Monday, 22 February 2016

My Cornish Guardian column ... the Merlin carving

In this week’s Cornish Guardian, my article will skirt over the present furore at Tintagel, concerning the Merlin carving. As an archaeologist, I guess I had to say something. My, very balanced article, will be as follows:

The decision of (the misnamed) English Heritage (EH) to carve an imagined face of Merlin into the bedrock near Tintagel Castle has certainly led to what some journalists have described as a hullabaloo!

EH released a statement setting out how the “legend of both King Arthur and Merlin” was inextricably linked to Tintagel, adding that the carving was “discreet” and positioned “just outside Merlin’s Cave … so called after Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson’s retelling of the legend.”

They added that the carving was part of an outdoor interpretation scheme that, as well as seats and boards, would include a 2.5 metre high statue of King Arthur and a “sword installation.” They argued this would “help people to understand the history and mythology” of what they described as an “internationally important site.”

Much of the local reaction has been less generous. Some have described the carving as “vandalism,” while others have condemned the “Disneyfication” of the site. Headlines have screamed “Merlin – magical or monstrous?” while there has also been criticism that the focus on King Arthur and Merlin has diminished the true story of Tintagel – a censure which has considerable merit. 

As someone with a background in archaeology, I take the view that Tintagel is indeed a multi-layered site. It was a very important regional fortress between around 450 and 650AD, when there was significant trade with the Mediterranean, while much of the present-day upstanding castle was built between 1225 and 1233 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall.

Richard happened to be the brother of Henry III and his decision to construct his castle was clearly influenced by Arthurian associations with the headland, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain completed in about 1138.

The potential narratives that spring from this are inevitably varied and, I believe, this emphasises how we would all benefit from understanding more about the Cornwall in which we live, and what made it the place it is today.

There are many historians, academics, teachers and cultural activists, who are working hard to ensure that more people are taught about Cornwall. It is right that we applaud their work, and do all we can to ensure that their efforts are built upon.

Whether it is about Tintagel; Cornwall’s Celtic origins; our national language; our traditional industries; the mass emigration of Cornish folk; the achievements of many talented Cornish men and women; as well as the struggles of the ordinary people of Cornwall who lived though many social and economic upheavals … there is so much we could be finding out more about.