The Keys to Avalon - History Book Uncovering the Real King Arthur in Wales

by JoHarrington

'The true location of Arthur's kingdom revealed' is the tag-line for this new look at the Arthurian legend. To my mind, it's the most convincing history of events out there.

It was with a mixture of fascination and frustration that I read 'The Keys to Avalon' today.

Glee because it laid out bare conclusions that I had been reaching myself, and disappointment, because it was the Arthurian history book that I'd been circling to write myself.

My friend recently asked me which history of Arthur was most worth reading, because 'there's a lot of crap out there'. I hesitated, as half the ones that I find useful need a bit of background in order to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Now I have an answer for him, and it's the one that I'll give to you too. If you only read one book purporting to tell the true story of King Arthur, then make it this one.

Article dedicated to Liam Dodd, with whom I share 'The Keys of Avalon.'

Charting the Arthurian Legend in North Wales

Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd locate the entire legend as taking place within this region. My own travels - literally and through literature - currently lead me to concur.

I spend a lot of time traveling through mid and North Wales. You have no idea how much.

My home is within the ancient borders of Powys. I can easily take day-trips anywhere from Blaenafon to Machynlleth, Wrexham to Dolgellau, even as far south as Aberystwyth or north as Harlech.

I visit often with a friend who lives close to Chester, itself the easternmost capital of 6th century Gwynedd.

From his house, we've frequently ventured as far as the tip of the Llyn Peninsula. We even went to Caernafon one evening 'for a pint of milk', that being more interesting than merely nipping to his local corner shop.

Though not fluent, I speak enough Welsh to get by, and understand much more than I speak.

I tell you this because those forays into the soaring heights and depths of 'wild Wales' have exposed me to a lot of places off the usual tourist routes. I've driven down tracks without sign-posts, just to see what's down there. I've passed through villages so tiny that they're missing from the more general maps.

What I read on their welcome signs, and found in out of the way locations, intrigued me enough to buy ordinance survey maps, peering more closely at the names of mountain-sides and valley fields. Translating from the Welsh with an ever-increasing sense of history and legend colliding.

Taken all in context, it felt like I'd stumbled across something half-hidden in plain sight for centuries. Facets of things screamed at us from the poetry left by the Welsh bards, so long ago.

It's no coincidence that my latest preoccupation with all things Arthurian was sparked by yet another visit to Cheshire (including actually going into the city of Chester); then nipping across to Fflint and taking a circuitous route though Denbighshire.

Driving there and back, through the very landscape described in The Keys to Avalon, inspired me to finally delve into the subject. Hence this sudden crop of related articles, penned by me, on Wizzley.

Occasionally a name leaps out of the annals of history with such force, that you just have to run with it. Maelgwn, ruler of Gwynedd, tested the patience of two saints.
A sexist exultation of wife abuse and male pride? Or a Medieval strike towards female empowerment? Erec et Enide requires some context to be enjoyed today.
Also known as Geraint Son of Erbin, this tale from the Arthurian Romances looks like the usual Sovereignty story. But there's much more going on than that!
Traditionally, Beltane bridal dresses are green, red or white/silver. To match the Lady as a May Queen bride, you will need to don a green handfasting gown.

The link between them all might not be obvious, but that's because you haven't been on journeys with me through Wales, noting place-names and peering carefully at piles of stone. You're seeing just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as it touches upon aspects that might be interesting to Wizzley readers.

You're not privy to the bigger picture forming in my head, nor the notes made on bits of paper or lodged in a folder on my hard-drive. You haven't the theoretical context that has been slowly growing into certainty, over months of noticing things, followed by a fortnight of properly investigating the known primary sources.

But now you don't have to wait for me to publicly put it all together. Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd have already done it for us all.

Check out The Keys to Avalon on Amazon

This is the Arthurian history book that I wish I'd written myself, and would have done, if its authors hadn't jumped in first!

The Keys of Avalon and the Welsh Bardic Legends of Arthur

This history of the real Arthur has been documented using the Welsh Bards as primary sources. It's a surprisingly novel approach!

Most attempts to locate Arthur rely heavily upon the Anglo-Norman, French and English versions of the story.

This is despite the fact that the earliest state outright that they are based on Celtic sources, while the later ones pretty much retell them, all the time up-dating the legends to suit their contemporary readership.

Where possible Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd have disdained them for the Welsh language sources of equal antiquity. The surviving output of the Celtic Bards takes precedence over the likes of Anglo-Norman Geoffrey of Monmouth or French Chrétien de Troyes.

Other reviewers have criticized the authors for it, stating that it narrows the field of research too much. Moreover it will naturally preclude the option of Arthur being found anywhere but in the bards' own locality.

But to my mind, it's an approach which makes sense on so many different levels.

No-one ever pretended that Arthur was anything but Celtic, however much he was dressed in Medieval French armor or placed into an Anglo-Norman castle. Everyone has always bemoaned the fact that much was lost due to the Celts having an oral tradition, without mentioning that it was the Bards who passed on those stories.

Preserving history and legends is what the Bardic system is all about! They prided themselves on memorizing their heritage in oral form, then passing them wholesale to those who followed. This is why there were strict bardic meters, and a tendency to group things into Triads. They served as mnemonics, and made it immediately obvious if something was missing or had been added in.

If any class of people had undiluted access to the facts about Arthur, then it was the Bards.

Mentions of Arthur are plentiful in the evidence left by the Bards in Wales. Some of whom witnessed the scenes that they were describing, or else wrote in the centuries immediately afterwards, based upon legends passed down in a Bardic meter.

Ignoring them has been like telling the story of Crazy Horse just from General Custer's point of view, while treating Lakota perspectives as irrelevant. Or only permitting Taliban sources to evaluate the events of 9/11.

Moreover, it's well established that English and Anglo-Norman writers have historically twisted Celtic legends - particularly those involving Arthur - to serve their own political needs, or else negate the threat in inspiring the Celts to rebellion. Starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth, who placed Arthur's birth at Tintagel, home of his Norman patron's brother; and including the most famous version, penned by Thomas Malory, who used the chivalrous Utopia of Camelot to obliquely criticize Plantagenet monarchs embroiled in the War of the Roses.

Their efforts rendered it acceptable - indeed obligatory - to always update the Arthurian legend, without regard to historical accuracy and/or a Celtic context, in order to express an alternative narrative. 

This tradition continues into the modern day. George Lucas used it as inspiration for his Star Wars movies, which some have viewed as an ideological commentary about Capitalism versus Communism; while a Feminist context is blatantly apparent in Marion Zimmer Bradley's (admittedly fabulous) best-selling Arthurian novel The Mists of Avalon.

Nor was it only the writers, who actively muddied the waters of inquiry into Celtic history and legends. Other members of the English establishment have long been engaged in that too:

  • Henry II claimed to have found Arthur's grave, spreading the news in a bid to counteract the Celtic belief that Arthur would come again to save the Britons from conquest. It failed.
  • Richard I (aka Richard the Lionheart) apparently had Excalibur in his possession and gave it away to Tancred of Sicily in 1191;
  • The 12th century monks of Glastonbury actually 'discovered' the remains of Arthur and Guinevere within the precincts of their Abbey, allowing King Stephen to ceremoniously rebury them;
  • Edward I executed over 500 Welsh bards during his conquest of Wales, because he perceived their danger;
  • Edward III relocated the Arthurian story to his own court in Winchester, and 'proved' it by hanging a round table from his wall; 
  • Henry VII named his eldest son Arthur, in a bid to have King Arthur sitting on an English throne (that failed because Arthur died, paving the way for his brother Henry VIII to become our most (in)famous Tudor king instead);
  • Henry VIII made the Welsh language illegal (something which has been attempted many times since too) - nid oedd yn gweithio yn dda iawn.
  • The Council of Trent in 1543 banned any telling of the Y Ddraig Goch prophecy (I've told it here).

Against such an onslaught of revisionism and dilution, is it any wonder that the Welsh feel that their cultural history and legends are rendered suspect in the hands of non-native story-tellers?

It's been a struggle of momentous importance to retain intact their own version of events. One which might be said to define the nation, insofar as it's even the subject of the Welsh national anthem.

The story behind 'Land of my Fathers' ('Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau') is one of poetry, bardic awen and the refusal to lay down and play dead.

Land of my Fathers - in title and opening lines - establishes that it's all about the history, before lauding the role played by its native bards in preserving the facts, and in providing a voice that seems to emanate from the very land itself, as solid as the bedrock. The legends, as told by the bards, acted as a counter-weight of reliability in the face of foreigners attempting to tear the same stories to shreds.

The muse has eluded the traitors' foul knives,
The harp of my country survives.

Given that this heritage is my own too, it's probably understandable that I am more willing to see the value in the authors of The Keys of Avalon prioritizing the testimony of the Welsh bards. My objectivity was compromised the second that they located Arthur in Wales, particularly since their conclusions tally so well with my own.

However, I hope that I've also made a case as an historian for answering critics reluctant to surrender more familiar sources in their own language.

Books about the Welsh Bards and their Arthurian Songs

'The harp of my country survives...' Celtic bards have always been the genealogists, historians, keepers of the legends and story-tellers of their people.

Locating a Welsh Arthur in Gwynedd, Powys and Ceredigion

Writers and historians have been trying for centuries to make sense of the curious mixture of myth, legend and reality surrounding Arthur. This book nails it.

In early Welsh versions of the Arthurian legend, normally Anglicized place names are retained in their original Brythonic form.

Many of them still exist to be marked on maps, or noted by the likes of me driving through them in our cars.

Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd followed the trail set out by the Bards, visiting places, pouring over old maps, delving into local histories and traditions, as well as examining known archaeology. The emerging picture was backed up with evidence wherever it was available, or logical conjecture when it was not.

Crucially, the authors restructured the Arthurian legend as referring to the British, rather than Britain. Applied to the fifth and sixth centuries, that shrinks the real world borders considerably. It produces a distinct region, wherein the known facts fit perfectly when superimposed over an actual landscape.

Arthur lived in Mid and North Wales. He was born on the Llyn Peninsula; raised in the mountains above Dolgellau; rose to prominence at a gathering in Machynlleth; established bases throughout Gwynedd - the old borders, stretching well into modern day Cheshire - and married in Chirk.

His fabled battles can all be located on the map, straddling the borders of Gwynedd and Powys with England. They include Mount Breiddon for the Battle of Mount Badon, which I always thought was a much better linguistic fit than Bath. The latter isn't even on a mountain, though that hasn't stopped it being most commonly cited as the likely location.

The Arthurian battle sites highlighted by Blake and Lloyd hold their histories in place-name evidence. Not only often matching those given in the legends, but being surrounded by slopes, local landmarks and other features, those names make it clear that a major clash occurred there. Some of them still display the grave markers, or else old maps and local lore tell us where they were.

Even more astoundingly, the authors of The Keys of Avalon found Gelliwig - named as Arthur's home before Camelot was invented by the French - right there in the region. They photographed the sign-post to show us, as well as the area itself.

They also discovered Caerafallach (better known as Avalon), which I knew damn well was there.

I drove through that area last summer. It became the precursor to a magical evening spent exploring country lanes and tracks, gasping in growing wonder and excitement at the names of places thus discovered - much to the consternation (and occasional bemusement) of three Scousers dragged into this spontaneous quest by virtue of being passengers at the time.

I bought them off with a stop at the pub in Llanynys (island enclosure), leaving them to their pints, while I checked out the local churchyard.

Maybe I could have run with my investigation then, researching much further and writing my own book about the real Arthur. But I still wouldn't have pipped Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd to the post.

The Keys of Avalon was published in 2000. I thoroughly recommend it.

Related Article

Historians argue endlessly about the location of Camlan, where legend relates that Arthur and Modred were killed. The locals just know. You may visit Camlan battle site.
Updated: 09/06/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 04/16/2014

Caerleon just means 'City of the Legions'; caer means 'fortress'; and its modern name of Chester means 'City'. It's had more names besides those, but we've tended to go for keeping it simple!

frankbeswick on 04/16/2014

I did not know that Chester had an older name, but considering that in Welsh it is Caer, I should have grasped this.

JoHarrington on 04/16/2014

I very much do think that Arthur had connections with Chester. Part of my wandering about the city uncovered enough hints of that, even if I hadn't already noted that Chester is such a recent name for the city. It's only late Medieval. Until then, it was called Caerleon.

Plus the authors of this book also find a lot of evidence to place him there.

frankbeswick on 04/16/2014

Excellent article Jo. Very enjoyable and informative. I have long believed that Arthur was North Welsh, though mid Wales is also an Arthurian location. I have always thought that the Tintagel tale was wrong. As you said, the Arthurian domains stretched into Cheshire, and, I suspect, Lancashire. At that time Powys stretched into Western England. In fact Wales stretched up to Cumberland until pressure from Northumbria and Mercia later shrunk it. Do you think that he had connections with Chester? Certainly one of his battles was at the city of the legions.

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