After reading The Once and Future King by T. H. White a few months ago, I want very much to believe that King Arthur is more than a legend. White wrote the character with such finesse and such pathos that I cried in the final scene. It wasn’t even his death scene; it was the scene leading up to the battle in which he would be killed by his illegitimate son, Mordred. But his words and actions summed up everything that he was. I had witnessed him grow from the unassuming innocent, Wart, to the just but tragically human ruler of Britain. A finer man has never lived.
Or did he live? No one knows for sure. There are many tales of Arthur beginning with preliterate stories told round the fire, perhaps based on some noble warrior who distinguished himself in battle. Maybe a beloved king’s deeds were exaggerated to heroic level, or maybe stories of two people, king and hero, merged into one. But myth or reality, they were perpetuated widely, mouth to ear, for centuries until someone with the ability to read and write thought to put them down on paper.
Although carefully referring to him to as a legend, historians place Arthur in the 5th or 6th century. And whether or not he lived, the Scots, Welsh, and Cornish all claim him as one of their own. But when I heard that a highly respected 12th-century Welsh historian placed Camelot in Cornwall, I felt there might be some truth to it. There is very little the Welsh will concede to anyone, least of all the British.
So when I heard that Tintagel Castle, on the north coast of Cornwall, was thought to be the birthplace of Arthur, I had to see it. We had arrived in Cornwall the day before our visit in the driving rain, and had to bypass Exmoor National Park because of the weather. Although the next day started out overcast, I would not be daunted. I had been looking forward to Cornwall for weeks, and I was determined to get out there and see it.
By the time we arrived at Tintagel, an hour after setting out, the sky was brilliantly blue and virtually cloudless. The Cornish countryside, dotted with sheep and rolling down to the sea in great green waves, was stunning against the turquoise sea. As we climbed down into a crevice between two rocky outcroppings towards the shore, we saw the rocky ruins of the castle on a hill above us. Rocks. Another of many ruined castles. But this one felt different. Maybe it was the way it was perched above us on the hill against the unfamiliar blue-sky backdrop, or maybe it was the way in which the weather had changed so dramatically as we approached, but the place felt otherworldly to me. I could imagine a twinkle in Merlin’s all-knowing eye. Such is the power of extraordinary literature.