I Chased a Myth and Found a Country

This Old LandThis Old Land…    I chased a myth and found a country

by Connextions Magazine Contributing Writer, David Perry

The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.

The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

Two passages, 48 words. And it is all that we know about the man for sure. There was no enchanted sword, no fabulous capital, no Round Table, no father/incestuously-conceived son issues. He wasn’t even royal.

And yet from this footnote in the Annales Cambriae and an only slightly larger passage in the even more historically dubious Historia Brittonum, bard and balladeers had a field day bordering on farce.

Fairy maidens! Cryptic wizards! Treacherous half-sisters! Noble knights! Lecherous knights! Green Knights!

So was created King Arthur. Who cares if Medraut — aka Mordred — was turned into the bad guy? Who cares if Chrétien de Troyes brazenly made up entirely the idea of Camelot as a real place — and bumped off Caerleon, a real “real place,” to do it? Who cares if actual historical figures like Vortigern and Urien of Gore (Morgan le Fay’s husband) were pushed to the background in favor of Merlin and Guinevere, who are legendary at best, and Lancelot and Galahad, who make experts wonder what hallucinogenic the author was on? It was all part of the mythmaking, and de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory knew it. The man the Historia described only as a “dux bellorum,” a war leader circa 516 AD transfigured into the axis of a chivalric pantheon jam-packed with mirabilia of all sorts. And as with all good legends, the more you reverse-engineer Arthur’s story, the closer you think you get to his origin, the more it all flutters away, leading you on further down roads you never knew where there.

Which is the perfect way to explore Wales, a land so steeped in Arthurian myth his battle standard, a roaring red dragon, is the national flag. I heard Camelot’s siren call ever since I went to college in the idyllic town of Carmarthen, the legendary birthplace of Merlin, and became enthralled with the culture and the language (which is very different from English). All-things-Arthur saturates the cultural landscape, and I began my quest for the real Arthur in the capital of Cardiff. For all the city’s modernity, Arthurian echoes linger here; built 2000 years ago by the Romans, Cardiff Castle resolutely rises up smack in the middle of town, its walls resting on the original foundations. Arthur must have known about it.

“Must have known” quickly becomes the name of Arthur’s game. By the time the dux bellorum enters the record, Britain was a shambles. Abandoned by Rome and terrorized not only by the incoming Saxons, but also the incoming Jutes, Frisians, Danes, and Irish, the natives fled into the mountains of Wales, becoming the “Welsh” as they did, to regroup and refortify. That a territory the size of New Jersey has more castles than the rest of Europe combined loudly proclaims how hotly the land would be contested. Many of those same castles are potential Camelots, but the citadels and fortresses we see today, such as the haunting, and haunted, ruins of Cerrig Cennen, carry a historical sucker punch: They may have started out Welsh or even Arthurian, but when the Normans invaded Wales in 1067 (making them mere Johnny-come-latelies to the story), they obliterated and built over every original Welsh site they conquered. Having forgotten to pack my handy-dandy ground-penetrating radar, it make finding anything authentic to Arthur is a real bitch.

So I moved on to Swansea, a city more likely to embrace native son Dylan Thomas than a legendary king (rats). Still, although hunting for the ancient, I am not one to pass up modern conveniences when I find them: The main drag of Wind (“Whynd”) Street alive with techno and absolutely packed on a Friday; its two gay pub-clubs, the dignified Kings Arms Tavern and the, um, “very modernly convenient” Pulse form a complementary duo: If the crowd sours at one, just dart across the street to the other. And yet from this cityscape the days of yore rise in the grand form of Swansea Castle (another later Norman-ized site Arthur must have known) and my hotel, the stately Morgans, was once the Port Authority and recently marked its centennial. “Old” is never too far away in Wales.

But “very old” remains elusive. With the cities built and rebuilt, to find Arthur I realized had to get out of them.

Therein is the irony of Wales: The charm of the country is in the country. The villages threading the hills and valleys are windows into the nation’s culture — Welsh is the day-to-day language — and even more the history and clues to the real Arthur…and the legendary one. While sites attached to him spangle Britain, some, like his supposed burial at Glastonbury Tor, are clearly after the fact. But south Wales, particularly around the wind-scraped massifs of the Brecon Beacons, seems to have the lion’s share of legitimate claims; Merlin’s Carmarthen is in the south as is Caerleon, a Roman military base the ancient Welsh appropriated and in some tales is where Arthur had his HQ. Also in the south is a tiny hamlet that in its day was the center of the Welsh Universe, Hendygwyn-ar-Daf, and is where Welsh fact and Arthurian legend remain apart and bind together. Little remains of its former glory, but it was here the very real Hywel Dda, or King Hywel the Good, ruled over most of Wales by 942, and was the first to codify Welsh law. Tantalizingly similar to Arthur as a wise and just ruler (he even had an assembly of knights and lords like the Round Table), Hywel Dda’s “cultural memory” may have later woven itself into Arthur’s then-growing myth.

Not far away sits Laugharne, a castle-town whose fortified position at the mouth of the River Tâf on Carmarthen Bay made it strategic for everybody, Arthur included. As the sun set, I found myself tipping back the good cheer at the dizzyingly posh Browns Hotel, but it was not the beds that pulled me in (no offense), but the song-filled/food-filled/drink-filled pub. As the hard cider tipped back, Dogman the guitarist belted out the classics and it occurred to me I was doing what the Welsh had been doing since the beginning — gathering around the fireplace with friends new and old, sharing the good cheer, and singing along to songs whose lyrics I know every other stanza. There wasn’t a gay club for miles, but I didn’t need one; it was just that friendly.

That same friendliness was on display in Tregaron, a village I wandered into whose greatest claim to fame is that the townsfolk managed to poison a circus elephant — I’m not making that up, swear to God; it’s buried behind the boisterous Y Talbot pub. By happy coincidence, it is also the site of Rhiannon Jewelry, who crafted the rings for the first same-sex wedding in Wales using extremely rare Welsh gold and Celtic designs Arthur would have recognized on sight. But it was walls bordering St. Caron, a stout Norman church, that I found curious — they were circular, not the traditional rectangle. Churches “in the round” are subtle hints to a far older pagan past: The Druids, who persisted well into Arthurian times and served as templates for Merlin and Morgan le Fay, held their rites in circular groves.

I ended where I began, in Cardiff. After all the archeology, I welcomed the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa music in rainbow-hued Wow and Pulse (not the Swansea one, it’s a Wales-wide gay brand). But I wondered if I was any closer to Arthur. I found what he was, a “war leader”, and what he was not, a king. But as I walked by the walls of Cardiff Castle and their Roman foundations, it occurred to me that in questing for the king I had traveled all over the land he fought to protect, was enchanted by it, and fell in love with it. Just as he had been, and just as the Welsh after him had been. I think Arthur would have liked that.

As featured exclusively in Connextions Magazine, Issue 14.

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