Witch Week Day Five: The Discovery of King Arthur (Guest Post)

Another blogger who responded to my call for Witch Week posts was Katie of Doing Dewey, who reads and reviews all kinds of books but has a particular love for nonfiction. Along with posting several book reviews from various genres every week she runs a weekly feature, Nonfiction Friday, where you can get the latest nonfiction news, share your posts about nonfiction books, and find other readers who love nonfiction. Katie is also one of my fellow co-hosts for Nonfiction November, currently taking place this month.

She offered to review The Discovery of King Arthur by Geoffrey Ashe (first published in 1985), and though she can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, it does sound like it contains many fascinating facts that invite further exploration. Read on for an intriguing preview…


The Discovery of King Arthur

By Katie Wilkins

The Arthur legend has captivated people since at least the middle ages and continues to fascinate us today. From new bookish retellings to TV shows, this is a story people tell again and again. In The Discovery of King Arthur, historian Geoffrey Ashe explores the possibility that a historical figure inspired the myth and considers what cultural factors give this myth its enduring appeal.

For me, the experience of reading this book was hit or miss — 3 of 5 stars. Sometimes the author would share a relevant snippet of history, told in narrative form. Those bits could be extremely entertaining. They read like a story and often contained delightful, absurd anecdotes that made me laugh. Other parts that focused on the dissection of old texts were too dry for me. I’d definitely not recommend this book as a first experience with nonfiction, for fear it might put people off the genre. However, if you’re willing to persevere through some dry sections to learn more about an intriguing topic, this could be the book for you.

To give you an idea of what you might expect, I’ll leave you with some of the fun facts that stuck with me from this book. No spoilers on the answer to the question of Arthur’s basis in reality 🙂

  • The same text that is the source of many key parts of the Arthur myth also inspired Shakespeare’s Lear
  • Vortigern, a villain of the Arthurian legend, did have some roots in history, although Vortigern was not a name. Rather, it is Celtic for “overking”
  • The author suggests that the Arthur legend was born out of a 5th century hope for a “world restorer’, someone who would rebuild the empire. This constant hope led one poet to write hyperbolic paeans to no fewer than 3 emperors he thought were ‘the one’ in his lifetime.
  • One of the sources referenced by the main text this book analyzes was written by a monk who wrote a little bit about history, but was mostly just grumpy about how politicians in his day were ruining everything.
  • Scholars were debating when/if Arthur lived as early as the 13th century
  • Some authors, such as T.H. White, opposed the search for a historical basis for the Arthur myth on the grounds that it would reduce a great story to a disappointing reality

And there’s more where that came from, so if you enjoyed those tidbits, consider picking up The Discovery of King Arthur to learn more!

Katie’s blog bio says, “I love reading in every genre, but my favorites lately have been nonfiction, historical fiction, and literary fiction. I’m particularly passionate about nonfiction because I feel like the genre doesn’t get enough love from readers, even though there are nonfiction books to suit any interest. When I’m not blogging, you’ll find me playing computer games with friends, going on hikes, working as a computational biologist, and doing photography.”

9 thoughts on “Witch Week Day Five: The Discovery of King Arthur (Guest Post)

  1. Katie, this review is such a tease! You’ve given us a few hints about the content of this book without spelling out his main argument, meaning readers new to this subject will have to make the effort to read it themselves! And of course, Ashe’s reasoning is so complex it’s hard to encapsulate it in a short review and therefore wise not to try.

    I sympathise. I was sent, through the author’s efforts, his original academic piece and then an ARC of this book and my reviews addressed an informed audience. I shudder to think how I’d have presented it to a general readership, so I think your solution is the best way to go. 🙂

    Having said which, I’ve just revisited those reviews of thirty-odd years ago; I think, with a bit of judicious commentary and editing, that I could blog Ashe’s arguments in a more coherent way than I did back then, so thanks for the stimulus! I’ll just add, however, that his theory on who Arthur could have been met with more acceptance in North America than in Europe, if my memory serves me right.


    1. Oh, how fun! It would be very interesting to see the original academic work next to the book to compare. If you do write a blog post about, I’d be excited to read what you have to say, especially since this seems far more in your realm of expertise than mine. Thanks for commenting!


  2. What are the odds that I will come across the mention of Vortigern on the same day I first googled about it? (Reading a book currently that mentions Cadeyrn) Crazy!
    Love that cover though, even if it’s 3/5 🙂
    It’s an interesting topic to speculate about though. Maybe I should consider reading it one day.


  3. I went through a period during and after college when I read everything about the historical Arthur I could get my hands on (which was less than is available now.) Ashe was one of the few scholars doing serious work on the subject at the time, and I read his books with much interest, including this one. When my mother and I designed a tour of Arthurian Britain for her small, one-woman tour company, she was able to persuade Professor Ashe to come speak to our group twice, once in Tintagel and once in Wales. It was quite an experience to wander around Tintagel with him.


    1. Even now, I didn’t feel like I had all that many options when I went looking for nonfiction about Arthur, so was I was really glad to have found Ashe’s book. I can’t imagine getting to walk around Tintagel with him! That sounds like a very unique experience.


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