Christina here. There are some places that definitely have a magical feel about them. Places that have inspired countless stories, and where you can easily imagine yourself transported through time. I can’t compete with Pat’s fabulous journey to the land of the Incas in the previous post, but I recently visited Tintagel – the village and its ancient ruins – on the north Cornish coast, and it made a huge impression on me. It’s not as exotic, but it is still awesome!
Tintagel is located in a truly spectacular position. I hadn’t been there for a very long time, and was struck by how beautiful the place was. If I’d been a king or a chieftain of old, I would have wanted to live there too, even if it’s probably extremely cold during the winter months.
Not only are the views breath-taking, but it’s great for defensive purposes too. Originally, Tintagel was important during the 5th to the 7th centuries AD, when it was a port and stronghold, probably occupied by Cornish kings. Later on, in the 13th century, the Earl of Cornwall built himself a small castle there. The ruins of Tintagel castle, and whatever Dark Age dwellings existed before that, are built on a on a headland that is more like an island connected to the mainland by a small sliver of land. There are tall cliffs on three sides, scarily steep.
Below, on either side, are little coves where you can land boats or go swimming, weather permitting. There is even a cave tunnel that goes right the way through from one cove to the other, and going inside it feels very mystical indeed.
Visitors can still see what’s left of a Medieval hall and other buildings from the Earl’s time, but I was more interested in the older structures. There are about a hundred small rectangular structures from the Dark Ages (so called because we know very little about the period as there are very few historical sources), so it must have been quite a substantial settlement. Just walking around there made my writer’s brain start spinning with ideas, and I’m not alone – Medieval authors used it as part of the stories about King Arthur, who was supposedly conceived at Tintagel. I really wanted to believe that as it’s so magical!
Most people will have heard of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It’s a story that has fascinated people through the ages, and it’s easy to see why. A brave and noble king with a magical sword that only he can wield, a sorcerer to help him defeat his enemies, a queen who betrays him with one of his handsome knights, and a treacherous nephew, among other things. All wonderful ingredients for an exciting tale – what’s not to like? But the thing we probably all want to know is (or at least, I do) – was he real? Did he actually exist? Sadly, no one knows for sure, and most historians doubt that he was a historical figure, although it is possible.
Some people think he was a Roman leader who stayed behind when the legions left Britain in the 5th century. Others believe he might have been Welsh, and a leader of the Britons fighting against the Anglo-Saxon invaders who came swarming in shortly after the Romans’ departure. His name is intriguing – I’ve read that Arth/Arto meant ‘bear’ in Welsh/Brythonic respectively, and Ursus is also Latin for ‘bear’. So perhaps the two were somehow joined together to form one name by people who spoke both languages? It could also be derived from the Roman family name Artorius, or from the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Major – Arcturus (which means ‘Bear Guardian’).
Someone called Arthur is mentioned in an early Welsh poem called Y Gododdin, and in a few other historical sources, most of them written down long after the time when he was supposed to have lived. Later writers used these tales as a basis for their own re-tellings – particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes. Their stories added a lot of imaginary details and new characters, and are the ones we would recognise as those of King Arthur. And the original tale spawned many others that we know and love today, like Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde as she’s also called).
In this wild and windswept place, it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the 5th century, and to conjure up brave warriors and their families living there. It made me want to write something set during the Dark Ages, just so I could use this fabulous location as the background. I could quite see why poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and artists like the Pre-Raphaelites were obsessed with tales of chivalry set in locations such as this. As a huge fan of their work, I understood where their inspiration had come from.
The 19th century revival of interest in the Arthurian legends gave rise to so many amazing paintings. These two works by John William Waterhouse and Edmund Blair Leighton show their take on the Tristan and Iseult story. I love old-fashioned poetry, and Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott is wonderful! If I’d been a painter, I would have wanted to capture this story on canvas as well.
The idea of chivalry and romance has always resonated with me – perhaps because I was hooked on fairy tales as a child. My only problem with them is that most of the Arthurian stories seem to have sad endings. They always seem unnecessary to me, and I itch to rewrite them. (Actually, I usually do that in my head). I guess I’ll just have to pen my own Dark Age story with a guaranteed happy-ever-after!
How about you – do you like the stories of King Arthur, and do you believe he could have been a real person?