I am not sure when or where I first encountered it, but the theory that the Arthurian cycle of legends might be rooted in the mythology of Scythia and the Sarmathians instantly struck me as not only plausible but almost certainly correct. The Sarmatians (and the closely-related or identical tribe of Alans) introduced armored heavy cavalry using the shock charge with lance to Europe: the Sarmatian hypothesis would neatly explain several otherwise very peculiar features of the Arthurian material, including the fact that even very early versions insistently describe a style of war gear and knightly combat with slashing swords on horseback that would not become actually typical in Europe until the later Middle Ages.
The Sarmatian Hypothesis reads, in outline, like this: The Arthurian material developed around a large unit of Sarmatian heavy cavalry (about 5500) known to have been deployed to Britain as military colonists in the early second century CE, attached to the Legion VI Victrix. The Arthur legends are largely a composite of Sarmatian mythology with a distorted version of VI Victrix’s actual history, also with some later inclusions from Celtic mythology. King Arthur himself is a three-layer composite: the oldest layer was the Sarmatian/Alan/Ossetian folk hero Batraz, the intermediate one a Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus who became conflated with Batraz, and the most recent was an attested historical King of the Britons remembered as “Riothamus” of the late 5th century (the period of the Saxon invasions) who became conflated with Castus.
Having picked up this outline from other sources, I eagerly anticipated the most in-depth treatment of the Sarmatian Hypothesis yet: From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, by C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor. I opened this book expecting to like it and predisposed by my own, independent reading of the evidence to agree with the authors’ conclusions.
The book, alas, proved a severe disappointment. It is probably the worst-argued case for a strong and attractive idea I have ever seen. I would be unsurprised if it throws the Sarmatian Hypothesis into disrepute for decades, which I would consider very unfortunate because (despite the authors) I still believe the hypothesis to be essentially true.
The problem is not that the authors fail to present good evidence. There is plenty of that: once the basic Sarmatian Hypothesis is in the mind, lots of otherwise peculiar facts fall into a simple and compelling pattern. I mentioned one such group of facts earlier that weighs heavily with me because I know a lot about the development of war-gear and tactics in period. When the authors observe that European elite warriors enter the Middle Ages c. 500 looking like Roman manipular infantry and exit them c.1500 looking like Sarmatian shock cavalry – and that the Arthurian legends anticipate this development rather than following on it – they are powerfully correct. The case that the Arthurian legends served as a sort of dye marker for the Sarmatianization of the European feudal elite is not just strong, but seems to me about as incontrovertible as an argument of this sort ever gets.
Another area where the authors do good work is in exhibiting structural and symbolic parallels between the Arthurian material and Alano-Sarmatian mythology, as preserved in the Nart sagas of Ossetia in the Caucasus. Their clarity on the difference between parallels at the general Indo-European level (e.g. with the Rig-Veda) and at the specific Arthurian/Sarmatian level is very welcome. Their arguments based on specifics of iconography are often telling; for example, once the similarities have been pointed out, it is indeed difficult not to connect the peculiar uses of dragon motifs in the Arthurian cycle with the dragon standards used by the Sarmatians and adopted from them by late Roman cavalry alae.
Where the authors go wrong is in severely overplaying their hand. The sinews of a sound case are surrounded by what to all appearances is a load of shoddy, meretricious junk. Good arguments are barely given a moment on stage before being drowned in pages and pages of muddled, vaporous speculation. The best fifth of this book is wonderful, groundbreaking, thought-provoking stuff; the rest of it is a sorry mess in which a first-rate idea is dreadfully abused by third-rate minds.
The worst of it is the pages upon pages upon pages of unconvincing speculative etymology. I cringed when the authors glossed “Lancelot” as “Alanus á Lot” to connect him to the tribe of Alans; the book is stuffed full with even more embarrassing examples of this sort of thing. The authors should be deeply ashamed of themselves for leaning on this sort of garbage-in-garbage-out so heavily, especially when they often have better lines of evidence available for the conclusions they want to support.
A closely related flaw is that, having pointed out good evidence of Alano-Sarmatian cultural diffusion into early post-Roman Europe, the authors don’t know when to stop. They seek out Alans under every medieval leaf and bush with a dogged persistence that resembles a bad grade of political conspiracy theory.
Then there are all the babies being thrown out with the bathwater. The authors believe that a great many elements of the Arthurian legends previously attributed solely to Celtic influence are Alano-Sarmatian, and that general case seems valid. The trouble is that in their eagerness they throw away many connections to Celtic mythology that I strongly suspect are genuine and important. A good example is their attempt to sever the Grail from Celtic traditions about magic cauldrons of plenty; I find it unconvincing. A more syncretic account, in which native Celtic and imported Alano-Sarmatian elements both derived from a common Indo-European base and blended together at the edges between 200-1200CE, would probably be closer to what actually happened.
There is a good, incisive, small book struggling to get out from inside this overdone, over-argued, over-speculative mess. Someday I’d love to read it.