BEGINNING OF THE MYTH
"Given the advance of scientific technique, any fool can demolish a legend; it takes a special kind of fool to try to answer the question of why a legend took the form it did." (Excalibur: The Search for Arthur, Gwyn Williams, 1994)
In the sea is both our beginning and our end. And so it is with Arthur. Looking out from Tintagel Castle in Cornwall at the raging sea beyond there is little doubt that the sea played an important part in the life of Arthur. The sea is never keen to give up any of its mysteries and that it how it keeps its allure. Ever changing and never ending the myth of the sea has many of the same properties as the myth of Arthur.
There are many legends about Arthur. Each part of the Celtic fringe claims him as their own - Brittany, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland, although less so there than the others. They each focus on different aspects and give him and his knights different characteristics. They all hark back, however, to a golden age.
But primarily, the legend of Arthur is the legend of Britain itself, the old Britain which was pushed to the outer reaches of the kingdom, to Cornwall, to Wales and the west of Scotland. Whether he was a warrior king of the sixth century, a mystical overlord joining the old world with the new or someone who never existed at all matters little. It is the legend that matters, the belief that there once was a golden age.
The legend of Arthur has taken on many religious aspects over the centuries, from pagan to Christian, with a touch of mysticism thrown in. And the reason that there are so many Arthurs is that he can be moulded into whatever the society at the time wants to believe. Malory, therefore concentrated on the chivalrous, Christian aspect, Monmouth on the more martial aspects and Tennyson on the mystical.
Let us concentrate on only one area - Tintagel in Cornwall. With his emphasis on Merlin and the sea Tennyson created a mystical Arthur who belonged to more than one world. He arrived by sea to a castle which, on a stormy night, would have been one small piece of solidity in a world of water.
Even today fiction writers of the Arthurian legends concentrate on the importance of water in Arthurs life whether it be the lakes around the mysterious world of Avalon or the crashing waves around the Cornish coast.
© Hazel Marshall 2001