A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

The British Literary Pilgrimage

Arthur was here. Maybe. And lots of tourists. Definitely.

Arthur was here.

British myth and British tourism have merged to create the modern British pilgrimage, one that unites the literary with the monetary for tourists from all over the world.

Zachary Beckstead discussed the pilgrimage in terms of its psychological fulfillment:

‘[P]ilgrimages entail movement directed at sites that are considered by communities and individuals to be sacred sites that are supported and sanctified by tradition. These places have been transformed by human and (asserted) supernatural intervention, and contain a form of charisma and power to the perspective of the pilgrim because of their association with… sacrifice (i.e., battlefields), beauty, and/or with some other social virtue (e.g. creativity, honor, celebrity).’[1]

There are three figures of popular literary myth that have corporeal centres of tourism that exert influence on the traveler, and on the continued publication of associated literature: King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Sherlock Holmes.

King Arthur has hundreds of tomes dedicated to his legend, and that of his associates (Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Morgan le Fay, etc.), starting with medieval histories to plots from the Romantics and genre-specific novels in the last hundred years. To capture this myth, and connect it to the real world, Arthurian devotes can visit Glastonbury Tor, said to be Arthur’s burial place, and the Shropshire countryside, where ancient ruins have been designated the foundations of Camelot by modern residents, drawing in tourist dollars. ‘The Magical History Tour’ offers to take tourists from Arthur’s birthplace at Tintagel Castle (Cornwall) to Dover Castle, resting place of Sir Gawain’s head.

The problem with locating sites for Arthurian pilgrimage is the change of place names, allowing multiple locations to lay claim to legendary places. During the reign of King Henry II an abbey at Glastonbury was identified as the resting place of Arthur and Guinevere. Camelot could have been located in Winchester (according to Sir Thomas Malory), Colchester, or Cadbury Castle in Somerset; Camlan, the site of Arthur’s fatal last battle, could be the Salisbury Plain (again, according to Malory), or Hadrian’s Wall, or Slaughterbridge in Cornwall.[2] Historically, many of these places likely fulfilled a need for local prominence; in the case of Glastonbury, drawing in religious pilgrims, even though Arthur was never sainted. There are few ancient cities and villages in Britain that do not claim some attachment to Arthurian lore.

Moving only a few centuries into the future, Robin Hood, the honourable thief, has a definitive place for tourists in the still extant Sherwood Forest. Biographers and literary imitators are forced to maintain this geography because the legend it too firmly set in Nottinghamshire. There is now a Visitor Centre located by what is known as the ‘Great Oak’, an enormous tree reputed to be a meeting place for Robin and his merry band, and Nottingham Castle is open to those looking for remnants of the villainous sheriff. There is a tourist website that helps Robin Hood pilgrims parse every detail from the region:

‘A visit to Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest is an experience… The stories of the legend have been passed down from generation to generation, embellished and questioned… but the stories tally so well with findings of caves in Nottingham Castle and the other major landmarks, that there can never really be any doubt – and whilst some say he was in other parts of the Country, he spent most of his time in the Forests of Nottinghamshire.’[3]

Now, moving several hundred years into the future, we come to the modern myth of Sherlock Holmes, whose place of residence did not exist until decades after his creation. While there was indeed a Baker Street at the end of the Nineteenth century, 221 Baker Street was constructed until the 1930s when the Abbey National Building Society took up residence at 219-229 Baker Street. A full-time secretary was employed to answer the letters received by the Society addressed to Sherlock Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes Museum, located next to Abbey National, was finally assigned the address 221b Baker Street on 27 March 1990; consumer demand led to the creation of this Sherlockian shrine, immortalized one of the blue plaques typically reserved for historical sites in Great Britain.

A pilgrimage to 221b Baker Street will cost adults £10, children only £8, and devotion can be paid 364 days a year.[4] Considering the cost of a ticket to Jerusalem or Mecca, this seems fairly reasonable. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was so real, it demanded a change in the topos of London to accommodate him. In terms of Beckstead’s pilgrimage to a place of ‘social virtue’, Sherlock Holmes must surely fulfill the claims of creativity, honor, and celebrity. Though being a thousand years younger than Arthur, Sherlock can boast ten-times the number of pastiches. All the world is open to hosting a Holmesian mystery, but there is only one place on earth to which Sherlock must return.

All three of these historical/mythical figures thrive today in literature, film and television, embracing geographic legend, spurring pilgrimages of ‘social virtue’. There is no telling how many of these literary pilgrims will then draw upon the legendary topography to create their own contributions to the myths.

[1] Zachary Beckstead, ‘Crossing Thresholds: Movements As A Means of Transformation’, The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology, ed. Jaan Valsiner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 713.

[2] Mike Dixon-Kennedy, Arthurian Myth & Legend (London: Brockhampton Press, 1995), pp. 59-60

[3] ‘Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest’, <http://www.robinhoodtourism.co.uk/robin_hood.htm&gt;

[4] <http://www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk/&gt;


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