A good legend takes at least a hundred years to establish itself. That’s because the heroics, magic and certainty that legends are made of aren’t real. It takes time for reality to die out and for the evidence to be buried where no one alive can find it.
That King Arthur was a Russian has always been a possible twist on the legend of the first great Briton. There have been many ethnic contenders for the role, because the Roman Empire managed to rule its far-flung provinces by ranging local ethnic groups against each other, and importing foreign ethnic troops, who didn’t like the locals, and whose only loyalty was to Rome. Thus, it’s possible the real Arthur, who lived in the middle of the fifth century, was a Celt from Ireland, a Pict from Scotland, a Roman leftover from the collapsing empire, or an Angle or Saxon from Europe.
What isn’t likely is the story, recently published in London and amplified here, that Arthur was a warlord from the Russian Caucasus. Part of the evidence offered for this version of Arthur is said to have been found in similarities of patterns and motifs in swords made by the Ossetian tribes; not to mention legends those tribes think of as their own.
Human beings and ethnic groups aren’t really so inventive that they can create something no one has thought of before. Matching Russian swords to Arthur’s Caliburn and Excalibur, his two best-known weapons, or to his spear called Ron, is easily done. Finding similarities between legends is even easier, because warlords everywhere claim to rule because of their prowess with arms.
The fact that the legends record Arthur single-handedly killed 470 men in one battle, 960 in another, doesn’t bring him any closer to the exploits recorded in the tales of the Ossetians. In legends, death is always plentiful – and usually merited.
Except for Arthur himself. There the parallels suddenly stop, for, according to the British legends, Arthur was never defeated in battle. Instead, he was overcome by the betrayal of those closest to him, including Guinevere, his love and queen. This is one version of his death. Another is that the magical sword and scabbard that protected him was counterfeited, and the original passed by his half-sister to her lover. Arthur couldn’t beat the magic and went down.
At the time of my life when I needed to believe in heroism and love, I searched the legendary sites, including Tintagel (Merlin’s tower), Glastonbury (Guinevere’s burial place) and South Cadbury (Camelot). I clambered through thickets to find ancient tors and mounds that might have been Arthurian forts and battle sites. I dug through the legends to the reality and back again.
No sign of any Russian relics then; none now. The Ossetians are understandably ambitious to have conquered a mythical world far to the west, before they fell to the very real Russians from the north. If legend is what is required, today’s Russians could do with a little transfer of the Arthurian story – in the reverse direction.
For one thing, Arthur was a nationalist of sorts, who succeeded in defeating the attempts of hostile foreigners (Picts, Angles, Saxons) from raiding the countryside. He managed that by building a coalition of tribal chiefs around himself. The trust that kept their fighting force together wasn’t magical. But it did depend on the loyalty of Arthur’s closest associates; and on the fact they were fighting on home territory against outsiders.
Arthur’s reputation has now survived 1,700 years, elaborated with magicians and magical weapons, beautiful women, a code of knightly ethics and everyone’s agreement on what they were all fighting for The Holy Grail is a fine symbol of that consensus. By turning it into the cup from which Jesus drank at his Last Supper, before his arrest, trial and crucifixion, the mythologists of Arthur have created the kind of consensus that, as Christians, they imagined could never be upset. Of course, they admitted that symbol was next to impossible to find.
But the reality, when Arthur was fighting for it, was that he knew how to cut, and whom. He also realized he didn’t have much time.
In Russia today, there is a legend that President Vladimir Putin knows how to cut, and whom. It has yet to be demonstrated in real battle, however. The raiding that daily takes place for the cash flows of national television and advertising, over steel mills, aluminum smelters, electricity plants, automobile factories and copper mines shows the president standing apart, his hands by his side.
Those are not Roman tactics, nor Arthur’s. When the sword was needed in Primoriye, did Putin cut, or did he feint? When the defense export sales organization Rosvooruzheniye required a cleanup, did Putin cut, or did he parry? There are dozens of such questions, and no answer that is clear.
The legend of Arthur’s victories has persisted because it ignores what Arthur really fought for and because that victory didn’t last long. Arthur the Briton fought for the independence of his people in the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of Roman troops in 410, after the imperial administration in Rome conceded it could not protect the island.
The revolts and raids of the Picts and the Saxons gained force in the years that followed, and the Britons began to lose the towns they had created during Roman protection. Around the year 500, the Britons won their greatest victory at Badon Hill, forcing the Saxons to remain in their enclaves on the east coast.
Some say Arthur led the battle of Badon Hill. But no one mentions that, in a generation, the Saxons broke out, and all that Arthur had fought for was lost, except for Wales.
Nationalists like the legend of Arthur, but not the ending. People with a serious interest in the fates of nations don’t believe in magic.