Tuesday 25 September 2018

More on the matter of Britain

                                             More Scottish elements in Arthurian legends...

An extended comment on my previous post from Aelianus deserves more than a combox reply:

I don't understand the statement "in Arthurian legend, Scotland is rather marginal". A great swathe of the major characters in the legend are from the part of Britain that would later become Scotland: Sir Gawain of Orkney and Lothian, his father King Lot (after whom Lothian is supposed to be named), his brothers Sir Agravain, Sir Gaheris, Sir Gareth and Sir Mordredhis their sister St Teneu and her son St Mungo founder of Glasgow. King Urien of Rheged and his son Sir Ywain. These are hardly marginal figures in the story. The earliest reference to Arthur is in Y Gododdin the oldest literary work deriving from the area of modern Scotland. What the Arthurian tales point to is that this territory is more fundamentally and originally British than it is Scottish just as they draw attention to the antecedent Britishness of Lloegyr. The evidence in that film that there was no Anglo-Saxon invasion proves no such thing. It simply points to the fact that Saxons had been raiding the province of Britannia for many centuries, that much of the territory was unprepared to resist and that they never (even after the conquest) made up more than a minority of the population (like any military aristocracy).

First, thanks for the response. One of the ways in which myths and deep stories about nations and landscapes work is by provoking discussion and disagreement: what we are doing here is in part a tribute to that depth and abding importance.

Turning to the specific points raised, I'll begin by repeating my (incomplete) reply in the combox:

You'll note that, in context, the 'statement' is not left unchallenged.

In addition to the points in the blog post, I'd add: 1) whatever the potential for developing the 'Scottish' elements within the Matter, my impression (and I accept that discerning the cultural force of narratives is a tricky business) is that generally this has not been done. The Arthurian cycle is predominantly felt as a Southern English narrative, probably centred in Winchester or Glastonbury. (The only quick evidence I can provide for this is that I've put into the blog: that reworkings that emphasise Scottish elements are presented as self consciously revisionist.)

In short, I don't think the Arthurian legends are as central to the Scottish mythos as they are to the English one. (I put aside the Welsh case simply because it has complexities which I'm simply not able to do justice to.) My main basis for that is simply a factual claim: when one thinks of the legends and stories that have been told and retold over the years, Scottish writers have tended not to concentrate on Arthur in the same way that English ones have. (As a factual claim, it is of course open to challenge and I'd be particularly interested if anyone could point me in the direction of scholarly literature on the use of the Matter of Britain in pre-modern Scotland.) Certainly, taking Professor Roberts' film as itself a reperformance of the Matter of Britain, that  didn't have much to say about Scotland. (And of the others I mentioned in the original blogpost, all have Scotland literally on the margins, as the stories are located in the Borders.)

Now if that empirical observation is true, then the next question is why that might be true? What might cause that lack of attention? That's quite a big discussion, but some elements spring to mind immediately. First, the struggle between Saxon and Briton is not even plausibly as central to Scottish narrative identity as it is to English. Moreover, that sense of two peoples' clashing is repeated again and again in English history in a way that it isn't in Scottish. (One thinks here especially of the clash between Norman and Saxon for which, I'd speculate, the Arthurian clash between Briton and Saxon often functions as a (safer) imaginative replacement.) For Scotland, the clash is between (at least) Irish, British, Pictish and Saxon identities, with nothing like the complete replacement of Brittonic by English until the relatively modern domination of English over Gaelic (and note then it is Goidelic Gaelic, not the Brittonic of Arthur). Secondly, the political centrality of the various tensions between the identities of British/French, Welsh/British and Romanitas/barbarian which are central to much of the Arthurian cycle are arguably less central to Scotland. For example, there is the absence of the Edward I's and the Tudor need to find a location for Welshness within the English vision of royal power. Finally, there is the availability of alternative, more powerful mythoi: that of the struggle of Scotland against England (The Brus/Braveheart); that of the struggle of Gael against Lowlander (Scott).

Now I don't know how much of that (speculation) would ultimately be defensible. But perhaps the biggest absence in the Arthurian cycle is of the tension between Gael and Saxon: as Aelianus points out, the 'Scottish' element in the cycle is confined mostly to Southern Scotland and the Kingdom of Strathclyde: as noted above, Scotland literally is marginal to the imaginary of the cycle as being predominantly confined to the Southern Borders. Moreover, as medieval Scotland viewed itself as Scottish (ie Goidelic), a narrative that marginalised that identity would be unlikely to have much purchase:

Most Holy Father and Lord, we know and from the chronicles and books of the ancients we find that among other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown.
They journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous.
Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live today.
The Britons they first drove out, the Picts they utterly destroyed, and, even though very often assailed by the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, they took possession of that home with many victories and untold efforts; and, as the historians of old time bear witness, they have held it free of all bondage ever since.
(From the Declaration of Arbroath 1320 here. Emphases mine.)
The key point of the original blogpost was this: Scotland (like all nations) needs an imaginative (mythic) engagement with its past. Certainly as performed in Roberts' programme, there was nothing that seemed able to contribute to that imaginative engagement except by way of absence. To point that our, as Angus MacNeil did, is simply fair comment.
So my main plea is that both Unionists and Nationalists think more deeply about the stories they want to tell and the myths they would use. Perhaps the Matter of Britain can provide such basis: if so, please get on with it. (The general importance of good myth like the Matter of Britain is that it allows the interpenetration of many competing values and experiences: Arthur, for example, deals with personal tragedy (adultery), political tragedy (civil war) and the supernatural end of man (the Quest for the Grail). Braveheart on the whole just deals with thumping invaders over the head.) My suspicions remain that, for the various reasons adumbrated, the Matter of Britain is not up to that task of deepening the imaginative construction of Scotland.
But that leaves open the question of what is up to that task. And really, we have to do better than  'the UK is lovely and Nicola Sturgeon is a tosser' or 'The Tories eat babies and everything was awful in the past and will be great in the future'...

[On the issue of whether the Saxons invaded or came bringing trinkets and culture -I have no view.]


  1. Actually, we do have the Middle Scots Gologras and Gawain, but that poem is not actually seen as central to the dominant tradition of Scottish literature, which, I guess, rather illustrates Lazarus' point.

    A random thought: maybe another reason for the non-appearance of a Scottish Malory or Tennyson is that a confident Unionist and British Scotland would possibly have already have felt some 'ownership' of their Arthurian legends and not felt the need to attempt to emulate them.

    Lazarus, have you read William Ferguson's The Identity of the Scottish Nation (1998)? It covers many of the themes you raise in these posts and does help to explain that complex Scottish uniqueness.

    1. I think that random thought is a highly plausible one! (And thank you for the book recommendation: I've just ordered it as a result!)

  2. The reason the Arthurian legends are aboriginally British is because they come before the four nations. The Scots and the English are migrants who took over their territories (with what degree of violence is disputed) and changed their languages but the people of these islands are overwhelming the original British population that preceded these migrations. The Arthurian Britain is as much if not more a disquieting prior and higher claim upon the identity, soil and soul of the 'English' as it is of the 'Scots'. The only people for whom it is pure affirmation are the Welsh. Even for them it is a reminder that they are not simply a different country and people to the English. 'England' i.e. Lloegyr is their country too and its people are Britons (i.e. Welshmen) who have forgotten their language. The centrality of Arthuriana to English folklore is testimony to the fact that the English are not English their very tales are Welsh resistance stories. There are, I believe, no known folk tales that survived into the modern era by oral transmission in England that are of Anglo-Saxon origin they are all British. People seldom reflect on the fact that the 'national' myth of the 'English' ends with an anti-English resistance hero being taken off to a magic island to recover from his wounds so he can one day return and drive the English into the sea! I remember being slightly disturbed by this as a child and thinking I ought to learn Welsh. I was visiting Dunnottar Castle once (note the Welsh name) and realized that the other people standing beside me on the edge of the cliff were speaking Welsh and worried that the moment had come! (Fortunately they were just tourists from Pembrokeshire). The stories of 'Scotland' and 'England' overlie the more primitive and fundamental narrative of Britain. This is why the Arthurian legend is always disquieting. A King of Orkney paid homage to Claudius long before Fergus or Hadrian, the earliest Kings in Scotland bore a Red Dragon as their banner and several of them were called Constantine. The earliest liturgical texts for St Mungo call Scotland 'Kambria'. In Gaelic 'Scotland' is called Alba which means Albion i.e. it is an Irish name for the entire island of Great Britain not for 'Scotland'. 'Picti' means 'painted' just as Briton does. This is not a coincidence. The Picts were just the unromanised Britons. The largest cities in Scotland have Welsh names Dunedin, Glascau, Dundee, Aberdeen. Arthur is like the Byzantine architecture of Westminster Cathedral, a reminder and a warning to the complacent occupying national constructs that beneath their feet something older and deeper sleeps, something which saw the commencement of all the 'nationalities' that now exist in these islands and will one day see the end of them. "Recalcitrant tribes heard; orthodox wisdom sprang in Caucasia and Thule; the glory of the Emperor stretched to the ends of the world..."


    1. OK. That's too good a comment not to reflect on rather than directly reply to.

      (More as a mental note to self though: there is something more to be said about the chthonic or even the autochthonic. (And I'm thinking here of Arthur Machen, and the folklore of Picts as mysterious dwarfs.) It's noteworthy I think that many of the modern reworkings of Arthur and particularly Merlin do emphasise the (Southern) Scottish origins -almost I suspect as Ultima Thule: beyond the borders of the known/civilised/Christian world. Merlin's ancestry as fathered by the devil is perhaps relevant here.)

      Anyway, it all serves to emphasise the richness of the Matter. Perhaps my main criticism of Roberts' film is that it seemed a) to be claiming to examine a story which was key to our self-understanding but b)failed to do justice to the (modern) four or five nations in the UK. There is a story of *us* there, but that wasn't it.