NIGHTBRINGER | The Arthurian Encyclopedia

Topography and Local Legends

Places associated with Arthur fall into two groups. Only a few, though probably a significant few, belong to both. The first group comprises those where attempts have been made to establish his historical presence. The second comprises those where his name appears, or where local folklore or legend has something to say about him.

Other Arthurian characters occasionally appear in the same way. In the first group, the number of places counted depends on the number of speculations judged worth considering; but within the bounds of serious scholarship, this group is not large. The second can be defined more objectively. It embraces about 160 locations in Britain, plus a few more in Brittany.

Several places in the first group correspond, conjecturally, to battle sites listed in Nennius’s Historia Brittonum. This text supplies “the mouth of the River Glein,” “the River Dubglas in the district Linnuis,” “the River Bassas,” the “Forest of Celidon” or “Caledonian Wood,” “Fort Guinnion,” “the City of the Legion,” “the River Tribruit,” “the hill that is called Agned,” and “Mount Badon” – a total of ten names, plus an eleventh, “Breguoin,” which appears instead of “Agned” in some manuscripts. The problem in finding locations that these names may be thought to represent is that several seem to have been effaced when Anglo-Saxon settlement imposed a different language, while even the rest are, in varying degrees, questionable.

Philological scrutiny has yielded some credible equations. Glein means “clear” or “pure,” and there are rivers still called Glen in southern Lincolnshire and Northumberland. Both flow into larger rivers and have no “mouth” on the sea, but the word could be used for a confluence. Dubglas, meaning “blue-black” or “the black stream,” has a cluster of variants – such as Douglas, Dulas, Dawlish, Divelish – and is not helpful. But Linnius probably derives from Lindenses, the dwellers in or around Lindum, and points to what is now Lindsey, the northern portion of Lincolnshire. In conjunction with Glein, it could suggest that Arthur came to this part of the country to oppose Anglo-Saxon encroachments via the Wash and Humber.

Bassas and Guinnion are baffling, but the Caledonian Wood and the City of Legion are the nearest to being sure. The former spread over the southern uplands of Scotland, and the latter, in this context, is almost certainly ChesterAgned, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, is Edinburgh, but he is no longer taken seriously. One guess is that the name may come from a record of British acitivities in Gaul after the first migration to Armorica, and that Agned is a scribally contracted and garbled version of Andegavum, the city of Angers in Anjou. There Saxon settlers in the Loire valley were defeated about 469 by an imperial force that may have included Britons. The alternative Breguoin is believed to denote Bremenium, the Roman fort of High Rochester in Northumberland, but a poetic allusion to a battle there in the late sixth century hints that its connection with Arthur is anachronistic and therefore spurious (which may also be the case with any of the others, though nothing comparable suggests it).

As for Badon, the major victory, it has been detected in several areas. The surviving place-name Badbury is often invoked. On this basis, two former Iron Age hill forts, Badbury Rings in Dorset and Liddington Castle in Wiltshire, which has a village called Badbury close by, have both been favored; the latter perhaps more plausibly. However, Geoffrey’s identification of Badon with Bath is approved by some historians, who have stressed the potentialities of hill forts neighboring it, such as Little Solsbury.

Two further Arthurian places have been looked for with an eye to historical fact. These are Camlann (or Camlan) and CamelotCamlann probably means “crooked bank” and refers to a winding river, beside which Arthur could have fought against Mordred in his last battle. A present-day Camlan in Merioneth (Meirionydd) has attracted little attention. Geoffrey chooses the River Camel in Cornwall, not an absurd idea but usually dismissed as a mistake. The Somerset Cam has some support. Much has been made of the Roman fort Camboglanna (Birdoswald Roman Fort) on Hadrian’s Wall, because this name would have evolved into Camlann in Welsh, but the early legend of Arthur and Mordred implies a Cornish tradition and has no trace of northern origin. Camlann remains elusive. As for Camelot, fanciful identifications with Winchester, Caerwent, and Camelford rest on the misconception that the Camelot of romance was a real city. The only original reality here would have been some sort of Arthurian headquarters, from which the notion of the King’s having a personal capital might have been derived. In that sense, the claim of the Somerset hill fort Cadbury Castle carries unrivaled weight.

Places proposed as Kelliwic, Arthur’s Cornish home, may be allotted to this group, though even the likeliest of them cannot be given much credence as the residence of a real Arthur. The most favored site is Castle Killibury or Kelly Rounds, a hill fort near Wadebridge. Five other candidates include Callington, across Bodmin Moor, and Callywith, nearer to Bodmin.

Finally, one major Arthurian place raises no problem as to what or where it was, because it still exists under its old name. This is Glastonbury. The question is whether the connection with Arthur has anything in it, allowing Glastonbury’s inclusion among places where he may literally have been. Important here is the claim of the monks of Glastonbury Abbey to have found his grave. While most scholars assume that this was a fraudulent, some have argued for a prior tradition and even for a bare chance of genuineness.

If we turn to what may loosely be called Arthur’s folklore map, this had demonstrably begun to take shape by the ninth century. An appendix to Nennius listing various Mirabilia, or “Marvels of Britain,” mentions two that involve him. The first is in Buelt in central Wales, where Builth Wells preserves the name. This is a stone marked with a dog’s paw-print, made by Arthur’s dog Cabal during the hunting of the boar Twrch Trwyth, an adventure told at length in Culhwch and Olwen. It lies on top of a heap and cannot be removed, because, after a day and a night, it always reappears on the heap.

Not far from Rhayader is a hill called Corngafallt, Cabal’s Cairn (Carn Cabal), but it is uncertain whether this is the place intended. The second “marvel” is in Ercing (Archenfield), a district that stretched across Herefordshire. Near the spring Licat Amr, the writer says, is the burial mound of Arthur’s son Amr. Arthur killed him there and buried him. The mound changes in size, being anything from six feet long to fifteen at different times. Licat means “eye” and also the source of a river, the place from which water flows. The spring is Gamber Head, the source of the Gamber; the mound may have been Wormelow Tump, which no longer exists and therefore cannot be measured.

Two other scraps of local lore are on record before Geoffrey of Monmouth. Hermann of Tournai desribes a journey through Devon and Cornwall in 1113, during which the travelers were informed that they were in Arthur’s country and were shown Arthur’s Chair and Arthur’s Oven, probably rock formations or prehistoric stone structures. Arthur’s Chair cannot now be identified; Arthur’s Oven may have become King’s Oven on Dartmoor.

Numerous features of the landscape have acquired names like these. As a rule, it is quite impossible to tell when. Some are natural objects. Some are megaliths, dating from long before any imaginable Arthur. Largest of all is a mountain, Ben Arthur in Argyllshire. Britain has at least six stones known as Arthur’s Stone and eleven more known as Arthur’s Quoit, most of them in Wales. Four hills show a vaguely saddlelike configuration – a double top with a dip between – that has inspired the name Arthur’s Seat, the one beside Edinburgh being the most famous. Cornwall has Arthur’s Bed, a large stone lying flat with a hollow in its upper surface; Arthur’s Hall, perhaps a misunderstood medieval reservoir; and Arthur’s Hunting Lodge, the hill fort Castle-an-Dinas. Earthworks and other formations are “Round Tables,” to the number of five at least, a curious instance being at the center of King’s Knot below Stirling Castle, once a formal garden of the Royal Stuarts.

The legend of Arthur and his knights lying asleep in a cave has at least fifteen locations. Cadbury Castle is one of them. Others are in Wales, CheshireYorkshire, Northumberland, and Scotland. Normally, the cave is an enchanted underground chamber that is entered only under peculiar circumstances and can never be found otherwise. In addition, two real caves bear Arthur’s name, one near Monmouth, one in Anglesey.

At Tintagel, the scene of Arthur’s conception and presumably birth, and at Glastonbury, linked with him in several ways, local legends have been created by known literature, such as Geoffrey’s Historia and the Grail romances. A literary theme that has given other places an Arthurian aspect is the casting-away of Excalibur. This is said to have happened at Pomparles Bridge just outside Glastonbury, where there would have been an expanse of water; but it is also said to have happened at Llyn Llydaw in Snowdonia, at Bosherston Pool in Dyfed, and at Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor and Loe Pool near Helston, both in Cornwall.

GuenevereLancelotKayMark, and Tristan are also encountered here and there, but, next to Arthur himself, Merlin is the character who figures most frequently and widely. Besides various spots around Carmarthen, his reputed birthplace, his is mentioned at Drumelzier in Peebles and Marlborough in Wiltshire, having been buried in both; at Tintagel, where his ghost haunts Merlin’s Cave under the castle headland; and at other Cornish locations. Also, he is in a magic retreat on the Welsh island of Bardsey, keeping the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and a seat on which he will enthrone Arthur when the King returns.

Since only four sites of this type can be proved before Geoffrey – Nennius’s pair and Hermann’s pair – it is plausible to conclude that literature rather than genuine folklore accounts for most of them, as it does at Tintagel. Of those that clearly reflect romance, some may be surprisingly recent in their Arthurian guise. Dozmary Pool, for instance, has real folkloric associations, but they are not with Arthur. They are with Jan Tregeagle, a figure of popular legend whose ghost roams the moor. The Excalibur story may have been imposed on this atmospheric tarn in the course of the Arthurian vogue started by Tennyson. Even when a place’s Arthurian character is spelled out in a medieval text, the lack of any tradition older than that may be fairly obvious. Thus, Guildford is alleged to be Astolat, the home of the lily maid Elaine of Astolat, and Malory says so. But his only apparent reason is that his plot requires Astolat to be a halting place on the road from London to Camelot. Since he locates Camelot at Winchester, a glance at the map shows Guildford to be a natural choice. There is no need to postulate any prior folk-belief.

Yet explanations of this kind actually have only a rather limited scope. Considering how long the romance-image of “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table” has been familiar one, it is remarkable how little it has stamped itself on the landscape. Most of the Arthurian sites are in places that the romances never mention, often obscure and out of the way. The assorted Stones, Quoits, and so forth are things of immemorial age having nothing to link them with an idealized medieval court. Legends attached to them are apt to portray an Arthur who sounds like some timeless titan or demigod in a barbaric fairyland.

Whereas in his literary guise he fights giants, his topographic lore sometimes makes him a giant himself. Seated on King’s Craig in Northumberland, he tossed a huge boulder at Guenevere on Queen’s Crags – which are half a mile away. It bounced off her comb and now lies on the ground between, showing the toothmarks. On another occasion, walking through Carmarthenshire, he felt a pebble in his shoe and threw it aside, and it flew seven miles, landing on top of a heap of stones in the Gower Peninsula. That pebble is still there, the capstone of what is actually a megalithic burial chamber, and it weighs twenty-five tons. Tales like this, whatever their true age, owe nothing to medieval romance. They are rooted in the soil of Celtic imagination, Culhwch and Olwen country, with its superhuman denizens who can run along treetops, drink whole seas dry, and hear the stirring of an ant at a fifty-mile range.

The central contrast appears in the two main versions of Arthur’s survival. Romance puts him in the isle of Avalon. Geoffrey introduces this literary motif in his Vita Merlini. Describing the western “island of apples,” he shows acquaintance with Celtic myth, and probably with popular Breton ideas. Even so, the island retreat never commended itself to the folklore of Wales. There and elsewhere in Britain, Arthur lives on as the sleeper in the secret cavern, with attendant knights around him. In this case, we have two expressions of the same theme, and it is not the one known to romance that inspires local legends.

There is a further consideration. Taken together, the two versions, island and cave, amount the evidence for a common source long before Geoffrey – indeed, before Arthur himself, whose legend here seems to have annexed a senior one. In AD 82, an official named Demetrius, on a visit to Roman Britain, noted one of the few myths of the British Celts ever to be recorded in plain terms. His report, or some if it, is transmitted by Plutarch. The Britons told of a god lying asleep in a cave on an island, a warm and pleasant place “in the general direction of sunset,” with attendant spirits around him. Unfortunately, Plutarch’s chosen equivalent is Cronus, Zeus’s father and predecessor in sovereignty, who presided over a golden age but went into exile on his son’s rise to power. It is likely that both versions of Arthur’s immortality derive ultimately from this British Cronus, the departed ruler who slept in a cave on a paradisal western isle. Certainly, it emerges that Arthur’s cave legend has a remote Celtic antecedent, which supplied the mold, at whatever stage this particular hero was fitted into it.

To appraise the list of sites as a whole, in relationship to the map, is to bring out a further point. For eight centuries, romance has depicted Arthur as king of all Britain, yet very little indeed of the topographic lore has developed in those areas where Anglo-Saxon dominance has been fullest. Arthur, it has been remarked, is more widespread than anybody except the Devil; so perhaps he is, but he is not everywhere. Preponderantly, the place-names and local legends belong to the West Country, Wales, Cumbria, southern Scotland – to the Celtic fringe, where Celtic people, descendants of Arthur’s people, maintained a measure of identity longest, and in some cases still do. They occur in Brittany also, the overseas extension of the same fringe. In most of England, on the other hand, they are scanty. Arthur’s folkloric presence belongs almost wholly to regions where he might have been active and where descendants of the Britons did create a saga of him before medieval romance began. The inference is that the saga, not the romance, was the main foundation for local lore and that, however late some of this may be, it has generally depended on deep and authentic popular roots. Nothing necessarily follows, of course, about folk-memory of historical fact, though in a few instances (as at Cadbury) archaeology supplies grounds for suspecting it.

See also
Cave Legend | The Legend of King Arthur
Loire River | The Legend of King Arthur