Legend and history at Tintagel

Laura Hodson, ‘“I expected … something”: imagination. legend and history in TripAdvisor reviews of Tintagel castle’, Journal of Heritage Tourism 15.4 (2020), pp.410-423.

The connection of the Arthurian legend and Tintagel is a marginal and ephemeral one. Not that you would know this from the amount of tourist tat that litters Tintagel village. Nevertheless, in the actual tale Arthur is conceived at Tintagel but not born there and is not physically present at the site during his adulthood. In a later addition to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story, Arthur is washed ashore at Tintagel and protected by Merlin in a cave. However, these provide thin links to the 5th/6th century archaeology and 13th century castle at Tintagel.

While the narrative only tangentially refers to the physical site, Tintagel itself also offered no tangible objects to connect with this narrative. This is why, according to this article, English Heritage added a sculpture of a knight and the Merlin carving. The intention was to provide something which visitors could attach to the pre-existing narratives that they bring with them to encourage a deeper and more imaginative involvement with the site.

But has that happened? Laura Hodson considers the role of legend and history in visitors’ expectations via a study of 386 reviews of Tintagel that appeared on TripAdvisor in 2018. While aware of the problems the relatively small sample size poses for the representativeness of responses she does not comment on the quality. Are those who bother to complete TripAdvisor reviews representative of the wider visitor population? Putting these caveats aside, she uses discourse analysis to discuss what role the Arthurian legend and history played in people’s visits. The answer is not a great deal.

Over half of the reviews made no mention at all of either legend or history. For these visitors the scenery or personal or family reasons to visit were more pertinent, or they had no preconceived expectations at all. The vast majority were more concerned with the steps and climbing the steep hill to the Island, now solved by English Heritage’s new bridge.

Gallos – great for selfies

For those who mentioned legend or history the reviews were more polarised. Reviews that mentioned legend were actually a minority, not much more than half the number of those including some mention of history, although obviously the line between these is somewhat fuzzy. The legend reviewers ‘engaged but only seemingly superficially’. Their engagement went little further than taking selfies at the Gallos statue and made little reference to the Arthurian narrative. In what might be seen as contrary to the expected, it was the reviews with references to history, or at least some of them, that were stimulated to imaginary and even poetic comments rather than those with ‘legendary’ expectations. Meanwhile, hardly anyone even noticed the Merlin carving.

However, history reviewers themselves were polarised. One group saw the absence of a castle and the presence of ruins and felt cheated. There was nothing to engage with; this wasn’t a ‘castle’, it was just a ‘pile of rubble’. The other group, in contrast, accepted the ruins as a template for an imagined world and used their imaginations to construct a picture of the place as it might have been.

Laura Hodson concludes that English Heritage’s addition of tangible objects has done little to transcend a ‘non-immersive’ and superficial visitor experience. Indeed, one might go further and argue it has merely reinforced that by providing a tangible object for ‘selfies’. Imagination at Tintagel is ‘sparked more by the history than by the legend, but only where history is seen as a tangible presence not an intangible absence’.

A prior knowledge of history would therefore seem to be required to make full use of the site. Instead of the Arthurian myth peddled by English Heritage, that could lie in the role of Tintagel as a centre of power in the fifth and sixth centuries. This status is becoming more obvious with the recent findings of three buildings on the south terrace of the Island. According to the archaeologists these were inhabited from the 400s to the 600s ‘and even perhaps to the ninth century’, with evidence of ‘conspicuous consumption and feasting’, which have ‘implications of how political power and influence at a local level may be played out’. (Jacqeline Nowakowski, ‘Working in the shadows of the giants: Charles Thomas, Courtney Arthur Ralegh Radford (and King Arthur) – past and current archaeological fieldwork at Tintagel’, in Andy Jones and Henrietta Quinnell (eds), An Intellectual Adventurer in Archaeology: Reflections on the Work of Charles Thomas, 2018, pp.83-100)

In my Cornwall’s First Golden Age I argued that Tintagel was the centre of power and tribute in fifth and sixth century Cornwall and these findings support that conclusion. However, the possibility that this continued into the 600s and beyond rather undermines my argument that centralised power structures collapsed in the 600s, only to re-appear fitfully in the 700s. It would be interesting to hear what archaeologists think of this model, initially proposed back in 2016.

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