Substantive Research

Sean Gillen

In response to the literature review, the research sets out to examine the sites, applying the semiotic techniques discussed, using the work of Levi Strauss and Barthes as a frame of reference.  From this, the studies can be crystallised as attempting to apply two distinct yet overlapping approaches: an examination of a site in order to assess the possibility that the presentation of popular ‘classical’ mythology, in the form of a tourist attraction, could be seen to perform a similar function for the tourist as the cure offered by the ‘Shamen’.  The application of a more ideological approach, in the vein of Barthes, is applied to a second site, to examine the feasibility that ideological influences might be at work.  Both tasks fall into the previously stated realm of semiotic research suggested by Echtner; that of the symbolic significance of the tourist-attraction relationship.

It must be noted that the sites were selected primarily for their convenience, however the selection of Tintagel as a focus is considered most suitable as it is a prime example of the promotion of classical mythology as an attraction.  Along with Mount Edgecumbe, these sites might be seen as being representative of this genre of tourist attraction, which could be loosely and contentiously grouped as ‘heritage, history and legend’.
Cornwall, King Arthur and the Myth-Seeking Tourist

A central aim of this section is to examine the possibility that the presentation of classical mythology as a tourist attraction might in some way be able to provide an individually and socially significant experience for the tourist.  Elements of the Cornish tourism product and its promotional material are analysed, in particular the dominant themes of legend and mystery, embodied in the village and castle areas of Tintagel through its association with Arthurian legend.

The suggestion of a ‘magical Cornwall’ (Cornish Connexions (a) [no date]{on line}) [see this file for references] in itself suggests restorative and enlightening powers, and is typical of the language used in tempting potential tourist to the region.  The use of more scholarly opinion is also common, such as that of Thomas Hardy : “The place is pre-eminently the region of dream and mystery” (Cornish Connexions (b) [no date])   The vision of a county of natural splendour, romantic history, rites and rituals is presented to tempt visitors, not merely as somewhere ‘different’ from home, but  as a potential panacea to life’s ills: “Even today this magical land continues to exert a strange influence over those who come to visit its secret and sacred places” (Cornish Connexions (b) [no date]).

Whether this ‘strange influence’ is also experienced by the locals who struggle to adapt to social changes imposed by the decline of their traditional industries is unknown. It is perhaps unfortunate and ironic that farming, fishing and tin mining have largely been relocated as romanticised and sanitised elements of the Cornish tourism product, within the paradigm of ‘industrial heritage’ (See: Edwards and Llurdes-I-Coit 1996, Yale 1998). This might not be seen as a contemporary exercise however.  Indeed, the genres of social and classical mythology might not be so distinct when this situation is compared to the evolution and promotion of Arthurian legend in Cornwall.

The concept of a brave, noble and fiercely British King, based in Cornwall, is a mainstay of the county’s image, and by far the most dominant of mythological entities amongst the genre that includes “giants…mermaids, piskies, fairy-knockers and the small people” (Cornish connexions (c) [no date]), as material from ‘official’ sources confirms:

“The quest for legendary King Arthur begins and ends in North Cornwall…its easy to image the clash of sword and shield…The quest leads to the stone at slaughterbridge where he fell and Dozmary pool, where the lady of the lake received the sword excalibur” (North Cornwall Tourism (a): 2000).
This is the popular portrayal of the legend; the Arthur of story books and films, that White (1995) seeks to dispel.  Such an image, it is argued, is based primarily upon the popular sources of Geoffrey of Monmouth (12th C) and Sir Thomas Mallory (1485).  The Former relying on ‘scarce facts’ and ‘half understood’ historical accounts, the latter  heavily influenced by French romances with a ‘moral ethic added’.  Even Mallory’s ‘toned down’ version of the Dark Ages still portrays a “catalogue of brutality, casual killings, rape and incest” (White 1995:3)  Whatever the truth there is within the legend, the ‘real’ history is either impossible to find or presented in a tourist-friendly style, and is as selective in its narrative as the Cornish promotional material that (by necessity) ignores the locals perspective.

Nonetheless, the popularity of the Arthurian legend, and of Cornwall itself,  could be evidence that such a theme has a significance and meaning  that is of considerable value to the tourist.  Despite the probable inaccuracies of the story, it is at Tintagel that the tourists’ interest in the mystical is focussed.  An examination of the area could provide some indication of why this might be. 

As a basic synopsis, the presentation of the area can be perceived as operating on two levels, both physically and cognitively: the village overlooking the castle from the hill, half a mile inland, extrapolating the mythical theme to its extremes, compared to the more ‘down to earth’ sober interpretation of the English heritage site on the coast.   Within the village, the King Arthur’s Arms and Merlin’s Cave gift shop indicate the central theme.  King Arthur’s Halls, the commercial centrepiece of this theme proclaims to “tell the story of King Arthur and his Knights and their chivalrous deeds” (North Cornwall Tourism (b): 2000).  The ‘mythical’ paradigm is elaborated upon, for example the ‘Dragon’s Breath’, not merely a gift shop, but a ‘mythical experience’ in waiting.   Deviation from the mythical to the mystical is profuse, combining religious and pagan codes in iconic and symbolic displays of ornaments, figurines, crystals and pseudo-Celtic trinkets.  The ‘Pendragon’ shop window displaying a statue of Buddha, sat between Merlin and a ‘piskie’ graphically demonstrates this extrapolation of the theme.  

Any  significance of such a collection may emanate from a process of ‘bricolage’ (to coin Levi Strauss) centred on the sign-value of ‘Arthur’, as a metonym for mysticism,  just as the shop itself could signify the theme of the village.  Alternatively, in Saussurian terminology, ‘Arthur’ and the related extrapolations might be seen as providing the ‘parole’, for the ‘langue’ of mythology. It is not difficult to imagine how ‘Arthur’ and the site of Tintagel could therefore become a focal point for the mythically inclined, perhaps providing a means of expression of identity or an indication of the ‘deeper self’.  This mode of thought might suggest the application of theories raised earlier in this paper; the tourist’s quest for a ‘spiritual centre’ in response to a sense of modernity-induced alienation (Cohen 1979), or the notion of the site as a focus for a pilgrim-like journey (Graburn 1977).

In contrast, the attraction of Tintagel Castle itself can be seen to act within a similar theme, yet largely in opposition to the commercial deviations on offer in the village.  The 600m walk down the narrow lane that guides the visitor might be seen to be conveniently multifunctional. It  detaches the visitor from the fantasy ‘Arthur’, whilst raising the anticipation of entering the real and tangible manifestation of his existence.  The portrayal of the legend at the castle site though, could be perceived as encouraging a re-entering of a pragmatic world where nothing is ‘real’ unless scientifically proven.  

The balance between the commercial value of the myth, and the desire for rationality places the owners, English heritage, in a delicate position.  Their promotional leaflet leads with the headline “The legendary birth place of King Arthur” with “Breathtaking scenery, chivalry and romance, mystery and myths” (English Heritage 1997), with pictorial representations of the dual themes of nature and Arthurian imagery.  Once on site however, the account is more sober.  The result is a display that does just enough to retain ‘mystery’ by playing on the legend, whilst playing down the more tenuous and popular images.  

Within the on site visitor centre, the display of newspaper reports on the discovery of a 6th century inscribed slate tablet, the ‘Arthnou Stone’, demonstrates this balance.  The stone, it seems, is the first ‘proof’ of occupation of the site during the Arthurian period.  Whilst acknowledging that Tintagel is indeed ‘mysterious and mythical’, it is contended that “there is no direct connection between the stone and the legendary King Arthur” (The Times 7/8/98).  Perhaps most significantly, withnin its visitor centre display, English Heritage itself adds that Arthur (whoever he was) is “unlikely to have ever come to Tintagel”.  Perhaps most telling is their assertion of Tintagel’s position:  “It is as a castle of the imagination that it holds us spellbound…you can believe what you want to believe” (English Heritage: 2000).

Nonetheless, the English Heritage visitor centre itself sells mock Arthurian outfits and swords for children, Merlin miniatures and Celtic paraphernalia, augmenting the experience with contemporary Celtic music. The potential for conflict between their aim of “preserving the historic environment” (English Heritage 1997) and commercial necessity is therefore evident, particularly if ‘historic’ is to have any bearing on ‘heritage’ at all.  This potential is negated somewhat, however, by the de-centralising of ‘Arthur’ from the narrative.  Prominent instead is the life of the more ‘factual’, (but perhaps less romantic and commercial) Earl Richard of Cornwall, whose 13th century ruins from the basis of the numbered trail that guides the visitors, in collaboration with the site guidebook.

Whether the portrayal of the life of a relatively obscure Cornish Earl would satisfy the Arthur-hungry visitoris open to question.  Perhaps due to this, just enough is done to sustain the interest of the myth-seekers, through ‘marker involvement’, which MacCannell suggests  “can prevent a tourist realising that the sight he sees might not be worth his seeing” (1976:113).  For example, the plaque overlooking the cove on a spectacular cliff-top reads:

“What is known provides little basis for the Arthurian Legend.  However, when the mists come swirling through Merlin’s Cave, it is easy to see how the myth has survived to this day”
It could be asserted that the fact that the name ‘Merlin’s Cave’ is perpetuated has more influence on the survival of the myth than any occasional swirling mist.  The plaques in this sense are themselves representative of the balancing of tenuous fact against the visitor’s thirst for the myth.  In effect neither is fully developed, resulting in a narrative neither-norism, to apply Barthes’ (1972) terminology.

The numbered trail inevitably concentrates on the Earl’s era and the ruins.   Significantly absent are representations of disease or debauchery (which White {1995} submits, are more associated with the Arthurian ‘Dark age’), or a social system based on the subjugation of women and peasants.  Instead, evidence of Mediterranean trade links and Christianity are  propounded. Selective authenticity could be the aim, although accidental misrepresentation seems to be avoided, as the sign on a 19th century wall and gate suggests, reading simply “19th century wall and gate”, perhaps to confirm its inauthenticity.  It is noted that the 20th century brown metal railing next to this has no similar marker.

Yet, whilst it is the perpetuation of Arthurian legend that is used to lure visitors to Tintagel, it could be valuable to consider the substance of the site and the village without its Arthurian theme.  In theory, the typically Cornish themes of smuggling and pirates could comfortably be integrated into the Earl’s narrative.  However, the whole mystical genre, which it has been suggested Arthur represents, would lose its focus.  Castle Tintagel would be just another castle.  Smuggling and pirates simply do not have such powerful and identifiable connotations, it could be asserted, and the repercussions for the village economy are obvious. In this sense, the value of the Arthurian legend is put into perspective.

It is no simple task to make sense of the popularity of such mythology, although the application of structuralist thinking could help.  In effect, the promotion of Cornwall as imbued with magical and restorative powers might reflect ‘shamanistic’ incantations of a tourism industry in response to an over-explained and de-mystified modern world.  In presenting such mythology, the faint suggestion that their might just be more to life than the physical is made tangible.  The myth-themes of giants, piskies and even King Arthur could certainly provide the material for the attraction provider to work on.  Selwyn’s (1996) conception of the tourist as essentially a ‘structuralist’ might support this. Whether they are seeking a ‘spiritual centre’, (Cohen 1979) or a realisation of their pre-modern selves (MacCannell 1976), Cornwall, it seems could provide it.

The apparently tenuous nature of these myths need not present a problem in this mode of thought.  Indeed, it could be asserted that it is the intrinsic value of mythology that is the attraction.  The values of the mystic nature of the myth is internalised through media and ‘education’, ‘Arthur’ merely personifies it.  The existence of an actual place that embodies such a legend, even with the slightest possibility of authenticity, might be seen to confirm and re-affirm the perception of the myth as fact.

In visiting Tintagel, the tourist could be perceived as visiting a part of the ‘self’, or at least a part that is desired; a part that is beyond the physical.  Therefore, to enjoy it fully might require a leap of faith, or at least a temporary abandonment of reason and logic.  It is the combination, perhaps, of the site and the myth that provides a focus for the myth seeking tourist; a Mecca of sorts; a symbiotic relationship akin to church and religion.
Mount Edgecumbe, its Formal Gardens and the Legacy of the Elites

Set in the heart of the heart of the ‘Westcountry’, the most important area for UK domestic tourism, Mount Edgecumbe was a traditional seat of the aristocracy, and the family home of the Edgecumbe family, until it was sold to local authorities by the 6th Earl in 1971.  Promoted as a “Tudor house set in a restored 18th century garden with spectacular views of the sea, rare and ancient trees” (South West Tourism 2000 [on line]), the estate might be seen to be in an ideal position to attract tourists, as well as local visitors from Plymouth and the surrounding area.  The intention of this section is to examine the possibility that in exposing these visitors to its ‘natural’ splendour, the estate has a more ideological role, beyond that of mere ‘leisure’.

In its wider context, the estate is separated from the city it overlooks by more than just a river.  To the east of the Tamar lies a naval dockyard struggling with the effects of the new world order.  Rising from the docks area are high rises in the midst of extensive renovation, rooted amongst sprawling inner city, officially as deprived as any place in Britain.  Neighbouring this, a clutter of Victorian tenements rapidly metamorphosing into ‘des-res’ water front properties; the view of the country park across the water probably adding value, but hardly the most appealing vista for a stately home.  Needless to say, such an area is also profuse with listed buildings of apparent historical value, but little cost efficient or practical use, besides adding theme-value to the bland modernist marina and apartment block opposite.

The sixteenth century house surveys this from its social, moral and strategic high ground from across the moat-like Tamar, providing spectacular contrast indeed.  Visitors alighting the ferry can gaze romantically up at the its splendour, whilst enjoying the more accessible delights offered by the nearly authentic olde-worlde pub or prerequisite ice-cream shack.  Whether the experience offered provides temporary disengagement from the constraints of their everyday lives, or actually augments them, is open to question.

As might be expected, this former seat of aristocracy attempts to align itself with popular and local historical events, imbuing its residents with qualities that the less noble visitor can at least identify with,  as the information leaflet reveals:

“Rising majestic above the tree lined avenue from Cremyll…From here the Edgecumbes saw the passing of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and beat off Plymouth Parliamentarian soldiers in 1644” (Plymouth City Council and Cornwall County Council 1997)
In fact, given the geography of the area, it is most unlikely that any view of the Armada was even possible from the house’s position even if weather was permitting.  Whether the Earl and his family physically fought off Cromwell’s troops is equally unclear.  What is apparent, is that the invasion of contemporary proletariat could be viewed as somewhat more successful. Although, it appears, the estate is not totally without subtle defences of the aristocratic way of life that created it.  The perpetuation of the values of the ‘elite’, with the implication of rank, class, standards and ‘electability’ (Williams 1976:114) might be seen to be evident. The formal gardens of the estate could provide evidence to support this.

The terminology used throughout the park might also be seen to reflect certain ‘values’.  Far from encouraging visitors to put aside the demands of modern life, visitors are subjected to both explicit and subtle instructions.  The somewhat paternal ‘Edgecumbe Code’ information panel demands ‘No cycling, no games, no radios, no dogs without leash, keep to paths’, could be read sardonically, as ‘walk around and contemplate how fortunate you are to be permitted to enjoy these grounds’.  The term ‘formal gardens’ itself, it seems, could even refer as much to the expected behaviour of the visitor as the cut of the lawns and hedges, in submission to a deferential acceptance of the mythical values of a moral and superior elite of old.  The plaque describing the area ahead as ‘historic’ could itself be as contentious as other socially constructed notions of ‘beautiful’ and ‘natural’, and may even offer some indication of the garden’s signification.  In an elementary sense, the term ‘historic’, is  “most often used to include a sense of process or destiny”, perhaps progressing towards ‘civilisation’ in the “controversial and modern sense” (Williams 1976:148).   Hence, the connection between such historic destiny, and the self-representation by elites as the “necessary best direction of…society as a whole” (:114) can be made.

In effect, social convention might be as significant in determining whether the visitor interprets the heavily controlled topiary, carefully cultivated flowers and manicured lawns as beautiful, as opposed to sterile and contrived. Simultaneously, any desire to create, manipulate, control and cultivate nature that is reflected in such gardens, might also be seen a reflection of the ideals of the class that created them, towards wider ‘civilisation’. Williams links the linguistic evolution of the terms ‘civilisation’, ‘culture’ and ‘cultivation’ with that of a historical process “towards an achieved condition of refinement and order” (1976:58).  Indeed, the use of the term ‘culture’, as associated with the tending of natural growth, has by metaphoric use, come to suggest a process of human development at a similar time to the ‘horticultural’ construction of the Edgecumbe gardens.   This in itself raises questions as to the motivation for the expensive perpetuation of such gardens, perhaps even reflecting the Victorian aspirations of ‘rational recreation’.

In continuation of this theme, the gardens themselves are contained within a wall and ditch, which is partially concealed by controlled overgrowth.  Although adding a touch of ‘authenticity’ [just in case the ‘history’ of the historic gardens was doubted], the function of such a fortification can only be insinuated. The continued care of the site by current state institutions could indicate a motivation not entirely removed from the suggestions above.  The difference being public access, as opposed to confinement of privileged pleasure.

Visitors are presented with a cultural collage of horticultural styles and techniques, which [they are informed] include French, Italian and English gardens.  The ‘Italian’ garden is Italian  due to its nude statues, white steps [that lead to nowhere in particular] and mermaid clad fountain.  Likewise, the French garden, with its magnifique topiary and geometric style could almost be in the grounds of Versailles [except for the distinct wail of police sirens from Devonport]. And the English garden, with its open green spaces and magnificent old trees, the visitor could easily imagine being in the heart of the countryside, if of course, he weren’t already. 

This is, it seems, is the ‘Epcot’ of the era; a private Victorian theme park.  The English exhibit at the centre of course, surrounded by a horticultural bricolage in representation of various ‘civilised’ or colonised nations. They are in essence myths; individually only iconic of the elite gardens of the country represented, and therefore perhaps, their values.  Logically, this cannot metonymically represent an entire nation any more than a stereotypical ‘working class’ garden, complete with a row of cabbage plants, a pigeon loft and rusting tin bath would.

The more recently added American garden, [‘American’ due to its iconic white trellis walk way], the visitor is told, commemorates the soldiers stationed at the park in World War two.  It could be argued that America is not world renown for its excellence in horticulture, perhaps indicating that aesthetics are not the central motivation for these gardens.  If aesthetics were paramount, then a Japanese garden would demand a place within such a site too.  This, of course, would sit uncomfortably next to the American garden, if the reasons for its creation are genuine. It is perhaps idealistic, therefore, to hope that horticultural excellence should be the raison d’être of the gardens.

It is possible that the inspiration for the formal gardens’ theme could have been the result of a ‘grand tour’ of a Victorian Earl, laid as an extravagant souvenir allowing the culturally enriched gent to re-visit his destinations at will.  It might even have provided a form of vicarious tourism for the ‘Lady’. The opportunity to partake in a ‘Grand Tour’ being restricted 
to those who were not burdened by vulnerable femininity, (although, as Lavaur (1989) indicates, from the 18th century onwards the experience was increasingly available to women). The utility value of such concepts might not be isolated in the past however:   the contemporary tourist can re-live his package deal to Greece through a visit to a Greek restaurant on return, just as watching ‘Wish you were here?’ could provide a substitute for actual tourism [although it might also actively encourage tourism].   The material ability to consume the tourist product, however, rather than the gender or class of the consumer, being the factor that determines participation.

The ultimate myth of such gardens must be their benign façade. Whilst not entirely concealing the effort required to achieve such cultivated appearance, it is the end product that carries the significance.  Their most significant and subtle effect, it could be asserted, is as a vehicle for covertly instilling civilised behaviour, inspiring consumerism and passing down the tastes and values of Victorian and Georgian elites.  The visitor must ‘keep to the path’ and follow the rules.  In return they will be refreshed and rejuvenated by the blissful serenity that is created for them. The result being a more energised and productive worker, ready to conform and consume, perhaps even inspired to recreate the horticultural delights that have been enjoyed, in his/her starter-home ‘semi’ in Devonport Towers: A garden ‘make-over’, perhaps? 

Significantly, it must be reiterated, these gardens are owned and funded by the state. This is perhaps the greatest irony. It is the taxes of the local worker that support the upkeep of the gardens. Sure, a pilgrim-like return to a more rural setting, escaping the ravages of urban existence might be seen as a motivating factor, offering a temporary ‘cure’ for all social ills.  Nevertheless, it can be implied that the visitor is also exposed to an environment themed around the desires of both traditional and contemporary elites that subtly reinforce the values of class and capitalism.

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