SOMEBODY recently asked me what I meant by a reference to the myth of Arthur; or, rather, a reference to the myth of the myth of Arthur. For in my opinion it is only a modern myth that he is only an ancient one. The chief difference between ancient and modern times seems to be that formerly legends grew very slowly and now they grow very fast. The old legends generally grew more slowly and always had a more historical basis; and it seems to me overwhelmingly probable that the story of King Arthur had a very solid historical basis. This must in a sense be mere guesswork, for I am not competent to judge of the details; but I think I am as competent as anyone else to judge of the theories, in the sense of seeing whether they hang together and are inherently probable and consistent. Now the theory that treats Arthur entirely as a fairy-tale seems to me more fantastic than any fairy-tale. It sometimes takes the form of saying that there was some prehistoric Celtic god or other who afterwards came to be described in more detail as a king in Camelot. I have never been very clear, by the way, about how this vague transition from divinity to humanity is supposed to present itself to human nature. A particular story of an incarnate god or a fallen angel one can imagine easily enough. But I am a little confused about how the mere act of the Pimlico populace continually calling upon heaven in their human difficulties, would of itself become a story that a Mr Heaven had lived in a particular street in Pimlico. It seems rather more likely that a simple people would exaggerate a hero into a god, rather than deliberately diminish a god into a hero. But this is something of a side issue and I do not insist on it. Anyhow, they say there must have been a Celtic god and doubtless there was; doubtless there were many Celtic gods — too many Celtic gods for a fastidious monotheistic taste. I might respectfully inquire what had become of all the others; and why they have not all turned into Christian kings with orders of chivalry? And then the critics complete the confusion by saying, as a sort of after-thought, that Arthur may also have been the name of a king, but implying that this can have nothing to do with the idea of King Arthur.
Now all this seems to me mythical in the worst sense; that it is concentrated on myths and wholly careless of history. If we are studying a historical problem, it would be well to begin with the historical part of it; and if we want to know more, it is best to grasp what we know already. Now we do know as a historical fact that the beginning of the Dark Ages was a time when the north west corner of the Roman Empire was ruined by barbarian invasions. We do know that those who successfully defended civilization everywhere became great legendary yet historic heroes and that in this respect the story of Arthur is just like the story of Alfred. There was certainly a legendary Alfred as well as a historical Alfred; and every common-sense comparison would lead one to think there was a historical Arthur as well as a legendary Arthur. But the question is one of proportion; and the saving of Christendom by the heroes of the Dark Ages does seem to me a sufficient cause for so huge a legend: the last trickle of tradition from some lost Welsh polytheism does not seem to me a sufficient cause. There are a dozen parallel cases of Christian heroes; there are not a dozen parallel cases of Welsh gods.
Then we come to the old suggestion that Arthur was not Arthur but another person of the same name. Here again people seem to forget that a legend requires a story as well as a name. A legend is about something; it is not started by a word but by some true or false event. The earliest historical references to Arthur are references to what he did. What he did was to defend Britain, as a Christian and civilized State, against the heathen invasion. The very first references to him deal with stories like that of the Battle of Mount Badon, in which Arthur drove the heathen before him and carried a holy image, some say on his shield and some on his shoulders. If I remember right, William of Malmesbury, soon after the Norman Conquest, refers to Arthur not as a wild Welsh demigod or even a doubtful Welsh saint, but as a solid historical character whose name needs to be cleared from the later accretions of Welsh fancy. Now there is no doubt at all that battles similar to the Battle of Mount Badon did in all sorts of countries stem or turn the tide of barbarism. There is no doubt whatever that when they did, they left an enormous impression on the imaginations of men, like a story of the Deluge or the Day of Judgement. If the result was a myth, it was like some myth about a man who had saved the sun and stars.
But there is another historical truth that is here forgotten. Many doubts about the Court of Camelot are founded on the notion that anything so far back in time must itself have been barbaric. The truth is, that, if it was far enough back, it would almost certainly have been civilized. It would have been in the last phase of the old Roman civilization. The fallacy is like that of a man who should say at daybreak that if it was darker four hours before, it must have been darker still fourteen hours before. He would forget that fourteen hours might bring him back into the previous day. And the fascination of this study of the Dark Ages is precisely that the darkness does hide a buried day; the last lost daylight of the great culture of antiquity.
Much of the dullness of modern history came from the idea of progress. For history must be progress reversed. If things have always automatically grown brighter and better, then to trace things backwards is to go further and further not only into darkness but into dullness. It is to go from gold to lead and from lead to mud; from beautiful novelties to dreary negations. But, as a fact, these beautiful novelties have never appeared except when this negative theory of the past was itself negatived. They have come when people were quarrying in an older civilization, because it was more civilized than their own civilization. That is obviously what happened at the Renaissance, but it happened in many cases where it is less obvious. I believe that the peculiar magic and mastery still belonging to the Arthurian story is largely due to the long period during which men looked back to Roman Britain as some thing more rich and subtle and artistic than the barbarous centuries that succeeded it. They were not wrong in believing that Arthur and Lancelot were more courtly and cultured than Hengist and Horsa. If Arthur and Lancelot existed at all, they almost certainly were. The same has been true, of course, ever since people began to study the medieval civilization with any intelligence. Some sentimentalists in the eighteenth century may have begun by thinking ruined abbeys (especially by moonlight) merely interesting as rugged and barbaric, ‘with shapeless sculpture decked’. But since we have begun to search out the scheme and science of medieval architecture, we have realized that it is the very reverse of barbaric, that it is especially organized and orderly. We have recognized that Gothic architecture was certainly not made by Goths; and that the shapeless sculpture was anything but shapeless, and had a very deliberate shape. But we do not remember that, as we have groped for an understanding of the medieval system, so the men of the Dark Ages may well have groped for an understanding of the old Roman system. And it is natural that the last monuments of it should have appeared enormous in the twilight; and one of these monuments was the memory of Arthur.