The most famous West Country hero probably never existed.  Still, that doesn’t stop towns from advertising his presence.  Whether it is an assortment of wooden and plastic swords in Tintagel or the “Isle of Avalon” signage in Glastonbury (see Somerset geology), King Arthur has been and continues to be Britain’s most popular and marketable myth.  The legend that Arthur lived on a cliff top in Tintagel directed where a Cornish lord built his fourteenth-century castle and even helped the monks of Glastonbury fund the rebuilding of their abbey in 1192. 

 

Early literary sources for the Arthurian myths come from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory, who both established Arthur as a West Country hero.  The myths center around two sites—Tintagel and Glastonbury.  According to these legends, Arthur was conceivedKnight at Tintagel and maybe even lived there.  Glastonbury claims to be the resting place of the Once-and-Future King, though Arthur is also connected to the area through the Holy Grail legend.

 

Although stories about Arthur have circulated for even longer than their hero has been exploited, Arthurian legends experienced a resurgence during the Victorian era.  Unsure about modern society, Victorian writers, like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Stephen Hawker, looked back on this medieval hero to inform their views of the present.  

 

Tennyson was born in 1809 in Lincolnshire, the son of a clergyman.  Although Tennyson was a prolific writer (he was, after all, named poet laureate in 1850), the Arthurian project dominated his entire career (Machann 204).  Tennyson became interested in the legends surrounding King Arthur at a young age, and as a school boy, he looked at Welsh sources for the myth in addition to more standard texts like Malory (Cross 485-6).  According to literary critic Cross, while Tennyson made several research trips to Wales, the majority of his excursions were focused on Cornwall, where he even met with Hawker in 1848 (Cross 488).

 

Tennyson’s most famous and celebrated retelling of the Arthurian legend was Idylls of the King.  The Idylls tell the story of Arthur, from his rise to power as King of the Britons to his fall and journey to Avalon.  The first idyll outlines Arthur’s tenuous claim to kingship and his creation of Camelot, a natural, medieval utopia.  For Tennyson, the natural world is simultaneously dangerous and magical.  This discourse is clearly expressed in one of the early idylls, Gareth and Lynette, when the young Gareth arrives at Tintagel Castle:

 

So when their feet where planted on the plain

That broaden’d toward the base of Camelot,                                                             

Far off they saw the silver-misty morn

Rolling her smoke about the royal mount,

That rose between the forest and the field.

At times the summit of the high city flash’d;

At times the spires and turrets half-way down

Prick’d thro’ the mist; at times the great gate shown

Only, that open’d on the field below;

Anon, the whole fair city had disappeared. (“Gareth and Lynette,” 184-93)

 

Although Tennyson’s description of the fog-covered castle is beautiful and poetic, there is something ominous in the language.  The city has the magical power to disappear, and when Gareth catches glimpses of the castle, his observations are phrased in almost violent language—“rolling her smoke” (187) and “the high city flash’d” (189)—embodying an intensity that is not always found in pastoral verse.  For Tennyson, this intensity and beauty reflects the contradiction of the West Country landscape. 

 

While Tennyson alludes to West Country locations, he seems to rely on his reader’s general knowledge of Arthurian mythology to fill in the place names.  One of the only times that he actually mentions Tintagel is when a young novice is explaining to Guinevere the story of Arthur’s birth:

 

But after a tempest, when the long wave broke

All down the thundering shores of Bude and Bos,

There came a day as still as heaven, and then

They found a naked child upon the sands

Of dark Tintagil by the Cornish sea,

And that was Arthur… (“Guinevere,” 288-94)

 

Although Tennyson utilizes the West Country landscape, he is an outsider to that world.  To a large degree, his imagination fills in the gaps in his knowledge of the Cornish landscape.

 

Unlike Tennyson, Hawker was completely immersed in the landscape and culture of the West Country.  Hawker was born on December 3, 1803, in a village just outside of Plymouth.  After completing his studies at Oxford, he was appointed vicar of Tintagel ruinsMorwenstow, a small town in northern Cornwall.  According to literary critic and biographer Piers Brendon, Hawker’s assignment took him to a uniquely isolated landscape: “Morwenstow is indeed an awesomely bleak place, hemmed in by rough moorland to the east and so ravaged by storms from the Atlantic on its western border that the trees, when they grow at all…, bend inland to avoid the blast” (Brendon 62).  During Hawker’s lifetime, most of Cornwall was still extremely isolated from the rest of the country.  Although he traveled by train several times, a railway did not make it to Bude, the major town near Morwenstow, until 1898, twenty-three years after Hawker’s death (Brendon 65).  In his rural parish, Hawker spent his life plagued by bouts of depression and opium addiction. 

 

However, it was during one of these periods that he created his greatest literary work, The Quest for the Sangraal.  Intended to cover the scope of the quest for the Holy Grail, Hawker wrote the first of the planned five chants in the months after his first wife’s death.  However, he never finished the poem, which would have been the epitome of his literary career.  Indeed, according to Brendon, both Longfellow and Tennyson thought that Hawker’s The Quest was one of the greatest modern treatments of the Arthurian legends, and both admitted that it was better than Tennyson’s version (Brendon 200).  Hawker’s poem is firmly grounded in the Cornish landscape, since he spent most of his adulthood there.  While Tennyson implicitly places his stories in the Southwest and refers to the Cornish king Mark, Hawker explicitly makes Cornwall Arthur’s realm: “Ah! native Cornwall! throned upon the hills,/ Thy moorland pathways worn by Angel feet,/ Thy streets that march in music to the sea” (The Quest of the Sangraal,374-76).  When he first calls Cornwall “throned upon the hills” (374), Arthur creates a regal sense of the land.  He sees Cornwall as higher than the rest of the countryside, both physically and spiritually.  The spiritual superiority is reaffirmed in the following line when Arthur mentions the “pathways worn by Angel feet” (375).  He sees Cornwall as a place so close to God that angels come down out of the heavens to walk there.  As a medievalist, Hawker also glorifies this ancient landscape.  For him, Cornwall’s unique culture and landscape separates it from the rest of Britain.  He values its harsh, rugged landscape and its myriad of local folktales.  In his poem, he sets these values in opposition to Victorian materialism and lack of respect for natural beauty.

 

Hawker also presents a very different Arthur from the one portrayed by Tennyson because Hawker’s isolation in his parish at Morwenstow informed his view of the Once and Future King.  When Arthur says that a king, like a Tor, “[m]ust soar and gleam in solitary snow./ The lonely one is, evermore, the King” (The Quest of the Sangraal, 353-54), one can imagine that Hawker is expressing his own feelings of loneliness and isolation through his protagonist.

 

Tennyson and Hawker present contrasting but equally vibrant versions of these Arthurian legends.  While Tennyson makes a direct statement about Victorian society, especially in his dedication to the recently deceased Prince Albert, and tries to make the content relevant to his modern audience, Hawker stresses those very medieval ideals that existed in the historical time period he is writing about.  Still, both poets make the conscious choice to locate their works in the West Country.  Indeed, Glastonbury, the alleged burial place of this monarch, experienced a resurgence in interest and tourism during the time that these writers were publishing their works. 

 

Today, thanks in part to the re-exposure of these myths by Victorian poets and writers, King Arthur is alive and well in British society.  His presence is inescapable, whether it takes the form of the paperbacks that flood the used bookstores in Glastonbury or the Great Hall of Chivalry, with its laser show and Pre-Raphaelite stained-glass windows, in Tintagel.  Today, Arthur is everywhere, suggesting that perhaps the Once and Future King has already come again.

 

© Copyright Shea Davis 2007

 

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