I first traveled in England as a student on a tour called “Myth in Stone.” One of our speakers made the statement that nearly everywhere in southwestern England, there’s some site related to King Arthur. You can hardly throw a stone without hitting something called “Arthur’s Chair” or “Arthur’s Table.” Some of these sites are from the right period to be connected to Riothamus, a warrior king who (like Arthur in the tales) invaded France in the late 400s: many consider Riothamus to be the most likely candidate for the historical person from whom the legends have derived. But many of these sites are standing stone structures that were around long before Riothamus appeared on the scene. This summer, back on the “Myth in Stone” tour as a teaching assistant, I visited many of those same Arthurian sites, relishing being in the same places a historical Arthur might have walked — and where the legendary Arthur still treads through local imaginations.
[Editor's Note: All the photographs in this article were taken by the author while on the tour.]
Of all the famous monuments in England, the enormous stone ring on Salisbury Plain known as Stonehenge stands out in nearly everyone’s imagination.
Stonehenge is still a mystery: while there are any number of books offering explanations, few of them agree. Many of these modern explanations associate the alignment of the stones with the rising and setting of the sun and moon, describing Stonehenge as a kind of solar and lunar calendar; John North, in his book Stonehenge, suggests that the stones are also aligned with the rising and setting of different stars and constellations at different times of year. In early Arthurian tales, the blue stones of Salisbury were described as a stone circle transported from Wales and erected in their proper arrangement by Merlin. The connection between Stonehenge and the stars may have played a part in connecting Merlin with the power of fate: in the Middle Ages, it was a common belief that the stars predicted or determined the fates of men.
Of course, Stonehenge has been around far too long for any historical Arthurian association. It is worth considering, though, why such an association exists in the tales. Did the stone circle bring to mind thoughts of a round table? Did the blue stones, which appear to have come from Wales, trigger associations with Merlin whose legendary birthplace was also in Wales? Landscapes shape stories told by the storytellers in particular regions, and the stones at Stonehenge loom incredibly large on the landscape. It is hard to imagine them not being incorporated into the stories — particularly in a culture more mythos-minded than our own. (It is interesting to note that in the 1800s, in a much more materialistic and logos-minded culture, Stonehenge was known as “that great eyesore on Salisbury Plain.”)
The stories say that Uther Pendragon united all of England under one crown; they also say that he was undone by his lust for Ygraine, the wife of the Duke of Cornwall. Ygraine was beautiful, and Uther desired her. Uther had Merlin disguise him as Ygraine’s husband so that he could lie with her. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in History of the Kings of Britain (written in the twelfth century) Uther killed the duke, made Ygraine his queen, and the two ruled as equals. But their bliss did not last: England was again divided after Uther’s betrayal of Cornwall. In some stories, Uther promised to give the child of their union to Merlin. After the collapse of the kingdom, that child (Arthur) grew up without knowing his royal ancestry.
Tintagel Castle was a seat of power in Cornwall in the 1200s, when Richard Earl of Cornwall built the castle whose ruins still stand. This castle in Cornwall is the traditional birthplace of Arthur. The castle itself would have been difficult for Uther to besiege, with only a thin bridge of land connecting it to the rest of the mainland. In the legends, this made it necessary for Merlin to use magic in order for Uther to achieve his goal. But the connection between Arthur’s birth and Cornwall may be much older than Tintagel Castle. Tradition identifies Cornwall as a seat of power much earlier. Archeological evidence shows trade between Cornwall and the Mediterranean occurred in the fifth century, suggesting there was an important settlement there during the time of Riothamus.
Below the great heights of Tintagel Castle is a system of caves. One of the caves, known as Merlin’s Cave, pierces through the land bridge.
More of a tunnel than a true cave, Merlin’s Cave is what modern psychologists or anthropologists might describe as a “liminal space,” a threshold place of in-between or transition. At high tide, the cave is unreachable by foot: water churns through it from both sides. According to locals, the rip tides below Tintagel make swimming in the area dangerous. At low tide, the water recedes, making the cave quite accessible to anyone who wishes to visit. The cave certainly has a numinous or magical feel about it.
There are no legends, as far as I know, that explain why the cave is named after Merlin. In the legends Merlin would have had a place to practice his magic at Camelot when Arthur was king, so it seems he would have had no reason to use this site. But even without any literary evidence, given Merlin’s association with both Arthur’s birth and with magic, it makes sense for such a place to be named in his honor. Did storytellers imagine he used the cave, with its connection to the tides and the moon, to enhance his magic? Or might they have speculated that the proximity to such a liminal space allowed his magic to form in the first place? Perhaps.
This natural landscape formation near Tintagel once served, according to local folklore, as a plaything for the child Arthur.
How would a baby play with something as large as a rocky cliff, you ask? In some early stories, Arthur was actually born a giant. Only later did he shrink to normal size and became a normal child with a great destiny ahead of him. (Cornwall is actually full of tales of giants. Saint Michael’s Mount, just off of Penzance, is known as the home of the last giant in England: he was eventually killed by Jack the Giant Slayer. In many of the Arthurian stories, Arthur and his men fought off a number of giants in both England and France.)
St. Nectan’s Glen
Near Tintagel is a beautiful glen that features a waterfall with a straight drop of forty feet. After its initial fall, it cascades through a natural hole in a rock wall before plunging another ten feet into a shallow pool.
St. Nectan is said to have settled here around 500 CE, but other stories say that Arthur knighted the members of his Round Table here, plunging them into the water at the falls and sending them through the hole and into the pool below. This was the sign of their rebirth — they were no longer men, but knights. It was from St. Nectan’s Glen that the knights were said to have received their blessing and left on their quest for the Holy Grail. St. Nectan’s Glen and Hermitage still serves as a destination for pilgrims today, in part because the waters there are reputed to have healing powers. They’re also said to be haunted, either by fairies or ghosts.
King Arthur’s Hall
Though not a site of ancient history, King Arthur’s Hall is a place that honors Arthur and the chivalry found in the stories.
The Hall was built by businessman Frederick Thomas Glasscock in the early 1930s. He founded an organization called the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table of King Arthur, based on the symbolism and ideas in the Arthurian romances. The Hall itself was opened to the public in 1933. It gives visitors a journey from the darkness of Camelot at one end of the Great Hall, to the redemption of Camelot at the opposite end. There are seventy-two stained glass windows that show the story of the rise and fall of King Arthur. (Randy has discussed stained-glass windows connected to narratives in his previous article Myth Beyond Words.)
From Cornwall, our group returned to Somerset. Some of the best Arthurian archaeology has been performed there since the 1970s, including the excavation of the hill fort Cadbury Castle (from which Riothamus may have once ruled) and the site of Arthur’s grave. I’ll talk about those in an upcoming issue!