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A Journey with King Arthur

About once a year, I have a yen for the magic of King Arthur. To satisfy my urge for the legend that is such an eternal part of English literature, I reread Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave.

Although it is hardly classic fiction, the book captures better than any other version the clash of human vices-the lust for power set against flaws of character, whether greed, conceit, naivete, or dishonesty.

The first of three books about Arthur and his dream of a just world, The Crystal Cave plunges the reader into the story of Merlin, Arthur's elder cousin, the brilliant adviser who engineered a dream.

I never gave much thought to the legend's underpinnings until my husband Hugh and I decided to spend a summer vacation traversing every British rock stack associated with the Arthurian cycle.

At Tintagel, a slender spit of land connected to Cornwall by a treacherous causeway, we followed the ticket-seller's advice to "have a care" as we trekked up the crag that leads to a honeycombed arrangement of prehistoric rooms and a bracing whiff of the Atlantic Ocean.

In the clash of waves, sweep of sky, and scree of sea birds, I could imagine that such a place spawned Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon and unifier of a hotheaded, barely governable race faced with Saxon invaders from the east and impending domestic collapse.

From the shore we drove inland to the moors, places that I had read about so many times in fiction that I had them pegged to look like Arizona and the Hopalong Cassidy films of my childhood Saturdays.

Instead, I found knobby hillsides dotted with low-growing gorse and heather and pathways wandering in all directions, with no sign of a landmark, straight line, or right angle to guide me.

I twisted a road map to shreds while trying to help Hugh figure a way out of a hellish rabbit warren that bounded us. At length, intuition led us to a country house and directions from amused Cornish folk.

The next stop was our most telling experience. Between two farmhouses, we parked our rented Ford and climbed a steep grade to a cow pasture, complete with chomping guernseys.

In the near distance we could discern an oval barely lifting out of the turf and serving for the moment as a jogging path for a morning runner. This inelegant field of timothy and daisies, edged in sturdy oak and wavy oat fields, was Camelot.

That summer has never failed to return me to earth when I ponder the reign of Arthur, dispenser of justice to lords and lowly. Even with the backing of Merlin, a skilled sorcerer, the king, like all leaders, met his failings on an earthly plane.

Whatever the cause of his downfall-unfaithful wife, duplicitous best friend, or conniving illegitimate son-Arthur remains alive in song, film, and print as a symbol of leadership conceived in idealism but constrained by human obstacles.

Like the winners and losers of any power struggle, Arthur took his chances and governed the best he knew how. His tenure was limited, his outreach far greater than he envisioned. 

If the tall man buried by the stately woman in Glastonbury Abbey is the real Arthur, then he went to a noble grave knowing what the world continues to learn the hard way. However it is won, even the briefest moment of power comes at a price.

Charlotte Observer
"Catawba Valley Neighbors,"
October 21, 1992




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Mary Ellen Snodgrass Tel/Fax: (828) 324-0155