1995-08-12: The Discovery of King Arthur

The Discovery of King Arthur (1985)

by Geoffrey Ashe (1923-)

In this book, Ashe presents his arguments identifying the man at the base of the Arthurian legend with the historical Riothamus (or Rigotamus), (died c. 470).

The argument is interesting in itself, and seems fairly likely to be true. One odd thing about it is that it does not depend on any startling new evidence, but on reinterpretation of long-established sources. For this reason, a survey of the field of Arthurian scholarship, which has been going on for well over a thousand years, should be a fruitful study in memetic evolution. Over this period many intelligent people have read and interpreted the same evidence in completely different ways. Ashe’s scholarship resulted from an analysis of what reality was behind the memes that had been transmitted through various sources.

This is exactly the problem of memetic transmission: memes are patterns in brains, imperfectly transmitted from one to another, by behavior using various media. The problem of communication is to determine the mental state of another from his or her behavior. By far the greatest part of so-called communication simply ignores this problem, taking the easiest interpretation and only reconsidering when a great inconsistency or obvious bad result occurs; often it is then too late to recover the original behavior on which the interpretation was based. In the case of written verbal behavior, it is possible to reconsider the evidence over and over, but still difficult to determine the intention and state of knowledge or belief of the writer.

Another interesting aspect of this work is Ashe’s explanation of the state of (post-)Roman civilization, Romanitas, in the fifth century, and the interest in a Restitutor, someone who could restore the golden past in the face of a deteriorating present. This is a common enough desire throughout mankind’s experience. When someone appears with even partial success, it is easy to later look back and extol his successes, elevating him to the highest rank. In this way, a person like Arthur Riothamus came to be seen as the savior of the Celto-Romans against the Saxon hordes, at least temporarily; perhaps the ultimate failure to stand against the Saxons had an effect in transforming the legend to its present sad ending.

Having identified the man behind the legend, the obvious next step is to examine the process by which his exploits became legendary. As Ashe points out, some have objected that such examination is a bad idea, because it will destroy the beauty of the literary edifice that has been constructed over a millenium and a half. He also points out that there seems little danger of that beauty being destroyed, because (most) people find their appreciation enriched by knowing that there was a reality behind the legend, providing substance to something previously ethereal. This seems to be due to a deep belief of humans (not just British humans) in the possibility of a Restitutor; this is one of the archetypes on which the human mind is based.

(9 September 1992)

In the three years since first reading this book, I have read and thought about quite a few more concerned with the Celts and Romans of, and history and literature arising from, this era. I think it might be an interesting project to attempt to recreate the process by which the followers of Arthur Riothamus and their memetic descendants told and developed the stories of his exploits. I have in mind a sequence of three or four tales, beginning just after the last battle in 470, and ending with something like the “ancient book in the British language” which Geoffrey of Monmouth claims to have translated.

The first tale would involve a survivor of the battle, and include the historical events as he, his father, and his grandfather knew them (from their own experience, and from their contemporaries). He would be a Brittany-born Briton, whose grandfather objected to his son’s emigration from Britain. The tale would be told to a Brittany youngster who would be the first link in the chain starting with this young warrior. Of course other chains from other starting points are implicit in the project.

The second tale would be told in Britain, and incorporate the first (or one like it), with other aspects that could only come from a Welsh Celt (no longer Romanized). This would be a century or two after the first, and the elements would be well on the road from legend to myth.

The third would be told in Brittany again, and be much richer than the second. Many mythic elements would be involved, and the threads of other tales would be incorporated into the overall structure.

Geoffrey’s “ancient book” would be an amalgam of the third with a chronicle, written by a scribal monk from Ireland, taking down the tale of an old man of Brittany in his own words, and augmenting an earlier chronicle. This chronicle would be consistent with some of the other chronicles Ashe identifies as likely or possible sources for Geoffrey or his informants, including at least some of the errors that Ashe mentions as common in such things.

I wish I were capable of writing such a sequence.

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