In Morte d’Arthur Thomas Malory reminds readers: “Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead . . . many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus (Here lies Arthur, the once and future King)”. Arthur may sleep still, but on this fascinating sojourn we invoke his spirit and engage with a variety of Arthurian texts, both early and late, as we travel through the breathtaking landscapes that inspired them. “Quest” is certainly the essence of Arthurian romance, whether its object is honor, glory, love, or the Holy Grail itself. The settings for the tales are in one sense mythical, but also contain deep roots in the medieval English countryside, a varied and evocative terrain that most certainly informed the psyche of countless writers of Arthurian tales. Our quest is to recover something of the mystery and excitement from both the land and literature by exploring the historical and archeological evidence behind the legend.
We begin in South Wales, an area redolent with the spirit of Arthurian lore. This is a land of magic and of mystery and these features are also prominent in Welsh Arthurian tales such as Peredur an early version of what would become the Grail legend, and How Culhwch won Olwen with its fanciful catalog of some 200 Arthurian knights. Wales is also the land that supplied the stones used to build Stonehenge – according to Arthurian legend Merlin flew them to the Salisbury Plain from the Prescelly Mountains. Accordingly we journey to Merlin’s legendary birthplace of Carmarthen, visiting several sites associated with him along the way. We also explore one of the most haunting and atmospheric castles in Wales, Carreg Cennen, a place whose very appearance seems to spring from legend. This was the seat of Urien Rheged whose son Owain became one of Arthur’s knights. In French he is called Yvain, the subject of one of the earliest and greatest Arthurian romances. We also travel to Caerleon, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth the site of Arthur’s court, where we explore the finest Roman amphitheatre in Britain. Here we consider Geoffrey’s crucial contribution to the growth of the Arthurian saga as well as the looming presence of the Roman Empire in the early tales. We also take note Tennyson’s important connection to Caerleon and ponder this as we enjoy lunch in the very hostelry where he lodged while writing Idylls of the King in 1856.
Leaving Wales we head south to Cornwall, a most charming and atmospheric region that also abounds with Arthurian associations. We headquarter on the north coast in idyllic town of Tintagel where we overlook the Atlantic Ocean and the spectacularly situated ruins of Tintagel Castle, the legendary site of Arthur’s mysterious conception and birth as recounted in the opening chapters of Morte D’Arthur. From here we journey to the southern coast of Cornwall, stopping at Land’s End where we are able imagine somewhere on the distant horizon the lost land of Lyonesse, Tennyson’s setting for the final battle between Mordred and Arthur. We pass an afternoon on St. Michael’s Mount, the site of a titanic battle between Arthur and a local giant, and the place where Joseph of Arimethea, who brought the Holy Grail to England, once plied his trade as a tin merchant. We also explore several nearby sites associated with the end of the legend including Slaughter Bridge, where Arthur received a mortal wound in battle with his nephew Mordred, and also the Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor, where Bedivere, following Arthur’s instructions, reluctantly threw Excalibur back into the water.
From Cornwall we shift our base to the fascinating city of Glastonbury in beautiful Somerset, England. Frequently cited as the location of Avalon, Glastonbury is an absolute mecca of Arthurian lore. Here we explore a number of significant sites including the Chalice Well, where later legend says that the Grail may have been hidden; Glastonbury Abbey, where in 1191 the monk claimed to have discovered the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere; and Glastonbury Tor, which rewards those who climb to its summit with splendid views over the town and surrounding countryside. We also visit nearby Cadbury Castle, site of an Iron Age hill fort that is perhaps the most plausible of candidates for the actual Camelot.
No Arthurian tour would be complete, however, without a visit to Stonehenge, according to Geoffrey built by Merlin to commemorate the burial place of fallen Britons, slain by the Saxons. Here we examine both Arthurian legend and recent theories about the construction and purpose of this megalithic monument. At nearby Old Sarum we encounter another Iron Age hill fort and here we are able walk amongst the ruins while we consider the massive efforts that it would have taken to create. Finally we make a pilgrimage to Winchester, yet another viable candidate for the original Camelot, to visit the Great Hall with its magnificent Round Table, dating to the 13th century, and repainted in its present form during the reign of Henry VIII.
At the conclusion of our sojourn we will surely find ourselves infused with the desire to continue the quest, for in the end the search for Camelot is about aspirations, of what we might become. Its achievement may be fleeting, evanescent, perhaps finally unattainable, but the quest itself always rewards a supreme effort if with nothing more than a richer appreciation for the ideal.