Search for King Arthur and Camelot: History of the Search Part 1

About the search for King Arthur and the city of Camelot, history and background of the English legend.

The Continuing Search for . . . Camelot

BACKGROUND: Probably no single story in history or legend has gripped the Western world like the haunting and thrilling tale of King Arthur and his Round Table knights. As Arthurian scholars L. Sprague and Catherine De Camp say in their book Citadels of Mystery, "Enough has been written about Arthur and his knights to fill a whole room in a library." In the 19th century, for instance, more than a thousand years after the "fact," there was a veritable explosion of literature and art deepening the story of the "Stainless King" and his "Perfect Knights." Lord Tennyson in England, Mark Twain in America, Richard Wagner in Germany, all dealt with aspects of the Arthurian legend. In the 20th century writers John Erskine and T. H. White did likewise.

Central to every Arthur tale is his suppositious capital Camelot, that "rosy-red city, half as old as time." In Idylls of the King Tennyson described it this way:

O brother, had you known our mighty hall,

Which Merlin built for Arthur long ago!

For all the sacred mount of Camelot,

And all the dim rich city, roof by roof,

Tower after tower, spire beyond spire,

By grove, and garden-lawn, and rushing brook,

Climbs to the mighty hall that Merlin built.

More recently, and more familiarly, the Lerner and Loewe musical comedy Camelot consecrated the place in song:

Don't let it be forgot

That ere there was a spot

For one brief shining moment

Known as Camelot ...

In short, there's simply not

a more congenial spot

Than happy, everaftering

Here in Camelot.

CLUES FOR THE HUNT: Tourist attractions in England boast of "Arthur's Chair," "Arthur's Table," and "Arthur's Stone." But these are actually no more than neolithic dolmens dating from prehistoric times. Was there ever a Camelot? Did Arthur ever live? Was he a man or, as some scholars suggest, a "fairy king?" These questions have plagued historians and spun a bewildering web of conjecture, hints, possibilities, proofs, and theories. There has been a centuries-old struggle between history and legend over possession of the truth.

Oddly enough, the 1st documents mentioning Arthur omit any reference to his seat or city of Camelot. Nennius, in his History of the Britons written in 800 A.D., describes Arthur as a dux bellorum or commander-in-chief of the Celtic and Briton "kinglets" fighting against the conquering Saxons. Arthur slew 940 of the enemy single-handed in one day. The next mention of Arthur comes in the Annales Cambriae, alternately called the Welsh Annals and the British Easter Annals, compiled c. 955 A.D. According to this record of one battle in 518 A.D., "Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for 3 days and 3 nights on his shoulder, and the Britons were victors."

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