Inga Bryden, Reinventing King Arthur: The Arthurian Legends in Victorian Culture (Ashgate, 2005). £40.00. pp. 182. ISBN: 1-84014-619-2.
'Arthur inhabits the realm where the borders of national, cultural and mythological identities overlap.' Thus starts Bryden's book on the figuring of Arthur in Victorian culture, a study of the cultural politics of the ancient King, whose career became significant for its epic and definingly 'English' nature for the history-driven Victorians. Bryden's main contention is that Arthur as a symbolic figure was not constrained to the province of the PreRaphaelites and Tennysonian Medievalism of the period, but, rather, diverse writers and artists, designers and illustrators, latched onto him as a cultural icon. Her book is, she argues, a broader analysis than previous critics have produced, covering a range of literary, periodical, and artistic renderings of the legends, in the context of a widespread Arthurian Revival.
The book commences with a sweeping summary of earlier Arthurian literature, from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory to the Romantics, before getting into the grist of the study in Chapter 2, which considers the King as an historical figure amongst Victorian scholars. The chapter focuses on three historical texts, by little known academics of the period: Algernon Herbert, W. Blake Odgers, and J.R. Clarke - seeing their histories of Arthur as representative of the debates about the staus of the King: legend or fact. This chapter is widely researched, erudite, and thoughtful, but it is also largely descriptive and Bryden is better when she comes onto the more imaginative transformations of the subject. Bryden's central thesis is that, occupying a space between myth and histry, Arthur appealed to a wider range of popular and literary writers because of the freedom his stories provided. The lack of real historical details enabled a more imaginative engagement; but, even more, the stories stood outside of an aristocratic educative tradition and were not thus constricted in the way that, she argues, Classical myth was. She also provides compelling argument for seeing the Arthurian Revival in the context of a growing British archaeological record, including digs at Glastonbury, that were reinterpreting British history.
Bryden covers alot of ground in the book: her literary researches take her from Bulwer-Lytton's King Arthur (1848), which she ties to ethnology and geology, and the establishing of an English national identity (whilst acknowledging the emergence of a Celtic figure), through 'Owen Meredith', Morris, Arnold, Tennyson and Swinburne. Alongside these big names, she looks at texts such as Dinah Craik's 'Avillion, or, The Happy Isles' and George Du Maurier's satire on PreRaphealitism, The Legend of Camelot. The readings are placed against cultural assumptions about the Victorians' attitudes to class, chivalry and service, marriage and purity, place and the commemoration of the dead. This is a useful and well-researched book, if not always providing as full an analysis of the texts as it might have. In some ways the book tries to cover too much, and sweeps aside contentious points that could have been profitably explored: for example, Classical myth was far from being the province of the well-educated as any venture into a popular theatre would demonstrate, and perhaps the purpose of Arthur is not so different from that of many other heroic and legendary characters.
Richard Pearson (University of Worcester)
For more details, see the Ashgate website