The Legend of King Arthur, Cornwall
Any examination of the Arthur story would surely call it the Arthur legends, in the plural, as the story has varied from one century to the next, indeed from one generation to the next, its various tales amended to fit the mores and style of the times; within just one lifetime we have seen him in the 1970s as a rather grubby and bloody resistance fighter; in the noughties the friend of a truly magical Merlin; in the sixties a splendidly hopeful king of Camelot... But at the heart of the thing lies a changeless core which somehow appeals to the British - including our distant cousins in Brittany, who have their own versions of the tales, for they were the very people the legendary Arthur was fighting to protect from the Angles and Saxons who invaded once the Roman era had ended.
There are a multitude of places concerned with the Arthurian stories: Winchester Castle in Hampshire, where an obviously false round table hangs on the wall, the style dating it to the medieval era rather than the Dark Ages; Tintagel Castle in Cornwall , the land most closely associated with the legends, which is not surprising as it was to Cornwall that the Celtic Britons were largely driven back by the invading Germanic hordes in the 6th century and afterwards; and most fascinating of all, Cadbury Castle near Wincanton in Somerset , the most promising site for the real Camelot (with the river Cam nearby), the Bronze Age fort there shown by archaeological digs to have been re-used by a considerable war band at about the right epoch, when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were pushing aside the Britons abandoned by Rome, the artefacts found showing that this was a wealthy force too, able to afford pottery from the distant Mediterranean.
Arthur in our legend fought off the invaders at the Battle of Badon Hill (Mons Badonis), keeping the German hordes at bay for a few more decades after his great victory, and it is that central historical possibility which is the most attractive and historically researched, though the Dark Ages have left us few concrete clues.
The legends we are most familiar with are medieval romances in tone: Arthur pulling the sword from the stone to prove he is the one true king, immediately uniting his people behind him, a very desirable ability in a Britain rent into many kingdoms and great fiefdoms from the Roman departure to perhaps the Norman era; the king's betrayal by his closest friend Lancelot, fated by love to cuckold him with Queen Guinevere; Merlin the all-knowing magician; and the hopeless search for the holy grail, that symbol of Christianity writ large. The Knights of the Round Table are all that an oppressed people could desire: they aspire to purity and justice; they are to a certain extent democratic, with none at the table having precedence over the rest; and they fight chivalrously for the poor and the threatened, not just for themselves.
But above all the legends are wonderful stories in themselves, a part of our national consciousness. Arthur is the king of the Britons, a just man, a great warrior fighting for right not for greed. So strong is our association with the legendary, or mythical, king, that one of the greatest elements of the tale, and best known, is that he did not die, but he and his men lie in a great cave hidden from the world, sleeping until Britain shall have need of them again. We cannot bear to part with Arthur as a source of hope.
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