A journey into the underworld
Beyond the walls of the old house and buried in a tangled mound of short tufted shrubs and undergrowth, is the mouth of a cave – or fogou as it is known in Cornish. The entrance, lipped with pillars of granite, nestles between two mossy banks, sucking life into its womb.
You feel drawn in.
It is a passage made by humankind, long, dark and narrow, slabbed with massive granite lintels, curving gently as it slides into the earth. Inside, its walls are wet with the earth's juices, and the air is heavy with soil musk. Silence hugs you, squeezing out the sounds of the world with a gentle contraction. You stand still, sensing the earth's pulse, waiting. Soil sweat drips from the massive lintels above your head. In the fast fading light you can see a bat flitting back and forth along the passageway.
Your heart pumps. Suppose it flies into your hair?
You retreat a couple of steps, then force yourself forwards just as the creature flies straight at you, lightly skimming your head. The bat retreats into a crevice and darkness closes in. The only sounds are your breathing and heartbeat.
And then the voices come.
You want to cling to reality and block the voices out. But they are insistent, and you listen because although you hear them with your mind, they speak with a voice that is not your own. And locked in here for centuries, they want to be heard.
The Celts came first.
Refugees from Brittany, they beached their leather-sailed boats at Lamorna Cove, made their way up the valley beside the stream, and settled on a small promontory a mile inland. There they built their homestead, ringed with a stone-walled bank. In time it became a place of knowledge, linked with a network of similar sites at the Land's End. They were a courteous and civilized people, bonded by kinship, and they stayed preserving their cultural tradition throughout the Roman occupation, leaving only when the Saxons came.
Two thousand years later, you can still see the remains of the fortified settlement and feel the presence of those people. Traces remain in the landscape of the mysterious network of stones and ancient sites, and people from the twentieth century are reawakening to their meaning and power.
The fogou is located at the head of the Lamorna Valley, near Land's End on the site of a three-acre Iron Age fortified settlement. An oval ring of defensive works and embankment would have protected it in times of danger. The occupants of the fort were protected by a chieftain. I shall call him "Clwydd".
Clwydd's people, and the local community, used the fogou as their spiritual centre for ceremony, initiation and teaching. Birth and death rituals were conducted in it, a transition zone between this world and the next. It may also have been used for initiations involving entombment, the initiate being sealed in for a time to face the underworld in order to overcome fear and so emerge "reborn". It was never used for burial. The whole site was considered a sacred space and its oval defences were perhaps raised not so much to keep invaders out as to keep certain forces in. The place still has the feel of a world apart.
Clwydd's descendants left the fort to return to Brittany some time after the Romans went. The Romans themselves had left them alone, seldom travelling this far west, their nearest centre being Exeter. With the Romans' departure, Saxon invaders in the east began driving refugees westwards, and Irish Celtic raiders also created trouble.
The Celts, or at least their keepers of wisdom, the Druids, may have held keys to knowledge which could benefit us today But as they never left anything in writing, we shall never know what they knew. Living in this land of theirs we can only learn again, our way.
In AD 937 the fields surrounding the site witnessed the slaughter of the last of the Cornish Celts led by Howel in their final battle against King Athelstan and his invading Saxon army The fogou is known as the "Boleigh fogou", and "Boleigh" means "place of slaughter". Legend has it that after the battle the stream by the fort ran red with blood.
1. The Curse
I bought the place from a widow.
A short while after she and her husband, a botanist, first arrived, she had a premonition about an expedition he was about to make, and tried to persuade him not to go. A few days later, in Norway seeking plants for his collection, his car was hit by a train and he was killed. She stayed on looking after the place as best she could, but the signs of neglect were beginning to show.
On our first inspection of the property, my wife, Angela, and I were captivated. I knew I had to live here, even before I had seen inside the house. In retrospect, it was as if something on the land tapped me on the shoulder and said, "You'll do." The place grabbed me.
I had rejected a potentially fruitful career as a university psychologist in favour of moving to the country with Angela and our two young children, to be self-sufficient and to establish a centre where I could work with people. I had nagging premonitions about the impending collapse of society and wanted to establish an ark. I had also been heavily involved in the "growth movement", trying to "sort myself out", and now wanted to give something back.
The place wrought its magic on me and I became obsessed with learning new skills so I could minister to it. The grounds were a shambles and the house needed serious attention. I rewired, rebuilt, insulated, plumbed, plastered, chain-sawed, hacked and rotovated. By our second year I was growing all our vegetables, milking goats, getting stung by bees, raising chickens, cursing the fox, and even had my photo taken by passing Americans as I was scything hay.
It was as if the place was pushing me, pushing my usual pattern of driving myself obsessively I would sometimes catch myself running from one job to another, my feet barely touching the ground, head thrust forward like Basil Fawlty, driven by the thought of what I had to do next. I was blind to Angela's struggling to cope with our two young children, but the land was responsive, almost as if it liked the attention that it was getting, and that I could have been giving her.
"You wouldn't catch me living in that house."
The old builder perched on the roof next door stopped spreading cement to gesture at Rosemerryn. A dying breed of craftsman, he was also the undertaker and wheelwright. "I wouldn't live there, boy, not if you paid me."
"Something to do with the fogou?" I asked, hoping to tap a rich vein of local wisdom.
"No good, boy". And that was all I got.
I was fascinated by the fogou and began digging into the library to find out what I could about the history of the fort site. More recent writings referred to the house's spooky reputation.
Odd tales had gradually clustered about the house, thick as the wisteria that trailed around its windows. Built about fifty years ago, it had since been inhabited by several different families; it had come to be considered an unlucky house. ... Unexplained incidents were said to happen there; the five-barred gate that separated its drive from that of the next house was always found open in the morning, however securely it had been fastened the night before. A revolving bookcase in one of the living rooms would be seen to turn without the touch of human hand; and in one of the bedrooms a lady looking into her mirror one day was horrified to see, not the expected reflection of herself and her furniture, but a mist forming within the "many dimensions" of the looking-glass and becoming denser every second. She did not wait for further materialization, but hurried away. A boy sitting for his portrait to a young painter who had borrowed the studio was overcome by a sudden chill gust, though doors and windows were closed.
I was reminded of our first night at Rosemerryn. As we lay in bed we heard a woman's sad, slightly demented laughter coming, as if from a long way away from one of the empty bedrooms. I put it down to a radio. Now I began to wonder. "Sudden chill gusts" in the studio did not surprise me, having just replaced a leaking skylight. But if the house had a reputation for "the unexplained" and was "no good", what had we really taken on?
The next-door neighbours provided more information. Their house had been built before Rosemerryn. They had seen the heathland cleared, the walls of the old fort knocked down to be incorporated into a garden, the granite carted from the quarry in Lamorna Cove and the comings and goings of several families. Dropping by one evening, they commented on the changed atmosphere of the place, saying that they always used to feel uncomfortable when visiting, but that something had now disappeared. Seeing my interest, they told me more.
They said there was a ghost that would float down the stream by the house which usually foretold an untimely death. Two children had drowned there when their father was away at the Crusades. Others had seen the ghost of a monk picking his way through the woods towards the old fort.
They went on to say how, many years previously, they had been minding the house while the owners were away, and for a bit of a lark, had decided to hold a ouija-board session one night in the kitchen. Their seance, and regard for the unknown, underwent a radical shift when the candles blew out and the glass shot across the table and shattered.
"They say there's a curse on the place and that the male heads of the house will die unnaturally But we don't think you need to worry now Whatever it was has gone. You must have been accepted."
I checked the deeds and made some inquiries. Of the four previous owners, three were men: Benjamin Leader – an artist, Crosbie Garstin – an author, and my predecessor.
All had died prematurely
7. The Haunt of Owls
The passage filled with rotting leaves from season after season of death and rebirth. A rich humus now covered the stone floor moistened by the rains which filtered through the cracks in the granite roof. Outwardly there was peace. But in another reality the energies were startled and scattered.
For years the fogou and the Grambler Grove remained a secret, dreaded place where people feared to go. For some, like the witches, this was used to advantage.
One night in March 1646, near the end of the Civil War, a party of Royalists, fleeing the advancing Parliamentary troops led by Fairfax, became separated from the Prince of Wales, who was escaping to the Isles of Scilly. Exhausted, hungry and lost, they stumbled through the woods near the Grambler Grove towards the lights of the mansion where they had been told there might be safety.
The last of the Levellis, a staunch Royalist, led them back through the undergrowth to the fogou where he concealed and fed them for several days. Two air vents – now plugged – which may have been made by those presumably terrified men can still be seen in the fogou's roof.
During the next century the fogou became a refuge for smugglers, and the spoils of the "wreckers" in the nearby Lamorna Cove.
Trading ships laden with wines and spirits were lured onto the rocks by lights simulating warning beacons. The "wreckers" would plunge into the boiling surf braving impalement by flying spars to grab what casks remained intact before the "Preventive", or coastguard, arrived. Crosbie Garstin, author of The Owls' House, who lived and wrote here in the 1920s, describes what must have been a typical scene:
The pack train was spread out for a quarter of a mile up the valley. ... In case of a raid by mounted men who could pursue, it would be folly to go on to St Just. They were to hide their goods at some pre-ordained spot, hasten home, and lie doggo.
The pre-ordained spot was the "Fogou", an ancient British dwelling hidden in a tangle of bracken a mile to the north-west, a subterranean passage roofed with massive slabs of granite, lined with moss and dripping with damp, the haunt of badgers, foxes and bats. By midnight, Eli had his cargo stowed away in that dark receptacle thoughtfully provided by the rude architects of the Stone Age, and by one o'clock he was at home in bed, prepared to prove he had never left it.
It was during this time that a lintel closing the far end of the fogou was levered up and rolled away. Barrels could now be dumped inside speedily and the hole concealed, and two exits made for a quick getaway. The dank chamber witnessed drunken nights, bodies propped against walls lined with oaken casks.
Its natural inhabitants, spirits of a more ethereal kind, retreated into the crevices.
Later in the eighteenth century, the site attracted attention from visiting parties of antiquarians who came from nation wide to ponder on the enigmatic nature of the place:
At a few hundred yards distance from the Pipers, we came on what was considered of greater interest than anything else visited in the day. This was the Fogou (Cornish, "a cave"), a subterranean gallery with two smaller chambers. The principal passage is about thirty-six feet in length and six feet high. Near the entrance is an opening which leads to another chamber about thirteen feet in length and four feet high. An opening has been made in the extremity of the main chamber. Through this nearly all the company passed. Learned archaeologists descended to the proper entrance, were then lost to view for a few moments, and finally reappeared at the opposite end, with different opinions as to the object of this peculiar structure. ... At the evening meeting Lord Dunraven said he had seen a great number of caves of this kind, and that it was very singular that forts nearly always possessed them. He had that day seen the remains of a fort around the cave the moment he looked for them.
In 1910 the fort was finally obliterated. The quarry at Lamorna Cove, from which granite was used to build part of the Thames Embankment, provided the stone for a large house where the Iron Age huts had once stood. The granite blocks were cut by hand and then carted by horse a mile up Lamorna Lane to the site. The fort's palisades were knocked down and the stones incorporated into a garden wall, the whole area landscaped and beautified.
The house, called Rosemerryn – which means "brambly heath" was built by an artist, Benjamin Leader. Many artists had moved to the area which had become fashionable with the success of the "Newlyn School". On adjoining land a house and studio had a short time previously been built by an associate of Stanhope Forbes, the founder of the school.
Benjamin Leader was the eldest son of Benjamin Leader Williams, who was a close friend of Constable and one of the most successful landscape painters of his day. The younger Benjamin had an eye for architecture and he built the house in the style of a Cornish manor with low-beamed ceilings and pitch-pine timbers. The grounds were a blaze of rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias tended by two full-time gardeners. An area was levelled for a grass tennis court, which provided amusement for the local gentry on hot summer afternoons. But he did not live long to enjoy it. In 1916, in the Great War, he was killed in action.
In 1928 Rosemerryn was bought by a writer – Crosbie Garstin – who had just found success with the publication of The Owls' House, High Noon and The West Wind, (all recently republished). Forty years old, he had lived a life of adventure, working in lumber camps in Canada, as a miner on the Pacific coast, a ranger in Africa, and as an army horse – master and intelligence officer. A private man, he may well have found Rosemerryn provided the sanctuary he needed from a frivolous age.
His three novels recount the adventures of the "Penhales", whose home "Bosula", the Owls' House, is more than likely located where Rosemerryn now stands.
Garstin knew of Rosemerryn before he owned it. He lived and wrote next door for a while. In his novels he changed some of the names in the landscape and told only one person, his wife Lillian, where "Bosula" actually was. In any event, his description of the the Owls' House precisely fits Rosemerryn:
Bosula – "The Owls' House" – lay in the Keigwin Valley about six miles south-west of Penzance. The valley drained the peninsula's bare backbone of tors, ran almost due south until within a mile and a half of the sea, formed a sharp angle, ran straight again, and met the English Channel at Monks Cove. A stream threaded its entire length, its source a holy well on Bartinny Downs.
Bosula stood at the apex of the angle, guarded on all sides ... In winter, looking down from the hills, you could barely see Bosula for trees; in summer not at all. They filled the valley from side to side and for half a mile above and below the house. Oak, ash, elm and sycamore, with an undergrowth of hazel and thorn. Near the house the stream narrowed to a few feet, ran between banks of boulders ... great uneven blocks of granite, now covered with an emerald velvet of moss or furred with grey and yellow lichen.... But it was the owls that were the feature of the spot. Winter or summer they sat on their boughs and hooted to each other across the valley, waking the woods with startling and eerie screams.
In 1930 Crosbie Garstin vanished. No one knows for certain what happened to him. Some say he escaped to one of the exotic eastern lands he wrote about. It appears he drowned while rowing back to a friend's yacht after a party. The boat capsized and, although the woman he was with survived, Garstin's body was never found. Many considered this mysterious since he was an excellent sailor and swimmer.
Possibly the "Owls' House" had worked its magic on him. On the last page of his last book – China Seas, written at Rosemerryn in a room which overlooks a garden of rhododendrons – there is a curious premonition of his death.
Heavily he sank beside her ... felt her arms go round him clinging desperately as to the last refuge in a yawning sea ... A bank of rhododendrons with crimson flowers ... fading fast, fading away.
It was not until 1957, when the fogou was excavated by Dr E. B. Ford, that it began to show its secrets. Ten pieces of pottery, some patterned, some with a dark glaze, were found dating from the Iron Age, La Tène B period. Removal of earth and debris from the far end of the main passage revealed that the rock had been cut away to form a shelf, possibly to serve as a shrine.
Then, while working near the entrance, Dr Ford noticed some strange markings on a boulder. He felt sure they were not accidental, and after he had studied them carefully for a while, they seemed to take the form of a figure.
He arranged for the boulder to be photographed with infrared film and the resulting photograph revealed a male figure, apparently full-faced, with long hair around the head, the left side of the face being flecked away. The right arm, raised from the elbow, supports a spear; the left is held horizontally to the elbow, the forearm being lifted vertically, the hand grasping a lozenge – shaped object possibly the head of a ser pent, one of the coils of which being dimly suggested round the wrist.
Although related to similar figures in Brittany, the carving was unique in Britain.
The whole fogou site, including the fort, was attributed to the dwelling of a chieftain of the Romano-British or pre Roman Celtic period:
Careful consideration of the plan of the fogou and its unusual features, the two – chambered creep, the curved north end, the carved figure, suggests its use for a purpose so far unascribed to any Cornish structure of a similar type and period, namely, that of some religious usage. If, as is possible, the figure symbolizes a Celtic or Romano-British deity (it) might represent its presiding genius, thus establishing a unique function for the building as a temple for the religious use of the occupants of the fort.
After being hidden, and sometimes abused, for two thousand years, Clwydd's place had at last been found.
Time Team arrived at the end of March 1995. The site was invaded, with military precision, by over sixty people including TV crew archaeologists, researchers, computer operators and presenters, along with cameras, lights, walkie-talkies, computers, a sixty-foot crane and a helicopter. Hidden chambers, I thought, wouldn't stand a chance.
Within an hour of arriving, a geophysics team had laid out an electronic grid on the lawn and produced a computer printout of what lay underneath it. The printout showed something resembling a long tunnel curving under the lawn. With excitement the archaeologists dug two trenches and found ... a water pipe. Another trench across a probable rampart nearer the fogou revealed a pile of rubble. At the end the day, it seemed as if the site was remarkable for its archaeological sterility.
That night I had a dream in which the fogou said: "If you want to find more then dig closer to me." Next morning it turned out that that was what the team had decided to do. As they extended their original trench near the fogou, their finds later led them to describe the programme as "fantastic".
Time Team's excavations revealed a section of an Iron Age house enclosed by a single oval defensive wall. Within one of the "rooms" they found over sixty pieces of pottery, virtually all from the early Iron Age, some with patterning, and a quern stone – an implement for grinding corn. They also found Mesolithic flint and some pieces of medieval pottery. It seems that this has been a desirable spot since the first millennium BC. The Iron Age site is special in that it has room for only one or two houses together with the fogou, which dominates most of one end of the enclosure. This makes the settlement resemble a vicarage and its church, or the local healer or priestess's residence, set apart from, yet serving the local community. Time Team concluded that the purpose of the fogou was for the spiritual life of the occupants of the settlement, and that "there was a lot more to these structures than could be explained by conventional archaeology".
Not shown on the TV programme were the findings of a dowser. He said the fogou had originally been built by at least forty women who had cleared the site to ground level and then built up the walls, packing soil back as they built. The lintels, he said, were lifted using skins. He felt that the fogou had been used for healing and as a place to dry out alcoholics, presumably because alcohol, in those days, had been more commonplace than tea.
When the shaman told me that there was a hidden chamber waiting to be discovered, and that opening it would release energy, I thought he meant that there was a hidden passage. I was wrong.
The excavations revealed no further extension to the fogou. If there is one, it is short because of the ground disturbance when the house was built. Any further passage extends from the creep, where Time Team was unable to excavate, because the fogou is a scheduled site.
The hidden chamber which the shaman told me about may refer to the room of the Iron Age house. Opening this did indeed release energy, although how that manifested is less obviously tangible than stones and pots.
On the evening of Time Team's departure after everyone had gone, I sat with the open trench. The next day it would be filled in again to preserve it, but now for a short while I was alone in spirit with its former occupants.
I closed my eyes and imagined myself back in those times. Voices and images came. I had sense of myself as a custodian, tending and nursing the place until the time was right for its true purpose to evolve. I was also aware of the protective function of the site, its original occupants having hidden, perhaps, in the long passage of the fogou when they were raided by hostile neighbours. After all, a church makes a good sanctuary if your attackers hold it sacred too.
My mind wandered a bit, and I found myself asking if there might be a gift for me. So much pottery had been found by the archaeologists and it had all been sent off to Exeter University to be recorded. Part of me wanted to find something myself. I opened my eyes and noticed a rectangular stone in the bottom of the trench. It was a piece of tin ore – the source of the Celts' wealth. I took this as a good omen.
In the days that followed, I resisted entering the fogou. In my personal life, illusions were crumbling. It was as if my association with the fogou was standing in the way of the woman I loved. I felt frustrated and angry. I even dreamed of slicing up the fogou with a sword. Maybe the time had come for me to leave. My psyche was at work.
A short while later I received an e-mail from the Wisdom School in the USA inviting me to participate in a Cyber Ritual to celebrate Earth Day:
Thu,20 Apr 95 13:13:49 GMT
Subject:Cyber Ritual – let's start with Earth Day
I propose that we begin world-wide on-line Cyber Rituals. These rituals should facilitate creation of a cyber-community based on shared experiences of soul-awakening.
Let's begin on Earth Day – this Sunday, April 23rd, 1995. At 12 noon your time, take time to meditate, to empty yourself of all thoughts, give positive feelings and love to the Earth, to Gaia, and to open yourself to any messages back from her. Add whatever other personal touches to this basic ritual that you are comfortable with.
The basic idea is to tune into the living entity of Earth, to give to Mother Earth your love, and to open yourself to what She may be trying to tell you. Maybe the message will be in words, maybe in colors, symbols, sounds, feelings, visions. Just be quiet – (stop the inner dialogue) – and be open long enough so that you can hear this higher entity, rather than just yourself.
Then to complete the ritual, come back and share with us what happens
This was the prompt I needed. At the pre-arranged time, I entered the main passage of the fogou with a candle, a microcassette recorder and my replica Iron Age sword – which sort of wanted to come too. I lit the candle, placed it on the floor of the main passage in a small bowl alongside the sword, sat in a "mindfulness posture", spine erect, attending to my breath, shoulders relaxed, and gazed with soft focus on the candle. The fogou was peaceful, warm and welcoming.
After a few moments, as my mind slowed down, I had the sense of being asked to close my eyes, by several female "presences". As I did so, I felt myself to be travelling through some other kind of passage and I was invited to "speak".
I recounted what was happening for me in my personal life to the "presences", and I also said that I had the possibility of putting out a message to the world at large. (It seemed inappropriate to go into the mechanics of the how!)
I then received a message from the presences in the fogou:
I would speak to those who would listen. We are in times of much danger for the people. There will be those who can make it through the changes and those who cannot. Those that will make it through the changes will be those that can listen to me. That is to say, to listen to your hearts, to listen to your bodies, to trust the wisdom of your bellies and your soul.
For those that are separate from the ways of the Great Mother will harm themselves in harming me. There will need to be much adaptation, letting go of what no longer is appropriate, and embracing the direction that will lead to enlightenment. There is no other way, for it is already in motion. These are things that many know already. These are words that are not new. There are no new messages. The same message can only be repeated until people know it in their hearts, and act. Being still and listening is good. Letting go of the interference of the mind.
Then came a personal message.
This message is for you, Jo. We love you and understand what is happening for you. All things will be well. You do right to stay with your process, as you call it. From what happens now will emerge much that will be good. ... We honour you. We pray for you. But you need not fear as to the outcome. When you stood by the house and all was quiet again, you saw how perhaps you are here only as a custodian, holding the energy until others come. But whoever those are, they must step into the power. You have taken as much as you can of your connection to this land. You have operated here to your capacity It may be that you will leave. ... If you wish, I can release you. . . . Yes, think about that.
I felt really cold. Something had gone. The candle was burning dimly.
Before reporting on my ceremony via the Internet, I went down to the fogou again, curious to see if the candle had gone out. It was still burning, which was reassuring. But also something rather extraordinary was happening.
The sun, which does not usually enter the far end of the fogou, had penetrated its darkest recesses, and a bright chink of light was flickering there – just like the flame of a candle.
Ancient power spots, and sacred sites like fogous, are gateways.
The real openings lie in our own hearts, minds, and lives.
by John Michell
The twelve tribes and the Temple
The revelation of the Temple and the gathering there of the Twelve Tribes of Israel are events which go together. So it is emphasized by the prophets. Yet here arises an immediate difficulty, because the identity of these tribes is now unknown. The Jews claim to represent only two and a part of them – Judah, Benjamin and an 'admixture of Levites'. The others, who never returned from captivity in Assyria in the eighth century BC, are lost among the 'nations of the world'. Sects and nations in all continents have declared themselves or been declared by others as one or more of the lost tribes, and the whole subject has been swamped by antiquarian fantasy.
Once Jerusalem as a whole is understood to be the prophesied Temple, the question can be seen in a new light. This greater temple is not a building exclusive to one expression of religion, but, dedicated to the Almighty, it is the spiritual centre of all who feel drawn to it. And since Jerusalem is Zion, a proper name for spiritual attraction towards Jerusalem is Zionism. This, of course, requires the redefinition of the meaning of Zionism. At present it is conventionally applied to the movement for resettling the Jews in the Holy Land, but it need not be so limited. All who aspire to Zion are by definition Zionists. Those of whatever race or religion, who think of Zion as their spiritual home, have their rightful place in the greater temple of Jerusalem, and by their yearning for Zion they identify themselves as among the lost tribes of Israel.
These present times are times of revelation, so it is not surprising that this perception is already alive in Jerusalem. Its philosopher and promoter is Isaac Hayutman, founder of the Academy of Jerusalem, an institution for studying and teaching current revelations of ancient and forgotten knowledge. With the appearance of the prophesied temple, his insight takes on new significance.
As the temple has revealed itself, so will the twelve tribes. And as the process develops, something else is revealed. The number twelve is a symbol of natural order. Number itself is basically duodecimal. That is why past civilizations have adopted the number twelve as the basis for ordering time, both greater and lesser cycles, for theology, psychology arid political constitutions. The dodecahedron with its twelve pentagonal faces was Plato's symbol for the ideal earth, amid it is a model for the tradition of twelve races or psychological types of humanity forming a perfect union. In classical Greece each nation with its own cult and sanctuary was divided into twelve tribes, three to each of the four quarters, in imitation of the zodiac. This same cosmological pattern has been known at different times throughout the world. Associated with this pattern is the form of religion which recognizes a council of twelve gods, the Olympians, amid draws its teachings from science and philosophy rather than beliefs and dogma. Its worthy followers are initiated in the Mysteries amid led towards justice and understanding. They inherit a tradition that goes back to the earliest times and recurs at different periods to provide true standards for human living and to refresh human spirits and culture.
There is a fourth religion that partakes in Jerusalem's revealed temple, and it is the oldest and deepest. It is called pagan, but that is a derogatory name, implying ignorance and superstition, which was given to it by its enemies. Properly styled, it is the classical or philosopher's religion. Truth, wisdom and knowledge (in descending order) are its ideals; it demands no artificial beliefs. Amid it is unique among religions in being called perennial - rooted in nature and human nature and so ever recurrent. Like the temple and the regathering of the tribes, the reappearance ol this perennial tradition, and the sacred science that comes with it, is a necessary part of the Millennial process.
The origin of the Temple pattern
The plan of the Temple, it is said, was divinely revealed to Moses and again to King David, and the more one studies that beautiful scheme the more one is persuaded that the traditional account is the most likely. It explains why the Temple has such enduring power as an image and why it recurs from time to time, in response to need or invocation. The present revelation is not just of the Temple's former site but of its pattern in outline, spread across the old city of Jerusalem and marking it out as a sanctuary which, as the prophets emphasized, is for all nations. It is an awesome disclosure, and it naturally provokes curiosity. How is it that the city has grown over the ages to bear the imprint of a great temple? Who, if anyone, was responsible for it?
Some features of the pattern are old, from the time of the First Temple, but the lay-omit of streets and shrines that make it recognizable today is no earlier than the reign of Herod the Great (37- 4 BC); and its most obvious features are the thoroughfares created by the Romans in the second century. Throughout that period, during which Herod's temple was built and destroyed, together with almost the entire city, the development of Jerusalem was evidently guided by a single plan, secretly maintained by generations o architects, masons and augurs. One sign of that is the 'messianic axis'. Its line, about 5 degrees north of east, is parallel to the northern wall of the Temple Mount and was followed by the Roman road-builders. It also defined the orientation of Herod's temple. Kaufman reckons that Herod's works were aligned due east-west, but this is disputed by other specialists, and the evidence here shows that the line between Golgotha and the Dome of the Spirits was the main axis on which Jerusalem was planned over a period which coincided with the birth and rise of Christianity.
The key to Jerusalem's street pattern with its two different orientations is in the Temple Mount. Its vast raised platform, concealing many subterranean mysteries, was the preliminary work for Herod's temple, from about 22 BC. None of its four walls are parallel, but at two corners, north-east and south west, they form right angles. The north wall, and the northern section of the east wall, are aligned with the messianic axis amid the Roman street works; the walls on the west and south sides conform to the other orientation of streets, 10 degrees east of north. This second orientation has been identified as that of Solomon's temple, preserved by Herod's architects in their rebuilding of the Temple Mount. Its north-south line survives today as the axis of the Muslim sacred places.
The following conclusion is offered lightly, because it is really no more than an impression. It is that the pattern over Jerusalem that is now emerging - the pattern of a greater temple that accommodates all twelve tribes - was revealed and given shape at around the beginning of the Christian era. It was worked upon by a succession of mystical idealists, Jews, Romans and others, motivated by the millennial spirit of that time, the spirit that gave birth to Christianity.
The history of early Christianity has been so thoroughly and purposefully mythologized that there is no true record of how it arose and how it affected the people of Jerusalem at the time. Jesus as a person has been idealized beyond recognition; even his name was adapted to produce (by the sum of the numerical correspondents of the Greek letters comprising it) the number 888. That is affirmed by gnostic writers and by Irenaeus among the early Christian fathers. Only in St John's Revelation is there a hint of the millennial fervour that settled upon Jerusalem at the time of Jesus and was later called the spirit of Christianity. Herod was then King of the Jews, but he was subject to the Romans, and everything he did, including his temple building, was by Roman consent. A picture that comes into view is of a priestly guild or freemasonry of architects, influenced by the millennial outburst that became identified with Christianity, designing a temple and a pattern of streets as clues to the Secret of Jerusalem. That secret is nothing less than the temple that Solomon spread out over Jerusalem, his universal temple, his sanctuary of the Twelve Tribes or of all those who accept Jerusalem as their spiritual centre.
This is a deep and mystical subject. There is no doubt, according to the Bible, that Solomon's overall temple plan was not only for the Jews but for all the nations from which his wives and concubines were drawn - meaning for all nations. That plan, the pattern! of the greater temple over Jerusalem, was referred to by Ezekiel and other ancient prophets. St John also knew the secret, for at the beginning of Revelation 21 he identifies the visionary city of Jerusalem with the temple and proclaims that it is already here.
"Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people."
So here is mystery. The lack of any good, rational alternative leaves room for the miraculous: that the wonderful pattern over the Holy City was a product of divine providence, working through each generation of various different peoples to create an active symbol of the Holy Spirit that is ever the same for everyone, everywhere. The revelation of that pattern was to come about when it was needed, in response to a generation's desire for the 'healing of nations', arid in God's good time. It seems likely that the time has come.
by John Michell
Solomon's Temple, its reappearance
Here is some startling news, which is also very good news – for many people the best news that they could possibly hope to hear. It concerns that disturbed and controversial part of the world, which is called Israel, Palestine, the Holy Land and the Near or Middle East. In particular it is about that most controversial and mysterious building, the Temple at Jerusalem, founded by King Solomon in the tenth century BC, destroyed by the armies of Babylon in 587 BC and rebuilt by the Jews who returned to Jerusalem after the captivity. King Herod replaced it with a new, larger temple, commonly called the Second Temple, a few years before the birth of Christ. This magnificent structure took many years to build, and it was barely completed by 70 AD when it was demolished by the Romans. So thoroughly was it obliterated that no trace of it remains above ground, and in the course of time even the place where it stood was forgotten.
That was the situation until recently. It was an awkward and dangerous situation, awkward for the religious Jews who are instructed by their law to rebuild the Temple, and dangerous because the walled platform around the site is entirely controlled by the Muslims. Their most holy shrines in the country are located on the Temple Mount (also called Mount Moriah and Haram al Sharif), including the great Aqsa mosque and the sacred rock beneath the golden dome, Jerusalem's most famous landmark. Any attempt to excavate for the site of the lost Temple, let alone set about rebuilding it, would be so fiercely opposed by the whole Muslim world that total and calamitous war would be the likely outcome.
This question of rebuilding the Temple is not just of theoretic or historical interest but immediate and urgent. For the Jews, the necessity of undertaking that task as soon as possible is emphasised by the stern dictum that "a generation that does not rebuild the Temple is judged as if it had destroyed it". This is taken seriously by the religious, and fanatically by certain extremists, who would like to seize the sanctuary area, demolish the Muslim architecture and start construction. A first step to this would be to blow up the golden dome, exposing at Sakhra, the sacred rock beneath it.
This rock is at the centre of Jerusalem's mysteries. Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice upon it, and it is the rock from which Mohammed ascended to heaven while travelling from Mecca and back in one night. A mark on its surface is identified as the hoofmark of al Burak, Mohammed's flying horse who carried him on the miraculous journey. It has been sanctified from pagan times. Some believe that this rock is the Even Shettiyah, the Rock of Foundation, that stood at the centre of the world in the Holy of Holies within Solomon's Temple. Alternatively, it was the rock of sacrifice. It is also identified as the threshing floor that King David purchased from Oman the Jesubite after an angel had appeared on it (1 Chronicles, 20). Some of these legends are contradictory, but the fact of their existence shows that this is not a rock to be trifled with.
The good news, completely changing the situation, transcending all difficulties, fulfilling every religious duty and delightful to every inhabitant and lover of Jerusalem, is that the peaceful restoration of the Temple is now actually in process. This is no metaphor or poetic fancy but a physical, concrete fact. Yet no demolition or construction is required, for the site of the Temple has been disclosed, and there it is, fashioned by the ancient builders as that temple of all people, prophesied by Isaiah.
In the book the Temple is carefully displayed, allowing everyone with a serious interest in the subject to consider the evidence and decide for themselves on its implications. Anyone can see the structure, and religious people will recognise it as the temple referred to in both Jewish and Christian prophecy, which descends ready-made from heaven. There is no need to build it, because here it stands, revealed.
RE-ENCHANTING THE LAND
Neo-Romanticism and beyond
Does the spirit of place still exist in our culture or have we lost our spiritual heritage to the conglomeration of market forces and corporate art?
"For nearly all of human history, the world was enchanted. As material and rationalist values have gained in pre-eminence, however, spiritual values have declined in direct proportion. Once uprooted from the world of symbols, art lost its links with myth and sacramental vision. The kind of sacramental vision to which I am referring is not that of routine church-going or religious dogma as such, but a mode of perception which converges on the power of the divine. It is what Theodore Roszak has called 'The Old Gnosis' a visionary style of knowledge as distinct from the theological or a factual one, that is able to see the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material. This sacramental vision, which underlies our perception of the Absolute, can never be completely uprooted, according to Mircea Eliade, it can only be debased. However much we ignore, camouflage, or degrade art's sacred elements they still survive in the unconscious. Indeed, the recalling and setting up of sacred signs is the even more urgent task of an artist in times estranged from symbol and sacrament."
(Has Modernism Failed? Suzy Gablik 1988)
Indeed elements survive which view the world as a sacred space. Released from its historical location like a ghost in the machine, the genius loci has spawned a hybrid of forms. No longer contained within two dimensions, the celluloid fusions of a mystical Renaissance England to be found in the films of Derek Jarman have resurfaced with the emergence of a baroque splendour in fashion, Hammer Horror furniture welded in radioactive bronze and torture chamber metal, a gothic sensibility against the conformity of our Puritanical age.
During the Seventies and Eighties we had the rise of Minimalism and Conceptualism in art. In American universities we saw the rise of Deconstructivism which, although in a diluted form, influenced British academia. Moving into the Eighties, it seemed that art was no longer deemed 'political' or 'spiritual'. It certainly was no longer necessary to describe the world. Instead it became its own term of reference, with the questionable result of achieving the status of a 'monetary commodity'. However, there were always voices which did not heed this call, who still reverberated with Blakean ideas, echoing the philosophy and visual sensibilities of artists such as Paul Nash. Quietly, out of the mainstream hype, artists are still exploring the landscape, revealing its secret language. The Romantic vision, whether it be geographical or of an inner nature, emerges into the twenty first century. The dark side of the previous century is observed but not dwelt on. A new alchemy is being formed which encompasses traditional methods of art, the new technology, and the revolutionary new scientific discoveries.
Since the demise of the Neo-Romantics in the mid-Fifties, much has changed not only in the world of art but socially and politically. At the time of Paul Nash, Freudian psychoanalysis had an impact on the language, dreams and concepts of artists, writers, poets. Since then, particularly in the Sixties, Jung usurped the mantle of decoder of dreams and the unconscious. New psychological thought swept Europe and in particular America. The Deconstructivist Derrida, the philosophers Foucault and Baudrillard have had substantial impact particularly in the world of media studies and art exhibition organisation. Increasingly our sense of ourselves became fragmented. Art became a mirror of that fragmentation. As Suzy Gablik points out, the spiritual domain of the world shrunk. Increasingly alienation, violence and despair became the lingua franca, expounded by the movies, television and indeed the explosion of violence on the world stage. It now seems to have turned full circle. The time has arrived when we need to reconnect with higher ideals than the aims of self destruction and nihilism.
Amid the confusion which reigns at least in the public's mind concerning the 'New Art', there are artists who break through the hype of sensationalism and go beyond the boundaries of the self reverential cul-de-sac. The spirit of place is still being painted, filmed, assembled, though it is no longer enslaved in galleries and is no longer the prerogative of the art world either. William Blake said that the streets are the theatre of our imagination. The natural consequence of an art which transcends the artist's self, burning away neurotic preoccupations, expands into the world in many forms. One does not have to imitate art of the past, although one benefits from the knowledge of our historical heritage. Visionary art may or may not be a painted canvas; equally, the new technology is creating new forms of expression. Within the context of cyberspace, the interests and ideas expressed in this book can evolve in new forms.
The spirit of place is still deeply embedded in our national consciousness. Every new motorway is questioned, every ancient wood fought for. The old Neo-Romantic world has long gone, but the dream persists.
THE SPIRIT OF PLACE
The Dragon Hill rises above the mists in the Vale of The 'White Horse. Behind it, the almost abstract forms of the prehistoric horse flow in graceful lines. The valley is silent. Beyond lies the ancient Ridgeway that cuts its way towards Offa's Dyke. As the mist drifts away, the early morning sun rises casting shadows between the bare trees which surround the neolithic burial chamber at Wayland's Smithy. Wayland, mythological smithy to the gods, hammering his silver horseshoes onto celestial horses. Paul Nash sensed a hidden geometry here, an intangible presence which triggered the imagination.
Avebury Stones. Photo Peter Woodcock.
At Avebury the processional path of standing stones along the Kennet Avenue stands majestically against the risen sun. Diamond and lozenge shapes, male and female energies, mark the route towards the circle of stones, the inner sanctum for fertility rites and celebration of the year's seasons. Across the cornfields the largest man-made mound in Europe, Silbury Hill, retains its secrets. A giant sundial whose creeping shadows announce the coming of spring, summer, autumn, winter?
It is not only in the countryside that places of power can be found. The poet Aiden Dun spent over twenty years investigating the location of Troyvantus, ancient capital of Albion, amid the detritus, gas works and overgrown wasteland behind King's Cross and St Pancras Stations in London.
The spirit of place has always been a rich source for artists, poets, writers and visionaries. The reverence of the land is in our bones going back to neolithic times, resonating in the many battles we have fought to protect the land. Being an island creates a certain vision, different, for example, from the wide open spaces of America or Australia. The painter Sean Kelly said that abstract art was more understandable on a continent where the boundaries are larger. When one lacks outer space one creates inner space. Invention becomes more complex, cup and circle markings on stones, intricate Celtic spirals and knots, illuminated manuscripts, gothic architecture with its inherent story telling.
We had the monastic tradition which provided the basis for all art in Britain. Henry VIII began the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534. The Reformation was then carried on with fervour by his son Edward VI. Works of art equal to those of the great artists of Europe were destroyed. Not only Christian art died but the remnants of pagan iconography as well, for many churches and cathedrals assimilated images of the old religion, such as the Green Man, the Corn Goddess and many nature spirits. Andrew Graham Dixon, in his television programmes A History of British Art (1997) suggested around ninety-five per cent of art was destroyed.
For two hundred years painting in Britain meant predominantly portraiture, which was dominated by two great European artists, Holbein and Van Dyke. It was not until the eighteenth century that landscape painting was perceived as a serious subject. The great European Tradition of Romantic landscape painting which evolved from Claude and Poussin, developed in Britain with the works of Thomas Gainsborough, George Lambert, and Richard Wilson. The Romantic Tradition was further developed by the landscape paintings of John Constable. While attempting to describe the 'reality of nature' his sketches and preparatory work on closer inspection seem to precipitate Cézanne. The shimmering, irridescent paintings of William Mallord Turner paved the way for Impressionism, which created the conditions for breaking boundaries in the artistic world during the twentieth century.
The Romantic Tradition was abandoned as Modernism emerged via Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, finally resulting in Conceptualism and Minimalism. A new form of Puritanism evolved which marginalised other responses, particularly work that sought to describe the world or went beyond the wholly personal response. Just as the Neo-Romantics had been erased in the Fifties, artists of the last fifty decades who did not fit in with Modernism were negated. lyon Hitchens, Norman Adams, Frances Hodgkin and Winifred Nicholson were some of the artists who did not wholly subscribe to the concepts of Modernism.
Meanwhile, out of the mainstream of British culture, other issues were surfacing which took the attention of artists, writers and filmmakers. There was a resurgence of interest in mythological and ecological issues. The world of the imagination started to break through the confines of modernist ideology. It is not by chance that such figures as the Green Man and the Goddess have emerged into our consciousness. The pendulum of rampant materialism has now swung too far, correspondingly to be rebuked by new forces of dissent. Many people are participating in attempts to stop what they see as destructive elements, whether it be the building of roads, runways for airports, or the rise of consumerism at the expense of the planet's health. In times of need it seems that ancient forces re-emerge.
The spirit of place is no Luddite dream. New technology has created a universal space for contact and ideas. However, as barriers merge, there is the fear of loss of identity, national and personal. Therefore it still is a necessity to nurture our own roots.
I discussed these issues recently with author and radical antiquarian John Michell. It was Michell who was instrumental in reintroducing the concept of ley lines in the late Sixties. In his first book The Flying Saucer Vision (1967) he related ancient sites with UFOs. "It was at the time a belief that these sites had a relationship with flying saucers. I saw the phenomenon as symbolic of changes taking place, changes in consciousness." In 1969 View Over Atlantis was published to great acclaim which expounded more on the ley line system, putting forward the view of a celestial landscape laid out across the British Isles. The Herefordshire entrepreneur Alfred Watkins, who discovered ley lines in the 1920s, influenced Michell but it is William Stukeley, the seventeenth century antiquarian who wrote about such places as Avebury, whom Michell reveres. It was Stukeley who had a great influence on William Blake. Most biographies of Blake make little of this. "Stukeley was seen with suspicion by other historians as an oddball and eccentric." Michell believes that the concept of ley lines since the Sixties has greatly influenced the arts, something which has never been acknowledged. "Richard Long paid homage to ley lines with his earth sculptures and journeys across the landscape but never really developed the idea. Most people do find the idea of invisible lines of energy a bit wacky." It is the ideas which stemmed from the concept of ley lines and interest in ancient sites which has given birth, Michell believes, to a uniquely Radical Romantic movement in Britain. This movement includes the road protesters, such people as the Dongas Tribe, the Travellers and the Free Festivals at such places as Stonehenge.
Michell sees the culmination of all this as resulting in the movement to stop genetically modified crops in Britain. "The movement actually began in Britain and at the moment appears to have been a success.
One of the dangers inherent in reclaiming one's roots is nationalism, which Michell warns against. "Sacred sites and ley lines are all over the world. In Germany before the Second World War there was huge interest in such things which were then politicised and became fascist. This did not need to happen. Hitler was not interested in antiquity, he was a modernist, more concerned with roads, trains and logical solutions. The spirit of place is universal." It is of interest, therefore, that the Radical Romantic Movement in Britain has always embraced a cross section of different cultures, whether it was Blake's influence by Swedenborg or Boehme or the neo-pagan element which looks to Pan-European connections with Norse, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon roots and even further afield to Indo-European roots.
In today's consumer world do we still connect with the spirit of place? Are new sites being created or do we need access to the thread of arcane knowledge? Is there an archetypal wisdom that sifts through the layers of materialism regardless of repudiation? Ancient sites are obvious choices for the genius loci, but what of the last five hundred years? Have we lost the ability, let alone the knowledge to construct new places which allow us to connect with something higher? Glib journalists tell us that the new shopping malls are the cathedrals of our age, but this I see as just pure cynicism. The tribal gatherings in the fields and woods are more likely to connect with something other. It is essential for the health of a civilisation to have access to places of natural beauty, to wild places. In a country as small as Britain, this is difficult. The government's response to conserve places of natural beauty is well meaning but often ends up in theme park trivia. This is where the power of culture comes into play, providing spaces for the imagination. In the past we had our sacred groves, our stone circles, our cathedrals and monastic environments which created the conditions for art in all its forms.
With the advent of the new technology there is the fear that the hand-made object, whether it be painting, sculpture or a book, will vanish into cyberspace. But we will always need the tactile. Technology, in fact, could initiate a new renaissance of hand-made art. As a reaction to electronic imagery or mass made objects, neither of which are particularly individual or tactile, the handcrafted object could become something unique.
The Romantic vision also has an important part to play in combating the current craze, rampant in the media whether it be films, television, computer games or newspapers, of forecasting a nihilistic future. Despite all the propaganda, we do not have to live in a RoboCop, Terminator world! There are alternatives.
JOHN COWPER POWYS
The way of the magician
The world beyond appearances pervades the novels of John Cowper Powys (1881-1963). The world is full of everyday magic, the spirit of place lives and influences our lives. Out of the misty waters of the River Brue in Glastonbury a sword gleams, conjuring up Excalibur and the Arthurian legends. A strange sound is emitted from beneath the ancient hill site of Maiden Castle. In the mountains of Wales Merlin and Taliesin still dwell.
John Cowper Powys is considered to be one of our greatest neglected writers, on a par with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He was revered by Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, J B Priestley, Iris Murdoch, and many others. The painter David Blackburn recently said how he had read Wolf Solent while a student at art college in the early Sixties and how it had been a revelation. The world suddenly had new dimensions; beyond the visible other realms were discernible.
Powys was much more than a romantic writer. His works were vast and complex. A multi-faceted view of the world which incorporated pre-Celtic religion, Taoism, Hinduism and his own brand of animism. He believed that everything has consciousness: stones, trees, rivers, mountains, clouds, the weather, human beings. Ancient megaliths were repositories of ancient knowledge and wisdom, race memories emitting their secrets to the initiated. And Powys considered himself to be an initiate. He ceremoniously tapped his head against the stones to gain access to information, the collective unconscious. All his life he had longed to be a magician. It is said that he did possess magical powers such as teleportation. On two occasions he seemed to have projected an image of himself witnessed by the American playwright Theodore Dreiser and Cowper Powys' grandson.
Powys embraced nature in all its rawness and mystery. Not a benevolent nature, but one that contained the dark both in reality and in oneself. In his vast and densely written novels his characters interact with their environment. Moods and emotions change in conjunction with the elements. Water and fire, storms, floods, outbursts of madness and mystical visions. In 1931 he wrote one of his most famous novels A Glastonbury Romance in which the main characters engage in a drama as complex as the Arthurian legends, to which there are many references. They battle not only with their own desires and delusions but with fundamental issues of the day (the novel is set in the 1930s) – the battle for the soul of a town between the forces of commerce and industrialisation and the forces of tradition and non-conformity. Powys wrote that his novel attempted to describe "the effects of a particular legend, a special myth, a unique tradition, from the remotest past in human history, upon a particular spot on the surface of this planet together with its crowd of inhabitants of every age and every type of character." The same battle continues worldwide today.
If any writer evoked the genius loci, it is Powys. His novels are daunting in their length – A Glastonbury Romance is over one thousand pages. Not only did Powys write novels, but poems, books on philosophy, essays, short stories and he was a prolific diary writer. He was a literary giant. His life was equally gigantic. He went to America in 1905 to lecture. For many he was seen as charismatic, spellbinding, a sage, a great orator, but to others he could appear ruthless, even demonic at times.
Returning to Britain, he eventually settled in Wales with his partner Phyllis Plater. Magic and ritual played a major part in his life. He saw himself as being in the lineage of Welsh bards and seers, a descendant of a lost tribe, Iberian in origin, which is reminiscent of Arthur Machen's fallen race. He called his belief system 'a complex vision'. He did not believe that 'everything is one' – that everything ends up in some kind of primordial soup, but that everything retains its own individual essence and also interrelates with others. He believed in a multiverse rather than a universe and this aspect is central to his writings, particularly his novels where his characters inhabit the real world and are also on the verge of a mysterious 'other world'. He also admired painting, particularly the paintings of the eighteenth century French artist Claude whose landscape paintings have been influential, alongside Samuel Palmer and William Blake, with the Neo-Romantic painters.
Magical aspects run throughout Powys' work. When living in Wales, he was thrilled to have returned to this ancient kingdom. The landscape from his cottage in Corwen filled him with inspiration. The land exuded a magical atmosphere, a kingdom of nature spirits and the ancient king Eliseg who ruled the surrounding land. An ancient pillar which he believed marked the spot where the earth mother was worshipped, stood in the local graveyard. Some miles away from Corwen is Liangollen and in Obstinate Cymric he writes:
"The ruins of Dinas Bran tower up, jagged and desolate above this romantic town of Liangollen; and to the initiates in Welsh mythology it is Bran the Blessed, one of the most singular of the ancient gods who became either saints or devils in the Christian era, rather than of the flocks of black-winged birds – though Bran means a crow – that still hover round it, that this wild fortress must speak. Bards and Gods and Demons and Druids have all left indelible impressions on the landscape of my new home..."
Powys' dense and complex novels have been compared to Proust. They explore not only the outer world and mythological dimensions, but the inner world, the psychological and emotional states of the individual. In today's culture of sound bites and commercialism Powys' novels are well worth tracking down and reading.
He was a forerunner of much of the interest which has surfaced in the last three decades in paganism and Celtic beliefs. He was virulently anti-vivisection and held an animistic, Blakean view of the world as a living entity.
John Cowper died in 1963. His ashes were scattered on Chesil Beach in Dorset.
READING THE LANDSCAPE
To make a concrete definition regarding the effect of Neo Romanticism on literature is impossible. However, certain traits are detectable. Various writers on Neo-Romanticism have suggested literature which falls into the category. Malcolm York in The Spirit of Place - Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and their Times (1988) suggests that strange fantasy by Herbert Read, The Green Child. Both critics William Feaver and Peter Cannon-Brooke (who curated the exhibition at Cardiff Museum of Neo-Romantic Art in 1983) give the novel Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household as a classic example.
What distinguishes Neo-Romanticism from traditional romanticism is the feeling of danger, the juxtaposition of the urban with the countryside, the element of darkness, dissolution, an almost pagan reverie breaking through the ruins of post-industrialism.
One of the greatest writers whose descriptions of landscape evoke the spirit of place, is John Cowper Powys. His novels, huge in size as well as in content, explore those mysterious nether regions which appear at the edge of consciousness. He can evoke a sense of the mythic within everyday life, as in A Glastonbury Romance.
The genius loci merged with gothic undercurrents (vampirism, possession by evil spirits) is evoked in the writings of Arthur Machen. His descriptions of an unknown country, which lies invisible yet within reach of those who dare to enter it, can be chilling. In his short story The Great God Pan he describes the pagan god not as a back to nature, merry romp in the woods, but as something devastatingly terrifying.
An obvious choice of a Neo-Romantic writer is Denton Welch who tragically died in 1948. His writings reflect the qualities found in his art a strong sense of place, an obsessive edginess and acerbic sense of humour.
In the short stories by Elizabeth Bowen – The Demon Lover and Mysterious Kor – the descriptions of the bombed houses and moonlit streets of wartime London evoke an eerie presence.
The past and present merge in Peter Ackroyd's novels such as Hawksmoor, Chatterton, The House of Doctor Dee and First Light. Ackroyd, with his ear for the language of past times, conjures up the atmosphere and spirit of place. He can cut through the multi-layered strata of an historical and fictional London and with a Blakean eye conjure up angelic and demonic forces.
Iain Sinclair investigates the realm of Psychogeography, those focal points where psychic flak, historical relevance and urban myths collide. Here we find Neo-Romanticism merging gothic sensibility with the accoutrements of urban squalor – the English flotsam and jetsam of suburbia, sometimes to be found discarded not only in places of historical importance, but in some back street obscure junk shop or village fete.
The flavour of Neo-Romanticism surfaces in Christopher Petit's Robinson. In his short story Newman Passage, Petit evokes the spirit of place which was to be found post-war with such Bohemian characters as Julian Maclaren-Ross, sometime writer and journalist, poet Dylan Thomas, artists John Minton and Francis Bacon, Soho-ite Nina Hamnett and other luminaries.
"At its best", the novelist Michael Moorcock has observed, "London fiction has, in the past twenty years, become characteristically a visionary medium."
AWAKE ALBION! AWAKE!
William Blake 1757-1827
Madman, visionary, revolutionary, genius, even today William Blake is considered to be all of these. His writings still reverberate in the twenty first century, his engravings and watercolours still excite, disturb. Born in Soho, the son of a London hosier, Blake had little formal education, but was steeped in the Greek and Latin classics, Milton and the Bible. When his younger brother died from consumption aged twenty, an exhausted Blake, who had nursed his brother throughout, said that he witnessed his brother's soul ascending towards heaven. Blake had seen angels and heavenly forms since childhood. His father reprimanded him for saying that he had seen the prophet Ezekiel sheltering beneath a tree. Blake saw angels in a tree on Peckham Rye and throughout his life he conversed with spirits. Growing up in eighteenth century London, he was in the midst of a whole world of visionary and dissenting religious teachings. As a Londoner, the capital was where he witnessed most of his visions. Wandering through each chartered street, he experienced a visionary city – the Four-Fold city which could be witnessed by anyone who shed the dust from the mundane world.
The capital was a city seething with riots and disorder. Britain was under threat from France, sedition was in the air, revolution underfoot. Blake was sympathetic to radical politics; it is said that he knew Tom Paine and helped him flee the country. As well as politics, Blake embraced the teachings of the Swedish theologist Emmanuel Swedenborg with enthusiasm, but later in life rejected them, finding more sustenance in the writings of Paracelsus and Jacob Boehme. Boehme in particular had a profound effect on Blake with his concept that Man contained not only the Sun, Moon, Stars and universe within him, but God as well, which resonated with Blake's own beliefs.
It was while apprenticed as a young man to the engraver James Basire that Blake was asked to make drawings of the royal tombs in the chapel of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. This great Gothic masterpiece, 'a book in stone' which Victor Hugo called the Abbey, thrilled the young Blake. The very essence of the architecture with its pageant of British history encased in stained glass, carved effigies and ancient tapestries, struck a deep chord in him.
While drawing in the Abbey he had more visions, of monks and priests. It was as if he were witnessing the archetypal realm of the nation, something to which he would return for the rest of his life. Even the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him in majestic glory, and moved the universe.
His first engraving is Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion. A rather solid patriarchal figure broods on a rugged coast against which the sea is raging. It is interesting that Blake chose this figure (although biblical figures were popular as artistic subjects in Blake's time) for Joseph was none other than the uncle of Jesus who brought the Holy Grail containing the blood of Christ to Britain and created the first Christian church in the land at Glastonbury. Blake's immortal poem Jerusalem relates to this event.
In 1779 Blake enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art as a student. The principal was Sir Joshua Reynolds which was unfortunate as Blake detested Reynolds' views on art as well as his painting. Forever battling against the practice of 'copying nature', Blake developed his own extraordinary visionary skills. Mainly influenced by his own inner world, he created a mythical realm which to many of his contemporaries appeared on the edge of madness. As a skilled and creative printmaker Blake developed his own method of reproducing his images and writings, combining a mixture of relief etching on copper plates and hand-coloured prints, executed by himself and his wife Catherine. The results were unique, echoing not only references to the old masters but to the pamphlets, leaflets and radical publications produced in London during his life.
Blake and his wife left London in 1800 and moved to Felpham for three years. During this period Blake was highly prolific. Among other major writings combined with images, he produced The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Book of Urizen, Songs of Experience, The Book of Los and The Four Zoas. It seems that Blake had a fiery temper. On one occasion an argument with a soldier outside his cottage resulted in Blake being charged with high treason. Blake was anti-monarchist and had supported the French Revolution until news of the Jacobin slaughter of opponents became known in Britain. Fortunately the case against Blake collapsed due to insufficient evidence. But it shook him and aggravated the nervous disposition which afflicted him all his life.
During the later part of his life Blake, through his acquaintance with John Varley, himself a fine watercolourist, drew many portraits of spirits, including Socrates, Herod, Voltaire, Richard Coeur de Lion and the Man who built the Pyramids.
It was unfortunate that Blake was born when he was; if he had been born a hundred years earlier, his visions would have been acceptable, almost commonplace. In the eighteenth century the Newtonian universe was rapidly encroaching. The rise of materialism, which Blake warned against, was closing the doors to men and women of vision.
With the Neo-Romantics of the twentieth century, Blake's images and writings struck a deep chord. Nash, Sutherland, Piper and Vaughan in particular admired Blake, who along with Samuel Palmer, conjured up an archetypal realm. Because of the restrictions of the Second World War, artists in Britain were thrown back onto their cultural roots. It is easy to see why they revered the work of Blake and Palmer. If Blake portrayed an ancient land called Albion, in which angelic and demonic forces were drawn from the imagination rather than from reality, Palmer caught an idyllic, Arcadian mood, particularly in his Shoreham pictures. Both artists represented an archetypal view of Britain which was free of the pseudo-chivalry of the Pre-Raphaelites. However, there is an odd discrepancy here, as all the Neo-Romantics revered nature and based their work on actual observation which Blake refuted, preferring to work from his imagination or his 'visions'.
During the latter part of his life, Blake, regretting having spent so much time reconciling his creativity with commercialism, burst into a frenzy of activity producing some of his most complex and beautiful poetry and images. His colours became more vibrant as if describing the inner world he saw. Some of the most dazzling images are to be found in the wood engravings for The Pastorals of Virgil. Although small in scale, they are like jewels glowing with an inner light, their inky blackness as deep as the night sky, their attention to detail ravishing.
Towards the end of his life Blake became revered by a group of young artists called the Ancients. They were so called because they considered modern society debased when compared with older civilisations. Among the group was Samuel Palmer who worshipped Blake. Palmer was also a visionary but the Ancients did not have the political fire born from experience, which Blake had. Their art was more concerned with an idyllic pastoralism which did not reflect Blake's views.
Always impoverished, Blake, with the help of his wife Catherine, worked until the end on his paintings and engravings. When he finally died in 1827, he died singing, his face enraptured by the visions he was seeing.
Blake above all was prophetic and had insights which are of relevance today. Not only did he foresee the rise of materialism, he created his own spiritual universe based on a mystical, and some would say heretical version of Christianity, incorporating elements from Hinduism, alchemy and ancient British mythology. He also held strong views on sexuality: he saw war as a direct result of sexual repression and believed in a healthy, robust sexual life. In the preface of his epic poem Milton there is almost a call to arms, which poignantly reverberates in today's age of cultural consumerism.
"Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of the works."
The political fervour and fascination with underground religious beliefs and occultism of the eighteenth century is echoed two hundred years later in the Sixties, when many of the beliefs of the earlier period resurfaced. As well as political ferment there was an explosion of interest in such beliefs as the Western Mystery Tradition, paganism, Druidism, divination, sacred geometry – the whole concept of the landscape of Britain laid out in a magical tradition.
This Enchanted Isle
The Neo-Romantic Vision
from William Blake to the New Visionaries
WE ARE MAKING A NEW WORLD
There is no need for us to travel to exotic locations in search of lost tribes. We have one of our very own, right here in the British Isles. This lost tribe was a group of British artists, writers and film-makers who lived and worked between the two World Wars and until the mid-nineteen fifties. They then became part of a lost generation.
These artists were known as the Neo-Romantics and their work had a great influence on post-war Britain. Raymond Mortimer, reviewing the exhibition New Movements in Art – Contemporary Work in England, first used the term 'Neo-Romantic' in 1942 to depict a group of artists who shared a similar vision. However, there was no movement or manifesto. These artists were brought together by the conditions of the time. They were greatly influenced by the works of William Blake and Samuel Palmer. Certainly European art had been an influence, first with the painters Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse, as well as the Surrealist movement, but the British Neo-Romantics were more concerned with depicting the qualities of their own landscape and culture. This particularly connected with the English tradition of art which has its roots not only in ancient carvings, but also in illuminated manuscripts.
Although the Neo-Romantics embraced nature as their source, it was not a benign, sentimentalised vision of nature. There was often a sinister, barbed edge to it. Ruined buildings to be found in the bombed cities after World War II, where nature had reclaimed its territory, was a favourite subject. Their landscape often portrayed allegorical images conjuring up another dimension, an unseen reality beyond everyday appearances.
Paul Nash is the key artist in the Neo-Romantic tradition. When he went to the front as a war artist in 1914, he was so appalled at the destruction of men and landscape, that when he returned to England, his paintings changed completely. His work became bolder, stronger and was more influenced by Vorticism and Surrealism. Although he integrated aspects of Surrealism in his work, he finally rejected any 'isms' and developed his own unique visual language. He explored aspects of the English countryside which evoked a strange, otherworldly atmosphere. The phrase he used to describe his paintings was 'genius loci' – translated as 'spirit of place'.
During World War II, when European and British cities were devastated, artists, writers, poets and film-makers reacted creatively in response to the nihilism and destruction. After the war, the availability once again of Europe, of the brilliant colours of the south of France, Italy and Spain, were like a breath of fresh air to our monochrome, camouflaged, rationed Britain. These sun-drenched landscapes permeated post-war society. Ancient myths re-emerged: Icarus, Orpheus, the Minotaur. The shores of the Aegean could be felt in the galleries of London. And yet this was not simply a return to nature, a sweet and light fantasy. Like mankind, nature can be cruel and sadistic. Our cities with their bomb sites still unbuilt in the early Sixties presented us with ruins and shadows, an almost gothic splendour which certain artists such as John Piper, Graham Sutherland, and John Minton, revelled in.
Neo-Romanticism was often theatrical, combining a sense of drama with the macabre. It is flamboyant, embraces decorative qualities and nostalgia. It looks back to a Golden Age, not forwards with the idea of progression to be found in Modernism. Yet nostalgia can be many things, as the writer Kazuo Ishiguro says: "Nothing wrong with nostalgia. It is a much-maligned emotion ... nostalgia is the emotional equivalent to idealism. You can use memory to go back to a place better than the one you found yourself in."
(Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro by Suzie Mackenzie, Guardian Weekend 25th March 2000.)
Historically, Neo-Romanticism died in the mid Fifties. However, the imaginative doorway opened by Paul Nash still reverberates today with painters, writers and film-makers, out of the mainstream, quietly pursuing the quest for 'something beyond appearances' which does not fit into the vogue for cynicism or self-declaration.
The prevailing culture during this period was, of course, the cinema. Many now see the Forties and Fifties as the Golden Age of British film in which directors as diverse as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, David Lean, Carol Reed, Michael Crichton, and Humphrey Jennings, captured both the realistic and imaginary world of Britain. But it was also the cinema which imported and popu larised a whole new mythology – 'the American Dream'. Seen as the land of plenty, of endless sunshine and readily available sex, America, or at least the Hollywood version, was highly seductive. Along with the Hollywood movies came the invasion of American culture. The Abstract Expressionist painters Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell stole the scene. They changed the face of art, redefining space and mass, emerging as champions of a new creative impetus which challenged Europe as the bastion of culture. Only later did we learn how much of a cultural invasion it had been, propped up by finances from the CIA to counteract the dangers of the creeping European Leftism.
After the war ended, it could be said that Britain went through a crisis of confidence. Through the following decades we lost connection with our own source, with our own cultural roots. Hence our neglect of the Neo-Romantics. Despite this, however, an undercurrent of art, films and writing on the images and writings of William Blake, the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley, the antiquarian discoveries of William Stukeley, the magical realm of Doctor John Dee, persists to this day.
Another element which embraced the 'genius loci' subversively crept into our culture during the Sixties. John Michell had reintroduced a new generation to the mystical concepts of a 'hidden' British landscape with his book The View over Atlantis. Michell, a radical antiquarian, brought to life the idea of a carefully laid out 'celestial' landscape linked by ley lines. Ley lines had first been discovered in the 1920s by Alfred Watkins, a Herefordshire entrepreneur and pioneer photographer. These invisible 'lines of energy' connect ancient monuments, prehistoric stone circles, churches, even nuclear power stations – creating another dimension of reality. It is this psychogeographical concept that writers as diverse as John Michell and Ian Sinclair have explored over the last three decades.
The British have always revered the land. For artists it has always been a major theme. In our art, literature, poetry and music, the landscape continuously evokes an atmospheric and often mystical presence. This presence is aptly summed up by Christopher Hobbs who worked with Derek Jarman: "The Britain Derek believed in perhaps never historically existed, but is always present."
While investigating the Neo-Romantics, one could easily ask: where does it begin and where does it end? Although the artists, writers and film-makers included in this book constitute the nucleus of Neo-Romanticism, there are other strands, other influences which I have also included. John Cowper Powys, that magus and under rated writer considered by many to be one of Britain's greatest novelists, is a forerunner to some of the ideas found in Neo Romanticism. Powys' dense and imaginative writing explores not only the world of nature and mythology, but also the world of the inner self. His sense of nature is at times dark and brooding, creating an eerie sense of presence as if we are about to accidentally enter some elemental realm. Arthur Machen, another lost genius, not only evoked mystical realms amid the hills of Wales and the streets of London, but set the scene for the kind of gothic horror also found in elements of Neo-Romanticism. That haunted novel by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, appears both as an opera by Benjamin Britten with designs by John Piper, then later as the film, Jack Clayton's The Innocents.
And what of today? Amid all the Brit-Art hype there are those who are still pursuing a visionary quest, exploring the spirit of not only the landscape of the British Isles, but the urban and inner city spaces as well. This Enchanted Isle is a plea for a return to the art of the imagination – art which concerns itself not only with the 'genius loci', but connects the viewer to a higher state of consciousness. We need not go far for our terms of reference. We have our own indigenous magic, our own vocabulary hammered out through the centuries from ancient rituals, stone circles, hill figures, the language of Shakespeare, to the newly evolving awareness of ecological and mythological issues. This does not mean embracing a xenophobic attitude. We live in a world rich with diverse cultures. But it would be a tragedy to lose contact with our own roots. Finally, This Enchanted Isle is only a taste of the vast and complex world of creativity which depicts the magical and spiritual realm of Britain. This book is certainly not an exhaustive survey. The artists, writers and film-makers chosen here are but examples used to convey the flavour of Neo-Romanticism and the spirit of place. There are many others. Some may disagree with the categories. I can only hope that it will encourage further investigation into this rich and highly rewarding area.
The Traveller's Guide to ARTHURIAN BRITAIN
A guide to the history and fantasy, poetry and romance,
tradition and fable of King Arthur's Britain
The Arthurian Legend is unique. Nothing else is quite like it. During the Middle Ages, it was the favourite theme of imaginative writing throughout western Europe. In modern times it has re-surfaced to inspire novels, plays, films. Nor is it confined to such media. Britain, where it began, has well over 150 places that are associated with it. Arthur is more widespread in local lore than anyone else – except, it is said, the Devil.
Given this persistent spell, one naturally asks a plain question: Did Arthur exist? There is no plain answer. "Yes" implies that the monarch of the Legend, with his medieval splendour and magnificent court, was real. He was not. He is a literary creation. But the alternative "no" implies that Arthur is purely fictitious, with no factual basis at all, and that doesn't work either. Simply to say that no such person existed is not enough. More is involved than mere doubt or lack of evidence. His Legend does exist, copious and multiple, and has done for a very long time. Anyone who denies him can be fairly asked to account for it without him, to explain where the Legend came from if there was no Arthur of any kind. Few sceptics have seriously tried, and none has produced a theory that is any better than guesswork.
Since the question "Did Arthur exist?" can't be given a straight answer, the constructive course if we want to probe the mystery is to ask another question, starting from what does exist – the Legend itself. How did it originate, what facts is it rooted in? If we can trace it to its sources, we may find somebody lurking there. We must have no preconceptions as to who or what that somebody was. But, to be acceptable, he must account directly or indirectly for the items in this Guide.
Most of the Legend as we know it dates from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A series of authors built up the montage of characters and themes: the king himself, with his glorious and dangerous queen; Merlin, prophet and magician; the magic sword Excalibur; the Knights of the Round Table, dedicated to high ideals; the tragic love-stories of Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult; the Quest of the Grail; Arthur's downfall through treachery, his departure to Avalon, his cryptic death or more cryptic immortality. None of this is history as it stands. It is imaginative romance. King Arthur is an idealized medieval monarch, his Britain is a chivalric Utopia that never existed – certainly not in the far-off past when Arthur might be supposed to have reigned.
However, this lack of authenticity doesn't mean that there is no factual basis. Medieval romancers were not like modern novelists. Authenticity was not their concern. A novelist today, dealing with long-ago events, will try to portray people as they were, to re-create their ideas and beliefs, the houses they lived in, the food they ate, the clothes they wore. Writers in the Middle Ages had a different approach. When dealing with an ancient story they updated it, presenting it in terms of their own day and their readers' interests. Artists did much the same, as illustrated manuscripts show. The romancers who developed the story of Arthur were well aware that it belonged to a far-off time. What we would call their anachronism carries no implication that they didn't know what they were talking about. It was simply the custom of the age when they wrote.
Their romances, in fact, fitted loosely into a framework that was taken to be history. This was mainly due to one highly inventive author. He is known as Geoffrey of Monmouth, and he gave Arthur what amounted to an official biography. We must examine what he says. And we must ask where, if anywhere, he got it from. That is not an academic question. For a guidebook it is vital. Here are those numerous places with Arthurian connections: Tintagel, Glastonbury and many more. Should we treat all this as pure fantasy, concocted by Geoffrey and writers after him? Or are there underlying realities which their imagination fastened upon?
A "biography" and its setting
Monmouth, Geoffrey's presumed birthplace, is on the south-east fringe of Wales. His family background is unknown, but he was familiar with Welsh traditions, and interested in the Celtic Britons from whom the Welsh were descended. A cleric, and probably a teacher, he was at Oxford from 1129 to 1151. In the late 1130s he produced a Latin History of the Kings of Britain covering a stretch of time not far short of two thousand years. It makes out that wandering Trojans founded a monarchy in the island then called Albion and re-named it Britain. Geoffrey runs through a long series of British kings including Shakespeare's King Lear, nearly all of them fictitious. When he gets to the Roman conquest, and thus to recorded history, he has to be a little more factual. But he claims that it wasn't a true conquest, and British kings went on reigning as tributary rulers.
Britain, in his narrative, breaks away from the Roman Empire, and here he begins building up to an Arthurian climax. He tells us that a sinister British noble, Vortigern, made himself king, and two rightful princes went into exile. The usurper had trouble with the Picts in the north, and invited some Saxons, led by Hengist, to cross over from the Continent and settle in Britain as auxiliary troops. More Saxons flooded into the country and got out of control, seizing land for themselves and spreading chaos through Britain. Vortigern fled to Wales, where he encountered Merlin, who prophesied his doom and the advent of a deliverer. The princes returned, Vortigern was killed, and the Saxons were partially contained, though still turbulent and aggressive.
The elder prince, Aurelius Ambrosius, reigned for a short time. His brother Uther succeeded him. At a banquet in London Uther was seized with ungovernable desire for Ygerna, the wife of Gorlois, duke of Cornwall. Gorlois withdrew from the court taking her with him. Uther considered himself insulted and led an army into Cornwall to ravage the ducal lands. Gorlois left Ygerna for safety in a fortress out on the headland of Tintagel, accessible only along a narrow ridge, and marched off to oppose the king. He was outwitted. Merlin gave Uther a magic potion that turned him into an exact replica of Gorlois, and in that effective disguise he entered Tintagel past its guards and found his way to Ygerna, who, thinking him to be her husband, made no difficulties. She conceived Arthur. The real Gorlois had just fallen in battle, so Uther resumed his own shape and made Ygerna his queen.
Uther was poisoned by a Saxon, and Arthur became king while still in his teens. He soon showed gifts of leadership, and launched a series of campaigns, routing and dispersing the Saxons and subduing the Picts and Scots. He had a special sword called Caliburn, forged in the Isle of Avalon. He married Guinevere and made himself popular with his subjects. Next he conquered Ireland, and then Iceland (which would not have been difficult, because in those days Iceland was uninhabited). Twelve years of peace and prosperity ensued. Arthur founded an order of knighthood enrolling distinguished men from various lands. Britain was fast becoming pre-eminent in Europe. This was the time, or at least the beginning of the time, when the adventures related in romance were said to have happened.
The Roman Empire still had a shaky hold on Gaul, now France. Arthur had designs on the Empire himself. He won over many Gauls to his side, crossed the Channel with an army, and took possession. Around this part of the story we are beginning to get familiar names in the royal entourage – Gawain, Bedivere, Kay. Some years later Arthur was holding court at Caerleon in Wales when envoys arrived from Rome demanding that he restore his conquests and pay tribute, as earlier British kings had done. Judging attack to be the best defence, Arthur led another army to Gaul, leaving his nephew Modred at home as his deputy, in joint charge with Guinevere. While he was away Modred proclaimed himself king, conspired with the Saxons, and persuaded the queen to live in adultery with him. Arthur, who had got as far as Burgundian territory, was forced to return. He defeated and killed the traitor in a battle by the River Camel in Cornwall, but was seriously wounded himself and "carried off to the Isle of Avalon so that his wounds might be attended to", handing over the crown to a cousin. It is not stated that he died. Geoffrey knew of a folk-belief that he was still alive, and left the door open for it, but did not commit himself.
As to the time when all this is supposed to have happened, an important clue is that western Europe still has a Roman ruler. Since there were no emperors in the west after 476, Arthur's continental exploits must be before that. Allusions to a real emperor Leo, who ruled in the east from 457 to 474, narrow the range. This context for Arthur is in harmony with his family relationships. Unfortunately Geoffrey's readers are also given something rare in his History, an exact date, and it doesn't fit. Arthur's passing is assigned to the year 542. Its total incompatibility is one of several reasons for thinking it an error, and it can in fact be brought into line as an error of a known medieval kind, which we need not go into. If we dismiss it and take everything else together, we see a fairly coherent picture of a reign lasting twenty-five to thirty years, largely in the 450s and 460s.
So again, where did Geoffrey get this from? Did he get it from anywhere? Or was the entire Legend born in his imagination?
We need to understand how he works. In the previous part of his History dealing with the Roman period, where there is solid information, we can compare. First, he is not really writing history and he can never be trusted for facts. What he says about Julius Caesar and others is a travesty of the truth. Secondly, however, it is a travesty of a truth which is on record, and which he does to some extent know. He habitually uses history, or what he would like to think is history, to evolve his fiction. Except in the early chapters on mythical Britons in an impenetrable past, he doesn't contrive major episodes out of nothing at all. He draws his inspiration from real events or established stories or names or monuments; always from something. With his biography of Arthur, we can be sure that he has some basis for it ... or thinks he has.
As far as the hero's setting is concerned, he has. Post-Roman Britain is very poorly documented, but we can allow that his story shows knowledge of things that actually happened. Archaeology, while not supplying all the support we could wish, does supply some.
Most of Britain was under Roman rule for well over three hundred years. Its people were British Celts, ancestors of the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons; there were no English as yet. The upper classes received a veneer of imperial civilization and, in course of time, Christianity. As the Empire weakened in the west, under pressure from barbarians, the island on the fringe was exposed and hard to defend. Britain was beset by Irish, Picts and Saxons.
About 410, political upheavals cut if off from the centre and it broke away. The emperor authorized the Britons to look after themselves.
The administration carried on for a while, but regional chiefs were rising in importance, and one of them seems to have attained paramountcy over a good deal of the country. This was the Vortigern whom Geoffrey medievalizes as a crafty usurper. He played a leading part in a policy on imperial lines, providing a group of barbarians with land and supplies in return for keeping order and driving off other barbarians. Saxons, Angles and Jutes, ancestors of the English, were settled in Britain on this basis to contain the Picts. Here again, in the tale of Vortigern and Hengist, Geoffrey romanticizes facts. More settlers arrived without permission. Somewhere in the 440s the reinforced Saxons allied themselves with the Picts they were supposed to contain and began raiding far and wide, right across to the western sea. This phase of revolt probably dragged on into the 450s, a side-effect being a flight of Britons across the Channel, laying the foundations of Brittany.
At last the raiders withdrew into their authorized enclaves. The sequel was without parallel anywhere else. Alone among Roman ex-provincials, the Britons had become independent before the barbarians moved in. Now, alone among Roman ex-provincials, they cared enough to fight back. A noble, Ambrosius Aurelianus, organized counteraction. His name shows that his family was still Roman in its traditions and sympathies. To-and-fro warfare followed, and Saxon incursions at new points. Britain probably had long spells of partial and even general peace, but fighting in the 490s culminated in a British success at "Mount Badon", unidentified, though almost certainly in the south. For a while the situation was stabilized. A brief Celtic resurgence was marked by activity in the Church and swift growth of the colonies that were forming Brittany. Eventually the Anglo-Saxons took over most of the country and made it England – Angle-land – but the Britons' descendants held out in Wales and elsewhere, handing down songs and stories about the phase of independence.
Gildas, a monk writing in the 530s or thereabouts, testifies to the main post-Roman course of events. He is a sermonizer, not a historian. He makes terrible mistakes, and the only Briton whom he names between the break with Rome and his own time – a stretch of well over a century – is Ambrosius. Nevertheless he is an early witness for the Saxon disaster, the partial recovery, and the battle of Badon.
Geoffrey, in his corresponding chapters, is giving his own treatment to these happenings. He knows of Vortigern and he knows of Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom he turns into King Aurelius Ambrosius. Since he did have some awareness of this near-anonymous turmoil, we can reasonably ask whether he found a real Arthur in it – not, of course, the King Arthur of the Legend, but some Briton whom he built up into his towering monarch.
If we could trust his preface the answer would be "yes". He claims that he translated the History from "a certain very ancient book in the British language" given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. The British language could be either Welsh or Breton. Geoffrey and Walter were acquainted. Moreover, Geoffrey makes one specific statement about the book's contents, that it gave him information on Arthur's downfall: hence, presumably, on his reign. What he says about the book is, alas, incredible. He is simply trying to make his inventions more respectable by alleging an older source for them. Other medieval authors do much the same. Still, the touch about Arthur's downfall is an extra. Geoffrey may have had some Welsh or Breton text, now lost, that told of him.
While "may have" is not an argument, an original Arthur would at least fit into the sequence of events, as a leader during the phase of British recovery. There is a curious piece of evidence for him. His name is a Welsh form of the Roman "Artorius". It suggests someone from a family like Ambrosius's, still not remote from the imperial world. It doesn't suggest a Celtic god or fairy-tale paladin. Such a being would hardly have had a Roman name. The name is actually on record in Roman Britain, proof that it was known. Lucius Artorius Castus took a legion across the Channel in 184 to suppress a rebellion. He is much too early to be the original, and the notion of his having descendants or namesakes is a pure guess. But after a long gap with no other men so called, we begin to find several in the sixth century, up and down Britain, even in Scotland. It looks as if some saga had elevated a post-Roman Briton into a national hero.
We may be closing in on him. Failing the ancient book, what can we say Geoffrey of Monmouth knew that gave him inklings of such a person?
Arthur in Wales
Before his time, Welsh bards, story-tellers and clerics had generated a varied body of literature – much more, written and oral, than survives today. Arthur occurs in several connections. Poems extolled him as proverbial for prowess in war, and one said there was a mystery about his grave, though it stopped short of saying he was immortal and never had one. Other poems gave him a train of followers, some decidedly larger than life and credited with slaying monsters as well as enemies. Popular tales abounded. Most of them are lost, and we must infer their contents from tantalizing summaries grouped in threes, called triads. Early triads mention Arthur quite often, attesting his fame, but they are not much help as background for Geoffrey's narrative. From that point of view the only interesting ones are a few that refer to a sort of feud between Arthur and "Medrawd", and to a fatal battle at Camlan. There are hints here for Modred's turning against Arthur, though not for the circumstances, and for the final clash by the River Camel.
A single pre-Geoffrey tale has survived complete, composed in its present form late in the tenth century. Culhwch and Olwen ("Culhwch" is pronounced Kil-hooch, with the ch as in "loch") is colourful and extravagant and savage and comic. Arthur is the chief prince of Britain with a court assembling most of the men and women of note in Welsh tradition, as well as many mythical figures. Pre-Christian Celtic beliefs make their presence felt. One was that there are "Otherworld" regions – places not in our world yet somehow in contact with it – which are abodes of spirits and fairy-folk. An Otherworld ruler, Gwyn, is among the characters. Arthur and his company have fantastic adventures. They hunt a colossal boar, Twrch Trwyth, who is really a wicked king under a spell. This boar-hunt has left its mark on local lore. Apart from its literary merits, Culhwch and Olwen is a storehouse of information on Welsh legend. However, it is hard to trace any use of it by Geoffrey. He may have got the idea of Arthur's court from it, but the court he portrays is very different.
Finally, several Latin "Lives" of Welsh saints include anecdotes of Arthur. They are rather hostile, and inconsistent, making him sometimes king of Britain and sometimes a war-lord or "tyrant". A recurring motif is the saints' superiority, shown when their supernatural powers make him repent of his misdeeds.
From this Welsh matter, Geoffrey picked up some notions, and he picked up some characters – Merlin (originally Myrddin), Guinevere, Kay, Bedivere, Modred. However, none of it adds up to a real source for his Arthur story or any large part of it. Fabulous adventures, as in Culhwch and Olwen, don't disprove Arthur's reality. Fabulous adventures were ascribed to Alexander the Great and other real people. But we are certainly a long way from history.
Just two Welsh items – Latin items from Wales – are on a different footing. A tenth-century chronicle, the Annales Cambriae or Annals of Wales, has a couple of Arthur entries. It notes the victory of Badon, noted long before in Gildas's tract, and assigns Arthur a major role in it, saying he "carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ" – probably meaning an emblem, or one of the reputed fragments of the True Cross that were treasured as relics. Arthur is a Christian champion here against the heathen Saxons, as he is not in the Saints' Lives. The Annals also note "the strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell". While Medraut is Medrawd or Modred, the chronicler does not say that he was a traitor or even that the two were opposed. Attempts have been made to argue that the Camlann entry was posted from a more trustworthy chronicle nearer to Arthur's time, but there is no sound reason to think so.
Delving back farther, we come to a book written early in the ninth century, the Historia Brittonum or History of the Britons. It is attributed to a monk named Nennius, perhaps wrongly, but it is convenient to say "Nennius" to mean the author. The book is a medley of Welsh legend, just-possible history, and fantasy. It includes two local legends bringing in Arthur. If we stick to the parts that may have some relation to fact, we find an account of Vortigern, his opening the door to the Saxons, and the consequent catastrophe. There is also an account of his meeting a mysterious boy-prophet in Snowdonia, named Ambrose, with discouraging results for himself.
Nennius has a chapter on Arthur. Dropping out of the blue without much preamble, it consists of a rapid survey of twelve battles which he is said to have won against the Saxons. It may be based on an older Welsh poem in his praise, though no such poem exists now. Nennius is unclear as to his status. He makes him the British warleader, dux bellorum, co-ordinating the efforts of Britain's "kings" or regional rulers. This chapter was used briefly before Geoffrey by two non-Welsh historians, William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon. William infers that Arthur was a great, charismatic warrior in Ambrosius's service, not a king himself; Henry, that he was "the leader of the soldiers and kings of Britain". Both might have been the case at different stages of his career. Arthur is a Christian champion here too, carrying a holy image.
Nennius mentions Mount Badon, credited to Arthur as in the Annals, and presented as the climactic twelfth battle. The others build up to it, identified by puzzling place-names. The most comprehensible are in different parts of Lincolnshire, in the "Forest of Celidon", and in "the City of the Legion". The Forest of Celidon was in southern Scotland. Another passage shows that for Nennius the City of the Legion was Chester. All these battles, seven out of the twelve, would fit best into a mid-fifth-century setting. The Lincolnshire battles would have been against Angles encroaching up the Wash and Humber. There were no Saxons in Scotland till long afterwards, but during the anarchic phase of revolt and cross-country raiding they had Pictish allies who might have provoked reprisals. Chester, too far west for relevant war later in the century, could be allotted to the same phase, as the target of a cross-country raid.
Geoffrey makes use of these two texts. He improves Nennius's account of Vortigern, the Saxons, and the young prophet, though he makes out that the prophet was the youthful Merlin, thus introducing his second most famous character. He adapts some of the battles. He turns Medraut into Arthur's nephew Modred, deputy-ruler and traitor. He has Arthur fall at Camlann, revised and interpreted as the Camel. So parts at least of his Arthur story draw on earlier matter and are not total fantasy. His habitual practice is confirmed. However, if we are looking for real history, and particularly if we are looking for a real Arthur, the earlier matter is not early enough. It is written closer to the events, if any, but still centuries after them. And it already has touches of legend that cast doubt on it. At Badon, Nennius assures us, Arthur killed 960 of the enemy himself in a single charge. Heroes' deeds get exaggerated over the years, but not to this extent in contemporary reports. Because the Welsh present Arthur in such different guises – as a feuding chief, as a protagonist in impossible exploits, as a foil for the saints, as Britain's war-leader – sceptics have urged that he is too inconsistent to be true. Not so. The best parallel here is not Alexander but a more recent person, the American folk-hero Davy Crockett, given juvenile cult status by Disney during the 1950s. Born in Tennessee in 1786, he hunted in wild country and fought Indians, then went into politics, entering Congress in Washington as a picturesque backwoodsman. In 1836 he joined the Texan volunteers defending the Alamo against a Mexican army, and died there. In his political campaigning he had made his mark by telling tall tales from the frontier and encouraging supporters to embroider his own life-story in the same spirit. After 1836 legends clustered around him. Within a year or two he was alleged to have killed 85 Mexicans during the siege – not 960, admittedly, but the time for exaggeration was shorter. He was rumoured to be still alive. Yarn-spinners took up his tall-tale aspect in print, going beyond anything in Culhwch and Olwen. Their fictitious Davy rode on the lightning, climbed Niagara on the back of an alligator, greased the earth's axis to set it spinning again in a freeze-up. An American historian once complained that Crockett's biography could not be written because there were half a dozen of him. Yet he existed, and he shows that Arthur's inflation and diversification don't disprove his own existence.
To revert to Nennius, he need not be rejected as dis credited. He may be giving us facts, and so may the Annals. Some at least of the battles may be authentic; Gildas's tract is a much older testimony to Badon. But if we do try to treat this matter as history, we face an immediate problem. It makes Arthur's life-span absurd. The most acceptable battles, before Badon, only make good sense in the middle of the fifth century. Badon itself occurred not far from the year 500, probably a little before. So we would deduce from what Gildas says ... but the Annals contradict him, putting Badon in 518. They put Camlann in 539. To cover all the data Arthur would have to be an active warrior when over a hundred years old.
If these texts gave a chronological fix – a statement calibrating him with known history – we might be able to pin him down somewhere in the time-range, and then find explanations for whatever won't fit. The Welsh matter never gives such a fix. It never says Arthur was born when X was emperor, or died when Y was pope. Historically he hangs in a void.
All is not lost, however. We have one more resource, Geoffrey's account of the Gallic warfare, and it is far from negligible. It takes up half his Arthur story. Assessed by allocation of space, his Arthur is more a continental campaigner than anything else. He thinks this part of the king's career is very important. Romancers after him do not go so far, but their Arthur often has a continental domain. Modern readers and novelists are not sympathetic. After all, contemporaries across the Channel don't seem to have noticed any major British invasions. Yet if we dismiss this part of the story as imaginary, we must assume that Geoffrey is fabricating half of Arthur's career out of nothing at all. It is not his style. There has to be something, and since Welsh tradition has no trace of it, it must be elsewhere.
Furthermore, in his Gallic chapters he supplies what the Welsh never do, a chronological fix – the only one Arthur ever gets. The Gallic campaigns happen in the reign of the aforesaid Leo, emperor in the east from 457 to 474. Clues from other names tie down the final campaign much more closely, to a couple of years, 469 – 70. Geoffrey's indications of date are not often so precise. When writing of the final campaign he is thinking of something relevant which happened about then.
Something did. We are touching bedrock at last. In 467 Leo appointed a colleague, Anthemius, to take charge in the west. Anthemius tried to retrieve the situation in Gaul, much of it overrun by an assortment of barbarians. He negotiated an alliance with a man described as "the King of the Britons", who crossed to Gaul with 12,000 troops. Historians have underrated him in the belief that he was only a chief of Bretons, but that opinion no longer holds. He did come over from Britain. One historian, James Campbell, suggests that he had authority on both sides of the Channel.
After a pause north of the Loire, when he may have aided British settlers against marauding Saxons, he marched into central Gaul to oppose the Visigoths who were advancing from Spain. But Arvandus, the imperial governor, had been acting treacherously, proposing to the Visigoths that they should crush the Britons and share out Gaul with the Burgundians, who held parts of the east and south. Though Arvandus was detected, the Visigoths pushed ahead to Bourges, which the "King of the Britons" had occupied. After fierce fighting he retreated into Burgundian territory, probably in 470. No more is said about him.
Here we have raw materials for Geoffrey's story. The "King of the Britons" was in Gaul with his sea-borne army at the right time. He advanced to the Burgundian neighbourhood. He was betrayed by a deputy-ruler who conspired with barbarians. When we last see him he is even moving in the direction of a real town called Avallon (still there). Geoffrey's Latin form of that place-name doesn't correspond to its Welsh original and may well have been influenced by the town in Gaul.
Several authors have noticed this king and wondered if he was Arthur. The drawback is that he is referred to, with slight variations, as Riothamus. The h is due to scribes copying manuscripts with notions of their own about spelling. The correct form would have been Riotamus. Anyhow Geoffrey almost certainly has him in mind when relating Arthur's continental adventures. He inflates wildly, he changes the politics, he invents British successes – things he does in other parts of the History. But here, at last, the trail leads back to someone living at the right time who could be the original. Riotamus is the only documented person who does anything Arthurian, and he really is documented. We even have a letter to him.
The natural objection is, "Yes, but Geoffrey just took a hint from what this man did and made out that Arthur did it, or an exaggerated version of it. That needn't mean he thought Riotamus was Arthur. After all, the name is wrong." That fails to settle the question. Other people did think Riotamus was Arthur. A Breton, probably before Geoffrey and certainly not copying him, introduces a legend of a saint with a preface reviewing events in the fifth century, and sketches the activities of "Arthur, King of the Britons" (the same title) in terms that fit Riotamus. Half a dozen chroniclers, later than Geoffrey but still not copying him, concur to give Arthur a reign running from about 454 to 470, the year when Riotamus drops out of the record. Apparently they see the two as the same, and very likely they draw on somebody earlier who took that view. One other chronicle has an intriguing touch. It calls Arthur's betrayer Morvandus, which looks like a mix-up of "Mordred", the more literary form of the traitor's name, with "Arvandus", the name of Riotamus's actual betrayer.
As it seems that these authors equated Arthur with Riotamus, Geoffrey is probably doing likewise. The identification means that there has to be a solution of the name difficulty. Otherwise it could never have happened. It could be that Riotamus simply had two names, as some Britons did, that the other name was Arthur or rather Artorius, and that he passed into tradition under that one. A less conjectural notion would follow from the meaning of "Riotamus". It is a Latin version of a term in the British language, Rigotamos, "supreme king" or "supremely royal". It may have been a sobriquet, even a title, bestowed on a man after he rose to prominence, and used in addressing him or referring to him. He could have been Arthur.
That is to assume that "Arthur" came first and "Riotamus" was additional. It might have been the other way round, with "Riotamus" as the king's original style: more likely perhaps, since it appears later in Welsh adaptations as a proper name. As noted, a previous Arthur, Lucius Artorius Castus, took an army across the Channel. A leader taking another army across the Channel might have been hailed by some knowledgeable poet as a "second Artorius". And there is a last possibility, which is odd yet worth mentioning. If "Riotamus" was the king's original name, "Artorius" could have been a sort of nickname derived from it. ARTORIUS is almost an anagram of RIOTAMUS, and could have been suggested by a reading of the letters on (say) a medallion. RIOTAMUS, plus an r for rex, king, can be arranged quite neatly to give that result.
RIOTAMUS reads clockwise, omitting the R, which is slightly nearer the centre. The reading counter-clockwise, starting from A and bringing the R in, spells ARTORIUS. The M is left out, but it doesn't break the sequence of letters. Frivolous? Maybe. Still it is interesting that this can be done at all.
Nothing is on record concerning Riotamus, as such, back in Britain before he went overseas. However, he was important enough for word of him to reach Rome through the tumult of western Europe, and cause an emperor to seek his alliance. "King of the Britons" looks like an excessive title, but he was king of some of them and probably a good many, since he could raise a substantial army and assemble a fleet to carry it. His cross-Channel contact suggests that he ruled in the West Country, Arthurian territory, and he could just about have initiated the biggest "Arthurian" project revealed by archaeology, the refortification of Cadbury Castle, reputedly Camelot. If he was involved in the anti-Saxon resistance, all of Nennius's locatable battles could find a place in his timeframe. By the date of his overseas expedition, Saxon pressure had presumably eased.
We have a provisional answer to the question "Did Arthur exist?" though not the impossible yes-or-no. Arthur is almost entirely legend, at one level or another, but he has a real original, and that original may well have been the King of the Britons who went to Gaul. There is no firm evidence for any rival "real Arthur". Yet when we study these beginnings, we face legend-making in Britain as far back as we can get, even apart from the slaughter of 960 Saxons. No single leader is likely to have done everything Arthur is supposed to have done, fighting all the battles and falling at Camlann, especially if the Annals are right in putting Camlann in the sixth century. The Riotamus candidacy works well in the early part of the time-range. It gives an answer, if any is needed, to a cavil sometimes heard – that Arthur's name doesn't appear in Gildas. If he lived that much earlier, beyond living memory, no reader who has struggled with Gildas will be surprised that it doesn't. However, the candidacy runs into trouble later. If we forget all the medieval growth, Arthur still has to be a composite figure. The same could be said of Merlin, who presents difficulties of much the same kind.
In Riotamus we may have an authentic glimpse, a moment in continental limelight. But when he or some unknown became a British hero, under the great name, the saga absorbed the exploits of others, possibly others called Arthur. A Welsh poem indicates that a war-band known as "Arthur's Men" may have continued in being after his death, perhaps long after. If so, bardic praises of Arthur's Men, on dimly-recalled occasions, might have inspired legends of their founder's presence in person when he was long since dead. In discussing places associated with Arthur, we must sometimes content ourselves with meaning "the man who is said to have done such-and-such at this place", with no commitment as to identity. The mystery, in the end, abides.
The Anglo-Normans who ruled England in Geoffrey's time were receptive to his History, partly, no doubt, because it put the "Saxons" whom they had conquered in a poor light. Their successors ruled a large part of France as well, and were glad to have their parvenu empire given proud antecedents. In 1155 a poet named Wace, from Jersey, produced a free paraphrase of the History in French verse that made it more accessible. It was giving shape and coherence to a process which Wace noticed, the spread of other Arthurian matter. The saga which had grown up in Wales, and in Cornwall and Brittany too by now, was being disseminated piecemeal. A book by a French priest had recently recalled a visit to England as early as 1113, when West Country locals pointed out Arthurian sites, and, in Bodmin, insisted that King Arthur was still alive. Bretons were saying the same. There were at least two versions of this belief, that he was on an enchanted island – Geoffrey's Avalon – or that he was asleep in a cave. Either way, his return was hoped for. Breton minstrels said many other things about him, and spread through French-speaking lands and farther. Arthurian characters were carved over a doorway in Modena Cathedral, in Italy.
Without Geoffrey and Wace, it is unlikely that the scattered traditions would have converged in a single body of literature. Because of them, however, the latter part of the twelfth century saw the beginnings of an outpouring of narrative poems and prose tales in several languages. The great name is Chrétien de Troyes. The romancers created the full-blown Legend. New characters took the stage, among them Lancelot, and the Lady of the Lake. Merlin, who, in the History, had virtually dropped out after masterminding Arthur's birth, became the wonder-working sponsor of the whole reign. Other themes from Geoffrey were taken up and improved upon. He had introduced the knighthood, but the actual Round Table, imported by Wace from Breton folklore, became a ritual piece of furniture with symbolic meanings. Geoffrey had made Arthur hold court at Caerleon, an already-existing Roman city. Now he was given a headquarters of his own, Camelot. His sword Caliburn became Excalibur. Sometimes drawing on Celtic sources, more often not, romancers developed themes that are now familiar: the sword-in-the-stone test proving Arthur's right to the crown; the loves of the principal women; the fall of Merlin through his own love for an enchantress, who trapped him in a magic imprisonment; the acts of the ambiguous Gawain, though his greatest adventure, with the Green Knight, was a later topic; and the Quest of the Grail.
The last of these themes raises issues beyond the scope of fiction. Underlying it are pre-Christian myths about magical cauldrons and other marvellous vessels, and possibly, also, idiosyncrasies in the practices and beliefs of Celtic Christians. At its literary debut the Grail has a strange and rather disquieting ritual context. When fully Christianized it is explained as a cup or dish used by Christ at the Last Supper, with miraculous properties. It came to the "Vales of Avalon" in Somerset through the agency of Joseph of Arimathea, the rich disciple who provided Christ's tomb. He had caught drops of the Saviour's blood in it. Some time after its arrival in Britain it passed into the custody of a succession of guardians in an elusive castle. Many of Arthur's knights went in search of it. The romances are puzzling and contradictory. In the most important, the vision of the Grail is a spiritual initiation which only Galahad is worthy to achieve fully.
The key to the symbolism may have been lost. Ecclesiastics generally ignored the Grail and made no attempt to interpret it. From their point of view the stories, however Christian, were suspect. However, Joseph was named as the builder of the first church at Glastonbury, in the "Vales of Avalon". There, the monks of the Abbey had nothing to say about the Grail. Their chief chronicler made some use of the romances, but he told only of two small vessels called crnets which Joseph had brought to Britain, containing drops of the Lord's blood and sweat. These were holy relics with no mystical implications.
Glastonbury was also woven into the legendary fabric by the Abbey's assertion that Arthur was buried there and it was the real Avalon. Some accepted the claim, some did not, though no one seriously challenged it with a rival grave. In a famous version of his passing, when lying wounded after his last battle, he tells Bedivere to cast Excalibur into a lake. The knight demurs twice but finally complies, whereupon a hand rises out of the water, catches the sword, and draws it under. The king is then taken away to an Avalon that is not defined, perhaps to be healed and wait undying till the hour comes for his return. His golden age may not be lost for ever, it may be reborn.
Throughout much of the medieval period, the romances enjoyed a large public among the aristocracy and upper middle classes. One reason was that women were gaining ground socially, and their literary tastes carried weight. Unlike the martial epics of earlier days, Arthurian fiction had something for everybody. The love-stories – Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult – were a novelty, and while Guinevere was slow to mature as an interesting character, Iseult was always vivid and capable. Lords and ladies held "Round Table" entertainments at which the guests enacted Arthurian roles, feasted, and engaged in jousts and other suitable sports. Ironically, Arthur became a national hero of England, his role as enemy of the early English forgotten. Plantagenet sovereigns took him seriously. Edward I held five Round Table entertainments, and bolstered his claim to rule Scotland by saying Arthur had ruled Scotland. Edward III contemplated reviving the Arthurian knighthood, though, in the end, he founded the Order of the Garter instead.
The Arthurian wave gradually ebbed, but during the Wars of the Roses some of the best-known romances, most of them in French, were adapted by Sir Thomas Malory. More than an adapter, he made contributions of his own, one of them a great enhancement of Guinevere as a character. In 1485 Caxton edited and printed his writings, and Malory's version became the standard presentation of the cycle in English. It was the basis for many later works including Tennyson's Idylls of the King and the novels of T. H. White.
New perspectives, new departures
To sum up, the Arthurian Legend is a complex growth. Some of the stories belong to history, after a fashion. Some are myths and folk-tales that have been worked into the saga, and date from earlier ages as well as later. Some are barbaric, wild, timeless – products of bardic imagination. Some are due to the courtly romancers, and portray the king and those around him transformed into medieval figures. Stories appear on more than one level and in different forms. Even names vary widely and confusingly. "Drystan" and "Tristan" and "Tristram" all stand for the same person; so do "Medraut" and "Modred" and "Mordred"; so do "Gwenhwyfar" and "Guinevere" and "Ginevra"; so do "Essyllt" and "Iseult" and "Isolde".
Arthur can be pictured in quite a variety of ways. T. H. White, in The Once and Future King, was still sticking to Malory in the mid-twentieth century, though he superimposed modern ideas. But Arthurian authorship was already beginning to be affected by new research. Historians were re-examining sources, archaeologists were probing legendary sites.
An influential step had been taken in 1936 by R. G. Collingwood. Accepting Nennius's chapter on the battles, he suggested that Arthur was a Roman-style commander-in-chief who organized a cavalry corps and routed the pedestrian Saxons. The poet Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis, adopted Collingwood's theory. Others thought the cavalry fanciful, but, for several decades, were prepared to endorse the military view, sometimes looking toward the early sixth century rather than the fifth for Arthur's main activities. At length more critical studies swung the pendulum back toward scepticism. However, the "historical Arthur" issue had been raised and could not be exorcized. Riotamus, who had been noticed as a possible original long before (long before Collingwood, as a matter of fact), was rediscovered in the 1980s.
Archaeology had results which many found more exciting. Though never a deliberate search for Arthur, it drew attention to three places outstandingly linked with him: Tintagel, the scene of his conception and presumably birth; Glastonbury, with its Grail associations and grave; and Cadbury Castle, a hill-fort reputed to have been the real Camelot. In all three cases, the connection does not appear in written records for many centuries. Yet in all three cases, excavation showed that the places were British-occupied and important in the appropriate period. While it revealed nothing about Arthur, it proved that the people who focused on these places knew something about them and located him credibly. A purely accidental three-out-of-three score would have been too much. Knowledge of Arthur's Britain clearly persisted through a vast stretch of time. The story-tellers, therefore, were entitled to a hearing on other counts also.
When researchers dug into the strata underlying romance, some critics complained that their work was either destructive or pointless. New creative writing inspired by it refuted them. Rosemary Sutcliff in Sword at Sunset, Mary Stewart in novels of Merlin, Persia Woolley and Bernard Cornwell and others, bypassed the medieval scene and tried to recapture the world of Arthur as it might have been in its post-Roman reality. Marion Zimmer Bradley, in The Mists of Avalon, invented a new myth of her own with a woman as narrator. John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy in drama, John Heath-Stubbs in poetry, approached the subject by other paths again. Extension of knowledge has done no harm to the medieval cycle, which remains immortal literature. But it has enlarged and enriched the mythos itself with new insights into the enduring impression which Arthur and his companions have made.
It is because of this impression that "Arthurian Britain" is a meaningful term. Arthurian names, Arthurian lore, spread in a network over the land – a network of history and fantasy, poetry and romance, tradition and fable. Yet Arthurian Britain has an elusive quality. The map is unfamiliar. Oxford, Birmingham, Glasgow, do not appear on it. Zennor, Aberffraw, Drumelzier, do. Except at a few spectacular places like Tintagel, what often confronts the traveller is a kind of enigma: a landscape where a legend hovers; or some natural feature, an Arthur's Cave or Arthur's Hill; or a standing stone or fortification which is linked with his name or the name of someone in his circle. Why the legend, why the name? Even when a reason can be inferred, explanation may be in order.
Yet the quest is worth pursuing, the presence can be evoked. The tradition takes remarkable forms, clinging as it sometimes does to earthwork "castles" or hill-forts dating from the pre-Roman Iron Age, and to prehistoric structures older than that. With a few hill-forts such tales have a degree of substance, because they were re-occupied by Britons of Arthur's day. Sometimes, however, we get a name or a story only. We seldom know why the name was localized or when the story took shape. The process began more than a thousand years ago and has gone on into recent times.
It is striking that the Arthur of local legend appears as he does. He has very little fame in great cities and major historic settings. We are apt to find him in out-of-way places and on sites of immemorial age. Legend and folklore may belong to a half-barbaric fairyland, or carry echoes from unseen "Otherworld" realms of Celtic myth. Since the romantic image of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table has so long been the accepted one, it is strange how little impact it has had on place-lore. Moreover, most of the sites are in parts of Britain – the West Country, Wales, Cumbria, southern Scotland – where Celtic people, descendants of Arthurian Britons, kept their identity longest and in some cases keep it still. Even today, after all the literary development, Arthur's presence belongs mainly to regions where he could actually have flourished, not to the more English parts of England. As with the three archaeological sites, we glimpse a body of tradition that is rooted far back beyond the romances.