Favourite monarch

King Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms

Alistair Moffat <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 282pp, £20</em>


As we approach the millennium, King Arthur is assured of his prominence as, just possibly, Britain's favourite monarch. The plethora of websites, books and TV programmes devoted to him all indicate that the "once and future king" and his court are alive and well and set to conquer the 21st century. There remains, however, the troubling question: did Arthur really exist? And, if so, who was this sixth-century military leader whose achievements quickly became overlaid by myth and legend?

We know the Round Table and the chivalric code of courtly love were medieval constructs that owed their existence to 12th-century troubadours and balladeers, most notably Chretien de Troyes, and to Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain - the latter volume was eagerly read by Henry II. In fact, many 12th-century contemporaries thought some of Merlin's prophecies were particularly relevant to the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. In later centuries, Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur (1469-70) and Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1859) contributed greatly to these legends.

Arthurian studies, however, remains a problematic area of scholarship with many reputable historians and archaeologists, including Michael Wood, concluding that there is no historical basis for his existence. They often cite his absence from the account of the battle of Mount Badon (which he supposedly won) by the sixth-century writer Gildas as, at best, puzzling, since one would naturally expect its successful military victor to have been named.

Alistair Moffat, who possesses an antiquarian's love for the Celtic language and the landscape of the Scottish borders, draws heavily on the topographical history of the area to construct his theory about Arthur. He believes Arthur to have been a historical figure whose headquarters were in southern Scotland. His contention is that the reason historians had previously failed to find Arthur was that they were looking in the wrong place.

Moffat's book is heavily footnoted and contains an exhaustive bibliography and is clearly a labour of love. However, this reviewer will leave the reader to decide if he has proved his case. The one thing that does remain clear, however, is that, regardless of whether Arthur is a historical or a fictional personage, his story will continue to weave a powerful spell.