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Arthurian Sites in the West
C.A. Ralegh Radford & Michael J. Swanton
University of Exeter Press, 87 pages

Arthurian Sites in the West
C.A. Ralegh Radford
Courtenay Arthur Ralegh Radford (7 Nov. 1900-Jan. 27 1999), former president of the Royal Archæological Institute, the Prehistoric Society and the Society for Mediæval Archæology, amongst others, was a prominent British archæologist and historian. His full biography can be found here.

Michael J. Swanton
Michael Swanton is Emeritus professor of Mediæval Studies, University of Exeter.

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

For those of you hooked on Arthurian legendary and lore, Arthurian Sites in the West serves as a perfect counterpoint, describing and discussing the archæological evidence at four putative Arthurian sites in southwest Wales: Cadbury-Camelot, Tintagel, Glastonbury and Castle Dore and the Tristan Stone. Originally (1975) designed for specialists in mediæval literature attending a conference, the book's purpose was to present what, if any, hard archæological or historical evidence there was for the traditional association of certain sites in southwestern Britain with Arthurian legends. It is now completely revised and brought up to date by Dr. Michael J. Swanton.

First of all, this is no tourist guide to Arthurian sites, but rather an outline of hard fact vs. legend regarding a number of alleged Arthurian sites. It begins by outlining what sort of civilisation existed in western England in the early post-Roman era: what sort of sea commerce went on, what sort of religious and lay communities existed, what sort of raiders and invaders were about.

Chapter 2 discusses the hilltop fortress at South Cadbury, Somerset, a site occupied since Neolithic times and associated with Camelot. The buried structures discovered there in 1966-1970 digs give some credence that a significant population once inhabited this fortress-city site. Artists' recreations of the buildings thought to have stood there in early post-Roman times are presented. In Chapter 3, Arthur's alleged birthplace of Tintagel, a much eroded promontory surrounded by cliffs is discussed. The layout of buildings in different eras, its religious community and people are discussed. In Chapter 4, Glastonbury, near where Arthur is allegedly buried, is discussed. The possibly politically convenient "discovery" and exhumation of the alleged remains of Arthur and Guinevere and a nearby lead cross (now lost) inscribed with "Here lies the renowned King Arthur, with Guinevere his second wife, in the island of Avalon" is discussed. The authors also bring up the fact that the sea levels in Arthur's time were much higher and would have made of Glastonbury, at least at certain times of the year, a near island: like the mythical Avalon. The last chapter deals with the portion of Arthurian mythology told in the romance of Tristan and Iseult, including King Mark, the latter's uncle. Castle Dore, similar but smaller than the fortress at South Cadbury would have been consistent with a fortified hilltop of the fifth to seventh century. Nearby is a sixth century burial stone -- the Tristan stone -- bearing the inscription "DRUSTANUS HIC IACIT/CUNOMORI FILIUS, which with some linguistic massage can be interpreted as "Here lies Tristan son of Mark" -- a remarkable coincidence.

What this fascinating book basically shows, is that there are many tantalizing hints out there, but little hard evidence for a flesh and blood Arthur. Arthurian Sites in the West includes a number of maps and site plans, and an extensive bibliography, but thankfully has steered away from having footnotes throughout the main text, and from delving into the minutiae of every artefact or document. It is a clearly written, informative document, and certainly something the reader of Arthurian mythology should not be without. Other books about the historical Arthur, such as Geoffrey Ashe's The Quest for Arthur's Britain (1968) take a somewhat less rigorous approach to the evidence and may appeal more to those who take a more mystical/mythological approach to their Arthurian lore, but for those wishing truth over rumour, Arthurian Sites in the West is a good start.

Copyright © 2003 by Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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