Top positive review
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Superb overview of post-Roman Britain
on March 13, 2005
This is a very thorough and unbiased study of the post Roman period in England and, ultimately, Europe. While Professor Snyder says neither "nay" nor "yea" to Arthur's objective reality, he does bring out the very real effect the legend has had on people world wide and through out time.
Instead of dwelling on the insolvable problem of Arthur's existence, a contention that has too little data to clarify it, Snyder covers the archaeological and written records of the period, subjecting both to a critical analysis. He does this, however, to create for the reader a sense of the time in which a person like King Arthur might have lived. The types of political, military and social events with which he would have had to contend, and the nature of power and of place in society are discussed using what material is available.
With respect to the written material, Snyder discuses a number of problems confronting historians. The contemporaneity of these sources with their subject--or lack thereof--is thoroughly described for the reader. As with Biblical studies or biographies of Alexander the Great and other early people, many of the sources are very much later, even centuries later, than their subject. The introduction of an author's opinions and cultural biases, let alone their own agendas, may well distort any real information that he had at his disposal. Snyder makes this very apparent by discussing these authors and the events of their own time with respect to their "take" on Arthur and his life. Hagiography, the use of biography as a source of moral teachings or for other purposes, is a legitimate writing technique but not good history. An early author might also read too uncritically the material of his predecessor, and thus passed on as fact--probably after further distortion--stories that had no basis in fact to begin with. The task of "getting at" any core material that may exist becomes almost impossible, and such documents are rightly used with great care.
Snyder also discusses the effect of the cultural biases of modern day students of Arthur. Every culture has a Gestalt of its own, one of which the practitioners of the culture are not always aware, and what such a student perceives in written sources and artifactual evidence is filtered through this world view. Arthur therefore becomes something different for each culture and even for each culture at different times in its history. The author makes this point by discussing the changes in the Arthuriana that occurred in France and England and even throughout the world through time. He even discusses the variations in the Arthurian story that appear in modern cinematic presentations--the bards of our own time--in different countries and in different decades and how these interpretations are borrowed for various contemporary purposes. The Kennedy era "Camelot" is a case in point for modern US history.
With respect to the archaeological material Professor Snyder notes the effect of climate and geology on preservation, lack of research into key sites, misinterpretation of sites and data by earlier excavators, the biases of excavators, the effect of cultural orientation of excavators, recent improvement of excavation technology, etc. More than anything, the lack of any concrete data makes putting a definite "paid" to the task of identifying an individual Arthur a difficult one. The various stories surrounding sites associated with the legend through time, while lending the spice of intrigue and mystery to the Arthur legend, provide little material evidence of his having existed there at all. Even suggesting probabilities one way or the other are not really possible based on the data.
One thing the author does and does thoroughly for those who "really want to believe" is present an excellent overview of the individuals who might have served as a prototype for Arthur if not the man himself. He points out events in the lives of these historical individuals that might connect each with later legends and suggests that a composite of their personal characteristics and/or of their deeds may have gone into the creation of the legendary figure.
Whether Arthur or someone like him existed, the myths surrounding the character certainly have had far greater impact on the world's societies than any real person could have had. In short according to the author, it hardly makes a difference whether he existed or not so potent has his legend became. Snyder traces the impact of Arthur throughout history, surprising the reader with the vastness of his contribution to the world's people. Even the modern concept of romantic love is ascribed to the evolution of his legends in Mediaeval Europe.
This is a very enjoyable book.