The Keys to Avalon

In my Arthurian Quiz II post on Friday, I included a picture of the castle ruins at Tintagel. That picture brought about this comment exchange:

STELLA: Question: Have you been to that castle? If not, do you plan to go? How much/many of the things you weave into your story (on the historical side, not the contemporary) have you visited/seen?

RUSTY: While it seems like a simple question, the answer is long and convoluted. So I think I’ll post on that very thing on Tuesday.

STELLA: Oh! I can’t wait to see it!

OK, Stella (and those who are also waiting on pins and needles but didn’t comment)–your wait is over.

Back in 2008 (I think), I went to our chemical plant in Wales on a business trip. It was summer–weather was nice, timing was right–so I invited Kate to meet up with me on Friday and spend a long weekend sightseeing. A week in London 14 years had been our only trip to the UK before that.

Three days to sightsee in SW England or Wales! What did I want to see? Arthur sights, of course. Glastonbury, for certain. Tintagel. Caerleon. Months before the trip, I began researching in earnest about how best to use the limited time.

About that time, my friend Heather (same Heather who comments here occasionally) gave me a book called The Keys to Avalon. It is deep and scholarly, but Arthurphile that I am, I couldn’t put it down.

There were two basic premises for the book. The work that “launched” Arthur as Britain’s foremost myth was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin c. 1136. In the introduction, Geoffrey stated that Walter the Archdeacon presented him with “a certain very ancient book written in the British language,” and that he translated that book into Latin. This has long been considered a literary device to give credibility to the book rather than a true statement.

A handful of Welsh translations of the History exist from the period shortly after 1136. But here is the strange thing: all of the Welsh manuscripts contain material that is not in the Latin version. Hmm, the authors thought. What if the Welsh version was the original, and that is the ‘ancient’ book that Geoffrey used?

History of the Kings of Britain locates a number of events in relation to “the wall.” It has long been assumed that this refers to Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman fortification that runs from sea to sea between England and Scotland to keep the Picts at bay. That makes Arthur’s realm the whole of England. Unfortunately, it would have been impossible to maintain a kingdom over that large an area in the 5th and early 6th centuries. That lends evidence that the entire account is fictional.

But the History refers to “east of the wall” and “west of the wall.” Since Hadrian’s Wall runs east-west, those references don’t make sense. The second premise of The Keys to Avalon is: suppose “the wall” doesn’t refer to Hadrian’s wall but rather the Wall of Severus?

The Wall of Severus is more commonly known as “Offa’s Dyke,” an earthen ditch and rampart that runs along the border between England and Wales. It has long been attributed to Offa, an 8th century king of Mercia. But it is highly unlikely that either the technology or the social structure existed in Britain during the 8th century to accomplish that task. So historians also consider that the wall may have been built by the Romans during the reign of Severus, 193-211.

united_kingdom_map2Map showing the locations of Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke

Offas-DykeRemnants of Offa’s Dyke as it exist today (I have been there)

When you put these two premises together, it shifts the landscape of Arthur 90º from the whole of England to Wales. Then the story matches the capabilities of the time, and the reference in Geoffrey’s work begin to make sense.  The authors worked to verify their premises by locating and translating old Welsh poems that existing in single copies in various churches and abbeys in Wales.

By the time I had finished The Keys to Avalon, I was totally convinced that the historical Arthur was a Welsh king or war leader, not  English at all. That made Tintagel a tourist trap rather than a must-see pilgrimage for the true Arthurphile.

Kate and I ended up spending our days in the UK exploring Neolithic ruins instead. Tombs and cairns and standing stones dot the Welsh landscape as well as much of southwest England. We ended in Avebury, which is featured prominently in Return from Avalon (and Points West).

And that’s why I’ve not been to  Tintagel.

Rusty’s Arthurian landscape expands Arthur’s realm out of Wales to take in SW England, including Bath, Glastonbury, and other parts of Sommerset. But that is acceptable artistic license, don’t you think?

PembrokeshireThe stunning Welsh Neolithic Cairn Pembrokeshire


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