The Discovery Behind The Retreat to Avalon

Hi folks! 2020 is behind us and let’s hope that 2021 is much better. It started well for me because after watching the ball drop and kissing my lovely bride, we went to bed. Three hours later, I woke up, impelled to get to the keyboard. By 10 am I had finished the first draft of The Strife of Camlann, the sequel to The Retreat to Avalon! That final period on a draft is a big deal to a writer.

There’s a lot more work to do. Multiple rounds of editing, adding the maps and illustrations, as well as cover design and preparing it for ebook and print publishing. I’m giving it a rest for a few weeks before I really get into the process.

In the meantime, it occurred to me that I have not really laid out where the premise of the series comes from. Good grief! I talk about it all the time in person, and also in the author’s notes in the book, but it’s time to explain it here, because future articles are based on it.

You see, when I was a senior in high school, I had to write a paper in English class, and I had no idea what to write about. I wandered around the library until the librarian (I wish I remembered her name so I could thank her) handed me a book she said I might like. She was right.

That book was The Discovery of King Arthur by Geoffrey Ashe, MBE, FRSL, a historian from the UK.

At that point in my life, I knew a bit about King Arthur, the Knights of the Roundtable and so forth. I loved Tolkien’s books and the Thieves’ World series. I had played Dungeons and Dragons when I was much younger and loved Boorman’s 1981 film, Excalibur. History was my favorite subject in school, but I didn’t know much about the Dark Ages, and based on the common view at the time, thought King Arthur was nothing more than a story.

Mr. Ashe’s book fascinated me and opened up a whole new world of history to explore. My mistaken image of King Arthur had been of a king of England wearing shining plate-armor. I pictured Camelot as a great stone castle and knew nothing of the early legends of Vortigern and Hengist. My grandparents had actually given me an antique copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, but I had never given it much thought.

From Mr. Ashe, I first learned that the well-known stories about King Arthur are the Middle-Ages version of novels, known as ‘Romances’, but that they were based on much older Welsh and Breton legends. If I was disappointed to find there was no Lancelot or Quest for the Holy Grail, I was excited to discover more colorful heroes and greater clashes in these older legends. What’s more, in The Discovery of King Arthur, I learned that the legends of Arthur very likely have some basis in history.

Geoffrey Ashe

Geoffrey Ashe is an alum of Cambridge University and the University of British Columbia. In 1963 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2012, Queen Elizabeth II made him a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to heritage. He’s published dozens of books and articles and lectured around the world. He was involved with the famous excavations of Cadbury Castle with C. A. Ralegh Radford and Leslie Alcock. He now lives in Glastonbury, Somerset, with his lovely wife, Patricia, a former professor.

In The Discovery of King Arthur, Ashe describes many of the arguments for and against a historical King Arthur, as well as different ideas of who a historical King Arthur may have been. While the traditional King Arthur is most certainly a composite of different legends and even people, Ashe shows that there is reason to believe that, beneath centuries of layered legends and lost history, a man named Arthur existed who was the basis for all those later stories. Even better, Ashe shows how those legends, stories and actual historical documents actually point to a specific person, in a specific time, associated with specific events and known historical people.

We know more about the “Dark Ages” (roughly speaking, the fifth and sixth centuries, otherwise known as Sub-Roman Britain) than most people think. It was not a time of brutish ignorance and destruction. It was a transition period that set the stage for the emergence of the Medieval period. (I explain why I like the term ‘Dark Ages’, here.)

We have precious few surviving documents from Britain in this time period, but we have more from continental sources. Many documents from this time period have been lost, some of which we know about because other writers of the time talked about them.

Around 1136, a British cleric named Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote The History of the Kings of Britain. It’s mostly made up of collected legends and he likely filled the gaps with his own inventions. But it does contain actual history, however distorted by time and lost details. He claimed that he wrote the book by translating a “certain very ancient book written in the British language”. There is reason to believe such a book may have existed.

While there are much older references to Arthur in writing and poetry, they are fragmentary and obscure. The History of the Kings of Britain is the first surviving work to layout the story of King Arthur. It bears little resemblance to the later Romances, though a few details are there, such as members of Arthur’s court, his conception at Tintagel, the final, disastrous battle with Mordred, and a place called Avalon. More importantly, it talks about King Arthur engaging in wars on the Continent.

Illumination from 15th century manuscript of The History of the Kings of Britain,
showing Merlin and Vortigern and the prophecy of the dragons.

Most people have dismissed this as something Geoffrey of Monmouth invented. But as Geoffrey Ashe points out in his book, there are some compelling reasons to believe there is history behind this story. Just as Geoffrey of Monmouth garbled the history of the invasion and subjugation of Britain by the Romans, it seems he had garbled the history of Arthur’s exploits in Gaul (France).

Geoffrey Ashe used what he called “lateral thinking” to look at the legends, history and evidence with fresh eyes. I’m not going to make his many arguments here; they will be sprinkled throughout future posts. If you are interested, I highly recommend reading his book. It’s very well written and won’t bore and confuse casual readers in the way that many academic writings do.

I’m going to wrap up by saying that Mr. Ashe’s book made me delve into all the ancient references, stories and archaeological and linguistic details. I’ve learned a lot of fascinating things along this journey and dug into the various arguments for and against every theory of Arthur and who he may have been. People debate about Arthur, often vociferously, but unless a miracle happens and we find some irrefutable bit of proof, every argument comes down to one’s own interpretation of the scant evidence available.

However, to this day, I have never found a better argument than the one offered by Geoffrey Ashe. After years of wishing someone would write a novel, or make a movie based on the amazing story of Arthur that Mr. Ashe describes, it finally occurred to me to try. At the very least, it would be an interesting research project to see if it was possible. And I think I’ve shown that it was.

I’ve been so blessed by the kind encouragement of Mr. & Mrs. Ashe, and you can only imagine how it felt to receive this review by Mr. Ashe, himself:

Avalon, so the story goes, is a mythic place where King Arthur fades from view after his last battle. But in his ground-breaking novel The Retreat to Avalon, Sean Poage tells us otherwise. Avalon, he says, is a real location on the map, and a real Arthur did go there. We can even fix the date.

Firmly based on historical and archaeological research, the story depicts a post-Roman Britain still preserving a tenuous unity under a charismatic leader: Arthur, the High King. As an ally of one of the later Roman emperors, he leads an army of Britons overseas. The author re-imagines the warfare of the time with authentic detail. Apart from the war, he skillfully reconstructs the ordinary life of the people of Britain, with much information about their food, their clothing, their buildings, their religion. He also gives credible glimpses of a place in Britain destined to inspire, long after, the romance of Camelot.

Told through a group of vivid characters, The Retreat to Avalon brilliantly opens up a world which historical research has only recently begun to discover.

– Geoffrey Ashe, MBE FRSL, historian and author of The Discovery of King Arthur

Mr. Ashe gives me credit for the things I learned from him, but writing a novel that does his work justice is my greatest honor. Thanks for stopping by, feel free to comment, and have a very happy and prosperous new year.

My visit with Geoffrey Ashe in Glastonbury, 2016

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