Photography by Susannah Relf
Photography by Susannah Relf

Events in Cornwall

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CXF Cornwall - the Connexions Forum

Cornish Myths and Legends;

Tintagel's Mythology including King Arthur

King Arthur

Cornwall and the legend of King Arthur are closely linked. Cornwall's claim to the story centres on the ancient castle at Tintagel. This remarkable site is certainly evocative of times gone by with its dramatic position jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean and castle ruins. In fact, the site was occupied considerably earlier than the 13th Century when the castle, whose remains we see today, was built.

Evidence of occupation has been found dating back to the 5th Century and archaeological finds from digs at the site seems to support the belief that it was an important Celtic stronghold and trading port in the period following the Roman occupation. This is significant, since many now believe that the Arthur story has its roots in that period and that the real life character behind the Arthur myth was probably a Romano- British warlord or tribal leader.

Tintagel fits the bill, in terms of many versions of the Arthur myth, as the location for Arthur's birth. There is a cave located within sight of the castle walls which would tie in with Merlin's role in Arthur's rise to power. Dozmary Pool, near to Bolventor on Bodmin Moor, is widely held to be the lake to which Excalibur was returned by Sir Bedivere and in which the Lady of the Lake was said to reside. Certainly, Cornwall's rich mineral resources means that the county's residents may well have had the knowledge and skills to produce a fine sword - from which the Excalibur element of the story may well have grown.

The final link to the King Arthur legend lies in Cornwall's proximity to the lost land of Lyonesse. It has long been held that there was land to the west of Lands End which has now sunk beneath the waves. Legend has it that this was Lyonesse. Similarly, others have linked elements of the Arthur story to St Michael's Mount, which can only be accessed via a causeway at low tide.

However they have come about, Cornwall's claims to the Arthurian story are enduring and have become an integral part of the county's mythology. Since Tennyson wrote the Idylls of the King, Tintagel has continued to feature in many a modern re-telling of the Arthur story, including Channel 4's "Merlin" which saw Merlin assist Uther to deceive the Duke of Cornwall's wife into infidelity and so become pregnant with Arthur.

It was in Tintagel, according to this re telling, that Morgan Le Faye plotted against her half brother Arthur and where Mordred, conceived in an incestuous union between Morgan Le Faye and Arthur grew to power eventually causing the King's death in battle.

Tristan and Yseult

Unusually, Tintagel claims a link to not one famous tale but two! It is believed that Tintagel was home to a series of Celtic kings after the Romans left Britain to try to prop up their crumbling empire back home. One of these Kings is believed to be Mark, whose nephew was Tristan of this famous tale. The tale of Tristan's love for Yseult, who was King Mark's wife, has been told and re-told many times. Like the Arthurian stories, these versions differ at times but unlike the Arthurian myth, this story is firmly rooted in Cornwall throughout.

Despite carrying out an affair with Yseult for many years, Tristan was a favourite of his uncle King Mark and served as a great Cornish hero and knight. In the tales Tristan travels to Ireland (where he slays a dragon) and Brittany (where he defeats a giant).

Throughout their difficult relationship, Tristan and Yseult narrowly escape from having their secret love exposed by the machinations of three nobles jealous of Tristan's power and favour with the King. The most daring escape is when Yseult has to swear an oath of her fidelity. She gets around this by staging a situation where a peasant carries her across some mud. The peasant (who is Tristan in disguise) slips and Yseult falls on top of him. With scrupulous honesty, then, the Queen swears an oath that she has had no man between her legs except her husband and the peasant she fell on earlier that day!

The lovers eventually meet a tragic end, however. When he is finally banished from King Mark's court, Tristan takes another woman as his wife, though he never consummates the marriage. When Tristan is injured and dieing, he sends for Yseult who is the only one who can heal him. It is arranged that if she is coming, the ship bearing her shall enter port with white sails. If, however, she does not answer is call the ship would sail with black sails.

Tristan's wife, out of spite and jealousy, lies to him and says that a ship with black sails has been sighted. Tristan's will to live fails and he dies. Yseult rushes to the aid of her true love but is too late. Out of grief she too dies in his arms, ending one of the great love stories of the British oral tradition in tragedy.

For full details of this great story and the Arthurian legends, including scholarly comparisons between alternative versions, you may wish to visit the Timeless Myths website.