Posts Tagged ‘research’

One of the fascinating things about researching the legend of Arthur is that you can almost watch the story grow over time.

What turns history (or even pseudo-history) into legend is that it grows and changes in the telling and retelling. Some changes are introduced as later tellers reframe it into a world they recognize—changing Arthur into a king and his companions into knights, for example. Sometimes it grows by plain old-fashioned exaggeration. Sometimes other stories are added to it—older stories or brand new ones.

Not much more about how the legend of Arthur was growing survives until The History of the Britons in the early ninth century—more than 300 years after the Battle of Badon Hill. It’s the first historical source to actually name Arthur, describing him as a warrior and a war leader, but not a king, though it describes him fighting alongside the kings of the Britons. It lists twelve battles, most of which cannot be located from the description. Some of them are listed in other sources, but not attributed to Arthur. The History is also the first historical source to connect Arthur with the Battle of Badon Hill. Though the text also claims that Arthur killed 960 of the enemy all by himself in that battle, somewhat undermining its credibility.

It also repeats the story of Vortigern and Hengist, adding the story of Vortigern’s concessions in return for marriage to Hengist’s daughter, Rowena. And it gives the first version of the story of Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern’s attempt to build a tower on top of the hill was thwarted because the tower kept falling down. Vortigern was advised to sprinkle the blood of a boy without a father over the site to lift the curse. When Emrys is brought to him, the boy reveals that the cause is two dragons fighting underneath the hill.

The next source is the Annals of Cambria, probably written down around the middle of the tenth century, although the earliest surviving copy is from the twelfth century. It adds the detail that both Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) were killed in the Battle of Camlann. It doesn’t say whether they were fighting together or against each other, though. There’s also a disputed entry for Merlin. It’s disputed because it uses a form of his name, Merlinus, that only appeared later. The old Welsh form would have been Myrddin or Merdin.

The Welsh texts are mostly frustrating. Most survive as later copies (13th or 14th century) and so may have been changed from the original. And some of them, like the Triads of the Island of Britain and The Stanzas of the Graves, seem to be mnemonics to help oral story tellers remember details, which means they give hints, but don’t actually tell the story. But there are a few things that can be gleaned. Camlann, Arthur’s last battle is mentioned. Arthur, Gawain (Gwalchmai in Welsh), Bedevere (Bedwyr), and Kay (Cei) are also mentioned. So is Yvain (Owain), son of King Uriens of Rheged.

Up to this point, the stories about Arthur were mainly told in Britain and Brittany. But then came Geoffrey of Monmouth and his version of the Arthur story as told in the History of the Kings of Britain in the first half of the twelfth century—after the Norman Conquest. Geoffrey was writing for a new Anglo-Norman/Norman-French audience. He claimed to have had access to an ancient book, now lost. Maybe not, but he might have used some original sources. He certainly added a good amount of imagination, too.

Geoffrey’s Merlin is probably based on at least two actual characters from Welsh tradition—neither of which had any previous connection to Arthur—blended together. He also changed the name from Myrddin to Merlin to better appeal to his French-speaking audience.

Without regard to any actual history, he also has Arthur conquer most of Europe and even Rome. Possibly he conflated Arthur with a fourth-century Roman general with ties to Britannia, Magnus Maximus, who actually did some of that in the 380’s. Maximus was a Roman general stationed in Britannia and he may have married a Welsh princess. But he was not a Briton, having been born in Galicia on the Iberian Peninsula. His legions declared him emperor and he took control of Britannia and Gaul for a while, with at least grudging acceptance of the actual Roman Emperor of the time. He lasted for about four years. When he tried to invade Italy to take Rome, too, Emperor Theodosius I defeated and executed him. Magnus Maximus was definitely not Arthur.

Geoffrey of Monmouth also gives a different account of Mordred than the one we’re more familiar with. According to Geoffrey, while Arthur was in Europe, word reached him that Guinevere and Mordred were having an affair. According to Geoffrey, this is the cause of the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur kills Mordred and is mortally wounded himself. But Arthur is carried off to the Isle of Avalon to be healed.

Finally, Geoffrey completes the reframing of the story into a medieval world, rather than the actual context of the Dark Ages. Arthur is a king—in fact, he’s not just a high king, he’s an emperor. His companions are knights. And Geoffrey introduces the very medieval concept of courtly love, as well.

The older versions of the Arthur story were mainly about his battles. But Geoffrey’s version took off, making the legend known—and improved upon—across Europe. After The History of the Kings of Britain, the legend snowballs. Wace adds the Round Table and the idea that Arthur might return some day.

And then Chrétien de Troyes gets hold of it. This is where we get most of the romances. He adds Lancelot, the greatest knight in the world—who just happens to be French. And he starts the story of the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere. He also adds Perceval and the Grail Quest.

More and more gets added and changed over time, but that’s where the core of what we know as the legend of Arthur comes from.

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Well, my computer has been glitchy for a week, blue-screening out and restarting every time I tried to use the internet. But I think (knock on wood) that I may have gotten it back on its feet. At least, it was stable all day yesterday. Meanwhile, I’ve got a back-up ordered.

So, back to the Arthurian legend and what there may be of an historical basis for it.

Gildas was a sixth-century monk, trained at Llanilltud Fawr monastery in southeastern Wales, though he later emigrated to Brittany, which may be why his writing survived. (Though there were certainly monasteries that were centers of learning in Britain and there must have been people writing, very little survives from Britain of the Dark Ages and most of that is copies made hundreds of years later.) What Gildas wrote wasn’t a history or the beginning of the Arthurian legend. In fact, he never mentioned Arthur’s name. The nearest modern equivalent I can come up with for what Gildas wrote, is a very angry letter to the editor—only there weren’t newspapers or newspaper editors in the sixth century. The title, translated from the Latin is On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain.

Gildas begins with a brief history, including the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in Kent, at the invitation of Vortigern. Although Gildas never mentions Vortigern either, but merely refers to the superbus tyrannus. That’s usually interpreted as a play on Vortigern’s name, which means something like “High King” or “Generalissimo” or “Most Kingly”. He goes on to praise Ambrosius effusively for holding back the Saxons, calling him the “last of the Romans”. And then, in the next paragraph, he mentions the Battle of Badon Hill, without using any names. Because it is the next paragraph, sometimes this is interpreted to imply that Ambrosius was the leader of the Britons in that battle, but, again, Gildas doesn’t name anyone in that paragraph and never uses Arthur’s name at all.

One thing he does say, though, is that he was born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill, which he places forty-four years before writing this text. This means that Gildas’s life would have overlapped Arthur’s—if there was an Arthur. And he would certainly have known and grown up around people who had lived through that time.

Back to On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. Gildas goes on to criticize the Britons for continuing to fight amongst themselves rather than unite against the Saxons. He denounces the governments as corrupt. And he particularly condemns five contemporary rulers for everything from adultery to murder and sacrilege. Some of that criticism, particularly of Constantine of Dumnonia, has some interesting parallels with some obscure parts of Arthurian legend, but I’ll get back to that.

All of this would seem to indicate that there never was an Arthur. Surely Gildas would have mentioned him if there had been, right? Although, Gildas seems to have been a man of strong opinions and, if there was some reason he didn’t want to praise Arthur he might just not use Arthur’s name as he also refused to use Vortigern’s.

But there’s one little fragment to be found in Scotland—or at least in a poem about a battle that took place on the border between what are now Scotland and England, Y Goddodin. This poem was likely composed shortly after the battle, which probably occurred around the year 600, but the only surviving copies are much later—and probably amended over that time. However, there is one part that, at least according to some, seems to be original. The word forms, apparently, are older and they are integral to the rhyme. (I’m no linguist. I have to take their word for it.) And this part praises one particular warrior for being totally awesome in this battle and the last line of that stanza translates as “though he was no Arthur”.

This would mean a couple of things. First, that some kind of story about Arthur had made it all the way to Scotland by that time. Second, that the poet could reasonably expect his audience to know immediately who Arthur had been and what he was famous for—apparently being a badass warrior.

So, we can place Arthur—if he existed—in the Dark Ages. That it was the Dark Ages means a few things. It means Arthur certainly wasn’t High King of all Britain. There’s no way the fractious British tribal rulers would have accepted any such thing. There wouldn’t be a king even of most of England until Alfred the Great about three centuries later.

And his companions weren’t knights—certainly not in the medieval form. They might have worn chain mail, though leather armor or none at all, other than helmets, was more likely. But they certainly didn’t wear head-to-toe plate mail, because that hadn’t been invented yet. And they didn’t joust, either, because the stirrup, invented on the Eurasian steppes, had not reached Western Europe yet. I can only imagine that a Dark Ages warrior would have laughed himself silly at the concept of chivalry and courtly love.

So where did all that we think of as the legend of Arthur come from?

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My previous posts cover my research, so far. Now I’m going to delve into some general thoughts about the legend itself–and how it got to be the legend we know.

A legend is defined as “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” But, we know that at least some legends, like the Trojan War, have been shown to have at least some historical basis.

So, some legends may have a kernel of historical truth at their core. Sometimes, it’s a very small kernel. And, sometimes, that kernel is not what most people think of when they think of the legend. If the legend of King Arthur has such a core, I think it is the fight by the Romano-Celtic Britons against the encroaching “Saxons”. In particular, the Battle of Badon Hill, which, in Arthurian tradition, is the decisive battle in which the Saxons were defeated badly enough not to try to take more territory from the Britons for several decades. (“Saxons” seems to be the term used for all Germanic tribes in the legend—even if they were in fact Angles or Jutes, rather than actual Saxons.)

Yes, I know the fight against the Saxons is not what most people think of when they think of the story of Arthur. Many modern versions of the legend either completely ignore the Saxons or dispense with them quite early and get on with the shinier parts of the story—parts that mostly were added later. Because what turns history into legend is that the story grows in the telling.

If that is the origin or core of the Arthur story, then we can place it during the Dark Ages, either in the fifth century or very early in the sixth century. It can’t be earlier than that because the Romans controlled Britannia from the middle of the first century until the beginning of the fifth century. The Romans were really, really good at a number of things—roads, aqueducts, military tactics, and bureaucracy. They kept records and wrote histories, most of which have survived. If the Romans had still been in charge when the Battle of Badon Hill took place, there wouldn’t be any doubt about the site of the battle. At the very least, we’d know what civitas it took place in. And, if there ever was a real Arthur, he’d be mentioned. It also can’t be later, for a couple of reasons. The establishment of the early Saxon kingdoms (other than Kent) spans from the late fifth to the early sixth century. And, besides, we have a mention of the Battle of Badon Hill, placing that battle probably between 470 and 500. That mention is found in Gildas’s On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain.

More about that and what history can be pieced together in my next post.

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Ah, here is where I can really have some fun.

Avalon was the home of the Lady—or Ladies—of the Lake. Mortally wounded at the Battle of Camlann, Arthur is supposed to have been carried off by these ladies to the Island of Avalon for healing. This makes a lot more sense if the Battle of Camlann was nearby–not all the way north by Hadrian’s Wall.

A likely site for Avalon is Glastonbury Island (Ynys Wytryn in Welsh)—and here I’m including the whole of what would have been an island in the fifth century, surrounded by marsh and swamp. The island of higher land that would have been above the level of the marsh comprises Glastonbury Tor (the most visible landmark in the area), a smaller hill now called Chalice Hill just to the southwest, then a long plateau running southwest, now the site of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, and ending in another rise now called Wearyall Hill. In the fifth century, a causeway reached the Tor from the southeast, protected by a ditch and embankment now called Ponters Ball Dyke which runs at right angles to the causeway, its ends disappearing into what would have been marsh. A gateway? There is a story of another causeway between Glastonbury and South Cadbury Castle to the south.

Glastonbury certainly had associations with healing. Near the base of the Tor on the south side are two springs. The White Spring rises out of a shallow aquifer and carries dissolved calcite which gives it a white color. Only about 110 yards away is the Red Spring (now called the Chalice Well, due to association with the Grail), which rises from a much deeper aquifer and carries iron oxide, which gives it a nearly blood-red color. Both springs are—and were—reputed to have healing properties.

But one of the most striking features of the Tor are the terraces that ring the slopes in giant ovals. There are several explanations for the terraces, but the most appealing to me is that they form an ancient seven-fold labyrinth—a kind of mystical journey. An avenue of oak trees, since cut down, may once led to the entrance.

Excavations have found evidence of structures—and metal-working furnaces—near the top of the Tor. But though it might have been used for some purposes, this just isn’t a sane place for anyone to live. Much too far from a water source, for one thing. More promising are the excavations showing that Glastonbury Abbey may have been built on top of a Celtic village or community.

Oh, yeah. There’s a lot here to play with.

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Legend makes this Arthur’s last battle and the one in which he took a mortal wound. And it’s the hardest of all to place.

One suggestion is that the name may derive from Brittonic Cambo-landa, which would mean crooked or twisting enclosure or crooked/twisting open land. Or from Cambo-glanna, which would be crooked or twisting river. I have a lot less difficulty picturing a twisting river. However, that interpretation leads to Camboglanna, a Roman fort along Hadrian’s Wall. It’s hard for me to see how that could work. Though maybe not impossible, considering that according to legend Mordred was the son of King Lot and that Lothian (part of Lot’s kingdom) was in what is now southeastern Scotland—on the north side of Hadrian’s Wall. Still . . . .

In the south there are other possibilities. There’s the River Cam (tributary of the Yeo) that flows past Cadbury Castle. And the River Camel in Cornwall, which could be interesting, considering that legend makes Arthur’s successor a “cousin” Constantine, who was king of Dumnonia.

Being a discovery writer, I haven’t yet addressed the question of what this particular battle will be about. Since Arthur was not a king, it clearly could not have been an attempted usurpation of the throne. Though I suppose it could be a younger man trying to take over whatever army or strike force Arthur had built. Or some other kind of argument, possibly egged on by an outside force—that would fit well with the background of my story. (And, on that note, there’s the interesting Welsh story of the mediator sent by Arthur to Mordred before the battle, who actually intentionally stirred things up instead.)

I expect which site I ultimately choose for my story will depend on what the war is about. At least this gives me some options to play with.

On a side note: Starting with those goals I set last week was set back by starting back to work last week–with a more demanding schedule than usual. There were not enough brain cells left functioning at the end of a day to even try to write. However, now things have been put on hold again at least for the next three weeks. So, I need to start up with that goal again.

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This is the site of Arthur’s final and decisive battle against the Saxons and it’s one of the most difficult locations to place. Nobody really knows where this battle took place. No evidence has so far been found. Yet, the earliest and most nearly contemporary account of the time we have, Gildas’s On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, mentions it. About the only other thing we know for sure—again, from that earliest source—is that it was a siege. Therefore, arguably, it must have taken place near a defensible site—most likely a hillfort.

That narrows it down some—not much, but some. The possibilities most often cited are Liddington Castle, Badbury Rings, or Ringsbury Camp—again, all hillforts, not castles. All are in the southwest—either present-day Wiltshire or Dorset.

Liddington Castle:

At only 7 ½ acres, this is a relatively small hillfort to the east of Cadbury Castle. However, it is one of a number of hillforts along The Ridgeway. This is a very ancient trackway connecting the Thames River area with the valleys of the Avon and Severn Rivers—an important trade route. It was also part of or connected to the Icknield Way, which ran from the Salisbury Plain to Norfolk, former territory of the Iceni. That could be interesting to work with. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that Liddington Castle was re-occupied during the Dark Ages.

Badbury Rings:

Badbury Rings is a much larger hillfort to the south and possibly slightly east of Cadbury Castle. The original ditch and embankment enclosed 18 acres, but it was later expanded later to 41 acres with several rings of earthworks. And there was another horizontal earthwork, Brokerley Dyke, to the northeast. It’s part of a string of hillforts in Dorset (territory of the Durotriges). And it was reoccupied during the Dark Ages.

Ringsbury Camp:

This hillfort had a double earthwork that enclosed only 8 acres. Interestingly, the embankment was built with rocks that did not come from the immediate area.

Of the three, I’m most drawn to Liddington and the Ridgeway, with the large Badbury Rings a close second. Well . . . fortunately, that battle takes place fairly late in the story. I don’t have to choose just yet.

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This is the site of King Arthur’s Court in the later legends. But, setting aside the issue of trusting later stories, Arthur still needed to live somewhere. And a well-fortified dwelling makes a certain amount of sense for a war leader.

One good possibility is a hillfort now called Cadbury Castle, in Somerset, long associated with Camelot in local legend.

Yeah, it’s not on this map, yet. In fact, I think I’m going to need to redo some of the locations on this map, anyway.

The “bury” part, at least is Saxon, not British and may date to a much later Saxon mint on the site. It’s impossible to tell, now, what the Britons called it in the fifth century, though it is near the villages of Queen’s Camel and West Camel and the River Cam (a tributary of Yeo) runs by it, so Camelot may be a Norman French mispronunciation of it. Something with “Camel” as part of the name is more than reasonable.

Four rings of ditch-and-embankment earthworks encircle the hill, providing access only from the southwest and northeast. These walls protected an area of about 18 acres. The Iron Age hillfort was abandoned during the period of Roman control. Like several other such hillforts, it was reoccupied during the Dark Ages, after the Romans left. Unlike the others, it was not only reoccupied, but refortified—and the new fortification were unusual.

Around 470, a stone wall or ledge was added to the top of the innermost earthwork. Above that, a timber wall protected a parapet and spanned the gate.

Inside these defenses, on top of the plateau, were several buildings, including a timber great hall about 63 feet long by 64 feet wide. And, like Tintagel, there’s evidence of luxury items from the Mediterranean, marking this as a high-status dwelling.

A highly suitable dwelling for a war leader. And, as far as is known so far, Cadbury Castle was the only site refortified in this manner during the Dark Ages.

If you scroll down, there are some interesting photos and artist’s renderings on this website: https://eaglesanddragonspublishing.com/tag/cadbury-castle/

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Okay, so much for the characters and their weapons. Now for the setting.

To a considerable extent, it’s necessary to just make a guess at locations for the Arthur legend. Some can be identified, others guessed at with fair probability of being correct—or at least reasonable. Others . . . well, some are just flat out guesses.

So, let’s start with Arthur’s birthplace, Tintagel. This, at least, is one legendary location that can be placed absolutely—whether or not the legend about Arthur’s birth has any historical basis.

There it is on the northern coast of Dumnonia . . . Cornwall, now. (Well, as nearly as I could place it, anyway.)

Of course, in the fifth century, Tintagel would not have been a medieval-style castle. More like the coastal version of an Iron Age hillfort, a promontory fort, substituting steep cliffs and the sea for embankments around most of the protected area. Though the current ruins are of a castle built after the Norman Conquest, there is archaeological evidence of a high-status late or post-Roman dwelling at Tintagel, possibly a trading center with ties not only to Gaul, but also to the Mediterranean and North Africa, judging by the luxury items found during excavations. There seems to have been a path down the eastern cliffs to a small cove.

In fact, it’s a little hard to see why anyone would have wanted to build a castle there. It was hardly necessary. By itself, Tintagel would have been supremely defensible.

Now an island, Tintagel would have been on a headland, connected to mainland Cornwall (Dumnonia) by a narrow ridge. And, during the Dark Ages, a ditch and embankment earthwork narrowed the approach to the ridge. Although the area within the defenses ran for half a mile from the gate and about a quarter mile across, the usable space was more likely to be between ten and twenty acres—within the same size range as most hillforts.

For a bit of fun, a sea cave, called Merlin’s Cave, runs right through the island near the landward side.

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Okay, so those are the characters, mostly. Now let’s get into something else–weapons.

There are a variety of weapons cited throughout the legends.

First and foremost, of course, is Excalibur (Caledfwlch in Welsh). The Welsh name translates as something like “Hard Cleft”. Caledfwlch appears in early Welsh tales.

This sword was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake and, in some versions, made by her especially for Arthur. In some versions, it was inscribed “Take me up” on one side and “Cast me away” on the other. Also, in some versions, when the sword was drawn in Arthur’s first battle, its blade was so bright that it blinded his enemies.

Although the story of the Sword in the Stone appears much later, that sword was never Excalibur. The Sword in the Stone was Clarent, a sword used mainly for ceremony. And, in some late versions, Mordred stole Clarent and used it against Arthur at the Battle of Camlann. None of that seems to be part of the original legend, however.

Excalibur’s scabbard has no name (at least that I’ve been able to find), but it was said to have powers of its own. Any wounds received while wearing the scabbard would not bleed so that the wearer could not be killed easily. This is interesting in light of the healing reputation both of Avalon and at least some of the Ladies of the Lake. In very late stories, such as Le Morte d’Arthur, Morgana (possibly a Lady of the Lake herself) stole the scabbard and threw it into a lake. This enabled Mordred to kill Arthur, years later.

Arthur possessed other weapons, according the Welsh traditions:

A dagger called Carnwennan (translated “Little White Hilt”), which he used to slice a witch in half in Culhwch and Olwen. Sometimes, Carnwennan is said to have the power to shroud its wielder in shadow.

A spear called Rhongomyniad (translated “Spear Striker”). Later versions simply call it Ron, meaning “Spear”.

Arthur’s shield was Wynebgwrthucher (translated “Face of Evening”).

Not a weapon, exactly, but his ship was Prydwen (“Fair Face”).

I want to mention one more weapon, though not one of Arthur’s.

Galatine was Gawain’a sword, also given to him by the Lady of the Lake. The name is clearly not Welsh, but I haven’t been able to find a Welsh name for it, which may—or may not—indicate that it’s not part of the older stories.

Galatine is strongest in sunlight. Sometimes even said to make its wielder invincible in sunlight.

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Nimuë is one of the women identified as the Lady of the Lake, who give Arthur the sword Excalibur. And also give Gawain the sword Galatine. She is also one of the women who come to the battlefield of Camlann to take Arthur to Avalon.

Sometimes, in later stories, she is depicted as Merlin’s apprentice with whom he is hopelessly in love. Often, she is the one who enchants Merlin, sealing him up in a cave or a tree, whereupon she takes his place as advisor to Arthur.

I’ve already written the first scenes with my version of Nimuë.

Morgana is also an enchantress, though generally a benevolent one, acting as a magical protector to Arthur. Usually, she is the youngest daughter of Igraine and Gorlois, making her Arthur’s half-sister.

She is especially associated with Avalon (or the Isle of Apples) where her chief role is as a healer. Avalon was associated with mystical practices early on. One possible location for Avalon is Glastonbury Tor—a conical hill rising a bit over 500 feet above the Someset levels. It would have been surrounded by a marsh, making it sort of an island. It is also the location in which Excalibur was said to have been forged.

Morgana is one of the women who come to take Arthur from Camlann to Avalon, where he will be healed, perhaps to return.

Possibly because of her association with Avalon, she is also sometimes considered a Lady of the Lake.

In some versions, she is also the reluctant wife of King Urien of Rheged, and therefore the mother of Owain (Yvain) and a daughter Morfydd, who was Owain’s twin sister.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version, she is a shapeshifter who can fly on strange wings and uses her powers only for good. Hmm, I just might make use of that.

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