There is one corpus of myth surrounding
Orkney that most inhabitants of the county are generally ignorant
But this lore, although
having Orkney at its centre, is not found in any shape or form within
the culture or traditions of the islands.
It surprises many to learn of the
major role played by Orkney in the legends and literature of King Arthur,
the legendary British king who is supposed to have held back the
Saxon advances in the 6th century AD.
At the core of the Arthurian mythos
is a group of characters known as the Orkney Clan - King Lot of
Orkney and his sons,Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine. Arthur's
sister Morgause was married to King Lot.
Before we look at the origin of
this material, we should recap the tale of King Arthur - a story
of magic, chivalry and betrayal.
The main Arthurian tale is well
known - how the boy Arthur draws the sword from the stone to become
king; how he sets up the fabled Round Table in Camelot and receives
the magical sword, Excalibur. Arthur's downfall is ultimately brought
about by his son, Mordred, a child he fathered on his own sister,
Morgause of Orkney.
Around this central theme are woven
a number of sub-plots and stories involving the other members of
the Orkney clan, in particular Gawain, one of the best-known knights
of the Round Table, and Agravaine.
The Orkney clan
But although the Orkney clan feature
heavily in the best-known legends of King Arthur, these stories
were actually written around 1470.
Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte
Darthur is a piece of medieval fiction, although it could be argued
that the story does contain heavily-veiled historical and cultural
Writing in the 15th century,
Malory was the latest in a long list of author's who had adapted
and expanded the Arthurian Legends to fit their own ideas. It is
within Malory that the Orkney clan first appear and the islands
have any sort of prominence within the Matter of Britain.
The development of the Arthurian
Legends, from the first pseudo-historical sources to the tales of
high chivalry of the Middle Ages is beyond the scope of this short
article, but the reader can select from the links on the right for
Suffice to say Le Morte Darthur
was just one in a long line of retellings and adaptation of the
Arthurian mythology. Prior to Malory, there was no Orkney clan and the Arthurian literature had only a few vague mentions of Orkney, which had
no major part in the story.
It would be quite safe to say Malory's Orkney connection was a literary creations from the Middle Ages.
The Orkney connections
So is there any real historical
link between the Arthurian legends and Orkney?
In short, no - although we should
remember that any traditions surrounding a Dark Ages king, or warrior,
in Orkney could have been obliterated after the Norse takeover.
Over the years a number of hypothesis
have been proposed as to the historical figure behind the Arthur
of legend. A number of these theories have tantalising links to
the islands, but these are generally refer to vague historical accounts
of conquests or battles.
So, if there was any fabled connection
between Orkney and a historical prototype on which the later Arthurian
legends are based, it is now lost.