The British comedy troupe Monty Python famously skewered the legend of King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, destined to live forever in the minds of a certain generation who encountered it first during a fundraising drive on PBS. ** The Pythons did not have much of a budget, so there were no real horses, just prancing squires clopping coconut shells together following the fabled knights. Lack of funding became absurdist humor at its finest. Yet, even through all the mayhem, satire, and silliness, the grandeur and mystery of Arthur’s Britain shines through, in spite of the boys’ efforts to eradicate it.
Camelot was not, in fact, an actual artifact of that early Medieval era. It was invented in the 12th century by the French, who had begun to perfect the form of literature known as the chivalric romance. Camelot was both the name of King Arthur’s castle and his court and the French spellings were varied, ranging from the familiar one we know today to Gamalaot and Kaamaloth. Some scholars think the writer who first mentioned Camelot, Chrétien de Troyes, cribbed it from Camlann, the place name of Arthur’s last battle in Welsh myth. Other scholars cite Camulodunum, a city name from Roman Britain, as the writer’s influence. Whatever the case, Camelot was entirely mythical, despite tourist literature from contemporary English towns who attempt to associate it with their local bog, tor, or neolithic hill fort.
But. There are also ancient place names in England from which the name may come, such as the river Cam in Somerset, and the Celtic place name cantmael and its derivative camel (not the animal, which wasn’t known in those times.) Cantmael is a mashup of two Celtic words, canto, meaning district, and mael, a bare hill. It doesn’t take much imagination to get Camelot out of that.
Camelot appeared off and on in the French romances, but it took 15th century English writer Thomas Malory to truly bring it into prominence when he wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, a retelling of the earlier stories. The legends in the English-speaking world took off from there.
Want a name like Camelot, but not too Camelot-y?
** As I did as a young teen. I tuned in during the “Knights who say ‘Nih’ ” scene.