From Scythia to Camelot

From Scythia to Camelot, Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, Routledge, 2000 (revised ed.)

Colarusso: Nart Sagas of the Caucasus, Princeton, 2002.

Bachrach: History of the Alans in the West, Minnesota, 1973.

Darko, E., “Influences Touraniennes Sur l’Evolution de l’Art Militaire des Grecs, des Romans, et des Byzantins”, Byzantion #10, 1935.

“The Secret History of the Mongols and Western Literature“, John Emerson

This book argues that many of the main themes of the Arthurian legend can be traced back to the myths of the Alans — Northern Iranian nomads whose cavalry units served in the late Roman military. This kind of thing is right down my alley, and I mentioned this book in an earlier piece without having read it yet. A strong case can be made that the equestrian military forms and equipage of the medieval European aristocracy can be traced back to Alanic antecedents from the early Dark Ages, and this book merely extends this case to the literary culture of chivalry.

The methodology is philological, pre-structuralist, and pre-postmodern. The easy way out would be to follow Levi-Strauss or Deleuze and read it as mere proliferation — just another version of the myth, no truer than any other and part of a long series beginning with the Breton poets, Wace, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory, et. al. and ending with T.H. White and Lerner and Loewe. (Alan Lerner, as it happens.)

But what Littleton and Malcor want to do is just the opposite: they’re saying that in actual fact, the Arthurian legends (which have always been set in the distant past) came into existence within the mixed Alano-Celto-Roman elites holding out in Britain and Brittany after 400 A.D. or so (at which time the legends referred back to a Roman soldier of two centuries earlier). Beyond that, they argue that those themes in the Briton-Breton legends which are shared with the Nart sagas of the Ossetes in the Caucasus (descendents of the Alans and of the Scythians) can ultimately be traced back to the pre-Roman steppe, rather than to Britain or Brittany.

Students of myth always seem to start out looking for mystery, only to end up with brute empirical heaps of variants and resemblances thinly organized around tendentious and uncompelling theories. (I’m thinking of Frazer, Campbell, Eliade, and Eberhardt.) But Littleton and Malcor anchor their argument in the specifics of history, rather than trying to discover the essence of myth, and this keeps them from being swamped that way.*

There’s a lot of conjecture in this book — “may” and “might” and “probably” and “perhaps” — and someone looking for the proofs of science will throw it down pretty early on, but if you think of the argument as a web of mutually-reinforcing arguments rather than a chain which must hold at every step, with arguments ruling some things out while showing the possibility or probability of others, the book’s methodology seems basically OK. The historical presence of the Alans in Britain and Gaul during that period and their importance in military history are well-established, and the argument that the Ossetian and medieval European themes can both be traced back to steppe antecedents (rather than one being influenced by the other, or both of them tracing back to a more distant Indo-European source) is by far the most reasonable one.

The authors’ treatment of ethnicity is a bit off in a way that can lead to problems. Nineteenth-century scholars looked for racial-linguistic-cultural essences, preferably in pure forms, and these authors don’t seem to have freed themselves entirely from that way of thinking. It’s always best to think of the peoples of history first as particular historical-geographical social-military-political units, and to relate them to their antecedents and descendants only after their particularity has been understood. Thus, while the languages of the Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, and Ossetes were very similar, and while they were all in some sense kin, what these names really do is just to pick out the social units extant at certain places and times — just as the names “Briton” and “Breton” do.

So while someone might come away from this book thinking that “The Arthurian legends weren’t really British or Breton at all!”, what the book really is saying is “The people who created these legends were who they were — Britons or Bretons, with both Celtic and Alan ancestors”. And when, in the end, the Arthurian legends went on to become English and French, they became English and French legends with Celtic and Alanic ancestors, just as Englishmen and Frenchmen themselves are English and French, but with a few strange ancestors.

* UPDATE: as I get further into the book, I feel increasingly apprehensive about being swamped. One reason I have avoided studies of myth up till now is the field’s extreme tolerance for ad hoc arguments and special pleading, and Littleton and Malcor are not immune to those temptations. I wish that they had limited themselves to their best arguments.

Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 9:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

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