9.5.16

CLOSING IN ON CAMELOT

Graham Phillips. The Lost Tomb of King Arthur: The Search for Camelot and the Isle of Avalon. Bear & Co., 2016.

Graham Phillips has come a long way from the heady days of 'psychic questing', The Green Stone mystery and ‘belief oriented’ investigation. Far from what I described in my review of that particular book as “[a] farrago ... offered without the slightest fragment of evidence, and no indication that any of the dramatic events described in the most purple of prose … ever actually happened outside the imaginations of the people concerned”, his latest book offers a great deal of evidence, often in such detail as to baffle anyone who does not have at least a passing acquaintance with Dark Age Welsh literature.

From the beginning Phillips makes it clear that we are not searching for the ‘King Arthur’ depicted in familiar stories from the Late Middle Ages, such as Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, which was itself derived and adapted from from earlier British sources, and later converted into Christian allegory. Rather Phillips is looking for the shadowy figure from Celtic Britain whose life and times most closely resemble those of the legendary King.

He starts by dismissing, in fairly short order, the traditional claims of some locations to be either Camelot or Arthur’s burial place. I feel that he may not be a welcome visitor to Glastonbury, for instance, particularly as he claims that the town council actually remove the references to ‘The Isle of Avalon’ from local road signs after the publication of his first book examining the Arthur legend. Tintagel and Winchester also receive the thumbs down, although civic authorities there seem to have been less responsive to his findings.

He looks one by one at the basic elements of the Arthurian story. In the chapter ‘The Swords of Power’ he points out that there are two quite separate swords in the legends, which have often become confused in the popular imagination – the sword in the stone and the sword cast into the lake as Arthur is taken to be buried. Casting swords and other offerings into a lake or river was part of pre-Christian Celtic funerary ritual, but suggests that this practice may have survived into the early Celtic Christian era, which continued a number of Pagan practices, later outlawed by Rome. The nature and location of the water into which Arthur’s sword might have been thrown is central to discovering a possible burial site.

The Round Table at Winchester - no big deal!
Other aspects of the legend are considered; Morgan, or Morgana, and her sisters are examined as Celtic goddesses later converted to Christian saints and the archaeological evidence for Phillips’s conclusions is clearly presented. Similarly, he discussed the significance of Merlin and the Bardic tradition; and the military, political and dynastic history of the British kingdoms and their gradual conquest by the Saxon influx from the east. One of the most iconic Arthurian traditions, the Round Table receives remarkably little consideration, being almost entirely an invention of later writers. Of course, these things have all been considered by other writers, and many have still concluded that Arthur was an imaginary figure made up almost entirely by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

To counter this assumption Phillips make a comprehensive study of early Welsh and Brythonic texts, genealogical records and archaeological evidence, to unearth what may be the historical reality behind the personalities and events from the Arthurian canon. Now I am not really qualified to make any sort of scholarly judgement on Phillips’s conclusions, and I doubt many other readers of this book will be either. However it is fully referenced, the sources from which he makes his deductions are open for all to see, and in the course of his research he has spoken to a number of established authorities, and discussed his line of argument with them.

I think that once one is able to discount the later accretions to the Arthurian tale, and accept that we are searching for a historical figure from an era where there is little written evidence, the argument of this book proceeds logically, and no great leaps of faith or imagination are needed to follow it, although it can be difficult at times for the Anglo-Saxon reader to make their way through the complexities of Early Welsh, which forms the basic evidence for the writer’s conclusions. A few chapters repay careful re-reading to keep up to speed.

But gradually a real historical figure emerges from the mists, the boxes identifying it as the proto-Arthur are ticked off one by one, and ultimately we come to the topic expressed in the title of the book – Arthur’s lost tomb and the location of Camelot.

It would be too much of a spoiler to give away the location that Phillips has deduced, except to say that it is very precise, but not one that I have previously seen suggested The careful step-by-step logic of his argument certainly makes it seem a very plausible site. I'm sure this will not be the last word on the topic, and others will draw totally contradictory conclusions from similar evidence, but this is a good, solid attempt to solve one of the perennial mysteries of English history and literature, and in doing so Graham Phillips has written a fascinating historical detective story. – John Rimmer.


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