rusq: Vol. 51 Issue 1: p. 70
Sources: Arthurian Figures of History and Legend: A Biographical Dictionary
Tammy J. Eschedor Voelker, David W. Wilson

David W. Wilson, Information Literacy Coordinator, Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas

Arthurian Figures of History and Legend: A Biographical Dictionary is a unique and ambitious reference work which attempts to fuse serious analysis of the complex historical strands and controversies which lie behind the Arthurian legends with a ready reference format that is immediately accessible to students and general readers.

The approach is sometimes problematic because author Reno’s treatment of Arthurian figures is colored throughout by a secondary agenda—to pose his own theories about the origins of Arthur in history and to re-examine instances of conflated personalities in Geoffrey of Monmouth and other sources that may mistakenly point toward the existence of a historic Arthur in fifth century Britain. Reno has written two previous monographs on the subject, The Historic King Arthur (McFarland, 1996) and Historic Figures of the Arthurian Era (McFarland, 2000), both of which explore the vast terrain of Arthurian scholarship and lead him toward his own conclusions. In many ways, his new work is a supplement to his previous scholarship, providing an overview of many of the key sources and debates.

The work is composed of some four hundred biographical entries devoted to a range of figures, including major characters in the legendary cycle, such as Merlin and Mordred, obscure warriors mentioned in the chronicles of Nennius and Bede, as well as the key historians and authors themselves. For example, there are entries devoted to Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétian de Troyes, as well as to William Caxton, the printer of an early edition of Malory, and the obscure fourteenth-century Benedictine monk, Ranulf Higden, who was skeptical that Arthur had existed. For clarity, Reno selects the most common occurrence of a name as the heading for an entry and then lists many of the variants readers are likely to encounter. Entries are fairly substantial, ranging in length from one paragraph to several pages of discussion, with an emphasis throughout on origins, historical sources, and the textual controversies at the heart of the historic Arthur debate. Figures such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, Riothamus, and Lucius Artorius Castus, which are certainly unfamiliar to general readers, are given considerable attention since they figure heavily within Reno’s own scholarship into the historicity of Arthur. Students seeking context in such a dense, unfamiliar body of literature may sometimes find Reno’s voice to be somewhat idiosyncratic. The entry on Riothamus, for example, ends with a point by point refutation of some of contemporary scholar Geoffrey Ashe’s assertions about the historical Arthur.

Several earlier reference works may be more accessible to college students and general readers seeking a foundation in Arthurian studies. Editor Norris J. Lacy’s The New Arthurian Encyclopedia (Garland, 1996) remains one of the standard reference works, providing brief authoritative entries by over a hundred contributors, and embracing history, literature, archaeology, theater, and film. Charles and Ruth Moorman’s The Arthurian Dictionary (University Press of Mississippi, 1978) is a slim, ready reference volume which treats hundreds of historical and legendary figures, but entries are extremely brief snapshots, providing a mere line or two of context for each personality. The Moorman dictionary also pre-dates some of the recent developments in the debate over Arthur’s historicity. Christopher W. Bruce’s The Arthurian Name Dictionary (Garland, 1999), which is composed of some 5600 entries, is both thorough and accessible, but its focus is exclusively on legendary figures.

Arthurian Figures of History and Legend may be the only contemporary biographical reference work that thoroughly analyzes and evaluates the historic sources that lie behind the Arthur stories. To its credit, the work does not provide the broad strokes and thumbnail synopses that students might easily find elsewhere; it is dense and detailed, and assumes some level of familiarity with the essentials. It is also sometimes provocative in its assertions, which may or may not be appropriate for a work of this kind. This work is recommended for both undergraduate and graduate library collections.

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