Enchantment permeates Celtic mythology, shrouding the tales in a haunting, dreamlike quality. The all-pervasive otherworld lies behind much of the mystery and magic, penetrating the forests and lakes, and crafting charmed rings and weapons such as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. There are in fact many otherworlds of Celtic myth: invisible realms of gods and spirits, fairies, elves and misshapen giants, some of them sparkling heavens while others are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul. Common gateways to the otherworld are by water and across narrow bridges, beneath mounds or wells which hide glittering subterranean paradises or dark purgatories. Above all, it is on the eve of Samhain, October 31, that all the gates to the otherworld open and spirits emerge from beneath the hollow hills.
One of the most stirring aspects of the Arthurian legends are the wondrous lands which those myths tell of. Places like Camelot, Lyonesse and Avalon are inhabited by a mesmerising cast of knights, fair ladies, wizards and mythic beasts of all kinds. Camelot, Arthur’s shining city-castle, drew knights from far and wide to join the Fellowship of the Round Table, inspired by ideals of courage, honour and chivalry. Avalon was another name for the Otherworld, and was the place where Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged, as well as being the supposed site of his eventual tomb. Lyonnesse, meanwhile, was a land of strange beauty and romance, site of the tangled love story of Tristan and Iseult. What many people do not realise, however, is that all of these places have definite historical and modern counterparts in the real-life British Isles. One only needs to look to England’s mythical west country to find the likes of Camelot, Lyonnesse and Avalon, while even more obscure places, such as the Grail Castle of Carbonek, Arthur’s birthplace at Tintagel and the grim fortress of Perilous Garde can all also be found. If you look hard enough, the lost realms of King Arthur are not all quite as far away as you might think.
Knights – brave and doughty individuals trained in the art of swordsmanship, who fight on behalf of a lord or kingdom against great foes – are perhaps the most common and popular archetypal hero found in fairy tales and fantasy. Someone has to shine a light in the darkness, slay wolves and dragons and stand between all that is good and the forces of darkness. When predation rears its head and howls, a Knight may be all that stands between innocence and death. This character has a long and honourable tradition in the old tales; without his axe or sword, happily ever after might never come to pass. The typical image that immediately springs to mind when the word ‘Knight’ is used is that of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, each clad from head to toe in a suit of armour. But don’t let the word ‘Knight’ fool you – these heroic figures are known by different names all over the world. They were Cavaliers in England, Paladins in Italy, Chevaliers in France, Caballeros in Spain and Samurai in Japan. Despite the martial stereotype, this character does not even necessarily have to be a soldier. There is much more to being a knight than simply wielding a sword, as the following quote from the film Dragonheart makes clear: “A knight is sworn to valour. His heart knows only virtue. His blade defends the helpless. His might upholds the weak. His word speaks only truth. His wrath undoes the wicked.”
The very name of Merlin conjures up images of magic and mystery. Perhaps even more than King Arthur, the real character and person of Merlin remains obscure, lost in centuries of tales told and retold. The Merlin of legend is at once a master of enchantments, a prophet and a kingmaker. To understand the real Merlin, however, it is necessary to forget our modern conception of wizards and magicians, derived from Shakespeare’s Prospero, Tolkien’s Gandalf and T H White’s amiable but bumbling Merlin. These are recent inventions. If it is accepted that Merlin lived in the age of King Arthur (i.e. in the fifth or sixth century), he would have been a combination of a priest and a witch doctor, more akin to a shaman or druid than a wizard as such. There appear to be two contesting theories about the origin of Merlin: firstly that he was a composite of several different individuals and secondly that there was only one real Merlin, who was actually called Myrddin Emrys, and that he was a Welsh bard and soothsayer who died in the sixth century.
Everyone has heard of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table but, whilst there may well once have been a famous ruler named Arthur, no one can prove that he or his court ever really existed. Although the time in which King Arthur is supposed to have lived – in the fifth and sixth centuries – was a dark age in Britain, the story of his deeds and the valour of his knights blazed right through Europe. Various parts of Britain, from Scotland to Wales and Cornwall, claimed him as their own, while the French insisted that he was from their own Celtic hinterland of Brittany. Sicily is one of scores of places in which Arthur’s tomb is said to lie. Despite this international element one thing that appears certain is that Arthur was a Briton. While other countries may have the odd Arthurian battlefield, grave or castle, in western Britain there is hardly a range of rugged hills or stretch of rock-strewn moorland that does not claim some association with King Arthur.