. Chapters 7 and 8 also explore the various literary treatments of Arthur from Tennyson to T. H. White.
While there are expensive hardbound versions, it appears this is primarily available in electronic format. A feature exploited to a greater degree than most e-books I have read is links to numerous Wikipedia articles throughout the work that provides helpful background on various figures, places, and other subjects.
I have to admit to finding the organization of this book a bit confusing, and in the end, I fail to find myself convinced that Arthur was more than legend, while yet appreciating the power of this legend, with swords in stone, Excalibur claimed from an upraised hand in a lake, the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the tragedy of war between father and son. It seems that there are all the elements of Greek tragedy, of both nobility and hubris, of high aspiration and human fallibility. One understands how the Arthurian legend, as well as a Broadway musical, could captivate the imagination of the “best and the brightest” of the Kennedy administration that fostered its own “Camelot myth.” It makes me wonder at times whether there is something deep inside us longing for the reign of “the once and future king.”