It’s a grey day today—which is unusual for wintertime in my native Florida—but it’s decidedly dark and rainy. It seems like a good day to think about taking a vacation. It will come as no surprise to long-time readers of my posts that my dream vacation would be exploring Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, especially those sites associated with Celtic mythology.
Today, I’m laser-focused on Wales and Arthurian legend. What has Arthurian legend got to do with Celtic folklore? A lot! I know King Arthur has often been depicted as a great Anglo-Saxon king, but that’s simply wrong. That’s not my opinion. Most scholars agree Arthur was a 5th century warrior who defended the isle of Britain from invading Angles and Saxons. Some scholars will call him British (which is accurate; he lived on the isle of Britain). He also was likely a Celt as the Celts were the main inhabitants of the island before—and after the Romans.
Was Arthur Welsh? The Welsh like to claim him as their own, but Wales as a national entity didn’t exist in his day. The Cornish might argue that he was one of them. After all, according to legend, Arthur was conceived in Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. The English also like to claim him as their own, and the Scots can make a bit of an argument for him too.
Bottom line? No one knows for sure, but the earliest written documents about Arthur were written in Brythonic, which points back to the Welsh and the Cornish. But the fact is you can’t go very far in Wales without encountering someplace said to be associated with Arthur or, at least, an Arthurian legend character or battle. Even certain stones and horse footprints are said to have their origins in Arthur’s exploits.
So, if you’re ruminating about where to go on your next vacation and you’re an Arthurian legend lover like me, think no further. You need to go to Wales. And, if you do, here are a few top Arthur-related places to check out.
The best place to begin your Arthurian legend vacation—especially if your time is limited—is in Snowdonia. There are three reasons for this. First, this mountainous region in northwestern Wales is majesty, awe-inspiring, and breathtakingly beautiful. Even if you couldn’t care less about Arthur, go to Snowdonia. Secondly, there are lots of cool sites to see and things to do and, again, you don’t have to be into the folklore to enjoy them. But if you are into the legend, there is a high concentration of Arthurian sites in this one relatively small geographic area.
Many lakes (inside and outside of Wales) are said to be the home of the Lady of the Lake and the resting place of Excalibur. Snowdonia has three lakes are claimed as the latter. The three lakes are Lakes Llydaw, Dinas, and Ogwen. The bonus is that they’re near enough to one another that you can explore all three in one day.
Cwm Llan, also located in Snowdonia, is an area of great beauty. It has a hiking trail called Watkin Path that leads to the top of Mount Snowdon. Along the way are waterfalls and exquisite scenic views of the area. The area is significant for lovers of the legend because it is said to be the site of the Battle of Camlan. Arthur met his death during that battle when his son, Mordred, stabbed him. Of course, Arthur is said only to be sleeping and that he will rise again when Britons most need him.
Where is Arthur buried? There are many sites—all the way up to Scotland—that claim that honor. Surprisingly, none of them are in Snowdonia. Another mountainous region with waterfalls—Brecon Beacons in South Wales—is home to a cave, Craig y Ddinas, that is said to be Arthur’s resting place. But another leading contender is Bardsey Island just off of the tip of Llŷn Peninsula in northwestern Wales (Arthur sure got around!). The island also is said to be Avalon.
But back to Snowdonia for one last stop, and it’s a big one: Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon’s Welsh name). This mountain summit is said to have been the home of a giant named Rhitta. The giant had a penchant for collecting the beards of his enemies and he was making a cape out of them. But Rhitta felt his cape would not be complete unless he could snag Arthur’s beard. That was a mistake.
Arthur killed him and buried his body (it is said) under boulders at the top of Yr Wyddfa. Unfortunately, some of Arthur’s knights died in the battle against the giant and are buried under the boulders as well. You have to go to the mountain top to view the boulders. As mentioned above, you can hike up Watkins Path. But if you’re not the athletic type (I’m not), there is a better way up. You can take the Snowdon Mountain Railway, sit back, and enjoy the scenic ride to the summit. Click here for more information.
Camelot and Arthur’s Round Table
A multitude of places stretching across Wales, Cornwall, England, and Scotland have been put forth the original Camelot. I’ll only mention a couple. In a 12th century manuscript about the Arthurian story of Culhwch and Owen, Arthur’s court is said to be in Celliwig, Cornwall. Since Cornwall and Wales are so close to one another, I would suggest you take a hop over there and check out Celliwig—except there is no such place in Cornwall. Of course, placenames sometimes change over the centuries and scholars debate the actual location of Celliwig. Some even argue it is a farm called Gelliwig in Wales. But wait. Celliwig means “forest grove,” so trying to locate this setting from a medieval manuscript is challenging at best.
Still, taking a trip to Cornwall might be worthwhile. I mean, first of all it’s a lovely place, but there’s Arthurian reason to go. Two, in fact. You could check out Arthur’s Hall on Bodmin Moor. This is an ancient ceremonial site consisting of fifty-six large stones laid out in a rectangle. It’d be a really cool site to explore. That said, there is essentially no evidence—archeological or otherwise—to connect it to King Arthur. In fact, while scholars believe it to be a Bronze Age or Neolithic site, there isn’t enough archaeological evidence to say what it was. Why then is it called Arthur’s Hall? I have been unable to find out.
But while you’re in Cornwall, don’t miss going to Tintagel Castle, the place where, according to the legend, Arthur was conceived. Don’t expect an impressive fortress or beautiful palace. Much of the castle, which dates from somewhere during the 5th century A.D., is in ruins. But considerable archaeological excavation work has been done there and it has demonstrated that the location was a high-status building with evidence of fine quality goods imported from other European locations. Whoever lived there had money, power, and position. Could this have been Arthur’s Camelot? Who knows but, intriguingly, beneath the cliff on which the castle was built is a cave known as Merlin’s Cave.
The best recommendation I can give you is to go to Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales to visit Arthur’s Round Table. Be forewarned, though, you’re not going to see an elegant early medieval piece of furniture. Arthur’s Round Table is the name given to the remains of a Roman-era amphitheater. Again, there is no archaeological evidence connecting it to Arthur, however, Arthurian legend writers, specifically Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, and Lord Tennyson all associate the site with Arthur.
What About Merlin?
I can’t conclude this Arthurian legend tour of Wales without mentioning Carmarthen and Dinas Emrys. As I mentioned, I love the legends. What I haven’t said yet is that my favorite character isn’t Arthur. It’s Merlin. Carmarthen is said to be his birthplace and Dinas Emrys is an essential part of his childhood story.
Located near the village of Beddgelert (less than a half hour’s drive from Snowdonia) you will find the remains of the early medieval hill fort of Dinas Emrys. This stronghold belonged to Vortigern, a High King of the Britons, but it almost didn’t get built. The king chose a hill near Beddgelert as the location for his new fortress. Architects drew up plans and workers got to work but, to the king’s great frustration, the walls kept falling down. The building just wouldn’t stay up! The king’s advisers and soothsayers studied the situation and presented Vortigern with a solution. They told the king he needed to sprinkle the blood of a fatherless boy on the foundation. Immediately, the king sent servants out to find a boy with no father.
And they came back with a boy named Myrddin Emrys. Now Myrddin (later known as Merlin) was not keen on the idea of being sacrificed and he told the king that his blood would not solve the problem. Instead, Merlin claimed to have a vision. He said beneath the foundation lay a lake. Within the lake lived two dragons, one red and the other white. The two dragons, Myrddin insisted, were fighting with each other. He told the king to drain the lake. Vortigern ordered this done. The red dragon won the battle and flew away. After that, the walls of the fortress stayed up. In gratitude, the king named the site Dinas Emrys after the boy who quickly gained fame as a seer.
This story is also seen as a foreshadowing of the coming of Arthur whose father, Uther Pendragon, had a red dragon on his standard. The red dragon is now the national symbol of Wales.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this quick Arthurian legend tour of Wales. So, the next time you’re pondering where to go for vacation, consider Wales.
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Slán go fóill
All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.