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  • Writer's pictureMary Ellen Johnson

OOPS! Tintagel Did Not Match My Research!

When deciding which historical tour I MUST book with Scholarly Sojourns, I knew UNCOVERING CAMELOT was top of the list. Not because I was particularly interested in Arthur--big on the myth, not so much the more likely truth he was a Roman warlord--but because we would be visiting Tintagel Castle. Tintagel! One of several sites where Arthur was supposedly conceived. Uther Pendragon, obsessed with Igraine, wife of Gorlois, had Merlin work his magic so Uther would lay with Igraine while in the guise of her husband, who even then had been killed in battle. From this diabolical union, Arthur is conceived.

Tintagel seemed the perfect setting for such a myth. Great mounds of rock overlooking the Celtic Sea. Magnificent l in a relentlessly brutal way. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to watch videos of the landscape, as well as study English Heritage's site depicting Tintagel over the centuries. Since I couldn't visit in person, these were adequate substitutes. Because in the thirteenth century, Richard of Cornwall, bad King John's second son, had built a castle in the supposed style of a medieval Arthur, I appropriated the area for my time traveling heroine. During that period, a land bridge connected the two mainparts of Tintagel, though it had long crumbled into the sea to be replaced by a high tech suspension bridge. Anyway, I couldn't wait to see Tintagel for myself. This is where my heroine, Magdalena Moore, is reunited with Ranulf Navarre, the knight who has haunted her across the centuries. What could be more romantic?

Which is how I found myself at our lodgings, Camelot Castle, readying to walk to the site. I was beyond excited since a few hours earlier, we'd been informed it would be closed due to high winds. When our guide said, "Tintagel's been reopened," I silently echoed the crusaders' cry, "God is with us!"

Not so much.

During our walk , I became increasingly uneasy, not because of the wind--we were relatively sheltered--but because I kept thinking, This isn't how I imagined it in Before I Wake. The distance is greater; the countryside not as bare. And what's that ravine doing there? I almost felt as if the surrounding reality was fake and my imaginings correct. By the time we'd reached Tintagel itself, we were exposed to gale-force winds, which howled and whipped at our clothing, as though warning us to stay away. Wind, I thought. I didn't focus enough on the wind. As we neared the very open suspension bridge, I was reminded of how terrified I am of heights and that the wind must be approaching hurricane intensity. You can do this, I told myself. You didn't travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to chicken out now. Besides, the opposite side of the bridge was where most of the ruins that figured in my novel as actual buildings were located. While Inching my way across that marvel of 21st technology with the wind determined to snatch the life from me, I knew I was doomed. A billion feet below, the waves slammed against either side of the channel, waiting impatiently for the human sacrifice that would be me. Calling upon dead relatives, saints and God himself, I crouched and scuttled across the endlessly long and terrifyingly fragile span of iron. Finally, mercifully, I stepped onto solid ground again. (Ah, but I'd have to return the same way. What had I gotten myself into?) This part of Tintagel consisted of ruins, low grasses clinging to unforgiving slate, and more wind. Should I dare inch to the edge in one direction, I could gaze out at the Celtic sea stretching to an unbroken and decidedly unfriendly horizon; to the other I could spot Merlin's cave below--the water wicked and dangerous and definitely not a place I would EVER explore, even at low tide. (Unlike my heroine, who enjoys a couple of encounters with her decidedly surly husband there.) As I crept toward the headland, which would offer the best view along with ruins dating back to Roman times, the wind warned, "You're not going anywhere closer to...ANYWHERE! " I knew better than to disobey. With dread coursing through every molecule of my being, I retraced my steps until once again I faced that hellish bridge.

The fact that I'm writing about my adventure is proof I was NOT tossed to my death by malevolent forces. However, since I visited Tintagel to verify my research, I realized my biggest mistake. NO woman would ever feel comfortable living on that aggressively, proudly masculine slab of God's planet. Nature did not grace Tintagel with the softness of a tree or patches of grass or anything else capable of delighting feminine sensibilities. (Though, I rationalized, during my heroine's period, Tintagel possessed an orchard and gardens, meaning it had once been at least moderately hospitable.) Regardless, my heroine would have remarked upon Tintagel's primal, menacing presence. (I could even have used it as a symbol of the local and national forces spinning out of control around her.) Even within the confines of the castle, she would have felt ill at ease and out of place. Other than the fact that she WAS out of place and time, Magdalena Moore made no such observations. She, and her medieval iteration, were obviously made of sterner stuff than their creator. To further undercut my conclusion, during Roman times, Tintagel WAS a thriving port with a town that had to, by its very nature, include women and children.

One of the stereotypes re: writers is that we tend to be a flighty bunch, given to fancies alien to more grounded folk. I'll plead guilty, at least when it comes to Tintagel. Thus, I'm sure my heroine, Magdalena Moore, would have been captivated--along with millions of others--by the savage magnificence of Tintagel Castle.

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