Bit of a different one this time, and I apologise for the gap between reviews. Worlds Of Arthur: Facts and Fictions Of The Dark Ages is the first non-fiction book I’ve reviewed on this site but, given that non-fiction is dominating my current reading material as I prepare to head off to university in October, I figured it made sense to review it.
If you hang out with me on Goodreads, you won’t have seen this one added to my ‘read’ shelf. That’s because I haven’t got through the Bibliography at the back, but I intend to. Because hey, research. Who doesn’t need more non-fiction to read when their brain is screaming for a few good stories?
In this book, Halsall explores the idea of King Arthur and how various theories about his nature and existence have been constructed by other writers and historians over time. His primary intention seems to be dismantling all of these ideas: after presenting the evidence, he proceeds to rip it into little pieces. But there’s a little bit more to it than that.
The title Worlds Of Arthur is a little bit misleading, suggesting a book that’s entirely focused on King Arthur, which isn’t what this is. While Halsall’s exploration of evidence is loosely overlaid on a frame of Arthurian investigation, that’s really not what he’s doing. Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, the subtitle, is a far better description of what the book explores — the past, and how we see it, and what that really means for our perception of history.
He does this by presenting all the evidence. When could Arthur have lived? Well, let’s look at the evidence for Anglo-Saxon invasions and what form they actually took and whether they were, instead, a series of migrations. What sort of world would he have lived in? Let’s look at what post-Roman Britain was actually like… Unlike many of the historians and pseudo-historians he criticises, he doesn’t cherry-pick evidence to support a particular argument, instead choosing to present all of it and then discuss what it could potentially mean. This provides a more comprehensive look at the evidence, but it can also make it a little unwieldy to read, as there’s so much information to get through.
However, his use of the evidence is particularly interesting for a student like myself, because he provides a good introduction to evaluating the reliability of literary evidence, the limitations of archaeological remains, and how existing theories can warp our perception of the past.
By undermining and continually destroying other people’s studies, Halsall shows how evidence can be twisted to mean one thing or another, and shows the student how to evaluate the usefulness and accuracy of whatever proof is provided. When thinking about history and archaeology, you could do worse than to start here to understand how to use the resources you’ll be working with.
One of Halsall’s main points seems to be about not taking anything for granted just because it’s the accepted version of history that we’ve come to think of as ‘true’. While we may talk about an Anglo-Saxon invasion or various patterns of migration, actually the truth is that nobody knows exactly what happens. He shows how it’s almost impossible to create a watertight argument from archaeology because there are many explanations for everything, and basically convinces the intimidated student that they’ll never know anything, ever.
Multiple times I was glad I didn’t read this before getting my exam results, as it would have left me in a state of panic thinking I’d failed Roman Britain irredeemably. But apparently the exam board don’t mind being given the ‘accepted version of events’ either.
The thing about the dark ages, you see, is that concrete information is pretty limited. Halsall delights in making sure his readers know that nothing can be considered entirely reliable, as he points out by comparing the varying accounts of Anglo-Saxon history by historians like Gildas and Bede and how they draw on the same sources but manipulate information to suit their purpose.
At times, though, I felt like he spent too long explaining why something was unreliable, for example when discussing the two calendar systems in use when Gildas was writing: AP and AD dates. A simple overview of how the two counting systems caused confusion would have sufficed; instead I was treated to several pages of it. I suppose it’s to be expected in an academic piece of work, intended for those truly interested in the topic, but it made it hard-going.
Halsall was also fairly damning of pretty much everyone who ever wrote about King Arthur ever before. At times, this was amusing, because of how blatantly he insulted theories. He’s got a sharp tongue, and it’s witty enough, though not exactly kind. At other times, it came across as snobbish and egocentric, dismissing all ‘pseudo-histories’ as ultimately inferior to academic work. Which may well be true, but there’s no need to say it in a way that suggests everyone who doesn’t make a living from history is utterly unqualified even to offer an opinion.
I suppose I should clarify that I didn’t come to this book looking for evidence for a historical Arthur. While I like to believe that all stories start somewhere in truth, I don’t expect that truth to be recognisable. And I love stories and legends — I have just as many fictional role-models as I have real ones. It doesn’t matter to me whether Arthur was real or not, because the stories exist either way. And I suppose Halsall never promised an answer, being highly critical of anyone who tries to claim they know ‘the truth about Arthur’.
But it would have been nice, after trawling through all his evidence and counter-evidence and insults, to find something approximating his own opinion, since his conclusion seemed to be ‘none of the above’. I get that his point is to try and cut through our romanticised idea of a quasi-historical figure (or, perhaps, an entirely fictional one), but it felt like a bit of a cop-out to write a book supposedly about Arthur and then to turn it into a destruction of any ideas about him.
Maybe I don’t mean that. It was certainly interesting. I just feel like it might have been better suited to a more general exploration of our perception of the dark ages and the coming of the Saxons versus the reality, rather than trying to tie it into Arthur. That seemed like an extra that could, for most of the book, have been removed without ever affecting what he was actually saying, instead of being the root that tied it all together.
My rating system for books doesn’t entirely work for non-fiction and I need to figure out a policy. I’d say this was a good read, and interesting enough. It’s good for students of history or archaeology, because of how it uses evidence and how it teaches you to view evidence you’re given, and it provides a fairly comprehensive view of post-Roman Britain. If you’re looking for an accessible read about King Arthur, though, look elsewhere.