Tintagel Castle is a hothouse of legend and unlikely histories. With a silvery childlike name, it stands rooted in the Celtic Sea, close to the curving turquoise grottos and the melting veils of salt. In winter the waves beat across the tumbled granite like fists; in summer they hiss like dragons, asleep in the hidden, subterranean caves.
A gray skeleton crumbling into the grass, its wounded remains shiver in the Cornish air…the noble bones of arches and turrets. Once it crawled up the coast: a granite community born in the Dark Ages, when priests made forests into sanctuaries, when serpents patrolled the ends of the oceans – looking for the painted, foolish ships.
“Ten miles away from his castle, called Terrabil, there was, in the castle Tintagil Igraine of Cornwall, that King Uther liked and loved well, for she was a good and fair lady, and passing wise.”
During the Middle Ages, myth and fact either fought like two caged lions – or they would curl lovingly about each other to create stories that would last forever. Between the years of 1135-38, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the “Historia Regum Britanniae”, which he described as an ‘ancient book in the British language that told in orderly fashion the deeds of all the kings of Britain’. Included in that pantheon was King Arthur.
Geoffrey wrote of Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon – a cruel name that spoke of an antediluvian world of towering men and hidden women – and his love for Igraine. His desperation drove him to go to war against Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, and Igraine’s husband. Before the two armies thundered into each other across the earth that still vibrates with their ferocity, Gorlois placed Igraine within his most secure castle, Tintagel.
Uther was told by a friend that Tintagel was fearless and could not be taken, for ‘it is right by the sea, and surrounded by the sea on all sides; and there is no other way into it, except that provided by a narrow rocky passage–and there, three armed warriors could forbid all entry, even if you took up your stand with the whole of Britain behind you.’
The wizard Merlin was summoned to create an alchemy of magic and potions to change Uther’s outward appearance to that of Gorlois’. Unfairly disguised, he walked up that perilous passage, and ‘in that night was the most famous of men, Arthur, conceived’ – just as Gorlois was killed in the field.
‘Sir,’ said she, ‘the same night my lord was dead, there came into my castle of Tintagel a man like my lord in speech and countenance; and thus, as I shall answer unto God, this child was begotten’.
There is another legend that has filtered through the crushed walls and prehistoric windows: the complex tragedy of Tristan and Iseult.
“As King Mark came down to greet Iseult upon the shore, Tristan took her hand and led her to the King and the King took seizin of her, taking her hand. He led her in great pomp to his castle of Tintagel, and as she came in hall amid the vassals her beauty shone so that the walls were lit as they are lit at dawn.”
This story of elixirs, adultery, banishment, blood and beauty weaves through Tintagel like an embroidery of sorrow. The castle was the possession of King Mark, the betrothed of Iseult, the Irish princess whose loveliness scintillated the dour walls of his defense by the sea.
But as was the case of many arranged marriages back then, and quite a sensible solution too, actually, a love potion was prepared – to ease the two over the hurdles of pre-nuptial shyness and suspicion. Mark’s nephew, Tristan, sailed to Ireland to retrieve the future bride. However, due to circumstances never quite revealed in neither song nor poetry, Tristan and Iseult accidentally drink the potion and fall dangerously in love. Their affair ends only when Mark banishes Tristan from Cornwall.
Some stories say that the two do not meet until Tristan is on his death-bed. When in Brittany, Tristan suffers a wound that only Iseult, the lady who kept her tonics on ivory shelves laced with ebony, could cure. But she does not arrive in time; grief-stricken, she collapses by her lover’s side and dies. Others say that Tristan does return to Cornwall, only to be stabbed in the back by the King when he is found playing a harp outside of Iseult’s bower.
I visited Tintagel Castle years ago. I climbed the stairs – 180 steep, panting steps – that Gorlois’ warriors guarded. I placed my hands on the walls that once blushed at the sight of the most beautiful girl in the world. I happy tossed the real world over the precipice into the rock-pierced ocean, to be spirited away by the sleeping dragons’ breath.