A Scholar’s Search for King Arthur : Linguist Separates Historical Fact From Heroic Legends

Times Staff Writer

At the age of 5, Norma Lorre Goodrich taught herself to read, in her words, by “doping out” “The Idylls of the King.”

She is still, albeit on a considerably more sophisticated level, “doping out” the life of King Arthur.

Yes, the life: Whereas many scholars regard Arthur as a legend, Goodrich believes he did indeed live--in the Dark Ages, not the age of chivalry; in a Camelot located in Scotland, not the south of England; as a Christian, not a pagan, and with his queen, Guinevere, whose relationship with Lancelot was not that of lovers but of chieftainess to military vassal.


A 15-Year Effort

To prove her point, Goodrich spent 15 years researching and writing “King Arthur” (Franklin Watts, $21.95), a painstaking, erudite work that she hopes will be used as a textbook.

The work took years of poring over chronicles and legends, medieval poems and studious tomes, of attempting to sort out stories that seem at least partly based on fact from those of 12th-Century-legend authors paid to write popular tales (“the TV writers of their day”). It took years of deciphering geography, of identifying places not only according to still-existing landmarks but of figuring out that a particular location was the same despite its different names in half a dozen ancient languages.

Goodrich and her husband, John Hereford Howard, president of a Monrovia firm of the same name that makes aviation and aerospace fabrics, traveled almost annually to Britain to do firsthand research of the terrain. In her dedication of “King Arthur,” Goodrich praises her husband, a highly decorated World War II ace, for knowledge of armies and battles, ships and harbors, that contributed to her research.

But it was Norma Goodrich’s background as a linguist and scholar of ancient languages--Old French, Gaelic, Celtic, Manx, Latin--that was the key in unraveling the mystery and mythology of Arthurian literature.

Why so much attention to what many perceive as a charming legend?

“I chose Arthur because I am a medievalist,” said Goodrich, sitting in the sunny study of her home in Claremont, where she is professor emeritus of French and comparative literature at Scripps College and the Claremont Graduate School. Outside the garden bursts with blooms, especially a striking array of orchids that she notes are her husband’s hobby.

A Lack of Information

“When I came to Claremont about 1970, universities around the country were asking me to give a talk on this and a talk on that. Sometimes I had no choice; they wanted the 12th Century or Marie de France (a medieval writer of Arthurian romances).

“Nobody could say anything (factual) on Lancelot. There was some information on Arthur, but very little. I found a book, ‘The Age of Arthur'--but it was not really on Arthur but on the age. I became embarrassed. All the books on Arthur have been on the mythology, the legend.”

Why has King Arthur continued to fascinate generations over the years?

“It’s the average person, not the scholar, with the fascination,” said Goodrich, adding that she omitted a section on the topic from her book because she felt “it was presumptuous” to comment on the public’s continuing interest in Arthur.

“In researching the book I’d go to the library and the secretaries would say, ‘Don’t you prove he wasn’t real! I won’t read the book.’

“Arthur is an ideal. We live in an age where heroes are debunked so fast--and we don’t like it. . . . We live in an age in which countries are ruled by madmen--Hitler. Churchill said, ‘If Arthur didn’t live, he should have.’ We look up to Guinevere, too, because she was heroic.

"(John) Kennedy was a good example, somebody everybody could admire. He was like Lancelot, a person people came to see because they admired him because he felt no fear.”

Tracking Lancelot

Deducing Lancelot’s name, which varies extensively according to the legend writers and historians, illustrates Goodrich’s meticulous detective work. She tells us Lancelot was named Galahad at baptism but Lancelot when crowned a king.

At King Arthur’s coronation a King Anguselus of Albania--meaning Albion, at that time a portion of northeastern Scotland--stood equal to Arthur as a great sovereign, Goodrich says in her book. The name Anguselus in Latin becomes Ancelot in the French of the period.

“Nobody could solve it (the mystery) because the name was French and began with ‘L,’ meaning the ; they should have been looking under ‘A’ for Ancelot, " she said. ‘ ‘Ancelot into English is Angus. There was a French writer who called him The Angus, " a title that still carries prominence in Scotland, she said.

Despite the multitude of male heroes in Arthurian lore--Arthur himself, Lancelot, Gawain, Perceval, Merlin, a variety of saints and evil kings--Goodrich also focuses on a group of remarkable, strong women, queens and chieftainesses who wielded military power as well as economic clout through inheritance.

Female Heritage

The tradition began, Goodrich said, with Queen Boudicca, whose victory over Rome in the first century is commemorated in a statue of her that stands opposite the Houses of Parliament in London. In “King Arthur,” Goodrich writes of the queen’s eventual fate, a common one to both kings and queens of those early times:

Queen Boudicca eventually resorted to suicide, a final solution and an expedient considered most honorable in the Dark Ages. . . . Whenever a chieftain was faced with unthinkable dishonor, which might be the usual hideous death meted out to the vanquished, he or she was allowed instant suicide. Thus, Queen Boudicca avoided being dragged naked, captive, and in chains through the streets of Rome.

Captured by her enemies, Queen Guinevere chose a similar fate.

“We look up to Guinevere because she was heroic,” Goodrich said. “Guinevere died in Ireland in a snake pit from a viper’s bite” rather than subject herself and her followers to disgrace and torture.

That, Goodrich said, led St. Patrick to banish snakes from Ireland.

In Guinevere’s time, Goodrich said, property was inherited by women, a tradition that was “terribly ancient.” Men, even Arthur, owned property only when they inherited it from their wives.

The Arthurian literature also has attracted a number of women chroniclers.

“We have had all these great women scholars who were interested in the Arthurian legends,” said Goodrich. “I guess women have the patience to learn all these languages of the Dark Ages.”

Goodrich earned what she called a “double Ph.D.” in French and Roman philology (knowledge of all the Romance languages) at Columbia University, which, after declining to accept her as a student for 15 years, honored her upon graduation with its award for outstanding achievement, which carries an $8,000 prize.

Provided a Role Model

Her desire to provide a role model as well as her interest in her field of study kept Goodrich, who also holds degrees from the universities of Vermont, Grenoble, Paris and Caen, in the classroom longer than she really intended, although it is plain that she enjoyed her four decades of teaching and the interaction with students.

Among Goodrich’s earlier books, two, “Ancient Myths” and “Medieval Myths,” became best sellers; she still receives royalties from their use in schools and on television.

Currently she is working on a book about Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, the latter an enigma rivaling that of Arthur.

“I work 10 hours a day on the book,” she said. “I have to go to the library every day to check on how many books and manuscripts have come in. You plan your work years ahead. You have to know who has a manuscript copy, who will sell a Xerox.

“I am getting ready to write the Merlin book. There is only one (source) book I haven’t read and it’s coming in.”

Another Mystery

Much of the mystery of the Lady of the Lake centers around the name “Morgan.” A Queen Morgan and Morgan le Fay are thought to be one and the same, a half-sister of King Arthur. There is a presumed cousin named “Anna” whose name may be a contraction of Morgana. Morgan le Fay was a highly educated woman who seems to have been Merlin’s pupil and may have been the Lady of the Lake.

Because of the varying spellings in a number of ancient languages, Goodrich said, “we tend to think there are a lot of them (Morgans).”

Despite the confusion, Goodrich remains fascinated with the women of the chronicles--and those who went before. She had written a book on famous women, generally priestesses or queens--women with education--that she set aside when a Scottish work on a similar theme was published.

Quoted Priestesses

She spoke of the ancient times in which women--at least certain women--were educated and educators.

“St. Augustine listed all the famous priestesses and quoted from them,” Goodrich said. “Pythagoras had women students; Morgan le Fay was Merlin’s student. Schools were still open to women in Arthur’s day.

“Then Justinian forbade the oracles’ temples, which was where women were educated.”

In Arthurian literature, women--notably Guinevere but many others, also--play prominent roles. Among the duties of a coterie of queens and other royal females was to transport wounded kings and chieftains to the Grail Castle to be treated or to die.

After his defeat at Camlan, Arthur’s last battle and a defeat, a group of queens took him across deep water to an isle, where he died. Goodrich identifies the site of Grail Castle as the island of Avalon, the paradise of deceased kings.

It is her piece de resistance , her version of finding the Grail, with which she ends her book: the location of Avalon.