That editor Geoffrey Ashe utilizes evidence from archaeological excavations as a springboard to bolster his theory about King Arthur’s existence may be a valid argument. Or not, because the book follows a circuitous path, not quite confirming or denying the reality of the legendary ruler. The reader ends up perhaps slightly more convinced that a person such as Arthur lived, and even that his contributions to British history were significant. Comprised of eleven separate essays, four of them by Ashe himself, The Quest for Arthur’s Britain is an erudite compilation of archaeology, history and mythology.
At times, Ashe and the four other contributing editors go off on extreme tangents, expending a good many words on peripheral figures, insignificant incidents, and historical trends that are only marginally related to the subject. Enlightening and excruciating walk a narrow path together in this 202-page Arthurian tome.
A number of historical figures, both ancient and modern, receive significant attention in this book. To their credit, the editors attempt to show the correlation between these aforementioned individuals and the legendary King Arthur. Gildas, a sixth century monk and historian, is arguably important because of his occasionally accurate descriptions of events. But the writers make him out to be a cynical, even vitriolic man, casting doubt on his objectivity. Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th century author of The History of the Kings of Britain, is also cited with caution by the editors. In the second chapter, The Arthurian Fact, Geoffrey Ashe goes so far as to call Monmouth’s book “a literary fraud (40).” He previously offers support for this allegation in Chapter 1, The Visionary Kingdom, in which he asserts that The History of the Kings of Britain“. . . is the chief source for the Arthur of medieval literature (2),” the obvious implication being that the Arthur of medieval literature is not consistent with the historical Arthur. One of the editors even suggests that the heroic ruler was more of a marauding rogue. But this contention does not appear to have much more veracity than all of the others.
Writers have always kept the dream alive, so to speak. Both Alfred Lord Tennyson (The Idylls of the King) and T. H. White (The Once and Future King), are given due credit for rekindling enthusiasm in the Arthurian legends. The latter’s seminal work is credited not only with renewing national interest in the subject, but with inspiring the musical, Camelot, which was released in 1967, the year before The Quest for Arthur’s Britain was published. This itself does nothing to prove or disprove the reality of the mythical monarch.
The editors pay a lot of attention to clothing, tools, weapons, and especially pottery shards, attempting to unite these disparate pieces of an enormous, disjointed puzzle. These items were unearthed during excavations at various sites throughout England and Wales. Aside from sundry sketches nestled within the tiny text, the majority of images are black and white photographs, sandwiched between pages 84 and 85 and pages 148 and 149 of the narrative, respectively. Illustration 4 is an artifact purported to be the Round Table, but according to the editors, it dates to the 13th century. Ancient, yes, but not ancient enough to have belonged to a 6th century ruler. In the back of the book is a list, with credits, of the nearly 150 pictures. As fascinating as these exhumed relics may be, they show signs of settlement and civilization, but no clear proof that “King Arthur” was there.