Summer 1997

Myth Chasers
Father and Son Explore the King Arthur Mystery

by Teresa Brumback

Throughout history, fathers and sons have shared those special moments that have made them buddies for life - baseball practices, computer games, bike riding, school projects and story times.

So it was in the Rudmin household, where an intellectual atmosphere has produced a vocational bond between father, Joseph, and son, John ('98): Both share physics at JMU - father as professor and son as major. But it was those special moments in John's growing-up years that have made their tie transcend a mutual calling.

Fascinated since childhood by tales from ancient history, both Joe and John found themselves wanting to dissect stories, separate fact and fiction and make their own conclusions about what was real and what was not - an appropriate trait for evolving scientists. So it was natural for John to share his high school history paper on the identity of King Arthur with his father. That moment began a three-year, father-son foray into a maze of myth, legend and history.

Along their research journey these myth chasers have pored over old texts gathered from libraries across the nation and carried on Internet discussions with other Arthurians - all in an attempt to discover finally and exactly who King Arthur was. While most people recall fragments of stories about King Arthur - the sword in the stone, Merlin the magician and the Knights of the Round Table - King Arthur, the man, has not been identified or connected convincingly with any historically known figure. Yet to this day in England, Wales and Scotland, Arthur continues to garner his share of fame and superstardom, while his identity is hotly debated worldwide in scholarly circles, journals and over the Internet.

Was he a real hero that modern-day Britain can claim? Or was he simply concocted through the imagination of the literati in ancient days to give solace and comfort to descendants of war-ravaged lands? The Rudmins believe their research has offered an answer, and it comes as something of a shock to Arthur enthusiasts.

Arthur is commonly considered the national hero of Wales - a fifth-century British battle leader who led the fight against the invading Saxon and Germanic tribes who are the ancestors of today's English. Although later medieval literature on Arthur is highly embellished, the earliest terse records define him fundamentally as the victorious leader at the battle of Badon Hill around A.D. 500. His decisive victory ushered in 40 years of peace between Celts and Saxons so that the culture of the native Celts could survive in Wales. "As far as the serious historical evidence goes, that's all that's known about him," John says.

But as the Rudmins scoured the earliest historical records, "We realized that only one person dominated that part of Britain at the time, and that was Cerdic, the founder of Wessex." Cerdic, they believe, is the elusive Arthur.

At first, this was not an easy notion to swallow because, John explains, "historically Cerdic is known as the first king of Wessex, a Saxon kingdom. And the most basic understanding of the real Arthur was that he was the leader of the Celts who fought against Saxon invaders.

"This seems to be really problematic at first sight and perhaps the reason this hasn't already been explored by scholars," John says. "Because how could Arthur, the traditional enemy of the Saxons, lead a Saxon kingdom? But our first clue to this possibility was our discovery that Cerdic and his whole family line have Celtic rather than Saxon names. This led us to re-examine the origins of Wessex." Indeed, the archaeology of early Wessex reveals that it was a community of Celtic leaders and peaceful Saxons who had lived there for more than a century.

The Rudmins used ancient Welsh genealogies to support the idea that Cerdic led Celts and friendly Saxons in the struggle to restore order to the collapsing Roman provinces of Britain and Brittany. "He sailed back and forth between the two lands suppressing pirates and brigands until he landed at Southampton and won the Badon Hill victory," John says. The Rudmins went on to show that everything the earliest legends attributed to Arthur, including waging war in Scotland and Ireland and establishing kingdoms in Britain and Brittany, was also attributed to an obscure legendary figure known as Cerdic Vreichvras, or Cerdic "Strongarm."

The Rudmins point out that an early form of the name Arthur is "Artus," a Latin word meaning "strength of arm." The growing Saxon population of Wessex went on to remember him by the name Cerdic because Saxons typically called their leaders by name. However, Celts often referred to their heroes by epithets, such as "Strongarm." In later years, the name Arthur was popularly believed to have come from the word "Arktos," or "bear," but this may have arisen out of a mistranslation between Latin and Welsh.

In the years after the Norman invasion of 1066, the stories about the "Knights of the Round Table" emerged. John explains that the themes in Norman literature are rooted in Welsh mythology, some of which go back to pagan times. "What happened was the Normans were fascinated with the Welsh folklore, and they found ways to intertwine it with Arthurian legend," John says.

Amazingly, when the story of Cerdic Vreichvras is pieced together, the Rudmins say, it reveals a life that is every bit as fascinating as the Arthurian lore. For instance, Cerdic was known as "Cerdic Briefbras ("Short-arm") to the Franks, because he was said to have one arm that was shrunken and disabled by a crippling childhood disease - probably polio. The Welsh called him Cerdic Vreichvras ("Strongarm") perhaps because his good arm was exceptionally strong. It is quite possible that he was the same child who was said to have been miraculously cured by St. Germanus on a visit to the island of Britain around the year 442.

This, Joe speculates, might be the historical root of the sword in the stone legend. Perhaps, he also suggests, Cerdic rehabilitated himself by exercising with a sword to which a lump of iron had been welded. His unique ability to wield this sword might have been an identifying trait. A later manuscript identified Arthur as "Arthur mab uter" which could be translated as "Arthur the child of the miracle," but which later authors may have misunderstood to be "Arthur the child of Uther."

The name of the child's father in the St. Germanus legend is Elaphius, which may be a Latin form of the name of Cerdic's father, Eliavres. Cerdic's father, Eliavres, was also known as Llyr Merini, which in Saxon would sound like "Lehr Merini" meaning "Master of the Sea" or "Wizard of the Sea." This might have been the origin of the story of Merlin the wizard.

Despite initial rejections of their postulate by the scholarly community, the Rudmins persisted, with the encouragement of Michael Galgano, head of the JMU history department, and prominent Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe.

The father-son team has shared its findings with other scholars and Arthurian investigators on the Arthuriana home page on the Internet. They published their findings last year in a special issue of the Journal of Myth, Fantasy and Romanticism, published by the Mythopoeic Society of Australia.

The Rudmins say that establishing Arthur's identity once and for all is important to the national identity of Britain, Wales and Scotland because it was Cerdic's line that became the royalty of England in the person of Alfred the Great.

In their paper's conclusion, they wrote, "For over 1,000 years the literature of Britain has had a lost king and a forgotten victory. Now the identity of the national hero of Wales has been discovered, and he has turned out to be [a] founder of the kingdom of England. The 1,500th anniversary of the coming of Cerdic to Southampton would be an appropriate occasion for England and Wales to celebrate their common heritage."

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