The once and future king is lost in the past
BY BRENDAN I. KOERNER
Scores of sleepy British burgs owe much of their present-day prosperity to King Arthur. The legendary monarch is a perennial draw for sword-and-sorcery fans. Tourists can scarcely avoid dozens of hills, ponds, and ruins that claim Arthurian connections, from "Merlin's Mound" in Marlborough (the wizard's purported grave) to Dozmary Pool in Cornwall (where the king's sword is said to rest).
Most scholars scoff at all the "Arthur slept here!" claims. There is scant evidence the great king even existed, let alone built Camelot and oversaw the Round Table. "Arthur may very well have existed, but without primary sources we cannot construct an argument for him," says Christopher Snyder, a history professor at Marymount University in Virginia and author of the forthcoming World of King Arthur. Indeed, the first historical account of Arthur's exploits was not written until the ninth century, 300 years after he supposedly lived. The most familiar aspects of the legendincluding the sexual hijinks of Sir Lancelot and the quest for the Holy Grailsurfaced centuries later, created by romance writers eager for zesty plot twists.
Despite the dubious authenticity of the "once and future king," academics have still spent considerable time evaluating Arthurian sites. A scrap of intriguing evidence surfaced in 1998 at Tintagel, a tiny hamlet on the rugged Cornish coast. In the History of the Kings of Britain, 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth cited Tintagel Castle as Arthur's birthplace. Even if it's not, the town reeks of Camelot. Its roster of establishments includes the King Arthur Hotel, the King Arthur Cafe, and the King Arthur Car Park.
Great slate. Two years ago, archaeologists excavating the fortress grounds unearthed a piece of slate, dated to the sixth century, bearing the inscription "Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this built." Though most scholars dismissed the artifact as irrelevant to the Camelot myth, a few observers held that "Artognou" sounds too much like "Arthur" to be mere coincidence. Geoffrey Wainwright, chief archaeologist for the government-sponsored English Heritage, declared, "This is where myth meets history. It's the find of a lifetime."
But it can't compare to the alleged find over 800 years earlier in the western county of Somerset. In 1191, monks at Glastonbury Abbey dug up two bodies and a lead cross emblazoned with the words, "Here lies buried the famous King Arthur, with Guinevere his second wife, in the Isle of Avalon." It is rumored, however, that the abbot planted the evidence. The monastery had burned down a few years before, and he hoped to lure money-bearing pilgrims. The cross and bodies have been lost, but pilgrims still come in droves.
British entrepreneurs promote less traditional locales, too. In South Wales, a $950 million Arthurian theme park"Legend Court"is planned near Caerleon, revered by locals as the site of Arthur's court. A new book, The Keys to Avalon, counters that the fabled king reigned in North Wales. The authors are consultants for the North Wales Tourist Board.
Even the French are scrambling to enter the game. Officials in the province of Brittany, on France's northwest coast, are publicizing a trail of Arthurian sites. These include the Fontaine de Barenton, reputed to be Merlin's favorite spot for quaffing liquor, and the Fosse d'Arthur, where Bretons believe Arthur made his last stand.
There is almost zero chance the claims will ever be substantiatedor refuted. "There are some intriguing connections between the Age of Arthur and some of these sites," says Alan Lupack, an Arthurian scholar at the University of Rochester in New York, "but there's no smoking gun or bloody sword. What these sites become is just fuel for the fire of the legend." As well as boons to local bed-and-breakfasts.