UConn Students Join Age-Old
Quest for Arthur's Camelot
By Allison Thompson
n the late 1960s, Kathy Shaughnessy Jambeck sat in a darkened theater watching the film Camelot and fell in love with King Arthur. More than 30 years later, Jambeck is sharing her passion for the legendary figure with a classroom full of equally smitten students.
Every Tuesday this semester, 20 students gather for the three-hour sessions of the interdisciplinary course "Interpreting King Arthur: Historical, Literary, and Sociological Views of a Cultural Icon," sponsored by the Honors Program and Medieval Studies. Students study literature and legends associated with this great Celtic leader of the late 5th and early 6th centuries, discussing how his story evolved into a timeless romance.
"The enduring popularity of Arthur speaks less to the man than it does to the powerful needs the idea of Arthur fulfills for those who reinvent him," says Jambeck.
The class is new, as is its companion course, "In Search of Arthur," taught by Trevor Tebbs, assistant director of the Honors Program.
Tebbs recently led 12 students enrolled in both courses to southwest England to visit sites associated with the Arthurian legend.
If initial response is any indication, the classes were long overdue. Students from every grade level and a variety of majors quickly filled both courses. The one thing they all have in common is their intense interest in King Arthur.
"Something has captured the students' interest in Arthur," Jambeck says. "They're all self-motivated. There are only one or two students who hadn't read something about Arthur before the class began."
The level of student interest shouldn't have come as a surprise, because the idea for such a course came from a student in the first place. About two years ago, aware of the Honors Program's interest in developing interdisciplinary courses, University Scholar Daniel Liska proposed a course on King Arthur to Tebbs and Jambeck.
In each course, students keep reflective journals and do independent projects involving original research relating to the Arthurian legend. For example, one student is making a three-dimensional model of an archeological dig of "Camelot." Another is creating a one-act play.
"We're looking for alternate ways for students to demonstrate mastery of the subject," says Tebbs.
"We have professors in love with the topic and students passionate about learning. This optimizes learning, making it meaningful, fun and exciting."
Students' interest has been further piqued by the guest lecturers who visit their class weekly. All guest speakers have expertise in the Arthurian legend or a related topic, such as early British history, archeology, or medieval art. Most experts are UConn professors; others are well-known Arthurian scholars from elsewhere. Early this month, Bernard Cornwell, author of a best-selling fiction series about Arthur, addressed the class on the importance of research to his writing. The University's Center for Teaching and Learning, the Humanities Institute, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences funded the speakers' visits.
After hearing half-a-dozen lectures about Arthur, 12 students headed to England for an 11-day tour of locations closely associated with the Arthurian legend. They also met historian Geoffrey Ashe and experts on the faculty at Exeter University in Devon, England.
Tebbs says the trip, which was supported by Jeetendra Joshee and the Department of International Studies and Special Sessions, opened up for the students "a whole new world of images and thoughts.
"That's what education is all about, giving students a new perspective on life. What we touched upon was the very same spirit that sent people on quests throughout the ages: an intense interest and curiosity, an intense openness to whatever was out there, and an intense appreciation of what they found and what they felt," says Tebbs.
Sarah Breckenridge, a freshman, says, "We were searching for Arthur and found him through the experiences we felt. I found King Arthur on the top of Tintagel."
After visiting Tintagel, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur, Breckenridge wrote in her daily journal, "The ocean waves crashed against the cliffs, their foaming fingers stretching into the depths of the caves. The sound of the gulls mingled with the sounds of the Atlantic, washing over you like a warm blanket."
For freshman Michelle Molitor, the visit to Cadbury Castle, the supposed site of Camelot in the village of Queen's Camel in Somerset, and a stop at the Chalice Well and gardens in Glastonbury, also in Somerset, have become favorite memories.
She was impressed by the size of Cadbury Castle. "I never realized the scale of construction of the castle and the ditches, she says. "I didn't know construction on that scale was possible at that period."
Whether it was exploring Stonehenge, climbing Glastonbury Tor, observing druids, or visiting Arthur and his wife Guinevere's supposed grave, the students felt transported back in time and sensed the energies of people who had walked the land thousands of years before them.
Julie Wernau, a senior, holds her memories close to her heart with a silver pendant depicting the Tor - a large hill associated with King Arthur - at sunrise.
"I have a piece of the trip with me at all times," she says.