When last we left so-called “real-life Indiana Jones” Graham Phillips in his quest for King Arthur, he had devoted the first four chapters of The Lost Tomb of King Arthur to narrowing down his main idea, that the Arthurian romances emerged from a Welsh oral tradition of real life events that took place in western Wales around 500 CE. As his argument progresses, his claims begin to become more fantastic.
Phillips has seemingly never heard of euhemerism, the process of imagining that stories told of divine beings were distortions of real human histories. Euhemerism occurred in Greece and in Phoenicia and famously in the Icelandic works of Snorri Sturluson, who claimed that the Norse gods were really Trojans! So, while in chapter 5 Phillips correctly sees Celtic myths behind elements of the Arthurian story like Morgan Le Fay, he at first seems to conclude not that these were formerly mythic stories rendered human but that Morgan, so similar to the Celtic war goddess and psychopomp Mórrígan, was a real human being acting the part of the goddess for ritual purposes. He bases this on Pomponius Mela’s description (3.48) of the nine Celtic priestesses of Sena (Île de Sein), endowed with magical powers. Later, though, he decides that Morgan was a literary character “based” on the goddess. But if that’s the case, then what logic leads us to name Arthur as real man and not a faded god? The logic confuses me.
In this chapter Phillips finally starts to note that Geoffrey of Monmouth borrowed Avalon from earlier legends, though he prefers to see it derived from the Voyage of Bran rather that the Voyage of St. Brendan, itself based on the Voyage of Bran. Parts of both derived from Isidore’s Etymologies, the most important medieval source for magic islands, though Isidore was copying from and adding to material ultimately founded on Pliny the Elder. Somehow this web of influence does not undermine Phillip’s faith in the reality of Avalon and instead convinces him of a greater and older reality behind all of the various copies. He speculates that the real King Arthur went to a pagan healing center staffed by nine priestesses in service of a Celtic goddess. This assumes an accuracy to Arthur stories we have no warrant to presuppose. I’ll give him credit for this, though: He recognizes that Robert Graves’s White Goddess is a load of crap and declines to use it to hunt for Morgan le Fay.
The next chapter goes even further into the use of Welsh myth in Arthurian romance, which ought to muddy the waters and make it even less likely that we can separate supposed historical truth from myth. But, no. The author wrongly concludes that Welsh material implies a Welsh Arthur and a Camelot in Powys, an ancient area of western England and eastern Wales. The survival of the Arthur story in Wales might well imply a Celtic origin, but given the movement of peoples in the early medieval period, it’s hardly conclusive evidence of actual location.
At this point, just about halfway through the book, I got tired of it. Normally I feel compelled to find out how the arguments will play out and can muster up interest to see what’s new in the argument. But here my interest faded away. As I double checked each of Phillips’s claims, I found that almost all of them had been published by other authors in better books, and that overall this volume was a quite close rewrite of Phillips’s 1992 book King Arthur: The True Story, written with Martin Keatman. The two books share the same setup, the same information, the same obsession with Avalon, the same “investigation,” and … surprise, surprise … the same conclusion about who Arthur is and where he is buried. Phillips excuses this by saying that the first book wasn’t very good and was too rushed to really explain it the right way, so he simply wrote the book again.
The majority of his argument depends on accepting that medieval chroniclers were preserving genuine late Roman political information in describing the life and career of Ambrosius Aurelianus (or, according to Geoffrey, Aurelius), Arthur’s uncle. Phillips expects us to treat the medieval sources as essentially reliable and thus use them to trace Ambrosius’s life. Because Geoffrey of Monmouth conflated the character of Merlin from stories told of Ambrosius and those told of the Welsh bard Myrddin Wyllt, Phillips would like us to read the whole of Merlin’s exploits as those of Ambrosius. He argues, without evidence, that “Myrddin” was an ancient Brythonic title meaning “eagle” that described Ambrosius’s imperial pretentions, parallel to Arthur’s father’s title being the Dragon. He imagines that Ambrosius retired to take up poetry, thus being remembered separately as a bard.
The whole argument goes on with speculation atop speculation, with occasional lies thrown in for fun. Phillips falsely claims, for example, that the Welsh borrowed the myth of dragons from the Romans, who got them from the Greeks, who borrowed them from the Persians, who took them from the Indians, who got them from China. But dragons are the common heritage of all the Indo-European peoples (the Chinese dragons being most likely a separate creation), going back as far as we care to look in Indo-European myth and legend. This is embedded in a larger argument about dragons as heraldic symbols misremembered as mythic monsters.
The problem, ultimately, is that Phillips systematically removes every trace of the legendary Arthur, arguing that everything about him has been exaggerated, misremembered, or falsified. This leaves us with nothing except the bare fact that Phillips believes there was some guy who won a battle against invaders sometime in the late 400s or early 500s. Big deal. Even if that is the case, his relationship to the story of Arthur would be about the same as trying to find the real nineteenth century Utah teenager who inspired Aurania Rouverol’s play Skidding, the basis for the Andy Hardy movies, which in turn inspired Archie comics, and thus declaring him the “real” Archie. At some point, the connection grows so tenuous as to be little more than meaningless.
Anyway, Phillips repeats his claims from his 1992 book that Camelot was at Viroconium, an old Roman fort in Powys on the Severn that became the capital of the kingdom and an important fifth century trading center. It is not Camelot by name (he feels the name is fictional) but rather is plausibly the capital for the Arthur he has yet to prove existed. In trying to locate Arthur, he pauses to be upset with “academics” and “scholars” for questioning some of his claims about a medieval Welsh phrase he translates as the “heirs of Arthur,” and through the expedient of accepting poems, mixed-up genealogies, and much later medieval chronicles he declares Owain Ddantgwyn (Owen White-Tooth) the king of Powys and the real Arthur. He suggests that Owain carried the title of the “Bear,” possibly associated with his father, which would be arth in Brythonic. This is not controversial and is the accepted etymology of Arthur. Phillips presents it as his own revelation, despite going back at least to Gerald Massey’s Book of Beginnings in the nineteenth century, if not before. There is, though, no unambiguous evidence of Owain as Arthur, though Phillips’s textual references are at least more suggestive than his other evidence. Phillips uses an allegorical medieval time travel story, the Dream of Rhonabwy, the story of a trip back in time to Arthur’s last battle, to locate Arthur-Owain’s last battle on Severn River at the ford of Rhyd-y-Groes. This isn’t, strictly speaking, relevant to his search for Owain, whom he believes to be buried in Baschurch, for complex reasons that require several pages of etymological discussion to derive from the Welsh “Eglwyseu Bassa” (= Ecclesiae Bassae), or Bassa’s Churches, described in one text as the burial place of the Powys kings. Phillips again presents this as his own revelation, only to offhandedly throw in at the end that “local historians” had already made that same conclusion long before. I found the identification published in nineteenth century texts, and references to it as a burial site in early twentieth century texts, and again Phillips overstates his own genius.
Phillips then revises his earlier claims about Avalon and makes the site identical with Baschurch. He concludes with a wish that someone will pay to have the area explored for Arthur’s grave.
Hardly a word of this book was new to it; virtually every claim is identical to the 1992 text, with the exception that this rewrite adds some crowing about Phillips’s 2011 National Geographic Channel appearance to look for (and fail to find) Arthur’s grave in Baschurch.
So our Arthur is not named Arthur, did not reign in Camelot, and had nothing to do with the Holy Grail. He had no round table of knights, no wizard or magic sword. So what, exactly, is left? A military commander and later king of Powys won a battle, seized the throne, and died in battle, with his whole life and wars and burial taking place within 12 miles of home. This is hardly the stuff of legend, and hardly the type of story to spread across Celtic Europe to erupt in French and German poetry. But if it is the historic core of the Arthur story, it is such a vestigial survival that it might just as well have not existed.
Phillips’s argument isn’t illogical, and he makes a decent case that Owain might have been one contributory stream in the Arthur saga, but he greatly overstates his case, relies far too heavily on dodgy medieval texts, and accepts without question a large number of evidence-free fringe assertions. Beyond that, his book is dry, boring, and endlessly repetitive. It could have been cut in half without losing anything, and worst of all: It is in no way original and added nothing to its 1992 predecessor except the royalties padding its author’s bottom line. All in all, it was a huge waste of time.
I did learn one thing, though: I work entirely too hard on my books and website. I simply must master the art of “copy-paste” and find ways to rewrite all of my old stuff as “new” for quick cash.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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