on 29 December 2012
I'm a huge fan of Mr. Moffat's and this book is my favourite. The amount of research he did for this book must have taken him years, and what he uncovered gives one pause.
1. Welsh was the national language (and the only written one) of the UK at the time when Arthur lived
2. English was not developed or in common usage until over a hundred years after Arthur's death
3. Geoffery of Monmouth's fictional account of Arthur did much to perpetuate the myth (Arthur was never King)
4. Merlin was born after Arthur died
5. Arthur was Scottish, born into the Gododdin tribe near Edinburgh. He was not Welsh
It's easy to see how and why the myth of King Arthur took hold and became so popular. Who could resist a hero warrior-King and his knights of the round table? But I think it's much more satisfying to know the truth.
I felt the same way after I read Arthur as I did when I finished reading The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Everything both authors said rang true and it all made sense.
You can still hang onto your romantic notions of Arthur if you wish, but I prefer the new Arthur.
on 21 February 2005
The book which inspired the latest 'King Arthur' movie, this volume is written by a man who rigorously points to his own lack of credentials as an historian. Alistair Moffat nevertheless identifies one major factor which is largely lost in much popular history - the people who inhabited what is now the borders of Scotland were, until the Romans arrived, Welsh speaking. Their legacy can be found in the place names of southern Scotland and northern England. The Roman invasion drove the Welsh speakers into what is now Wales, and left the peoples of the Lowlands of Scotland and the north of England to be colonised by other cultures.
Moffat is largely dependent on linguistic inquiry, trying to make sense of Celtic traditions and languages which had never been written down. He considers how Britain came to that name - it was from the Roman colonial name of 'Britannia'. No one living on the island had considered themselves 'British' until the Romans came. 'Britannia', itself, comes from a corruption of the Roman geographer, Ptolemy's description of Albion as a "Prettanic isle" - 'prettanic' appearing to allude to the painted men who occupied it. Albion? Moffat points out that 'Alba', the contemporary Gaelic word for Scotland, originated from the description of the white cliffs of Dover - the Latin 'alba' means white. Hence we get 'Albion', meaning Britain.
Moffat uncovers much interesting material like this, and, despite his deconstruction of language, his writing style is accessible and very readable.
However, he seems to be dogged by an assumption that somehow the whole of Britain had some sort of cohesive, national identity, despite being broken up into recognisable kingdoms, harassed by barbaric tribes like the Caledonians or Hibernians. His search for Arthur is for a man who lived in the Scottish borders, Moffat's home (and mine). His Arthur is a post-Roman warlord who unites the native Celts against invaders, giving them a British identity ... and whose legacy and history will later be corrupted by the invading Anglo-Saxons as they try to establish their historic rights to the island.
Moffat does seem to get a bit confused in places - and there are some significant errors in his analysis and his history. He argues, for instance, that there are hundreds, if not thousands of places named after Arthur in Britain; he concludes that this points to there being a real Arthur around the time of the Roman departure from the island. It could equally point to a folklore 'Arthur' (or many such characters) dating back centuries before.
It's an entertaining read, it does give a perspective on how legends can become real in pre-literate societies and literate ones, and it's a book which should stimulate you to think about the culture and heritage of the borders of Scotland, but, as for his identification of the 'real' Arthur as a Romanised war leader, well, I was still left unconvinced.
on 7 October 2015
I have read many books about the "Arthurian" period and I have to say this is one of the poorest. Shallow in the extreme, the author puts forward his theory seemingly based almost solely on highly debatable etymology allied to a very obvious local bias, with little attempt to really examine the few sources available or discuss/compare other theories. Scottish nationalists may disagree but this is in truth irrelevant as "Scotland" didn't even exist in this period!
on 27 July 2010
Life is too short to read the same book twice (I buy far more books than I could possibly read). I have read this book 3 times and know I'll read it again.
This is an extremely readable history, which recounts the struggle of the Ancient Britons (Welsh & Scots) against the Anglo Saxons (English), with Arthur traversing Britain to counter the threat.
It places Arthur firmly in his historical context (before the later hijacking and medieval romance traditions) just in case you are looking for the round table and the Holy Grail.
From the first chapter this book overflows with fascinating facts, such as the origins of the Ancient British inscription "Teribus ye Teri Odin" in Hawick on the Scottish borders.
The book captures the romance and tragedy of the Gododdin, a British tribe (and the oldest British poem penned in Welsh by Aneurin) who fought and lost to the Angles in battle at Catraeth/Catterick.
The battle at Badon (West County) would make Roman Bath the obvious choice (Caer Baddon in Welsh where Caer = Fort/Fortress).
The ancient links between Wales and Scotland are remembered in the landscape and the place names. It is surprising how strong these links were preserved through the centuries, following the Anglo/Saxon wedge into the North West of Britain.
This book gives a fascinating insight into the formative years of British history and the nations which would one day become Wales, Scotland and England.
A must read for fans of Arthur and the wider British/Celtic audience, which may explain why some reviewers resort to the sour grapes.
on 16 February 2012
The idea that an actual, or semi-mythical Arthur, was a highly successful cavalry leader in post-Roman Britain, maintaining Roman traditions, is not a new one. Related ideas have been in existence since the 1970s if not before. Robert Graves, in his novel about the Roman general Belisarius, pointed out that if Arthur had existed and had access to a biographer of the status of that of Belisarius, the legendary British king would have been remembered as a real life flesh and blood figure with a "big-boned cavalry steed," not the Arthur of medieval romance. However, Alistair Moffat has some new, well-argued and extremely well-written suggestions to build a more rounded and believable image of a leader of Arthur's type - and of course, there may well have been more than one such. Alistair Moffat may not claim the status of historian for himself, but his combination of personal, intuitive local knowledge plus rigorous research and readability results in a memorable and genuine history that impresses.
on 2 November 2012
I don't understand how the previous reviewers can say this is a well written book, revealing previously-unknown historical facts about Arthur. Moffat uses vague, airy-fairy language and dubious linguistic connections between Gaelic, Scots-Gaelic and the Welsh of the Old North (and even some Sanskrit) to piece together a highly fanciful image of a Dark-Ages, Romano-British Arthur. Sparsely referenced and relying heavily on circumstantial evidence, also seems to go off on huge tangents which become increasingly irrelevant, only to come back with far-fetched views on the origins of Arthur. However, its saving grace is that Moffat repeatedly downplays his ability as an academic historian, which is fortunate, as the book seems poorly researched. I was disappointed, but a great read if you're after some light entertainment or pseudo-historical fiction. However, if you're after a book which gives a decent historical account of Arthur, this isn't for you.