OVER dinner one night nearly two decades ago I asked the illustrator Hal Foster why he had decided to set his comic strip Prince Valiant in sixth-century England. Well, he said, he needed King Arthur to figure in the strip, and the earliest historical reference to an actual leader in Britain named Arthur places him in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, roughly a hundred years after the Romans had departed. Foster leaned a little closer, as if to impart a confidence. "It's also the case," he said, "that nobody knows very much about sixth-century England. That gives me a certain freedom."
I can appreciate Foster's point. Shortly after that conversation, with the help of an undergraduate degree in medieval history and much instruction from Foster, I took over the writing of Prince Valiant, teaming up with my father, the illustrator John Cullen Murphy, who had already taken over the drawing. The fact that huge gaps exist in our knowledge of Britain's political history in early medieval times does offer considerable scope for invention. But Foster insisted on accuracy about medieval life to the extent that accuracy is possible, and readers of the strip are quick to hold my father and me to account, writing in a state of dudgeon when they suspect that anachronisms have crept in. I have engaged in spirited and protracted correspondence regarding such things as the ogham alphabet used by the Celtic druids, the technology of anvils, and the origin of the surname Fulda. Both of us do considerable research, mostly in libraries but sometimes also by visiting places that Prince Valiant would have known.
Prince Valiant, the son of King Aguar of Thule (a kingdom in what is now Norway) and the husband of Queen Aleta of the Misty Isles (a kingdom somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean), is a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. His infant granddaughter, Ingrid, will eventually inherit King Arthur's throne. The strip has perhaps a dozen major characters, including the villainous Mordred, and a cast of regulars numbering in the scores. Although the tumultuous saga of Prince Valiant's life has taken him to four continents, roughly half his time is spent in the vicinity of the fabled city of Camelot, the capital of a kingdom that mostly enjoys peace but faces territorial pressure from ever-growing numbers of invading Saxons.
I have been to the scene of many of Prince Valiant's adventures, in England and elsewhere, but until recently had never visited the geographic heartland of the Arthurian legends, the county of Somerset. My wife and I recently set out to rectify that situation. Our aim was to spend most of daylight in the sixth century or earlier—that is to say, in an environment that Prince Valiant would have recognized—but to eat, sleep, and otherwise maintain ourselves in the late twentieth century. In many respects a fondness for the Middle Ages depends on keeping them at a distance.
SOMERSET, which lies less than two hours by car west of London, is a county that the English themselves have long held in high regard. In the great expanse of Exmoor it offers some of the brooding bleakness of Devon and Cornwall, but it has large swaths that display a softer, lusher mien. There are many stately homes in Somerset. Nearby there is one of the world's finest little cities, Bath, which was located in Somerset until gerrymandered into a new county called Avon. Bath, about which I'll have more to say later, has been an attraction for people at leisure for more than 2,000 years, and it is a good place to establish headquarters for a time if you intend to visit the Somerset region. My wife and I made it ours. We had a car (a necessity for autonomous day trips), but once arrived at a selected staging area, we relied on the means of transportation that was most prevalent in medieval times: legs.
One of the most appealing aspects of England is that the countryside is intricately crisscrossed by what are called public footpaths, routes of access between here and there which have been used since medieval times (or even longer than that) and which property owners must not obstruct. The footpaths are marked, and there is no shortage of guidebooks to point out interesting routes. We found Nigel Vile's Somerset Rambles to be unerring, and took his suggestions for five-and ten-mile walks almost every day, encountering few people and plentiful traces of ancient times. The countryside is, of course, where antiquity most naturally (if sometimes unobtrusively) survives. On our rambles the low, golden light of late afternoon revealed the furrows of medieval ploughs. Our paths took us down lanes, overgrown and casual in appearance, that the Romans had built as major roads, their unremitting straightness giving them away. We crested hills that had been used as relay stations—a bonfire set on one, and then the next, and then the next—for the transmission of important news. On other hillsides circles of stones fending off purple and yellow gorse marked the locations of prehistoric hearths.
Encountering all this was happenstance, but it's the kind of happenstance one can count on. We did make three premeditated forays. One was to Cadbury Castle, a 500-foot-high mound a mile in diameter, during a longer walk through south Somerset. Forget any preconceived notions of "castle" in thinking about Cadbury: the only thing there now is landscape, although some of it is man-made. The significance of the mound is that it is identified in legend as having been the location of Camelot. Is there anything to this legend? Was there a Camelot? All that archaeologists and historians can say for sure is that Cadbury Castle was the site of an Iron Age hill fort, and that after a period of disuse it was refortified by someone early in the sixth century—Arthur's time. Against this circumstantial evidence may be set the observation of my wife, who, peering from under the hood of a slicker, noted that if it doesn't rain in Camelot until after sundown, as the musical claims, then this must not be the place. Whatever the case, massive earthworks, which would once have been topped by staves and are now softened by vegetation, form rings upon the slopes. Shaping terrain in this fashion required enormous manpower and organization, and Cadbury offers a reminder that even in early medieval times people did not lack technological sophistication. It also provided an idea for an episode of the comic strip, in which Prince Valiant must oversee the quick construction of just such a fort.
Cadbury Castle has a gently domed and grassy summit bounded by a fringe of forest that gives the hill the appearance of a monk's tonsured crown. From the summit one looks across a broad plain, the Somerset Levels. To the northwest is the sugarloaf protuberance known as Glastonbury Tor, which was another of our intended destinations. In Prince Valiant the Levels are depicted as a treacherous bog known as Mucken Mire, which flanks the town of Camelot and King Arthur's Palace of Light on three sides. Bog is indeed what much of this area used to be—such parts of it as weren't under water entirely. Any high ground in the Levels existed essentially as islands, and one could travel from Cadbury Castle to Glastonbury Tor, a distance of some twelve miles, by boat—a fact reflected in Arthurian legends that refer to Glastonbury as the Isle of Avalon. In the later Middle Ages the bog was claimed for agriculture and drained by an intricate network of channels known as rhines.