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Through King Arthur's Country


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Arthur's domains in Britain alone are far more extensive than readers of the "Idylls of the King " are apt to suspect, but in this chapter it must suffice to deal only with those places rendered dear and familiar by the delicate verse of the great Victorian poet. It will be wise and necessary to abjure a stiff critical posture on questions of fact, especially those that relate to Arthur himself, whose existence and period must be taken for granted. Similarly, we shall record without a shade of apology that he was born, or at least begotten, in the old castle of Tintagel in the then British kingdom of Cornwall, and that in the same kingdom and its utmost bound-lost Lyonesse-he got his death-wound.

This is the story according to Tennyson, and, speaking broadly, his account, founded, of course, on worthy precedents, has to be received, because his picture of King Arthur and the fellowship of the Round Table is that which will dwell longest-not excepting the magical prose of the "Morte d'Arthur" -in the loving memory of those to whom Arthur is anything. Furthermore, the poet's business, and it is ours, was not with authentic writings or verifiable memorials, but with uncertain traditions, the "matiere de Bretaigne," as it was termed so appropriately in the late twelfth century by Jean Bodel.

It was at the base of Tintagel Castle by the Cornish sea that Uther's heir was washed up to Merlin's feet by a wave of destiny. One may regard this as a fable, but the castle, reared on one of the finest headlands in rocky Cornwall, is a fact, and a stern one, for did not old Norden, famous for his maps, observe feelingly, "Those should have eyes that would scale Tintagel"? A path has been cut in the friable slate, and by that slippery approach one ascends the promontory. Though not really contemporary with the Romano-British Arthur- one must concede that- the castle, in a scenic way, is worthy of the medieval legends with which, as with gold, the story of the great king is encrusted. Split in twain by a chasm, once, it is said, spanned by a drawbridge, it is now ruinous and haunted by that rare bird, the Cornish chough-a red-legged crow- which it is a sacrilege to kill, since on his death Arthur was turned into a chough-so runs the tale! From Tintagel you drive past the slate qu arriesto Camelford, which claims to be Arthurian. Near it is Slaughter Bridge, the scene of a great battle between King Arthur and his insurgent nephew, Modred. About the issue of the unnatural conflict reports are discrepant. Some say that Modred was slain by Arthur; others that Arthur was wounded by a poisoned arrow shot by the traitor. The names Camelford and Camelot are so much alike that Cornishmen have been tempted to expand what appears to be a genuine tradition and accurately to identify the places.

Referring to Arthur, a Welsh scholar, Thomas Stephens, remarks, " The Hengwrt romance of St. Greal fixes the palace of that hero at Camelot, Cornwall." We must not, of course, allow ourselves to be biassed by the mean aspect of the modern village, for who at that rate would believe that Wroxeter had ever been Uriconium?

Then why not admit the Cornish claim to "many-tower'd Camelot" without more words? That is impossible. Here Cornish patriotism finds itself baulked by a long-established tradition that assigns the coveted distinction to Cadbury in south-east Somerset. Nearly, if not quite all, the earlier topographers- Leland, Stow, Speed, Selden, Stukely, Musgrave, Drayton-are agreed on this point, and Camel is a place-name in that neighbourhood, so that Camel-ford has no advantage in the article of nomenclature, and - what Camelford lacks-there is at Cadbury a folk-memory of a former: palace of King Arthur, whose presence consecrates' the Hill of Battle. There he sleeps, and there he is sometimes seen in the moonlight, attended by al ghostly array of his gallant knights.

Camelford, it must be owned, has in Cadbury formidable opponent; securely entrenched against all attempts to deprive it of its precious heritage, but if it was not Camelot, that dream-city, it can pretend with some reason to have witnessed Arthur's last fight, not only from the testimony of Slaughter Bridge, but owing to the fact that four miles from the village is Dozmary Pool, into which, as some will have it, was cast the magic brand, Excalibur. Tennyson, however, declares that the return of that almost living thing to its native element took place in Lyonesse, a tract lying between the Land's End and Scilly, now and long since submerged by the mighty surge of the Atlantic, with the seven-score churches Celtic piety had built thereon. The poetic fitness of making Arthur embark on his last voyage from vanished Lyonesse-majestic name!-will be recognized by all.

But Camelford is at no great distance from Tintagel, with which we have not yet done. Hither, after he had received his fatal hurt, whether near the moorland village or in still steadfast Lyonesse- and, accepting the Cornish version, the latter view is the less probable-was Arthur borne; and here, surrounded by his knights, not ail of whom, it seems, had fallen on the stricken field, he passed. "All the time he lay dying," writes Miss M. A. Courtney, very prettily, "supernatural noises were heard in the castle, the sea and the winds moaned, and their lamentations never ceased until our hero was buried at Glastonbury. Then in the pauses of the solemn tolling of the funeral bells sweet voices came from fairy-land welcoming him there, from whence one day he will return and again be king of Cornwall."

Glastonbury in mid-Somerset is, and yet is not, Avalon, for Avalon is really that fairy-land of unimaginable loveliness, whence came those sweet voices bidding the weary champion rest. The idea that Arthur and his frail queen were buried at Glastonbury, where many centuries later-in the reign of Henry II-their bones are said to have been dug up in the monks' cemetery, makes it hard to believe in the identity of that hallowed spot with the Celtic paradise, although not a few instances might be quoted of pagan shrines being replaced by Christian temples, to which older beliefs have attached themselves as mistletoe to the oak.

Nevertheless, Glastonbury might never have become so markedly Arthurian but for the practical certainty that the traditions of Arthur's glory and Arthur's death, and his ultimate return, took shape in Brittany, where companies of exiles, despairing of their country, made new homes and their descendants continued to dwell. To the insular Celts Glastonbury figured merely as one of the "perpetual choirs" of Britain, the abode of tonsured monks. It may be noted that according to a Welsh account the famous abbey was founded in 712 by a Breton prince, Ivor, in commemoration of his victories and those of his father over the invading Saxons, from whom they had won back Devon and Somerset.

To Ivor and his followers the rise of a great religious house would have been enough to eclipse fading and heathenish legends of the older world, but to their fellow-countrymen on the Continent who could not- and cannot now-divest themselves of primitive beliefs and practices, the " woody isle of Avalon," on which they had never looked with their fleshly eyes, meant the Land of the Blessed. The Armorican, born in exile, saw visions; he beheld the marshy waste, from which it was so hard to exclude the hungry sea, not in its naked reality, but as a happy summerland, and peopled it with Morgan le Fay and her attendant damsels, watching in silence the tranced slumber of the peerless Arthur.

The Celtic name Ynys Afallen is supposed to be not distantly connected with the Welsh for apple-a fact of which we are reminded by Tennyson's phrase, "fair with orchard lawns." It may be observed in passing that there is something in the poet's description of the "island-valley of Avilion" that is reminiscent of old Homer's more elaborate portrayal of the garden of Antinous in "lovely Scheria." But it may be only a coincidence.

No one who visits Glastonbury and is at all sensitive to spiritual effluence can escape feeling that the locality is haunted. S. Joseph of Arimathea may never have set foot on Weary-all Hill, but his legend and that of the Holy Grail, mysteriously caught away from his sepulchre to draw after it in a generally vain quest the Knights of the Round Table, are inalienable possessions. And another gracious legacy is the Holy Thorn that blossoms at Christmas, though with the increase of knowledge the phenomenon can no longer be esteemed quite a miracle.

In the "Idylls of the King" Arthur is depicted as holding his court at Caerleon-upon-Usk turn by turn with Camelot, the latter being, as we have hinted, more ethereal and perhaps wholly Celtic. Caerleon is different. It was a permanent Roman station and very likely the capital of the Roman province known as Britannia Secunda. But just as it has outlasted Roman rule, so in all probability it forestalled the coming of the Eagles as a fortified native village. It is said, indeed, to have been founded by one Beli ab Dynwal Moelmund in 401 b.c. After the departure of the Romans Caerleon would have gradually, or it may be swiftly, relapsed into its primitive unimportance, for its nearness to the sea left it peculiarly exposed to Saxon pillage.

During their occupation the Romans had erected beautiful buildings-baths, temples, law-courts and the like-but the only sign of their residence that concerns us here is the site of an amphitheatre, recently given to the nation by the proprietors of "The Daily Mail," which bears the name of the Round Table and thus helps to preserve the memory of Arthur's connexion with the place.

The greatness of Caerleon among the Cymry was the direct result of the recognition of Arthur as the national hero, and this was the achievement of Bishop Geoffrey, whose wonderful stories have been a well-spring of poetical inspiration from that time to the present. Thus enlightened, the Welsh shed their jealousy of, or indifference to, Arthur's claims, and took him to their hearts as the flower of chivalry. Simultaneously the old Roman city renewed its laurels, and towards the close of the thirteenth century Bleddyn Vardd could speak of "that best of cities, Caerleon."

The Caerleon which Geoffrey celebrates is largely a figment of his own imagination, and in his idealisation of what it had been in King Arthur's day he is careful to set it before us as an eminently Christian city and the see of an archbishop Tennyson's "Dubric." This accords with the odour of sanctity which romancers spread around Arthur himself, for it is an absurd mistake that Tennyson, in his characterisation of the king, took as his model the Prince Consort. The monks had annexed him for religion ages before.

In strict truth not only Caerleon, but other Arthurian capitals have never been actual or tangible realities. Their place is in a luminous cloudland, a sunset realm, transcending the grossness of earth, from which merely the names, in some cases rather altered, have been borrowed. In "Lancelot and Elaine," the lily maid, "making a pretty history to herself," noticed an ancient dint on Lancelot's sacred shield made at "Caerlyle." Now medieval writers refer to a certain city named Carduel, which some have identified with Caerleon, and others with Carlisle, the latter supposition being more likely. North-countrymen, at any rate, have settled it among themselves that Carlisle was a home of King Arthur and asserted their right to him in jolly ballads, like the one beginning:

King Arthur lives in merry Carlisle,
And seemly is to see,
And there with him Queene Guenever,
That bride so bright of blee.


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Pictures for Through King Arthur's Country

Where the Holy Grail is buried
Where the Holy Grail is buried >>>>
King Arthur's Tomb and Slaughter bridge at Camelford
King Arthur's Tomb and Slaughter bridge at Camelford >>>>
Birthplace of Arthur at Tintagel, and Glastonbury abbey
Birthplace of Arthur at Tintagel, and Glastonbury abbey >>>>
Dozmary pool, into which Sir Bedivere flung Excalibur
Dozmary pool, into which Sir Bedivere flung Excalibur >>>>
Cadbury castle, the reputed site of the Arthurian Camelot
Cadbury castle, the reputed site of the Arthurian Camelot >>>>
Church and museum in the traditional Capital of King Arthur
Church and museum in the traditional Capital of King Arthur >>>>

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