March 22, 2021

C is for Camelot

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.  Be sure to check out all my fellow A-Z Bloggers at the Master List.)
        Camelot is King Arthur’s castle and court in the famous medieval romances about that noble king and his knights.  Although it was certainly supposed to be in Great Britain, its precise location is usually mysteriously vague, as befitted tales of chivalric romance.  However, people have naturally tried since the fifteenth century to identify it with some real historical place.  Despite the popularity of this game of hide and seek, I’m going to ignore all those theories today, because in my opinion they are missing the point.  The point of Camelot is its symbolism, evoking all the chivalry, romance, adventure, and nobility of King Arthur’s realm.
        King Arthur didn’t always live in Camelot.  In the early versions of Arthurian legend he travels around from court to court, his principal seat being at Caerleon, which is an actual city in southeast Wales.  Geoffrey of Monmouth placed Arthur here in his Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136).  Camelot is first mentioned by Chrétien de Troyes in the 1170s, but not until the thirteenth century French romances does Camelot begin to gain importance - and even then it’s only one of a number of cities and palaces associated with Arthur and his court.  It was Thomas Malory in his fifteenth century Le Morte d’Arthur who gave us the image of Camelot that we have now.
        So, what can we say about Camelot?  It’s located on a river downstream from Astolat/Shalott, surrounded by beautiful forests and meadows suitable for jousts.  It has many magnificent churches, including the spectacular St Stephen’s cathedral, and the architecture of the city and palace are particularly impressive.  Nowadays we picture this architecture in the wholly anachronistic High Gothic style of the Middle Ages, despite the fact that any historical Arthur lived around 600 years earlier.
        Camelot is usually depicted as the very essence of a fairy tale castle, though perhaps with a little extra fortress thrown in, as in the wood engraving by Gustave Doré.  Here Camelot sprouts from the sheer cliffs, towering over the many-spired city you can just see in the valley below.  However, these travellers approaching Camelot seem to be in a wilder wasteland than I would consider quite as idyllic as Camelot’s setting should be.  This does not look conducive to jousting tournaments.
        For my second illustration, I have a view from the first quarter of the fourteenth century.  It was standard procedure at the time to illustrate everything with contemporary clothing, architecture, etc, which works out just about right in this case.  Even though the illuminator of this manuscript would have thought of Camelot as ancient history, he (or she) nevertheless illustrated it with the medieval architecture of his own time, making it fit our twenty-first century notions of how Camelot should look.
        This anachronism is just fine, because after all, trying to make Camelot fit into real-life history is missing the point as much as trying to place it in real-life geography.  As a symbol of all our rosiest, most romantic notions about chivalrous knights of the Round Table and the courtly ladies to whom they dedicated their quests, it is perfectly appropriate that it should be grander, more beautiful - and cleaner and more comfortable - than any historical place could have been.  It stands for Arthur’s ideals of justice and honor, Lancelot’s prowess and heroism, Guinevere’s beauty, and Merlin’s magic.  It stands for a brief and shining period when chivalry and romance were supreme, before it all fell apart.
        The MORAL of Camelot: The grass always seems goldener if we call it a Golden Age.
              OR:  Might doesn’t make right… but surely a little jousting never hurt anyone.
        So, what do you think is the most romantic place in the world?


[Pictures: Journey to Arthur’s Court, wood engraving by Gustave Doré from The Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1867 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Arthur bidding farewell to his knights, illumination from Estoire del Saint Graal, Morte Artu, 1300-1325 (Image from British Library).]


12 comments:

Olga Godim said...

I love fairy tales castles. There are a number of fantastic images of them in classical art and in modern art too. But I think Camelot would be more a grim medieval fortress than an elaborate Sleeping Beauty's palace. Right?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I'm sure a real historical castle would have been quite horribly dreary - dark, dirty, cold, smelly... But that's what Camelot is all about: our fantasies rather than a much less pleasant reality.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I was never sure whether Camelot was a castle or a city. It would be a big difference. Early Medieval castles were not all that spectacular, or comfortable. Then again, thanks Disney, I think many people imagine Camelot along the lines of Neuschwanstein...

The Multicolored Diary

JadeLi said...

I agree that Camelot is a state of mind. Along that pathway, the most romantic place in the world is where two hearts join as one.

Two hearts join as one,
our own private Camelot --
roses ever bloom.


My A2Z for today is here:
http://tao-talk.com/2021/04/03/a2z-2021-day-3-to-cry-you-a-song-from-benefit-1970/

Lisa said...

The Arthur stories are so wonderful. I think I've liked them since the 1963 The Sword and the Stone movie when I was 6 years old! It was playing with Misty of Chincoteague, even though that came out a few years earlier. Not a faithful telling, but fun for little kids!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Zalka, I'm thinking that Camelot is a city which is so dominated by its castle that everything beyond the palace is an afterthought.

Jade, is that an original haiku? Excellent!

Lisa, I agree that The Sword in the Stone is a kids' classic. I think it's reasonably faithful to T.H. White, but I could be wrong.
Where's Sue when we need her to weigh in with her Arthurian expertise?

Frédérique said...

Camelot is very symbolic of this era, and I love the stories about King Arthur! In France there is this TV series named Kaamelott, a parody, and it's so fun!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Frédérique, it can certainly be fun to parody! In English the most famous and beloved Camelot parody is surely Monty Python's "Holy Grail."

Sue Bursztynski said...

You’re right, Anne, Camelot shouldn’t be located. It’s magical by itself, although, as someone says in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Let’s not go to Camelot, it’s a silly place!”

Sue Bursztynski said...

I just noticed, Anne, here I am! 😉 The Sword In The Stone was the first book of T.H White’s once And Future King, and I think, from my memory, the film was not too bad in following the book. Not everything was there, of course, but who cares? A delightful movie!

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Been thinking of doing an Arthurian film fest on my blog. Maybe in June.
I have always loved stories of Camelot, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table.

--
Tim Brannan, The Other Side: 2021: The A to Z of Monsters

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

One of my favourite mythical places!

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: Cunning Cats