Was Camelot simply some sort of medieval pipe dream? My library research had led me to think that some part of the legend might contain a germ of truth. It required me to take a fieldtrip down to Somerset, the summer land, and there the first stop on my journey to Camelot was the place where the fairies lived, and the Wild Hunt came to ground – Glastonbury.
All will be revealed!
It never failed to take my breath away: the sweeping view across to Glastonbury Tor, dramatically rearing its conical head some 500 feet (150 m) above the surrounding plain. At the first point in the road that afforded me a glimpse of the distant, mystic hill I felt the same thrill I had always experienced on many previous visits. The hill is strange, being visible from afar, yet disappearing from view when in the small town of Glastonbury which is at its foot. From some angles it looks like a narrow cone, from others like a whaleback ridge. “The vagaries of the scene have always disoriented me; at a given moment’s notice I never really know where the compass points are when I am on or around the Tor. The irrational scene loosens the grip of the ordinary and gives scope to the fantastic,” observed the late Geoffrey Ashe, an Arthurian scholar.
Even as recently as a couple of thousand years ago, the Tor and the land immediately at its foot had been one of several islands in a shallow sea of lagoons, swamps and marshes – the remnants of a Roman wharf survive in a nearby village. Only later in the historic era did drainage allow the land to be reclaimed though even now it is prone to flooding.
The magical allure of Glastonbury and the Tor reaches back deeply into the nightside of history. Was it the symbolic physical location of the fabled though mysterious otherworld City of Isle of Glass of the pagan Welsh Celts? The name it had prior to the Anglo-Saxon ‘Glastonbury’ was Ynys Witrin, which, according to some scholars, means ‘Isle of Glass’. There has been debate, but no one seems to know for sure. It is more productive, though no less tortuous, to explore the other name for the place – Avalon. This was the Iron Age Celts’ Isle of the Dead, the otherworld realm. Many locations have been offered for the symbolic physical location of such a place, from out in the Atlantic to islands off Wales. The actual name Avalon, though, translates as ‘apple orchard’ in the opinion of most authorities, so how come a connection with the dead? A suggested reason is because in pagan Irish mythology one version of the otherworld was pictured as being in the form of an island, Emhain Abhlach (Emhain of the Apple Trees). Also, apples have been associated with immortality from the remotest times in Europe. Another strand of opinion sees the origin of the name Avalon in that of a Celtic god of the otherworld, Avalloc. Whatever the source of the name and its associations, Avalon was Tir-na-Nog, the Celtic equivalent of the ancient Greeks’ Fortunate Isles, a place of sunshine and peace and perpetual youth. They were islands because evil spirits cannot cross water and spoil the blessedness of the otherworld realm.
The association of Avalon with Glastonbury was first mooted in literature at the end of the twelfth century and drawn into the Arthurian romances. Just how it came about remains something of an academic issue, but scholars agree that the mediaeval romances contain some motifs that appear in the Iron Age Celtic myths and tales, motifs such as the idea of a magical cauldron (a proto-grail) snatched from the underworld of Annwn, as survives in the Welsh poem, Song of Taliesin, of ancient oral origin but written down in the tenth-century AD. So, the mediaeval romances of England and France do incorporate, if at several removes, elements of early British material, but this deep core of pagan British tradition is covered by many layers of mediaeval fashion and fancy coloured by a Christianising bias.
Geoffrey Ashe draws attention to one legend about the Tor that he notes embodies a true folk belief not derived from such literary origins. It is in an account sourced from ancient times of the life of St Collen. The holy hermit lived at the foot of the Tor, the story goes, and one day he was requested to climb to the top of the hill to meet with Gwyn, son of Nudd (the water god, Nodens), and King of the Fairies. Collen at first resisted, but in the end went to the fateful rendezvous. At the summit he found a beautiful castle in which a glittering company was enjoying a magnificent feast. Gwyn was seated on a golden chair and invited Collen to join in, but the wily old hermit knew better than to eat the literally enchanting fairy food, and instead splashed around holy water from a bottle he had secreted in his garments. The magical scene instantly vanished, and there was only the wind left on the hilltop to keep St Collen company. Not only was Gwyn a fairy monarch, he was also the Lord of the Dead, of the Underworld, Annwn. Moreover, Welsh tradition identifies him as the leader of the Wild Hunt. The ultimate destination of this spectral procession of freshly-abducted souls was always the leader’s abode. “Thus, Gwyn’s presence goes far to establish a dim but venerable belief in the summoning of the dead to the Tor for passage to Annwn,” Ashe concludes.Carlo Ginzburg also points to a widespread tradition in Old Europe identifying Arthur as the King of the Dead, and remarks on the twelfth-century floor mosaic in Otranto Cathedral, Italy, showing ‘Rex Artú’ mounted on a ram leading a wandering band of animals, and later mediaeval references to Arthur leading the Wild Hunt.5 The theme of the journey to the land of the dead, occurs several times in the Arthurian romances, as do mysterious castles – archetypal symbols of the otherworld. Ginzburg also comments on the close similarities between the fairies mentioned in Scottish witch confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the fairies who populate the Arthurian romances. I could see that a confluence of deeply archaic themes swirled around the Tor like the silvery blue mists of the Somerset Levels that often veil its base, making it appear to float on a diaphanous, otherworldly sea. They all drifted around the same conclusion: that Glastonbury Tor had been an Isle of the Dead. This is the image presented in the later mediaeval versions of the Arthurian myth, in which we last see the mortally wounded Arthur being taken by a fairy barque or barge across the water to Avalon, there to be healed and to stay forever.
But this was just mediaeval fancy, wasn’t it? In fact, the recent research that had prompted my journey not only indicated that the vision of the Tor as the Isle of the Dead might go back much further than even the Iron Age, but also that the journey of the soul to it was envisioned as being accomplished by a ritual boat.
I pressed on south and west from Glastonbury through country lanes to the hill of Cadbury Castle.
The distinctively isolated hill of Cadbury Castle raises its broad flat summit above its wooded flanks to the same height as Glastonbury Tor. In the Iron Age it was turned into a mighty hillfort with four tiers of bank-and-ditch defences enclosing a summit area of about 18 acres. Only parts of these earthworks are now readily visible. Cadbury Castle has had a documented folklore association with King Arthur for almost five centuries, but these may have been oral traditions for much longer than that. The hill vies with places like Tintagel in Cornwall, Winchester, and sites in Wales as being the true location of King Arthur’s Camelot. In addition to the fact that it has the River Cam running beneath it and nearby ‘Camel’ place-names that are very ancient, archaeological investigation has tended to confirm Cadbury’s right to stake its claim.
It is now clear from excavations that the hill was used in one way or another for several thousands of years, with only a few breaks, from the Neolithic era through to the late Saxon period. The impressive defensive earthworks were built and maintained for a long period by British Celts in the Iron Age and the place was intensively occupied. It was probably also a religious centre. In the first century AD, the hill was cleared by the Romans – archaeologists have found jumbled skeletons along with metal spear points, showing that many of the occupants lost their lives in the struggle. In the few centuries following that, little happened on the hill that has left much of an archaeological record, but then activity recommenced with a vengeance in the fifth and sixth centuries AD – the Arthurian period. At this time, uniquely among all Iron Age hillforts in Britain, fresh and grandiose defence earthworks were built onto the old Iron Age earthen banks, and these were topped with drystone walling 20 feet (6 m) thick with a wooden superstructure punctuated by watchtowers. In a central position on the high part of the hill the foundations of what had been a large, well-crafted timber hall was found – ‘Arthur’s Palace’. Fragments of imported Mediterranean pottery were also found. This would never have been the romantic Camelot of mediaeval fancy, but it had nevertheless been an important and impressive citadel, and many scholars look kindly on the idea that it could well have been used by the historical Arthur, who appears to have been a great general if not a king.
Like Glastonbury Tor, Cadbury Castle is a topographical feature in the invisible country as well as in the visible one. Arthur is said to sleep within the hill – it was one of the ‘hollow hills’ of ancient lore. On its north-eastern corner there is King Arthur’s Well, and the hill is said to be haunted by Arthur. On Midsummer Eve, or Midsummer night, or even on Christmas Eve, depending on which version of the legend one opts for, the ghostly hoofbeats of Arthur and his knights can be heard galloping over the summit and out through the ancient southwest gateway. On the land below the southwest entrance to the earthworks are traces of an ancient trackway, whose course is said to run between the local villages of South and North Cadbury towards Glastonbury, 12 miles distant. Retained as a bridleway (horse track) until the late nineteenth century, it was called Arthur’s Lane or Hunting Causeway. It is said that the sound of riders and hounds can be heard passing along it on winter nights, and a witness in the early decades of the twentieth century claimed to have actually seen the ghostly horsemen with small flames dancing around the tips of their upraised lances.
Did that spectral company ride, then, from Cadbury Castle to Glastonbury Tor? Does this local legend of the Wild Hunt embody a deep memory of the journey of the dead to Avalon? The recent discovery that had drawn me to this place suggests that it does. Archaeological excavations on a spur on the western side of Cadbury Castle have revealed a host of finds dating over long periods of time, including a remarkable Bronze Age shield. But the discovery that interested me the most was the grave of an early Bronze Age man. His skeleton lay in a coffin over eight feet (2.5 m) in length made from long, narrow slats bound at each end so as to resemble a blunt-ended boat. It was aligned directly on Glastonbury Tor, visible twelve miles away on the skyline.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Arthurian myth is comprised of archetypal themes, a few drawn from pagan Celtic sources, fashioned in the mediaeval period, and then associated with the dim folk memory of a historical figure of the Dark Ages. But the implications of this very early boat burial at Cadbury, at Camelot, are that at least one theme more than 2,000 years older than any historic Arthur, and earlier than the Iron Age Celtic sources, can be found preserved in the mediaeval story of King Arthur. From at least the Bronze Age, and who knows how long before that, souls of the departed here in Somerset were making their last voyages to Avalon, the Isle of the Dead, in a similar way that the Bronze Age Scandinavians and the later Vikings sent their noble dead off to the Isles of the Blessed in their funeral ships, the craft we see pictured in the prehistoric rock art of Norway and Sweden, and in the boat-shaped settings of rocks around prehistoric Scandinavian burials. That memory had somehow survived through the Iron Age and lodged itself into the mediaeval Arthurian storyline.
I stood by the excavated grave pit and looked towards the Tor, which formed a distinctive landmark on the north-western horizon. It did not take much imagination to see picture the blunt-ended fairy barque bearing the dying Arthur across the smooth golden surface of a shallow sea to Avalon, its mystic peak silhouetted against the fiery glow of the setting midsummer sun.
As I turned to descend the hill my attention was arrested by an old tree whose pale bark was illuminated a fiery red by the dying rays of the sun. It provided a fitting, magical end to my journey to Camelot.
Ashe, Geoffrey. ‘King Arthur’s Avalon’ (1957)’; BCA edn., London, 1974.
Tabor, Richard. ‘South Cadbury: Milsoms Corner’, Current Archaeology, vol.XIV, no.7, 1999. (252)
Magin, Ulrich. ‘Ways of the Wild Hunt’, The Ley Hunter, no.118, 1993.