Tuesday, January 6, 2009
The quest for historical proof of King Arthur, like the quest for the Holy Grail itself, seems as perennial as it is elusive. But it is also entertaining, and, in the case of Angus Konstam’s latest work, great military history, too.
King Arthur. Few things capture the essence of romance, chivalry, mystery, and our imaginations the way that Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table do. Most wargamers are aware that the origins of Arthur are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps less well known (or at least less well discussed) is the question as to whether Arthur even existed at all. Readers wishing for a quick introduction into both the debate and the archeological evidence that exists during the “Arthurian” period would do well to pick up a copy of Angus Konstam’s British Forts in the age of Arthur.
I will be the first to confess that my knowledge of King Arthur and historical evidence of him was rather lacking. While I had heard of him as a kid, my first immersion into the legend came as a young adult when I was taken to a 1981 film as part of a surprise birthday party. Most readers may recall that movie, Excalibur. Anyone who has seen the movie will undoubtedly recall Merlin transforming Uther Pendragon into a likeness of Cornwall and him sneaking into the bed of Conwall’s wife while wearing full plate mail. Indelible as that memory may be, it is an anachronism.
Historically, if Arthur existed at all, it would have likely been in the decades immediately following the withdrawal of Roman troops from the British Isles around the 5th or 6th Centuries. Since known written references to Arthur are tenuous at best, the search for evidence supporting him has largely turned to archeology. So it is that Angus Konstam has also turned to write a highly edifying and easily readable summary of the fortifications in Britain during this period through about 600 AD.
Medieval military history buffs are in for a treat because the archeological digs looking for support of Arthur during this period have focused largely on fortifications – Camelot and the like. So far no tombs have been discovered with an inscription, “Here Lies King Arthur.” The quest, much like that for the Holy Grail, continues, and Angus Konstam’s account is an enjoyable romp through the pages of history. Along the way the reader is treated to a discussion of military strategy, the historical conflicts of the time (the Jutes, Saxons, and Angles were all encroaching from the east), and, of course, the fortifications used.
Camelot apparently has indeed been found at the site of South Cadbury, but my imagination was caught more firmly by the breathtakingly placed forts at Tintagel, Dinas Emrys, and Bamburgh. British Forts in the Age of Arthur examines every major fortification that is known to have been occupied during the Arthurian period. Accompanying the military history are a number of excellent photographs and illustrations that help to further bring that period of time to life. I found British Forts in the Age of Arthurto be one of the most enjoyable military history books I have read in some time. Like most titles published by Osprey, it is brief (64 pages) and focused primarily on the topic of the technology, strategy, and military systems of its brief slice of time. The evidence supporting whether King Arthur truly lived is not strong, but that doesn’t stop many of us from wanting to believe, including, I think, the book’s author. Factual and clear about the question of Arthur’s existence he is, but that doesn’t stop him from referring to the Post-Roman period as the “Age of Arthur” from time to time, nor does he attempt to quash the hope of the reader that evidence may yet be found. Like many legends, perhaps the lack of certainty fuels eternal speculation, but it is the hope that Arthur might have lived that makes it all the more intriguing. After reading British Forts in the Age of Arthur I will no longer believe it even remotely possible that Arthur’s father sired him regaled in plate mail (indelible as that image may be). However, the knowledge that Post-Roman Britains were likely armored similarly to the recently departed Romans doesn’t prevent me from conjuring up some daydreams about the Knights of the Round Table and their chivalrous exploits. After all, even if they didn’t exist in name, the ideals embodied in the legend are, like the Holy Grail itself, eternal.
ISBN: 978 1 84603 362 9