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King Arthur in Cornwall by W. Howship Dickinson




Honorary Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Longmans, Green, and Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London New York and Bombay 1900 All rights reserved


The following pages present an attempt to bring together what may be accepted with regard to the personality and actual life of King Arthur, while putting aside everything that is obviously or probably fabulous. I have endeavoured to give due weight to the evidence, both positive and negative, rather than to work up to a pre-determined conclusion. With regard to the evidence of a positive kind, if so it may be called, I have given especial weight to the details of topography, more particularly in Cornwall, with the Arthurian localities of which I happen to be more familiar than with those elsewhere.

The fame of Arthur as expressed by the association of his name with places is greater than that of any other personage save one who can claim this sort of connection with our island. On this showing, Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell sink into insignificance as compared with the Cornish Chief. Only the Devil is more often mentioned in local association than Arthur. That name, indeed, is almost ubiquitous, since it is to be found wherever local peculiarities exist which were not explicable to our forefathers save by infernal agency. The Devil's Dyke, The Devil's Bridge, the Devil's Jumps, the Devil's Frying Pan, the Devil's Post-Office, the Devil's Punch-Bowl, are a few instances among many. Next to the Devil in bestowing names on localities comes Arthur. But the two names are distributed in a very different fashion: that of the Devil is scattered impartially, being placed at random wherever thought suitable; that of Arthur is limited to certain districts in which according to history or tradition the hero lived or moved. This dissemination and limitation of the name must have some origin, and may be most obviously and reasonably explained by connecting them with an individual to whom it actually belonged. I hold Arthur to have been as real a person as Caesar or Cromwell, though less advantageously circumstanced for the recording of his deeds. The British Chief lived in the dark interval between two civilisations, between the departure of the Romans from the island and the establishment of the Saxon polity. The west and the north, which were the seats of his exploits, were remote from what had been the centres of Roman learning, and it may be presumed that Arthur's fighting men were only less illiterate than the Saxons with whom they contended. There may have been priests among them, for Christianity had already reached Ireland and touched the western extremity of England, but the priests, if priests there were, were probably more religious than literate. There was no Xenophon in Arthur's army, and perhaps no one who could read or write. No manuscript has come down to us from Arthur's time and place, though we have reason to believe that among his contemporaries and immediate successors were some who could compose and others who could learn, recite, and remember with advantages the deeds of a leader who made an impression on his countrymen which will probably never be obliterated. What was crystallised in metre was easily remembered and handed down with something approaching to verbal accuracy. The narratives not so expressed gathered exaggeration as they went on, until in the course of time both the facts and the fiction acquired the permanence of writing. Oral tradition is not to be ignored; indeed, a large proportion of ancient history must have had this origin.

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