Camelot is the most famous
castleand court associated with the legendary King Arthur. Later romance depicts it as the fantastic capital of Arthur's realm, from which he fought many of the battles and quests that made up his life. Camelot as a place is associated with ideals like justice, bravery and truth, the virtues Arthur and his knights embody in the romances. The stories locate it somewhere in Britain and sometimes associate it with real cities, though Camelot is absent from the early material. Most modern academic scholars regard it as being entirely fictional, its geography being perfect for romance writers; Arthurian scholar Norris J. Lacycommented that "Camelot, located no where in particular, can be anywhere." [Lacy, Norris J. (1991). "Camelot." In Norris J. Lacy (Ed.), "The New Arthurian Encyclopedia", p. 67. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.] Nevertheless arguments about the location of the "real Camelot" have occurred since the 15th century and continue to rage today in popular works and for tourism purposes.
The castle is mentioned for the first time in
Chrétien de Troyes' poem " Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart", dating to the 1170s, though it is not mentioned in all the manuscripts.Lacy, Norris J. (1991). "Camelot." In Norris J. Lacy (Ed.), "The New Arthurian Encyclopedia", pp. 66–67. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.] [ [http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cammenu.htm "Camelot"] . From the Camelot Project. Retrieved October 9, 2008.] It is mentioned in passing, and is not described::"A un jor d'une Acenssion / Fu venuz de vers Carlion / Li rois Artus et tenu ot / Cort molt riche a Camaalot / Si riche com au jor estut. " [ [http://europa.perso.cegetel.net/lancelot/lancelot/lancelot01.htm Lancelot Ou Le Chevalier De La Charette ] ] :Upon a certain Ascension Day King Arthur had come from Caerleon, and had held a very magnificent court at Camelot as was fitting on such a day. ["Lancelot", vv. 31-32.]
Nothing in Chrétien's poem suggests the level of importance Camelot would have in later romances. For Chrétien, Arthur's chief court was in
Caerleonin Wales; this was the king's primary base in Geoffrey of Monmouth's " Historia Regum Britanniae" and most subsequent literature. Chrétien depicts Arthur, like a typical medieval monarch, holding court at a number of cities and castles. It is not until the 13th-century French prose romances, including the Lancelot-Grailand the Post-Vulgate Cycle, that Camelot began to supersede Caerleon, and even then, many descriptive details applied to Camelot derive from Geoffrey's earlier grand depiction of the Welsh town. Arthurian romances of this period produced in English or Welsh such as " Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" did not follow this trend; Camelot was referred to infrequently and only in translations from French. In Britain Arthur's court continued to be located at Caerleon, or at Carlisle, which is usually identified with the "Carduel" of the French romances. [Ashley, pp. 612-3.] It was not until the late 15th century Thomas Malorycreated the image of Camelot most familiar to English speakers today in his " Le Morte d'Arthur", a work based mostly on the French romances. He firmly identifies Camelot with Winchester, an identification that remained popular over the centuries, though it was rejected by Malory's own editor, William Caxton, who preferred a Welsh location.Malory, "Le Morte d'Arthur", p. xvii.]
The name's derivation is also unknown. Some have suggested it is similar enough to other Iron Age and Romano-British place names such as
Camulodunumto suggest some historicity, while that particular locale was the first capital of Roman Britainand would have significance in Romano-British culture. Indeed John Morris, the English historian who specialized in the study of the institutions of the Roman Empireand the history of Sub-Roman Britain, suggested in his book "The Age of Arthur" that as the descendants of Romanized Britons looked back to a golden age of peace and prosperity under Rome the name "Camelot" of Arturian legend was probably a reference to the capital of Britannia( Camulodunum) in Roman times. If historical the first part of it, "Cam," could also reflect the Celtic word meaning "crooked" which is commonly used in place names as seen in Camlann. Given Chrétien's known tendency to create new stories and characters, being the first to mention the hero Lancelotand his love affair with Queen Guineverefor example, the name might also be entirely invented.
Description in the romances
The romances depict the city of Camelot as standing along a river, downstream from
Astolat. It is surrounded by plains and forests, and its magnificent cathedral, St. Stephen's, is the religious center for Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. There Arthur and Guinevere are married and there are the tombs of many kings and knights. In a mighty castle stands the Round Table; it is here that Galahadconquers the Siege Perilous, and where the knights see a vision of the Holy Grailand swear to find it. Jousts are held in a meadow outside the city. In the " Romance of Palamedes" and other works, the castle is eventually destroyed by King Mark of Cornwallafter the loss of Arthur at the Camlann. However maddening to later scholars searching for Camelot's location, its imprecise geography serves the romances well, as Camelot becomes less a literal place than a powerful symbol of Arthur's court and universe.
The romancers' versions of Camelot drew on earlier descriptions of Arthur's fabulous court. From Geoffrey's grand description of Caerleon, Camelot gains its impressive architecture, its many churches and the chivalry and courtesy of its inhabitants. Geoffrey's description in turn drew on an already established tradition in Welsh oral tradition of the grandeur of Arthur's court. The tale "
Culhwch and Olwen", associated with the " Mabinogion" and perhaps written in the 11th century, draws a dramatic picture of Arthur's hall and his many powerful warriors who go from there on great adventures, placing it in Celliwig, an uncertain locale in Cornwall. Although the court at Celliwig is the most prominent in remaining early Welsh manuscripts, the various versions of the Welsh Triadsagree in giving Arthur multiple courts, one in each of the areas inhabited by the Britons: Cornwall, Walesand in the Old North. This perhaps reflects the influence of widespread oral traditions common by 800 which are recorded in various place names and features such as Arthur's Seatindicating Arthur was a hero known and associated with many locations across Brittonic areas of Britain as well as Brittany. Even at this stage Arthur could not be tied to one location. [Ashe, Geoffrey (1991). "Topography and Local Legends." In Norris J. Lacy (Ed.), "The New Arthurian Encyclopedia", pp. 455–458. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.] Many other places are listed as a location where Arthur holds court in the later romances, Carlisle and Londonperhaps being the most prominent.
The romancers' versions of Camelot draw on earlier traditions of Arthur's fabulous court. The Celliwig of "Culhwch and Olwen" appears in the
Welsh Triadsas well; interestingly, this early Welsh material places Wales' greatest leader outside its national boundaries. Geoffrey's description of Caerleonis probably based on his personal familiarity with the town and its impressive Roman ruins; it is less clear that Caerleon was associated with Arthur before Geoffrey. The later French romances make much of "Carduel," a northern city based on the real Carlisle.
Malory's identification of Camelot as
Winchesterwas probably partially inspired by the latter city's history. It had been the capital of Wessexunder Alfred the Great, and boasted the Winchester Round Table, an artifact constructed in the 13th century but widely believed to be the original by Malory's time. Malory's editor Caxton rejects the association, saying Camelot was in Wales and that its ruins could still be seen; this is a likely reference to the Roman ruins at Caerwent. Malory associated other Arthurian locations with modern places, for instance locating Astolatat Guilford.
John Lelandreported the locals around Cadbury Castle in Somersetconsidered it to be the original Camelot. This theory, which was repeated by later antiquaries, is bolstered, or may have derived from, Cadbury's proximity to the River Cam and towns Queen Cameland West Camel, and remained popular enough to help inspire a large scale archaeological dig in the 20th century.Ashe, Geoffrey (1991). "Topography and Local Legends." In Norris J. Lacy (Ed.), "The New Arthurian Encyclopedia", pp. 455–458. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.] These excavations, led by archaeologist Leslie Alcockfrom 1966-70, were titled "Cadbury-Camelot," and won much media attention, even being mentioned in the film of the musical "Camelot". The dig revealed by far the largest known fortification of the period, with Mediterranean artifacts (representing extensive trade) and Saxon artifacts. The use of the name Camelot and the support of Geoffrey Ashehelped ensure much publicity for the finds, but Alcock himself later grew embarrassed by the supposed Arthurian connection to the site, following the arguments of David Dumville, feeling it was too late and too uncertain and modern archaeologists follow him in rejecting the name, calling it instead Cadbury Castle hill fort. [Alcock, Stenvenson, & Musson, C. R.] Cadbury remains widely associated with Camelot.
The fact there were two towns in Roman Britain named
Camulodunum, Colchesterin Essex, and Slackin Yorkshire, deriving from the Celtic god Camuloshas led to the suggestion they originated the name. However, the EssexCamulodunum was located well within territory usually thought to have been conquered early in the 5th century by Saxons, so it is unlikely to have been the location of any "true" Camelot. The town was definitely known as Colchester as early as the " Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" in 917. [ [http://www.s-gabriel.org/names/badger/placenames.htm Place Names] ] Even Colchester Museum argues strongly regarding the historical Arthur: "it would be impossible and inconceivable to link him to the Colchester area, or to Essex more generally" pointing out that the connection between the name Camuloduum and Colchester was unknown till the 18th century. [ [http://www.camulos.com/arthur/official.htm Official Response to linking Arthur and Colchester] ] Other places in Britain with names related to "Camel" have also been suggested, such as Camelfordin Cornwall, located down the River Camelfrom where Geoffrey places Camlann, the scene of Arthur's final battle. The area's connections with Camelot and Camlann are merely speculative.
Camelot has become a permanent fixture in interpretations of the Arthurian legend. Modern versions typically retain Camelot's lack of precise location and its status as a symbol of the Arthurian world, though they typically transform the castle itself into romantically lavish vision of a
High Middle Agespalace. It lends its name to the 1960 musical "Camelot", by Alan Jay Lernerand Frederick Loewe, which is based on T. H. White's literary version of the legend, " The Once and Future King". The musical was adapted into a 1967 film of the same name, which starred Richard Harrisas Arthur, and which featured the Castle of Coca, Segoviaas fittingly opulent Camelot. The symbolism of Camelot so impressed Alfred, Lord Tennysonthat he wrote up a prose sketch on the castle as one of his earliest attempts to treat the Arthurian legend. [Staines, David (1991). "Alfred, Lord Tennyson." In Norris J. Lacy (Ed.), "The New Arthurian Encyclopedia", pp. 446–449. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.] Some writers of the "realist" strain of modern Arthurian fiction have attempted a more sensible Camelot; inspired by Alcock's Cadbury-Camelot excavation, writers Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, and Catherine Christian place their Camelots in that city and describe it accordingly.
Sites and places associated with Arthurian legend
*Alcock, Leslie; Stenvenson, S. J.; & Musson, C. R. (1995). "Cadbury Castle, Somerset: The Early Medieval Archaeology". University of Wales Press.
*Ashley, Mike (2005). "The Mammoth Book of King Arthur". London: Running Press. ISBN 0786715669.
*Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.) (1991). "The New Arthurian Encyclopedia". New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
*Malory, Thomas (1994). "Le Morte D'Arthur". New York: Modern Library. ISBN 0-679-60099-X.
* [http://www.thisisnorthcornwall.co.uk/king_arthur.html About Camelot and King Arthur]
* [http://www.daysofwonder.com/shadowsovercamelot/en/ Shadows Over Camelot, a boardgame]
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