Legends of King Arthur: Tintagel to Avalon

What did you do on your summer vacation? Contributors Michele Braun and S.J. Bernstein went on a bucket-list vacation to the land of King Arthur. Although they did not find themselves the chosen heirs of the Once and Future King--that honor belongs to Matilda Jones, who pulled a sword out of Dozmary Pool in Bodmin Moor, Cornwall--they report that they had a wonderful trip!

Fog swirled and rain threatened at Tintagel Castle, on the western coast of Cornwall in mid-July, alternately clearing and clouding the view.  Legend tells us that King Arthur was born at Tintagel (tin-TA-jl) Castle and that the wizard Merlin spirited him away amid mists and mystery.  Raised as an orphan under an assumed name by the kindly Sir Ector, the young man who would become England’s “once and future king” stumbled across his royal heritage, earned respect and support, led knights into battle against sworn (Saxon) enemies, and became a great leader.

Arthur was also destined to become a great legend.  The first written record of King Arthur was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s A History of the Kings of England, published in or around 1136.  This original version was written in Latin.  King Arthur and much of his court came to fuller life later in the twelfth century in stories by the French writer Chrétien de Troyes.  The first modern English version was Le Morte D’Arthur, French title but English text by Sir Thomas Mallory, and one of the first texts reproduced by a printing press (by Caxton in 1485).  Fortunately for us, the story of Arthur, his family, his conspiracies, his charm, his friends, enemies, and court have been written and rewritten many times, adapted to the then-modern times, adding perspectives, integrating other narratives, other legends, and other views.  

This year’s vacation took us to Tintagel castle, site of Arthur’s birth, and Glastonbury/Avalon, Arthur’s reputed burial site.  Rarely does a location match its reputation as well as Tintagel does, sitting on a rocky bit of land sticking out into and rising far above the Atlantic Ocean along Cornwall’s craggy coast.  Tintagel would be an island but for a narrow connection to the mainland.  On our recent visit, castle ruins emerged out of the fog and slipped back into the clouds.  We could easily imagine the castle access well protected by only a few guards—the path was wide enough for only one or two.

 Access path from the Cornwall mainland (on the left) to Tintagel Island.

Access path from the Cornwall mainland (on the left) to Tintagel Island.

Our guide dismissed the first set of ruins we encountered as “the new stuff” because they were built in the 1200s, 600 or more years after the reputed death of King Arthur!  To me they looked perfectly appropriate.

 Stonework from Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s 1230’s castle.

Stonework from Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s 1230’s castle.

Further up and out on this almost-island we saw evidence of dwellings and ceremonies at least as far back as the Dark Ages (roughly 400-500 of the common era).  Approached from the mainland, Tintagel looks isolated and desolate.  But once on the top of the island, we saw that it commanded the coast, overlooking beaches, coves, and caves.

 Cove and caves below Tintagel Island.

Cove and caves below Tintagel Island.

The site could well have served as a way-station and trading area, controlling trade routes to southern Europe, Wales, and Ireland.  And, in fact, archeologists have identified a substantial number of 4th-6th century pottery shards that originated in Greece, France, and other regions.  A powerful place indeed.

 Looking down on excavated Dark Age settlement on Tintagel Island. 

Looking down on excavated Dark Age settlement on Tintagel Island. 

Our favorite place to start reading the legends of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Merlin, Avalon, and the knights of Camelot is with The Sword in the Stone, by T.H. White, which was first published separately (1938) and later included as the first “book” of The Once and Future KingThe Sword in the Stone describes the future king being schooled by the wizard Merlin.  It’s light and funny.  It features magic, knights, jousts, and quests… and even a questing beast.  The Disney film lightly based on this version is good, but don’t mistake one for the other--even if you watch the movie, read this book.  This is definitely appropriate for school-aged kids. 

 

 The movie is great but very different from the book--but both are appropriate for elementary schoolers.

The movie is great but very different from the book--but both are appropriate for elementary schoolers.

The second part of The Once and Future King, called The Queen of Air and Darkness, is also good.  We recommend skipping the remaining two parts (The Ill Made Knight, which is dreadful, and The Candle in the Wind (1958)).

For older readers (say, mid-teens and up), we like The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and The Crystal Cave (and subsequent 4 books) by Mary Stewart.  Mists is told from the perspective of Arthur’s mother, Igraine, and sister, Morgaine, and Cave tells Merlin’s story, from his early years through his tutelage of Arthur until his eventual enchantment and (presumed) end.

 Sign at Glastonbury, possibly mythical Avalon and King Arthur’s burial site.

Sign at Glastonbury, possibly mythical Avalon and King Arthur’s burial site.

Many other writers have taken up the story and found ways to weave and reweave the tale:  Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Idylls of the King, 1859), John Steinbeck (The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, posthumous 1976), JRR Tolkien (The Fall of Arthur, posthumous 2013).  At a recent used book sale we found the 1903 The Story of King Arthur and His Knights by renowned illustrator/author Howard Pyle.  We even found the legend reimagined in such unexpected settings as Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers.  See what other versions you can discover in the public library or used book store, and have fun!

ABOUT MICHELE AND S.J.:

Michele says, “At bedtime, my mother would read to us. Summers during junior and senior high school, my mother would insist that I not spend my ‘down time’ sprawled on the couch; I should go outside. So I’d take my book to the lounge chair out back, but never stop reading. Since my daughter was born, I’ve read thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of pages to her, rediscovering old favorites and exploring new stories and worlds together.”

SJ is an English major and a junior at Mt. Holyoke College. She has loved the legend of King Arthur since she was a child and currently in the middle of an independent study on King Arthur’s sisters and their role in the narrative.  

All photos by the authors.  

 

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