The Sublime and the RIDICULOUS

by Elspeth Edward

Within a few miles of each other, in Somerset, are two places which represent opposite ends of modern interest in King Arthur. First, there is South Cadbury, excavated in the late 1960s by archæologists who suggest that, if there was truly a real Arthur, he might have been based here. Then there is Glastonbury, where reputable scholarship flies through the window and everything that is mystic about modern Arthuriana flourishes with scant regard to such trivialities as facts and evidence.

However, these two sites are by no means the only Arthurian sites in the region. Although free from the ubiquitous Arthur's Quoits which lurk behind every corner in Wales, the region has its fair share of dodgy Arthurian sites, which lack picturesque legends, historical feasibility or even, usually, anything for the modern pilgrim to see. These have been added to the Arthurian map by over-eager place-name students who scour the atlas for places which sound remotely like Badon, Camlan and the like, with little regard for the historical situation and, at times, for etymology. Badbury Rings, a hillfort near Wimborne in Dorset, is at least an interesting site in its own right, although it can't be Badon as there is no evidence that the Saxons were anywhere near the area when the battle probably took place. (As a nice coincidence, it was until recently one of the last breeding grounds for the raven, associated with Arthur in folklore). Badbury Rings is worth a visit, but this cannot really be said about the other minor sites in the area. There is Queen Camel near the River Cam, whose claim to be Camlan seems to be based solely on the name and proximity to Glastonbury (although Geoffrey Ashe hints darkly that skeletons were reputedly once found here), and then there is Ilchester. According to "Nennius", Arthur fought a battle at the River Dubglas in the region called Linnuis. The Romans called Ilchester "Lindinis" and there were a people called the Lindinienses in Dorset. "Dubglas" means "Blackwater", and rivers derived from this are ten a penny, especially in peaty areas where streams tend to be dark, but only two have been found in Dorset, and these probably outside the territory of the Lindinienses. In addition, there is no reason to believe that "Linnuis" and "Lindinis" are related, and, as at Badbury, there is no evidence of Saxons anywhere nearby for Arthur to fight. This latter objection also applies to the identification of nearby Langport with Llongborth, where, according to the Black Book of Carmarthen, a company of Arthur's led by Gereint fought the Saxons.


Arthur: The Man From Atlantis?

Several of the above sites suffer from the Glastonbury effect. Although he admits they are historically unlikely as Arthurian sites, Geoffrey Ashe keeps on pointing out that, after all, they are near Glastonbury, implying that the mere fact of proximity to this New Age Mecca allows normal standards of historical criticism to be overturned. Brent Knoll, on the Bristol Channel (supposedly, so one writer claims, shaped by colonists from Atlantis) has also been interpreted in light of its proximity to Glastonbury. It is a hillfort with a legend attached, in which one Ider died after killing three giants on Brent Knoll, the Mount of Frogs, at which Arthur endowed Glastonbury Abbey with lands in the area to pray for Ider's soul. However, according to some theorists there is more to the place than this, and it was, in fact, part of a chain of beacons by which Arthur linked Cadbury, Glastonbury, Brent Knoll and Dinas Powis, near Cardiff, which are, more or less, in a straight line.


Gravefinding Monks and the Woad of Avalon

It is difficult to know how to approach Glastonbury, as so much has been written about it by so many people. Mystic interpretations have been given to its every feature. The Glastonbury Zodiac is a prime example. According to this theory, the signs of the zodiac can be seen in the land around Glastonbury, as drawn out by some ancient people long ago. The inclusion of mediæval churches and modern roads is explained by the influence of ancient earth forces upon their builders. The trouble is, as Ronald Hutton points out in his very un-mystic book on pagan religion, you can draw absolutely anything when you selectively join the dots on a map. Then there is the Maze. Anywhere else in the country, these terraces on the Tor would be called Strip Lynchets, a common method of cultivating steep slopes, but, as they are in Glastonbury, they have become a maze leading to the Otherworld. Other mystic sites abound, such as the Chalice Well, teeming with prone bodies soaking up vibrations, and, unmissably, numerous shops selling all those trappings of twentieth century invented paganism.

Much of this is of fairly recent invention, but Glastonbury certainly has old Arthurian connections. In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury searched for the grave of Arthur, which they duly found in the Abbey grounds, marked by an inscribed lead cross. However, in common with most other monastic relics, this is often considered a forgery, done perhaps on behalf of the king who was anxious to scotch rumours that Arthur was still alive. Even if it was a forgery, it shows that Glastonbury was sufficiently identified with Arthur for it to be there that his remains were planted, although there is no record of any earlier equation of Glastonbury with Avalon. In fact, the only known earlier Arthurian connection was related by Caradog of Llancarfan, around 1150, who told how Arthur rescued Guinevere from Glastonbury, where she was being held by Melwas, king of the Summer Region (Somerset). However, there is evidence of a Dark Age Christian settlement at Glastonbury, and it does seem likely that there was a real historical Arthur, so it is not impossible that he was buried here, especially if he was based at Cadbury. Informed discussion is hampered by the fact that the lead cross exists only in a seventeenth century drawing, which disagrees with the description given by the contemporary Gerald of Wales, who claimed to have handled it.

It is also claimed that Glastonbury Tor was, to the Celts, an entrance to the Otherworld. `The Spoils of Annwfn' has Arthur leading a raid on the Otherworld, called by various names, including Caer Wydr, the City of Glass. Glastonbury was called, in Welsh, Ynys Witrin, or the Isle of Glass, but it is probable that this is but a back-formation from the Saxon name, Glastinga leg, the Island of the Glastingas, which had itself derived form an earlier Celtic name meaning "the Place where Woad grows". Certainly, stories which identify Glastonbury with the Otherworld are not ancient, The sixth century saint, Collen, founder of Llangollen, met Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the fairies underneath the Tor, but this story is only found in a sixteenth century `Life'.

Glastonbury was certainly an early Christian site, with a pre-Saxon monastic settlement on the Tor as well as on the site of the Abbey. According to legend it was not just an early Christian site but the earliest of all - the place where Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail and where he planted his staff, which grew into the winter- flowering Glastonbury Thorn which can still be seen on the slopes of Wearyall Hill. However, there was such a flood of tales about the Grail in the twelfth century, that this is but one of many versions, and by no means definitive.


Kings, Inns and Manly Attributes

While Glastonbury is allegedly Arthur's final resting place, South Cadbury is his headquarters. In 1542 John Leland recorded that Cadbury was locally called Camelot and stories told of King Arthur's residence there. According to folklore, the summit plateau is "King Arthur's Palace", and one of the two wells is "King Arthur's Well". Somewhere there is a gate through which Arthur and his men can be viewed as they sleep, unless you look on Midsummer's Eve when they ride to nearby Sutton Montis to water their horses. A major excavation, conducted by Leslie Alcock in the 1960s, revealed clear evidence of large- scale settlement at precisely the right time for a historical Arthur. The fort was well settled until the Roman invasion, after which it lay empty until around 500 when it was rebuilt into by far the largest known Dark Age settlement, which included a hall 63 by 34 feet in size. All that can be said is that it was inhabited by a large and organized British force, but as it was at the time that other evidence shows it is most likely for a real Arthur, it is of course possible that Cadbury was the original "Camelot". It is certainly in a more sensible place for a base against the Saxons than the Cornish or Welsh Camelots.

The Cerne Abbas Giant comes last, as he is not really Arthurian at all, except in his appearance in the pages of the Society's Library List. He is a large chalk figure, distinguished by the prominence of what Geoff coyly calls "his Manly Attribute". Explanations of the origin of the figure are legion. Not surprisingly, there are many who consider it to be an ancient fertility figure, and there is evidence of fairly recent folklore about its powers to cure infertility. Others think that it represents Hercules, also associated with fertility and whose sign was a club, and claim that it was done in Roman times, under the Emperor Commodus who considered himself to be the reincarnation of that hero, or that it represents numerous other Roman-Celtic gods which various small groups in the Roman army worshipped. The main argument against these explanations is that there is absolutely no evidence at all that the giant existed before the seventeenth century. Although such an obvious landmark, it does not crop up in land surveys, although the hill that it is on was certainly mentioned. One eighteenth century writer heard that it was cut in the time of Lord Holles, a hundred years previously.

And that is about it for the Hilary Pilgrimage, although there is one most important Arthurian site not found in the guidebooks - the Camelot Inn near Wells, where weary pilgrims can revive themselves by feasting on such things as Lancelot Rump Steak and Galahad Grill. Arthur would turn in his grave (if he has one) if he knew what was being done in his name.

This article was originally written as a preview for the Arthurian Society pilgrimage to the South-West in February 1994.