Sunday, 3 December 2017

Arthur: A Legend in Landscape

“There is another wonder in the country called Builth. There is a heap of stones there, and one of these stones placed on the top of the pile has the footprint of a dog on it. When he hunted Twrch Trwyth, Cafal, the warrior Arthur’s hound, impressed his footprint on the stone....”

“There is another wonder in the country called Ergyng. There is a tomb there by a spring, called Llygad Amr; the name of the man who was buried in the tomb was Amr. He was the son of the warrior Arthur, and he killed him there and buried him."

MirabiliaThe Historia Brittonum §§67-75, dated 829/30AD (John Morris, Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals)

Mapping the Arthurian Legend
There is nothing else quite like it; the Arthurian legend is unique.

Perhaps the endless fascination lies with the fact that, with current evidence, we cannot say for certain whether or not Arthur actually existed; we cannot prove the argument one way or the other.

But the legend certainly exists; Geoffrey Ashe (Arthurian Britain) lists over 150, whereas Neil Fairbairn (Kingdoms of Arthur) lists almost 200 places in Britain and Brittany associated with the Arthurian legend; second only to local lore associated with the Devil. And that does not include the peculiar tradition of Arthurian theme stained glass windows in many Christian churches.

It is fair to say that many Arthurian locations can only to traced back to the Arthurian revival of the Victorian Age and the birth of modern tourism. However, many are older and can be traced back to the 12th century with the literary explosion in the Middle Ages following Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.

Locations used for filming Guy Ritchie's 'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword'.

Some can be traced back even further, to the 9th century when places associated with Arthurian folklore were recorded in the Mirabila such as the mark of Arthur's hound and the tomb of his son Amr. And yet many places from the earliest stratum of the legend cannot be located with any certainty, such as the Arthurian battle list, §56 from the 9th century Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius).

Ancient battle sites are notoriously difficult to locate, not least the attack on Catraeth around the year 600 recorded in a series of elegies for the men of the Dark Age northern kingdom Y Gododdin in the Book of Aneirin. The earliest form of the poem, if authentic, may contain the first mention of Arthur. Catraeth has long been assumed to be Catterick in Yorkshire but this is far from certain. Indeed, the bard Taliesin refers to Urien Rheged as 'Lord of Catraeth', yet the precise location of Rheged continues to baffle historians.

It is from the earliest stratum of the legend that we find place names in Cornwall and Wales. Indeed, Arthurian associations can be found in ancient hillforts, prehistoric megalithic monuments, natural landscape phenomena and man-made constructions such as earthworks and castles. We find Arthur often associated with locations with a Roman past. Leslie Grinsell (Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain) claims the large number of prehistoric sites associated with Arthur in Wales is due to the lack of Roman sites in the country. Others claim these sites, such as the many 'Arthur's Quoits', to an Arthur of the Bronze Age. Others see this as the process of simply mythologising the landscape; Welsh is a very descriptive language and every hill, every lake, every valley in that land has a tale to tell.

Many of the Arthurian names of prehistoric sites do not appear until records from the 16th century. However, we know Arthurian location were in existence many centuries before this and the nomenclature was without doubt in use for many years before being written down. Certainly Geoffrey of Monmouth indelibly altered the Arthurian map, as he did the Arthurian legend, yet landscape features associated with Arthurian folklore were known before Geoffrey's great work. In the early 12th century the Canons of Laon were shown Arthurian sites as they crossed Dartmoor; as stated above, sites associated with Arthur's hound and Arthur's son were recorded in the 9th century; and the 10th century poem the 'Graves of the Warriors of Britain' records many Arthurian associations in the lanscape of Wales.

But the most evasive question is why Arthur? 

After the ubiquitous place names associated with the 'Devil' in England and Wales, oddly, Arthurian names and traditions are the most prevalent in the landscape. In naming any landscape feature that was perhaps poorly understood it was named after the Devil, or King Arthur. No doubt many Devil place names came about during the Reformation and many Arthurian sites were so named with the advent of the modern tourism that began in the Victorian Age.

King Arthur has been deeply etched on the psyche of the Brittonic people for at least the last 1,500 years, and this fascination shows no sign of wavering; the attraction is timeless.

The next ten posts will feature a selection of the top ten Arthurian locations to visit. It is accepted that this will be a very subjective exercise with selection based on personal preference.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

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