Geoffrey Ashe ed The Quest for Arthur’s Britain
Pall Mall 1968
The 60s saw a rapid rise in interest in all things Arthurian, spurred on by a New Age zeitgeist which embraced all forms of fantasy from Tolkien to comics and by other aspects of popular culture, including musicals like Camelot. In the middle of it all a more archaeological approach to the little-understood post-Roman period in Britain was emerging which sought to throw light on what was popularly known as the Dark Ages; and the epitome of this approach was the five-year investigation (from 1966 to 1970) of the Somerset hillfort of South Cadbury Castle by the provocatively-named Camelot Research Committee. Perhaps as a direct result of the publicity surrounding the excavations the 1967 film of Camelot actually featured a map which placed the court roughly where the hillfort was situated.
Most of the contributors to this 1968 volume were directly or tangentially associated with this Committee, and preparations for the book began as the results of the first year of excavation were being processed. The result was a compendium that was, for the time, an authoritative summary of the history, archaeology, literature and continuing cultural appeal of the Arthurian period and the Arthurian legends, plentifully illustrated with maps, line drawings and photos. After its appearance in hardback it was frequently re-issued as a paperback by Paladin, thus literally extending its shelf-life.
As a snapshot of what was known or could be surmised about the Arthurian ‘reality’ it was of its time, but in retrospect much of it still stands up to scrutiny four decades and more later, despite advances particularly in archaeological research. Its influence was immense, so much so that non-academic writers still ill-advisedly use it as their Arthurian bible, when Christopher Snyder’s more up-to-date 2000 study The World of King Arthur would provide a better overview (though even this is very dated now).
The Quest for Arthur’s Britain is particularly nostalgic for me as I spent part of one season as a volunteer digger at South Cadbury helping to excavate the southwest gate and part of the summit, and also met or knew some of the contributors to this volume; sadly most of them have since passed away. Although the text only hints at this, the dig captured the public’s imagination and made archaeology very rock & roll (in much the same way as Time Team was to do in its way at the end of the century); it’s difficult now to fully appreciate what an impact it made in popular culture, though it certainly made a lasting impression on me.