Britons fight over their mythical king for the sake of tourism


Thu, Jul 22, 2004 - Page 16

As King Arthur and his legend lay siege to box offices around the world, conflict rages in the land of his birth.

For not only was Arthur Britain's savior in the Dark Ages against invading Saxons, he also works wonders on the tourism earnings of depressed local economies -- and several are vying for his services.

The tale of Arthur, the sorcerer Merlin, and the quest for the Holy Grail has long been a staple of British schoolchildren.

Most were taught he was born of an illicit tryst between the English king Uther Pendragon and the wife of his rival Gorlois after Uther sneaked into Gorlois' Tintagel Castle high on Cornwall's craggy Atlantic cliffs.

"They say it was right here that Merlin magicked Uther into the likeness of Gorlois so he could sneak into the bed of his wife, Ygerna," Cornish expert Rob Tremain said from within the stronghold's slate walls.

"We're quite confident that this was Arthur's birthplace," he added.

But a revolt is simmering north of the border in Scotland, according to author Alistair Moffat, whose book Arthur the Lost Kingdoms argues he was a Scot.

"The Cornish got seriously upset with me," he said. "A lot of the Cornish tourist industry depends on this."

Jerry Bruckheimer's movie, King Arthur, has Arthur as a Romano-British mercenary, played by a stoic Clive Owen. He leads a band of knights against Celts in Scotland, helping the Roman Empire as it retreats from Britain.

Guinevere, played by Keira Knightley, persuades the knights to switch sides, joining her Celtic brethren against Saxon invaders as they rush to fill the power vacuum left by the Romans.

To coincide with the film's British release Scottish Borders Tourism has launched a campaign highlighting local Arthurian connections.

It places Arthur's fortress of Camelot at Roxburgh, a full 756km away from the Cornish tourist board's preferred location near the town of Camelford in southwest England.

As further evidence to back up the Scottish claim, Moffat cites a 7th century poem found in Edinburgh, "The Gododdin," as the first reference to the warrior-king.

Enter the Welsh.

Twelfth century poetry from the Black Book of Carmarthen describes Arthur as a Welsh warlord, says Steve Blake, director of the Centre for Arthurian Studies in North Wales.

References to the castle in Tintagel merely stem from confusion with the Welsh word Dindagol, meaning "city on the headland," he says.

To historians, however, the conflict and confusion serve to illustrate a much more sobering possibility.

Folk historian Juliette Wood says that when different regions lay claim to a legendary figure, it can often be taken as proof that the figure was more myth than actual history.

"This localization of Arthur is the dead giveaway," she said. "In common with most academics, I don't think he was ever real."