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Book Review: The Real King Arthur (P.F.J. Turner) : BH

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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THE REAL KING ARTHUR
In one of the early Sherlock Holmes stories, the consulting detective explains deductive reasoning to Dr. Watson by saying thatanyone of common intelligence can anticipate the outcome of a particular set of circumstances, but that his own talent wasrarer: re-creating the original circumstances using the final result as evidence. In brief, that is what P. F. J. Turner sets out to do in THE REAL KING ARTHUR.

As every devot?e of Arthurian lore will know, Turner is hardly the first to hunt for the historical truth behind the Arthur legends. Like all who have preceded him, he faces a daunting task, because the medieval chronicles from which the Arthur saga grewcontain inaccuracies, contradictions, anachronisms, and just plain fantasy. But more than most, Turner believes that theserecords are fundamentally reliable. Where they differ from known fact or reasonable probability, Turner postulates, thediscrepancy is due not to intentional fabrication for the purpose of deifying ancient heroes or teaching a moral lesson, butsimply because medieval writers did not have an accurate conception of the customs, language, and history of previous agesand therefore made some erroneous assumptions.

Like Holmes, Turner believes we can uncover the facts that inspired the medieval writers by understanding theirmisconceptions and prejudices. Combining deductive reasoning with findings of fairly recent archaeological discoveries, hereconstructs a surprisingly complex and detailed history of post-Roman Britain from 410 AD to the birth of Arthur, which heplaces at about 455 AD, and on through the 6th century.

Along the way, Turner identifies such key literary and historical figures as Merlin, Guinevere, Sir Kay, Riothamus, and UtherPendragon (his theory about the character Lancelot is especially surprising), and provides detailed accounts of the nearlyendless military campaigns between the Briton heirs to Roman Britannia, Anglo-Saxons, Picts, Irish, and assorted other'barbarian' invaders.

Just how closely The Real King Arthur comes to the story of the real Arthur will be a matter for debate among scholars.Whereas most researchers scour ancient documents in an effort to find a known person that best fits the legends, Turnertheorizes what the king's real name was likely to have been, and how the key events of his rule must have unfolded, regardlessof whether or not such details found their way into the few surviving records. There is, of course, an inherent danger in usingthis approach. A given set of circumstances is likely to have but a single probable outcome, but the reverse is often not true.There may be many, many ways of explaining how the Arthur story took its present form. Turner's version seemsreasonable–indeed very satisfying in large part–but his conclusions are not the only ones possible.

Still, The Real Arthur is one of the most exciting and thought-provoking treatments of the age of Arthur to yet appear, and no one who revels in Arthurian lore should be without it.

The Real King Arthur: A History of Post-Roman Britannia, AD 410 to AD 593, by P. F. J. Turner, published by SKSPublishing Company, 1406 West 12th Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska. $29.95 Paperback.

Bruce Heydt

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