Welsh mythology and folklore is crammed with fantastical people and creatures and the Adar Rhiannon, or the Birds of Rhiannon, are a trio of magical birds mentioned in early Welsh literature and myth. They were associated with Rhiannon who many scholars see as goddess from the Welsh Celtic Otherworld. She was a significant figure in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi and her birds were mentioned in the Second Branch. Presented here is a short discussion involving some of what is known about the Adar Rhiannon looking briefly at the Mabinogi and the adventure story, Culhwch and Olwen. This will be followed by a look at the mysterious Rhiannon and the properties of the magical birds in these stories and conclude by referring back to The Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are generally considered one work consisting of four parts that tell stories of the gods and heroes from Celtic Welsh mythology. The stories are thought to be older than medieval times but rewritten, probably by monks of that era. The Four Branches along with Culhwch and Olwen and other works are included in the compilation of medieval Welsh literature known as the The Mabinogion, first published in full by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838–45. The Adar Rhiannon, briefly appear in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and are mentioned and sought after in the story of Culhwch and Olwen. Although they only appear to play a small role in both stories they possess unique and important properties that lend magical qualities to the tales.
Time and Space
The singing of the birds can awaken the dead while inducing the living to sleep. Their singing also causes time and space to behave differently. They seem to be singing very near while in fact they are far away. Their singing also alters the passing of time making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed and preserve from the effects of time.
These birds are named after and associated with Rhiannon one of the most enigmatic characters in Welsh myth. He first husband was Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and Chief of Annwn and their son was Pryderi. She was falsely accused of the murder of her son and eating him but later proved innocent after public humiliation. Her second husband was Manawyddan whom she married after Pwyll’s passing.
Rhiannon also displayed the power to warp time and space, but differently to her birds. This is shown, in the manner of her first appearance on horseback from the Otherworld seeking Pwyll to propose their marriage which he accepts. Secondly, she produces a magical bag that can be filled with any amount of without getting full with enough room for a fully grown human. This is used to trick and trap an unwelcome marriage suitor so that she can marry Pwyll.
From her first appearance it is clear she is no ordinary woman and is someone of special status and importance. She is considered to be a goddess or representative of sovereignty and being strongly associated with horses is usually thought of as a horse deity or derived from one. Therefore, like Rhiannon, her birds are not ordinary birds having the magical qualities mentioned previously.
Culhwch and Olwen
In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen the birds are given two more magical attributes. The story tells how Culwhch was given a host of impossible tasks by Ysbaddaden Bencawr, a giant and the father of Olwen, who demanded their achievement before he would give permission for his daughter to marry him. The severity of the tasks was possibly because he was doomed to die on her wedding night and he hoped Culwhch would fail that he might live. One of his demands was to be brought the Adar Rhiannon possibly because they would soothe his passing into death. Therefore he asked Culhwch to bring,
“The Birds of Rhiannon: the ones which can wake the dead and put the living to sleep I want to entertain me that night.” (1)
The night he is referring to is his daughter’s wedding night which is the night he is doomed to die if the marriage goes ahead. From this we see they have two other magical attributes. The first is their singing puts the living to sleep and the second is that it wakes the dead. They may have been a useful insurance against death from the giant’s point of view or at least eased his passing.
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
The Adar Rhiannon also appears at the end of the Second Branch which is the tale of Branwen ferch Llŷr. Branwen, the sister of the Welsh King Bendigeidfran, also known as Brân the Blessed, had been married to the Irish King Matholwch and lived with him in Ireland. However, it was not a happy marriage and she was subject to physical and psychological abuse. In her unhappiness she trains a starling to take a message back over the sea to her brother King Bendigeidfran telling him of her plight and seeking his aid. Enraged and offended by his sister’s treatment Bendigeidfran gathers his army and invades Ireland and a cataclysmic war follows. All the Irish are killed leaving only a five pregnant women in Ireland who took to living in a cave. Each gave birth to a son and eventually incestuously repopulated the island of Ireland.
On the Welsh side there were seven surviving warriors, as well as Branwen. These were Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and Manawyddan, brother of King Bendigeidfran and Rhiannon’s future husband. These were accompanied by Taliesin the great bard, Gluneu Eil Taran, Ynawc, Grudyen the son of Muryel, and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.
In the conflict King Bendigeidfran was mortally wounded by a poisoned spear and knew he would soon die. He ordered the survivors to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London where it was to be buried to protect Britain from invaders. He prophesied they would encounter the singing birds of Rhiannon and remain in one place for seven years spellbound by them,
“And take you my head and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France. And a long time will you be upon the road. In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while. And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body.”
Bendigeidfran’s severed head retained the power of speech and continued talking to the survivors as he predicted. Sadley, Branwen died of a broken heart through grief for the dead.
The Adar Rhiannon
Before setting off with the head to London the survivors feasted in Harlech and as also predicted by Bendigeidfran they were visited by the singing birds of Rhiannon,
“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.” (2)
Translation of different texts may vary but it is thought these are the same birds mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen and at the end of the Second Branch where, “the singing of the birds of Rhiannon” is referred to which demonstrated time was altered,
“And thus ends this portion of the Mabinogi, concerning the blow given to Branwen, which was the third unhappy blow of this island; and concerning the entertainment of Bran, when the hosts of sevenscore countries and ten went over to Ireland to revenge the blow given to Branwen; and concerning the seven years’ banquet in Harlech, and the singing of the birds of Rhiannon, and the sojourning of the head for the space of fourscore years. (3)
Rhiannon and her singing birds along with King Bendigeidfran, Culhwch and Olwen and the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr are just a few of the strange and magical characters and creatures that dwell in the landscape of Welsh Celtic myth and medieval literature.
The 1st of May is also known as May Day, Beltane or in Wales Calan Mai or Calan Haf. In Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature it is often linked to the beginning of an adventure or the unfolding of significant events. More sinisterly, it is also linked with the abduction of a female by a male suitor, a recurring theme in Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature. Presented here is a brief discussion on the abduction of Creiddylad and the battle by two warring suitors for possession of her, which takes place every May Day until Doomsday, when there must be a final victor.
Gwyn ap Nudd
In Welsh mythology Gwyn ap Nudd was a ruler of Annwn and the Tylwyth Teg and also associated with Glastonbury Tor. His name means “white son of Nudd,” though he is often described as having a blackened face. His father was Ludd, who was also known as Lludd of the Silver Hand and he may have had a sister, or step-sister named Creiddylad, but the relationship, if any, is not clear. He accompanied King Arthur in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen.
Creiddylad briefly appears in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. She has been likened to Persephone, the Greek vegetation goddess associated with spring and fertility who had been abducted by Hades, the king of the underworld. Her mother, Demeter searched for her neglecting her duties and causing the earth to stop growing. She is eventually found and after the intervention of Zeus is compelled repeatedly to spend half the year in Hades and the other on Earth, representing winter and summer respectively.
Creiddylad was considered the most beautiful maiden in the island of Britain. She had two suitors; Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythyr ap Greidawl. Some scholars regard Creiddylad as the prototype for the legendary Queen Cordeilla of the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical, The History of the Kings of Britain. Later William Shakespear’s character Cordelia from his play King Lear was thought to have been inspired by Geoffrey’s version though not everyone accepts this view.
Gwythyr ap Greidawl
Gwythyr ap Greidawl was the son of Greidawl Galldonyd, one of King Arthur’s knights. Gwythyr was also one of Arthur’s knights and a member of his retinue along with Gwyn in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen.
The Abduction and Conflict
Creiddylad and Gwyther were betrothed but before they were married Gwyn ap Nudd forcefully abducted her. Gwythyr raised an army to confront Gwyn and win back his betrothed. In the ensuing battle Gwyn is victorious taking a number of important prisoners. These included Dyfnarth his son, Glinneu son of Taran, Gwrgwst Ledlwm, Graid son of Eri, Pen son Nethog, Nwython and his son Cyledyr. In an act of sheer cruelty the Gwyn made Cyledyr eat the heart of his father which drove him mad. From then on the epitaph Wyllt meaning madness was added after his name with him becoming Cyledyr Wyllt.
On hearing of the hostilities, King Arthur intervened setting the prisoners free and making a peace agreement between the two. This stipulated that Gwyn and Gwythyr would fight for Creiddylad every year on the 1st of May until Doomsday. Whoever won the fight on Doomsday would win Creiddylad for his bride. Through all this time she would remain unmarried living with her father until the contest had been settled.
Creiddylad as a Goddess
There is an idea that Creiddylad may represent a fertility goddess and the battle between the two rivals is to choose the strongest and most virile to be her husband to ensure the fertility of the earth.Caitlin Mathews in her book, King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land – The Divine Feminine in the Mabinogion, explains how certain female characters in the Mabinogion may be seen as representing a Goddess of Sovereignty. The possession of such a female by a male gives the possessor sovereignty over the land. Some times she is called the Flower Bride and considered the spirit of new growth, renewal and fertility.
With both ideas possession is one thing and keeping her is another. In both roles her task is to ensure the fertility of the land. Therefore, he who would be king must be the strongest and most virile. He must also be the steward of the land taking care of it and its inhabitants in return for sovereignty over it. There is an idea that the well being of the land is intimately tied up with the well being of the king. Should the king weaken and fail so will the land. There will never be a shortage of suitors for the goddess or Flower Bride and inevitably she must choose the strongest and the most potent for her consort to ensure the fertility, renewal and well being of the land she bestows. This may look immoral to a patriarchal society but it is her sacred duty to protect and ensure the continuance of life on the land and her morality cannot be judged in such terms.
Birth, Death and Renewal
These abduction stories are also often linked to birth, death and renewal of life and crops and nature. They may also be connected with the battle of light and dark and the cyclical changing of the seasons but not all scholars accept these ideas. In Arthurian literature there are several similar examples involving the abductions of Queen Guinevere and other ritualistic duels between two warring males that may also be seen in this light.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday on 28th November, 2019, as The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd and Oldest Animals in the World, by zteve t evans
The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd
In Welsh legend and myth the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd lived in the woods that once surrounded Llyn Cowlyd. Today the woods are gone but the legends live on in two tales that feature a search for the oldest and wisest animals in the world. In the first the owl is said to be among the oldest animals in the world, whereas in the second the owl is attributed as being the oldest.
Culhwch and Olwen
The first is ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, an action packed hero tale from the Red Book of Hergest, written just after 1382. It was also contained in fragments in the White Book of Rhydderch, written about 1320. Both books were sources for the Mabinogion, a compilation of early Welsh oral stories by Lady Charlotte Guest from which the first of these tales draws.
Culhwch was the son of King Cilydd and his wife, Goleuddydd, who died soon after giving birth to him. Cilydd remarried, but Culhwch became estranged from his step-mother after she tried to persuade him to marry her daughter from another marriage. Culhwch refused and she took offence, casting a spell on him so that the only woman he could marry was Olwen, the beautiful daughter of the dangerous giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, in the belief that it would be impossible.
Despite never having met or even seen Olwen, Culhwch became obsessed and besotted by her. His father told him he would never be able to find her alone and must seek out the assistance of his cousin, King Arthur. Culhwch visited Arthur and was given a band of heroic companions to aid him in his quest. They eventually found Ysbaddaden and Olwen but the giant insisted that to marry his daughter, Culhwch must perform a series of tasks he believed to be impossible.
One of the tasks required him to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron, whose whereabouts was unknown, but was essential to the overall success of the quest. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar, the Twrch Trwyth. The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth is the hunting dog named Drudwyn, and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon. The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place.
The Oldest Animals in the World
In the hope that one of the oldest and wisest animals in the world might know where he was, advice was sought from the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led hem to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd. The owl told them …
According to the Regum Britanniae, orHistory of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1136, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern was a 5th century King of the Britons. He was considered one of the most notoriously devious and immoral kings in British history. To be fair he was only doing behaving as his contemporaries behaved. It was a question of dog eat dog in those days with no quarter given or asked for. He was attributed with most of the blame for inviting the Anglo-Saxon war-leaders Hengist and Horsa into Britain as his mercenaries, sowing the seeds for the eventual Anglo-Saxon takeover of much of England and the many years of war and strife that was to come.
This is a retelling of how Vortigern usurped the crown of Britain based on the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Although his work was once considered reasonably accurate it is now no longer seen as reliable by modern scholars. Nevertheless his work does provide his own version of the history of Britain and its kings and still has its merits as a cultural product of its times and still wields considerable influence in many Arthurian creations in the modern times. This part of the story of the history of the island of Britain begins with the assassination of King Constantine and the succession of his son Constans. It continues to reveal how Vortigern grabbed power and ends with the threat of war hanging over him and the arrival of Hengist and Horsa.
The Assassination of King Constantine
After King Constantine of Britain had been in power for ten years he was assassinated by a Pict who stabbed him in the back. After his death the crown of Britain was greatly disputed. The legitimate successor to the throne was Contans, the eldest son of Constantine, but his father had placed him in a monastery. Although he was unhappy with the monastic life he was not really interested or suited to being king. The next oldest and second in line was Aurelius Ambrosius his younger brother and the third was the youngest brother whose name was Uther. Some nobles favored Aurelius to rule while others preferred Uther. It was finally agreed that both were too young and all were at a loss as to what to do.
Vortigern Becomes Ambitious
Vortigern had his own ambitions and his own ideas on who should be King of the island of Britain. He preferred Costans knowing that he had little interest in ruling and lacked the necessary qualities and strength of character that a monarch of Britain would need to control and unite the nation. Furthermore, he knew that he had no desire to remain a monk all his life. Vortigern reasoned that if he helped him escape the clutches of the monastery to become king he could easily manipulate him while all the time working towards his ultimate unspoken goal of taking the crown for himself. To further his ends he offered to set the unhappy Constans free from the monastery and make him king if in return he would make him his chief adviser.
Constans: The Puppet King
Constans agreed and left the monastery and Vortigern took him to London to be crowned king. The consent of the nobles or the people was never asked for or obtained. Inconveniently the recent death of Archbishop Guethelin meant there was no one else of sufficient authority and stature in the clergy to fulfill such an important role. Conveniently for Vortigern the only other person with sufficient governmental experience and authority to fulfill such a role was himself and he performed the coronation ceremony.
Constans lacked any knowledge or experience of government and had little or no credibility with the nobles or the people. He relied heavily on the experience and guile of Vortigern for advice making him the effective ruler of Britain in all but name. With many of the more experienced nobles killed in the wars with the Picts there were few alive who could match his statecraft and experience and Vortigern was using these personal assets to further his own ambitions ruthlessly.
The next part of his plan was to remove Constans from the throne and set himself upon it. As always he was patient and bided his time while always seeking ways to consolidate his power at home by clandestine means. At the same time he secretly used his position to increase his influence with nearby countries. He persuaded King Constans to give him control of the Royal Treasure to keep it safe. The inexperienced king at his Chief Advisor’s request also gave him control of all of the fortified towns and cities of the realm after claiming a fictitious threat of foreign invasion was imminent. As soon as he had control of the cities he replaced their rulers and governors with his own men ensuring total control over the major fortified population centres.
He then persuaded King Constans that he was in danger and needed more men in his bodyguard to protect him from assassination. Constans, perhaps bearing in mind what had happened to his father and trusting fully in Vortigern gave his permission to hand pick his personal bodyguard. This made it easy for Vortigern who told the king that he had received word that an alliance of Picts and Dacians were preparing to attack Britain. He also assured him he knew of some trustworthy Picts who were not involved in the plot and he advised they should be offered a place at his court to form his new bodyguard. They would be loyal to Constans and act as spies informing him on what their compatriots were plotting. Despite his father having been assassinated by a Pict such was his trust and reliance on Vortigern that Constans agreed.
Vortigern’s real intention was not to protect the king but replace his loyal bodyguards with men of his own choosing whom he believed he could control. He knew the Picts were quarrelsome and often indulged in heavy drinking and in such a state they were unruly but easily manipulated. He also knew full well that they would have no qualms about assassinating Constans if the seeds of the idea were sown carefully and the right conditions prevailed. Therefore, he was confident that if he set the stage right they would act out the part he planned and take the blame while he looked beyond suspicion and took the crown.
To bring his plan into action he sent messengers to Scotland seeking one hundred Pictish warriors whom he could install as the King’s household guard. When the Picts arrived he made a great show of welcome. He gave them expensive presents and a luxury table for them to dine from and he showed them more respect than he gave the King’s original bodyguard. So pleased were they with his welcome of them they began to see him as their lord and master above King Constans, exactly as Vortigern had planned.
Soon they began to make songs revering Vortigern and belittling Constans. In these they praised Vortigern as king suggesting Constans was unworthy. They sang these songs in the streets in full view of the public pleasing Vortigern greatly. The greater they praised him the more he praised them in return and bestowed greater favor upon them. Soon the next stage of his plan was ready to put into action.
The Killing of King Constans
He waited until one day when the Picts were well and truly drunk and solemnly told them the day was coming when he would leave Britain. Mournfully, he told them he did not want to go but could no longer afford to keep more than fifty men in his retinue. With that he feigned great sorrow and left them drinking to think about it. The Picts were sorry to hear this for Vortigern had been good to them. They began to think about their own position and how that could change and one of them said,
“Why do we suffer this monk to live? Why do not we kill him, that Vortigern may enjoy his crown? Who is so fit to succeed as he? A man so generous to us is worthy to rule, and deserves all the honour and dignity that we can bestow upon him.” (1)
After more drinking and such talk between one another they broke into the King’s bedchamber. They killed him while he slept and then proudly presented his severed head to Vortigern. Putting on a great show of sorrow and tears, while really elated with joy, he ordered the assassins to be bound. Wasting no time he summoned the citizens of London to witness their execution for what he called their terrible crime.
Not all of Britain’s nobles were taken in by Vortigern’s show of false sorrow. Many suspected villainy but with no one left in Britain powerful enough to stop him Vortigern seized the crown. In fear of their own lives and for the safety of the brothers Aurelius and Uther – the true heirs – they fled across the sea to Armorica. The brothers were well treated by King Bude who educated and kept them in a manner befitting their royal blood.
As time passed his treason was at last discovered. The Picts were furious at the execution of their own people and constantly attacked and ravaged the border country. Vortigern was at daily war with them and lost many of his best warriors keeping them at bay.
The Threat of Aurelius
Over the years in Armorica, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther were coming of age and sought revenge for the murder of their father and elder brother. Aurelius, the elder of the two had built himself a formidable reputation on the continent as a war leader and was mustering an army to retake the crown of Britain. He remembered how Vortigern had favoured the Picts and now he knew he had orchestrated their deaths to remove any witnesses. Now with his own star on the rise he was burning to avenge his father and elder brother and reclaim the crown of Britain.
Although Vortigern was now High King of the island of Britain his troubles were just beginning. With the growing threat of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther he began receiving reports of the building of a vast fleet and the mustering of a great army. His spies confirmed his fears that they were intent on taking back their inheritance. Therefore an invasion force was expected to land at any time somewhere along the south coast of England.
With the Picts making daily forays in the north of his realm he knew he was in trouble. Taking stock of the situation on both fronts he found he was desperately short of men at arms to defend the kingdom. Despite his military weakness he still had his political guile and ruthlessness which he used to quell any opposition among his own war leaders. Nevertheless, these were dangerous times with the promise of worse to come but things were going to take an unexpected turn that he would at first welcome and then live to regret. As the clouds of war were gathering on the northern and southern edges of his realm there appeared completely unexpectedly off the coast of Britain three long ships carrying a detachment of armed warriors from foreign parts. These warriors were under the command of two brothers named Hengist and Horsa and they came ashore at Kent.
To begin with the presence of these two brothers looked to be a welcome gift in nullifying the brothers Aurelius and Uther and countering the Picts and Vortigern welcomed. However, while he was ruthless and treacherous Hengist would prove to be a master beyond compare of deceit and treachery. Hengist also has had a beautiful daughter name Rowena who Vortigern would become obsessed with and marry. All the time across the sea in Armorica, Aurelius was preparing his revenge.
In medieval England tales about the adventures of King Arthur and his knights were popular and were often found in the form of a long poem. These were often read socially as entertainment at events such as celebrations or banquets. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is such a poem and appears as a parody of the Arthurian world with a hidden mix of ancient motifs and themes such as The Loathly Lady, Sovereignty, the annual cycle of the sun, and a little humor blended into the story-line. In many ways it turns Arthurian tradition on its head for in this story unusually the heroic King Arthur is found having to beg a vengeful knight for his life. The knight agrees to put off his execution for one year when he must return to him with the correct answer to a question or die. The question is What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? No wonder Arthur is worried!
With the help of his faithful, but gullible nephew Sir Gawain he searched the world for the answer. He finally came across Dame Ragnelle in Inglewood Forest who gives him the correct answer but only on the condition that Sir Gawain marries her. Dame Ragnelle is the opposite of the beautiful and well-mannered females who populate the Arthurian world. She is repulsively ugly, openly lusty, and course of manners, nevertheless, to save his uncle, Gawain agrees to take her for his wife. Although it appears Gawain is too faithful and gullible for his own good things turn out extremely well for him in the end. Presented here is a retelling of the story.
One fine day King Arthur and a hunting party left his court at Carlisle to go hunting in the nearby forest of Inglewood. For speed in the chase, comfort and practicality he had left his armor off and was lightly armed with bow, arrow and hunting knife. While the hounds were seeking out a quarry Arthur noticed a fine stag standing stock still in a thicket. Ordering the others to stay where they were he carefully stalked the stag. Nevertheless the stag got a scent of him as he crept forward and ran off. Arthur gave chase and letting fly with his bow and arrow managing to wound the animal as the hounds took up the chase. He told his huntsmen to remain where they were while he went after it. He chased for about half a mile and managed to wound it again causing it to stumble and fall. As he finished it off with his hunting knife a stranger appeared who was well armed and dressed in armour and looked a most formidable warrior.
Sir Gromer Somer Joure
The stranger knight stood proudly over Arthur as he knelt over the stag and said, “Well, met King Arthur, well met indeed! All these years you have done me wrong and here I have you unarmed, without armor alone in the wilds. I will have my revenge. You took my lands and gave them to your nephew Sir Gawain. Now I will unleash my anger and hatred upon you. What have you to say now I have you alone in the wild unarmed?“
Arthur stood up realizing he was indeed alone, unarmed and vulnerable against this well armed knight dressed for battle who stood threateningly before him and said, “Well, Sir Knight, perhaps you could tell your name before you slay me?”
Replied the knight, “I am Gromer Somer Joure.”
“Then, Sir Gromer Somer Joure, good knight that you are, you will know slaying me unarmed and not attired for battle will bring you nothing but shame. You will be shunned by knights everywhere you go. Perhaps there is something I can do to amend or alleviate the hurt you accuse me of before I leave? Speak now!” replied Arthur.
“You will not escape me now that I have you. If I let you go you will defy me again.” replied the knight.
“Slay me while I am unarmed and with no armor and you will have eternal shame. Spare my life and perhaps there is something I can do to right the wrong you allege or reward you,” replied Arthur.
“There is nothing that will help you. I do not desire land or riches just you death, but if you agree that …”
“I agree,” interrupted Arthur.
“Listen to my demand! You must swear that you will return in a year with the answer to this quest I am about to ask you. If have the right answer you will live. If you do not have the right answer I will take your head. The question is this. What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? If you agree swear your oath and get gone. If you do not I will take you head now. What say you, King Arthur?”
“Although it is disagreeable to me I swear and being a true king will return in a year and a day with or without the answer to your question and face my fate.” answered Arthur.
“Then get you on your way King Arthur, you have no idea of the troubles that await you. You must keep this secret and don’t even think of betrayal for I could kill you in battle,” said Gromer Somer Joure before mounting his horse and riding off.
Arthur blew his horn and the rest of his party came quickly to him. They found him with the deer but were surprised to see how sad he looked. Telling them he had no further desire to hunt the party went back to Carlisle. Although no one said anything they all knew something strange and serious had happened by the look on his face. Back at Carlisle, Arthur sat alone brooding and clearly unhappy.
At last his nephew, Sir Gawain approached him and asked what ailed him. He replied sadly, “While I was unarmed and alone in the forest I encountered an unknown knight armed and clad in armor, ready for battle. He told me certain things that I must not tell unto others and gave my word. Therefore, I must keep my word or betray it.”
Gawain reassured him that whatever he told him he did so in complete confidence and that he would never pass it on. Therefore Arthur said,
“Today while hunting alone I slew a stag. Afterwards, I met a knight named, Sir Gromer Somer Joure who wanted to slay me. I had no sword or armor and I spoke to him politely and courteously reminding him of the shame and dishonor as a knight that would befall him if slayed and unarmed man. Of course I did not want to die and I swore on oath that I would return to him in one year, clad as I was and unarmed with the answer to this question. What is it that women most desire? I am bound to return and give him the right answer. Should the answer be wrong he takes my head. If I give the right answer I am set free from the oath. If I don’t turn up, unless by death alone, then I am eternally shamed. This, then is the cause of my woe.”
On hearing him Gawain said, “Let me help. You search for the answer in one direction and I will search in the opposite. On our way we will ask everyone we meet the question and write down the answers in a book. At the end of a eleven months we will meet back here in Carlisle and I will give you my book and we will peruse the findings together.”
Arthur could think of no better plan and so agreed and they went off on their separate ways. Each asked everyone they came across the question, “What is it that women most desire of men?” and wrote down the answer. Some said it was money. Some said it was fine clothing. Others said they liked to be courted and wooed, while the other said they liked lusty men who swept them off their feet. By the time they arrived back at the court of Carlisle the both books were full with many different answers.
Eleven months later they met back in Carlisle and looked over each other books. Gawain was confident that one of the answers contained in the books would be right but Arthur was not so sure. There were so many answers so he said, “I still have a month left and there is time to find something more definite. I think I will look around Inglewood Forest for a while in the hope of finding the right answer.”
Gawain was confident that they had the right answer in the books already but said, “As you wish, but I have every confidence the right answer is in the books.”
The next day Arthur rode to Inglewood and spent several hours wandering the many paths in the forest. Eventually he came across and old woman seated upon a horse at a crossroads. She was the most hideous, ugliest and the most repulsive person he had ever seen. In contrast to her the horse she sat was most handsome chestnut mare. Its saddle and bridle were decorated with gold, silver and precious gems. The magnificence of the beast was in stark contrast to the vile appearance of her. She was sat on her horse in the middle of a crossroads seemingly in waiting for him. It was she that spoke first seeming to knew who he was and boldly greeting him thus,
“Well, met King Arthur, well met alone in the woods. I have advice for you if you will listen that will save your life!”
Arthur was utterly repulsed by the loathly lady but politely asked what she had to say. She told him she aware of him and his quest and knew the answer he sought,
“I know the right answer to the secret. I know you found many answers but the ones you have gathered to you are wrong. If I do not tell you then you will die. If you grant me a request I will tell you the answer you seek, Your life is in my hands! Therefore, what say you?”
Arthur was unpleasantly surprised that she appeared to know so much. He looked at her in disgust of her appearance and said, “Lady, I dislike your words, Tell me what you want and if I can I will grant it. Why is my life in your hands?”
The loathly lady cackled at him said, “Whatever else I am, I am not evil. The bargain I would make with you is this. To save your life I must marry Sir Gawain. Think, deeply, think wisely. If you do not agree or if he does not agree the marriage you will die!”
Arthur was aghast at the thought. The more he considered it the least able he thought himself of delivering it. Therefore, he said, “In all truth, fairness and honesty, I cannot promise Sir Gawain will agree to be part of this bargain. It is for he alone to choose a wife, but I will ask his thoughts on the matter, though only because it may save my own life. I would not blame him if he refused, but I will ask and see what happens from there.”
This appeared to satisfy the lady who replied, “Go now and speak to Sir Gawain and speak as fair as you can of me. Yes, I am hideous, but I am as lusty as I am hideous! Go and speak to Gawain and you may yet live. You will find me here when you have your decision.”
“What will I tell him your name is?” asked Arthur.
“You may tell him my name is Dame Ragnelle,” she replied
So Arthur rode back to Carlisle to talk to Gawain. He knew his nephew would probably accept simply because of his own sake. Nevertheless, he really regretted having to ask him with the terrible consequences involved but he had no choice.
The first person Arthur met was Gawain who greeted him happily and asked how he got on with his quest in Inglewood. Arthur looked at Gawain sadly and said, “Everything went exceedingly bad. I may as well kill myself now as I appear to be doomed to die!”
Gawain was shocked and wanted to know why he was so sorely depressed and unhappy. Arthur said, “In Inglewood I met the most disgusting and hideous lady I have ever seen. She has promised me that she will save my life if you will marry her. Gawain, I cannot let you do this, therefore I am doomed!”
Gawain replied, “No matter how foul or hideous I will marry her to save you. You are my uncle, my king and my friend. We have fought side by side in many battles and it is my honour that is at stake if I refuse. I will not dishonor myself or become a coward afraid of a lady, hideous or otherwise. I will marry her!”
Arthur told him how they had met at the crossroads and how she had told him her name was Dame Ragnelle. He reiterated that she was the vilest, ugliest woman he had ever seen. He told Gawain that she had told she knew the answer to the question he sought. She had told him there was only one answer and she was the only one knew. She would only reveal it if you married her.
Gawain was not to be put off and replied, “Have no fear, I will marry her regardless of her vile appearance, for my respect for you is even greater.”
Arthur was pleased by Gawain’s answer and told him, “I cannot thank you enough! You are the best of my knights and I shall love you as long as I am king of this land!”
At the end of the last month, Arthur, accompanied by Gawain went to seek Dame Ragnelle at the crossroads as he had promised. When they reached the forest Arthur told Gawain that here they must part. Gawain told him he would prefer to accompany him but as it was his wish they would separate.
When Arthur reached the crossroads he found Dame Ragnelle sitting as if she had not moved since he had left. She greeted him saying,
“Well met, what is the news. Are to be saved or are you doomed?”
Arthur looked upon her with a mixture of gloom and disgust and said, “I have spoken to Gawain. As there is no other way he has agreed to the marriage. Therefore, Dame, tell me the answer to the question for I must go.”
Dame Ragnelle laughed long and hideously and then said,
“I will tell you what it is that women most desire. Some men say it is beauty and youth we desire that we stay attracted to men and are lusted after. It is not that. Some say women wish to be flattered and feted and wooed, but it is not that either. There are many other wrong things men say about women but now I will tell you what women most desire in all the world of men. It is this. We women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of our self and over men, so that all that is theirs is ours. We will use all our wiles and skills to master the most manly, the fiercest and the most brutal of men and gain sovereignty over them. Now King Arthur, go and tell this to the adversary who would cut off you head and you will be saved. Just remember our bargain!
Wasting no time Arthur rode to the place where he had killed the stag and where he had agreed to rendezvous with Sir Gromer Somer Joure. When he arrived Sir Gromer was already waiting. Arthur showed him the books with the answers he and Gawain had collected, Gromer spent a long time diligently studying them and at last said, “No, the correct answer is not here. Therefore, prepare to die!”
Arthur held up his hand and cried, “Wait! I have one more answer, will you hear it?”
“I will,” said Gromer.
“It is this. Women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of herself and over men so that all that is men’s is theirs,” said Arthur.
This infuriated Gromer who replied angrily, “Curse the woman, I hope she burns in Hell. Clearly you have spoken to the old hag, Dame Ragnelle, who is my sister. If not for her I would have your head here and now! Yes, you have given the right answer, but only thanks to her. Go now Arthur, but never let me catch you alone and unarmed in the forest again, for I will not hesitate a second time!“
Much relieved Arthur replied, “You can be sure I will never again be found at such a disadvantage. From now on I will always be armed and armored to defend myself and defend myself I will. Now I go.”
With that Arthur mounted his horse and rode to the crossroads to meet Dame Ragnelle, leaving Sir Gromer Somer Joure angrily cursing his sister. Although Arthur was glad to be free of the threat of death he now looked forward to his meeting with the loathly lady with disgust and dismay. He was desperately sorrow for what had been lain on Gawain and would have done anything to change it. At the crossroads she was waiting patiently still sat upon her horse. She cackled hideously at his approach and said, “Ha, King Arthur! See it is just as I told you. I have kept my part of the bargain and now you must keep yours. Sir Gawain will be my husband!”
Arthur shuddered, deeply sorry for what he had got his faithful nephew into but said, “I have spoke to Gawain and he has agreed, The marriage will go ahead though I wish for all the world it would not! Therefore if you will have your wish follow my advice. We will go secretly …”
Dame Ragnelle cut him short saying, “We will do nothing in secrecy. I will be married openly in public for all to see. You will not leave me until I am the wife of Sir Gawain, or it will bring shame and dishonor upon you. You will escort me royally to your court and all will see how I have saved your life and the gratitude you owe me! ”
Deeply embarrassed Arthur escorted Dame Ragnelle to court. When they reached Carlisle she waved and smiled gruesomely at all she met lapping up the attention she received. Everyone stared in shock and wonder at the hideous woman King Arthur escorted to his court. On arrival Arthur led her into his hall where she said joyfully, “Now bring to me Sir Gawain and summon your knights, noble and ladies. Send out to all nobles and lords to attend that they may witness our marriage which will take place as soon as all is assembled as witnesses. Fulfill your bargain King Arthur!”
Groaning inwardly, Arthur summoned Gawain and his knights, noble and ladies to meet Dame Ragnelle. When Gawain arrived, Dame Ragnelle declared she was so taking by his handsome appearance she wished she was beautiful for him. To his bemusement and embarrassment she reassured him she was as lusty as she was hideous, digging him in the elbow and winking, while Gawain stared blankly before him.
King Arthur held his head in his hands in despair while all of his knights and noble looked on in shock and bewilderment, The ladies of the court wept at the sight of the handsome, heroic Sir Gawain sitting next to his grotesque fiance. Although Arthur and his queen begged her to have a small private ceremony Dame Ragnelle refused. She declared it was her special day and she would share it openly with everyone. With resignation, Arthur summoned the lords and ladies of his realm to Carlisle to witness the marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.
After a few days everyone had arrived and all was in place and a magnificent wedding banquet prepared for after the ceremony. Although she wore a most beautiful wedding gown the contrast between her and her gown made it all the more surreal.The ceremony took place and Arthur and his lords and ladies looked on in shock and horror as the jubilant Dame Ragnelle wedded Sir Gawain. Although the horror could be seen in his eyes his courage was without fault that day. After the ceremony the banquet began and Sir Gawain led his bride to her chair at the banquet table.
The Marriage Banquet
It was a magnificent banquet but no one was prepared for what happened next. Taking her seat next to her husband at the head of the table. After all the appropriate speeches were rendered and proper protocols observed, Dame Ragnelle wasted no time in tucking in to the banquet.
To the sheer amazement of her new husband and the guests she began eating with amazing speed. She stuffed her mouth full of various kinds of food while swallowing great gulps of beer and wine. Everyone one stared in amazement and horror as plates of meat, pies, bread, sweetmeat and delicacies of all kinds disappeared into her voluminous mouth. As she ate she belched and coughed sending saliva flying across the hall and causing the guests to cover their plates. Greedily she ate whole capons, whole ducks, even whole swans, She ate a boar’s head and body to herself. She ate and she ate and ate and she drank and she drank and she drank.
Everyone looked on in embarrassed astonishment. All the time she chatted away gaily with her mouthful to her new bewildered husband and their equally bewildered guests. Every now and then she would elbow Gawain urging him to up to build up his strength, while giggling coyly. Gawain sat blank faced staring in space before him while Arthur sat holding his head in his hands silently begging Gawain for forgiveness.
At last she was satiated of food and drink and with more than a wink and a nod to her guests carried her new husband off to their bedchamber. Gawain stared forlornly out of the window while his wife prepared herself for her husband. At last she said, “Ah now, since we are now married you must not deny me in bed. I cannot deny that if I were beautiful you would feel and act differently, certainly with more enthusiasm. Nevertheless, do me the honor of turning to face me and kissing me. Show that you honor me!”
Gawain stood staring out of the window and sighing said, “Have no fear, I will kiss you and more.”
The Spell is Broken
Turning to face her he stood dumbfounded in astonishment at what he saw. Stood before him was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“What are you?” he asked.
“Husband, I am your wife, Why do act so strange?”
Gawain stood in amazement at the transformation and said, “Forgive me, I am at a loss. I am bemused and well and truly confused. Earlier today at our wedding you were the most hideous and ugliest creature I have ever seen. Now you are transformed into a vision of loveliness. The day began strange and has grown even stranger and I am at a loss to know what to say or do!”
His bride stood before him very much a vision of loveliness and she said, “You must make a choice. My beauty as you see me now will not last. I can only be fair at night or in the day time. That means if you chose me to be fair at night I will be foul during the day. If chose me to be fair in the day then I will be foul at night. Whatever you choose, I will remain, but you must choose one or the other. What will it be?”
Gawain thought for awhile then said, “It is a hard choice to make. To have you beautiful only for myself at night would be a sorrowful thing and I would do you dishonor. To have you beautiful in the daytime would mean I have little reward at night. Truly, I would like to choose the best but I have no idea of what that may be. Therefore, I give you the choice. Please make the choice that you prefer. I promise whatever that may be, my body, all of by possessions, my heart and soul will remain yours to do with as you please, this I promise before God.”
Thus transformed Lady Ragnelle said, “Sir Gawain you have proved to be an honorable and courteous knight and I bless you for the honor you have shown me. Do not be grieved or confused by my sudden transformation. My wicked stepmother cast a spell upon me changing me into the hideous being you first saw. I was to remain in that vile shape until the best and most worthy knight in England married me and gave himself, his body, his soul, all his worldly goods to me to rule and to do as I wished. You have given me sovereignty over myself and also over you. Be sure that I will use that power most wisely and with all love.”
Their wedding night was still young and they made the best of it. When dawn came they laughed and kissed and remained in bed happy in each other’s company. The morning passed and midday arrived and Arthur said to his knights with trepidation, “I think we better go and make sure Gawain has survived the night. I fear the hideous thing may have killed him. Let us go and make sure he is alright.”
He led a party of knights to the newly weds bedchamber and began banging upon the door crying, “Gawain, it is midday. Why are you so long in bed, are you ill?”
Gawain got up and opened the door ajar and said, “My Lord, I would be most grateful if you would leave me be for all is well here and in good health as is my beautiful wife, see …”
And he purposely opened the door fully to reveal Dame Ragnelle standing in a stunning gown with her red hair hanging around her waist looking a vision of beautiful and loveliness.
“Now you can see for yourselves why I am in no rush to rise and meet the day. Meet my wife, Dame Ragnelle who gave you the answer that saved your life.”
He told Arthur of the enchantment she has been under and how now it had been broken. All of Arthur’s knights were greatly relieved at his safety and pleased at the way things had turned out for him. The queen and her ladies were also delighted fearing that the hideous woman had murdered him, but even more pleased that his exemplary behaviour had won a wife of outstanding beauty. There was much relief all around and Arthur told the queen of how he had been forced to swear an oath in the forest of Inglewood to save his life and how Dame Ragnelle had saved him.
Gawain explained how his wife had placed under an enchantment by her stepmother and how his marriage to her and the choice he made to grant her sovereignty over herself and him on his wedding night had broken the spell.
Dame Ragnelle said, “I give my thanks to Gawain for without him I would still be the hideous, vile and misshapen thing. Therefore, although Gawain has recognized my own sovereignty over myself and granted me sovereignty over him I swear I shall never abuse or misuse it. I will be his wife and he my husband as it should be. There will never be discord between us.”
In return Gawain pledged his love and faithfulness, acknowledging the mercy she granted him.
The queen declared to her ladies that Lady Ragnelle was the most beautiful of the all and said, “I give my thanks to you for saving the king for I love him with my life!”
Gawain and Dame Ragnelle settled down and soon she bore him a fine strong son whom they named Gyngolyn, who grew up to be a good knight of the Round Table. It soon became apparent that Gawain loved his wife more than anything in the world. He gave up jousting and competing in tournaments and spent all his time by her side and she was reckoned the fairest lady in England.
Lady Ragnelle, begged Arthur to forgive her brother Sir Gromer Somer Joure for the wrong he had done to him and he reluctantly agreed. If everything appeared happy for a time it was bound to change. Sadly, after five happy years together Lady Ragnelle passed away. Although Gawain remarried he was said to have never loved anyone else like he loved Lady Ragnelle.
The Vita Merlini, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century, tells the story of Merlin after the Battle of Camlann where he ruled over South Wales, had a wife named Guendoloena and a sister named Ganieda. Unlike many Arthurian stories, instead of glorifying war, it tells of the horrifying effect of war trauma on the individual and their families even one as famous and powerful as Merlin. The work was originally written in Latin and presented here is a retelling of the story from a translation by John Jay Parry (1).
After the Battle of Camlann, Arthur had been taken to Avalon and Britain split into many small kingdoms that fought among themselves. Merlin ruled over the South Welsh giving laws to the people and foretelling the future. When Peredur of North Wales quarreled with Gwenddoleu, the King of Scotland, Merlin and King Rhydderch of Cumbria joined him against the Scots resulting in a savage battle. Alongside Merlin were three brave brothers who had fought beside him in many ferocious conflicts. They stormed through the enemy lines driving the foe back but eventually were overwhelmed by sheer numbers and slain. Seeing his brave brothers-in-arms fall Merlin cried,
“Where can I now find such brother-in-arms who
have stood with me and fought the vicious foe?”
Seeing blood and death all around he wept and lamented for
all the dead and dying but the fighting continued unabated.
The Britons rallied their troops and drove hard against the
Scots forcing them to flee for their lives.
Seeing victory, Merlin called Peredur and Rhydderch to him telling them
to bury the dead with honour, but then grief took him and he began to wail and
cry, mourning the death of his comrades and so many brave warriors.
Madness in the Woods
Peredur and Rhydderch could not console him so great was his
distress so they followed his instructions leaving him alone in his
anguish. As his cries rent the air his
mind was taken by a fury and he fled into the woods where he found joy and
peace in the quiet of the trees and hidden glades. Naked, he hunted animals and
harvested the nuts, fruit, and roots surviving only from the gifts of the woods.
He watched the animals and birds and learned of their ways and studied the
trees and the plants and the natural world about him.
Winter came and food and shelter became hard to find and he
struggled to survive. He often talked
out loud to himself about the problems he faced. One day, while he was hidden among the trees
and thickets, a traveller heard him and stopped to listen to what was being
said. To the surprise of the traveller
when he approached, the wild man fled through the undergrowth faster than any
Ganieda Seeks her Brother
After Merlin had fled to the woods, Queen Ganeida, Merlin’s sister and the wife of King Rhydderch, was greatly worried for his well being. She sent searchers to the woods to look for him in the hope of bringing him back. The traveler had resumed his journey and meeting one these told of his strange encounter with a wild man and gave him directions to the scene of the incident. The searcher thanked him and continued to the scene but Merlin had gone. He searched all the wooded valleys and hidden glades and scoured the mountains searching places where few had ever trod.
At last, he came across a fountain hidden by hazel thickets
and by the gushing water, naked and unkempt, sat the wild man of the woods, who
sat talking to himself. Not wanting to alarm him the searcher hid behind a
bush. He was a good singer and played
the lyre. Gently and softly he played the strings and sang softly of the
mourning of Guendoloena for Merlin, her beloved husband and of the worry of Ganieda,
for her brother.
The music and singing soothed Merlin’s soul and he stood to
see where it came from. Seeing this, the singer slowly stood up still playing
his lyre and repeated the song. The music stirred in Merlin pleasant memories
of his wife and sister and was deeply moved by their love. He remembered who he
was and what he had been and set aside his madness. He asked the searcher to
take him to the court of his old friend King Rhydderch where they both lived.
At the Court of King Rhydderch
As Merlin walked through the city gates, Ganieda and
Guenedolena ran to meet him. They covered him in kisses and hugged him, making
him feel greatly loved and he showed his own love to them. Happily, they led him to the royal court where
King Rhydderch received him with great honour.
Merlin seeing the vast crowd of people present and unaccustomed to human
company, panicked and his madness returned. Desperately, he tried to escape to
the sanctuary of the woods far away from the roaring of voices.
Rhydderch refused to let his old friend go. He ordered him to be restrained and music
played upon the lyre to ease his distress and begged him to stay offering
expensive presents but Merlin told him he preferred the treasures of the
woods. Rhydderch worried about his
safety in the wild and ordered him to be chained and Merlin fell silent and
morose refusing to speak or smile to anyone.
One day, Ganieda came looking for her husband who moved to
embrace and kiss her affectionately.
Noticing a leaf caught in her hair he gently untangled it while lovingly
chatting with her. Merlin saw this,
smiled knowingly and laughed. This
surprised the King and he urged him to say what was funny. Merlin fell silent refusing to answer, but
Rhydderch persisted with his question promising him gifts. Merlin told him the freedom to return to the
woods was the only gift he wanted and if he granted that he would tell him why
he laughed. Knowing he had nothing to give that Merlin would value, Rhydderch
Therefore, Merlin said, “I
laughed when I saw the affection you showed the Queen when you removed the leaf
from her hair, when earlier, she lay under a bush with her lover, which is how
the leaf got there.”
Shocked, Rhydderch looked angrily at his wife. Ganieda tried to conceal her shame by smiling and saying, “Take no notice of a raving madman who cannot tell lies from truth. I will prove his madness!”
She called a young boy over saying, “Now dear brother, show us your powers of prophecy. Tell us how this boy will die!”
Merlin said, “My dear
sister, he shall die in manhood by falling from a cliff.”
Ganieda then told the boy to go and get his long hair cut
short and put on different clothing.
When he returned thus disguised she made him stand before Merlin and
said, “And now dear brother, tell the
King what death you foresee for this boy!”
Merlin replied, “This boy will grow up to meet death in a
tree while his mind has shut out all reason.”
Ganieda turned to her husband and said, “This proves my innocence and my brother’s madness for the same boy
cannot surely have two deaths. I will prove the point further! “
Taking the boy aside she told him to go and put on girl’s
clothing and come back to her dressed in that way. When he returned she presented him to Merlin
saying, “Now, dear brother, tell us how
this girl shall die!”
Merlin replied, “Girl,
or not, death will be in a river!”
Rhydderch laughed at the three different deaths predicted
for the same boy and was sorry he had doubted his wife. Ganieda was greatly relieved, but deep inside
she wept for her brother. Rhydderch
kissed and embraced his wife but inside he grieved for his old friend and
brother-in-arms remembering his greatness.
Return to the Woods
Merlin went down to the city gates but Ganieda appeared and
spreading her arms before him entreated him to stay. He thrust her aside and strode on. Her
servants tried to stop him but he simply glared down on them as if they were
naught but impertinent little imps leaving them shuddering.
Guendoloena came running through the streets and pushing all
aside threw herself before him. She
wailed and wept, begging on her knees for him to stay, that they may live as
man and wife again. Merlin could not
look upon her but Ganeida said, “Have
pity on your wife who loves you and will die for you. Would you have her live out the rest of her
life in sorrowful longing for her husband?
Say the word and she will follow you to the forest and live as you
live. Say the word brother!”
Merlin bowed his head for a moment as if softening but then the madness in him spoke, “I will be free of her, free of you, free of love and its binding chains, therefore it is right that she be allowed her chance of happiness and marry a man of her own choosing, but beware should that man ever come near! On her wedding day, I will come to her and give her my gifts.” His sister and wife watched his departure sorrowfully but marvelled how he could have known about the secret affair of the queen and both were convinced the three different deaths of the boy he had predicted proved his
The boy grew into a young man and one day set off with
friends hunting in the forest. The dogs roused a stag chasing it for many miles
and he alone managed to keep up with the chase.
With the dogs hard on its heels the stag sought refuge in a high and
rocky place. In his excitement, the
young man became oblivious to the dangers and urged his horse forward. Coming suddenly to a high ledge looking down
upon a river, his horse suddenly stopped throwing him over its head and over
the cliff. As he fell his foot caught in
the branch of a tree that overhung the river leaving his body suspended in the
air while his head was submerged in the water drowning him and fulfilling
Guendoloena’s Wedding Gifts
Returning to the woods Merlin lived as the wild beasts
lived. Through the winter he suffered
greatly from the cold, damp and the biting wind but preferred this to the wars
and violence of corrupt kings, rejoicing in the absence of human society.
Years passed and one cold night when the stars were clear
and bright the moon threw down its light to fall upon a high mountain. Silhouetted against the magnificence of the
heavenly vault a lone madman stood staring up at the sky studying the movements
of the heavenly bodies. He saw the
intrigue, murder, the death of kings and all the great events of Britain. From Venus came a double ray of light that
was cut in two. Knowing this told of
Guendoloena’s wedding he set off to take her presents as he had promised.
He came across a stag and by talking soothing words it
allowed him to climb upon its back and he rode through the woods with its does
following in a long line. Arriving at the place of the wedding he made the
beasts stand patiently and obediently while he called out, “Guendoloena! Guendoloena! Guendoloena! I have brought your wedding
presents as I promised!”
Laughing at the sight of him upon the stag with the does in obedient line, she came running, marveling how he managed such a feat.
From a high window, the bridegroom looked down at the scene
and seeing Merlin riding the stag laughed.
Hearing him, Merlin looked up and realizing who he was flew into a
rage. Grasping the antlers of the stag
he wrenched them from their sockets and hurled them at the laughing
bridegroom. The antlers struck with
great force embedding in his skull, killing him outright.
Prophecies of Death
Merlin fled upon the stag chased by servants. The stag outran them until it reached a river which it leaped over, but Merlin slipped from its back into the water. He was caught and taken to Ganieda at the royal court where he sat silent and morose refusing food and drink causing his sister great grief and worry. Rhydderch ordered food be placed before him in the hope of tempting him but to no avail, so he ordered that Merlin should be taken for a walk around the marketplace in the hope seeing people and all the different goods and novelties might cheer him.
In the marketplace, Merlin saw a man of ragged appearance
sitting before a door begging for money to buy new clothes. Merlin stood looking at him, laughed and
walked on. Further on, he saw a man
purchasing a new pair of shoes while also buying patches of leather. Merlin stood and laughed and people
stared. Seeing them stare he refused to
go on and the servants took him back to the palace and reported to the King. Rhydderch, curious to know why Merlin had
laughed offered to free him if he told him.
Merlin told him he had seen a man begging for coins to buy
new clothes when he was sitting on a secret hoard of money. He was laughing at
his audacity and the gullibility of people who gave to him and said, “Dig below where he sits and you will find
Next, he had seen a man buying new shoes and leather to
patch them with when they became worn.
He had laughed at the irony and futility of the act as he was destined
to die by drowning telling him, “He is
now lifeless on the river shore.”
Rhydderch sent servants to search the river banks but went
himself to where the ragged man sat and digging up the ground below him found
his treasure. His servants returned from
searching the river and reported they had found the body of the man who brought
Merlin was freed and made his way the gates where his sister
caught up with him. She still loved him and begged him to at least see out the
winter in comfort with her, but he told her,
“Dear sister, why do
you fight to keep me? Winter will be
hard but not as hard as living among the savagery of people, therefore let me
be. But, if you will then build me a
lodge in the remoteness of the woods where I may watch the movement of the
stars and predict the fate of our people. You can visit me and bring me food
and drink and keep me company.”
He left and Ganieda built a lodge for him and would bring
food and drink and Merlin thanked her for that and for her company. One day he told her she needed to return
quickly to court as her husband was dying, but told her to come back after the
burial with Taliesin who had recently arrived after visiting Gildas in Brittany.
Ganieda returned to court to find to her grief that Merlin
had spoken truly. After her husband’s
funeral, she returned with Taliesin to Merlin’s lodge where she decided to live
out her days. Merlin and Taliesin talked
of many things. Merlin told him how they
had taken the grievously wounded King Arthur to the Isle of Avalon after the
battle of Camlann, leaving him in the care of Morgan le Fay. He told him the story of the Kings of the
Britons from Vortigern to Arthur and then foretold a long period of Saxon
domination which would eventually lead to a return to British rule under
Cadwalader after prolonged and bloody conflict.
The Healing Fountain
As he spoke one of his servants came rushing in excitedly announcing that a new fountain had gushed forth at the foot of the mountain. Merlin and Taliesin followed the servant to see the wonder. Both marveled that it should have appeared so suddenly and sat down watching it flow. Feeling thirsty, Merlin cupped his hands and drank from the fountain and then bathed his brow. As its pure water coursed through his body his madness left him and his reason returned.
Many princes and chieftains came to see the place where the
wonderful waters had cured Merlin of his madness. Seeing him whole and sane again they asked
him to rule and guide them with his wisdom and knowledge. Merlin refused and told them he now preferred
his life in the woods to one in a royal court.
Just as he finished speaking the air was rent by wild howls
and cries and a madman rushed out of the woods towards them. Seeing them he stopped suddenly and then ran
around looking to escape. He was quickly
captured and brought before Merlin, who groaned for he knew the man and his
heart went out to him understanding what he endured and said, “His name is Maeldinus. He was my friend many years ago when he was a
strong and noble knight. Having such friends I thought myself fortunate.”
He told how they had both been among a hunting party and
finding a spring of fresh water they all sat down to rest and quench their
thirst. One of their party found a pile
of apples and Merlin shared them out.
Although there was none left for him he was happy for them to enjoy the
fruits. His friends all declared they were the finest apples they had ever
tasted but their pleasure did not last long.
Soon they were howling wildly and running madly through the woods to
become lost in the forest and that was the last time he had seen them and
He discovered the poison apples were placed there by a woman who had loved him but who he had spurned. She had placed the apples for him to find intending revenge, but luckily he had not eaten one and was spared. Finishing his story, he ordered his servants to make the man drink from the fountain. They obeyed and the wildness fled from his eyes and intelligence and reason shone forth and he recognized Merlin and remembered who he was. Merlin invited him to stay and serve him and Maeldinus was pleased to accept. So Merlin now had his sister Ganieda and Maeldinus as companions and then Talisien spoke and said that he too would remain with him in the lodge.
Ganieda the Prophetess
After the death of her husband, Ganieda lived with her brother and his friends enjoying the closeness of nature and the companionship. Sometimes she became of elevated spirit and would foretell events to come to her companions concerning the destiny of the Britons. One day when the spirit came upon her she made a long prophecy concerning the wellbeing of Britain causing her companions to marvel and wonder. Merlin spoke approvingly and with love telling her that the spirit that spoke to him had fallen silent and the task of foretelling the future was now given to her.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
At this point, Geoffrey brings Vita Merlini to an end
“I have brought this
song to an end. Therefore, ye Britons,
give a wreath to Geoffrey of Monmouth.
He is indeed yours for once he sang of your battles and those of your
chiefs, and he wrote a book called “The Deeds of the Britons” which are
celebrated throughout the world. “(2)
Although the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth are no longer considered
as accurate reference books his influence on British culture cannot be denied
and as cultural products of his time they are priceless and certainly he earns
at least a bouquet.
Offering a Prayer
Instead of a tale of heroism and glory he gave us a very tragic human story concerning one of the most powerful, important and enigmatic characters of Arthurian tradition. It showed the love and dedication of family and friends supporting a sufferer of trauma through dark times. Therefore, perhaps we can offer our own thoughts and prayers to our own divinities to comfort and heal those afflicted by inner anguish, torment or war trauma and offer support where ever we can.
This article was first published under the title of British Legends: Warrior Women — The Battle of Britomart and Radigund the Amazon Queen on #FolkloreThursday.com, 28/02/2019 by zteve t evans
The Faerie Queen
The epic unfinished poem, The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, published 1590-96, created a parallel of the medieval universe that alluded to events and people in Elizabethan society. The narrative draws on Arthurian influences, legend, myth, history, and politics, alluding to reforms and controversial issues that arose in the times of Elizabeth I and Mary I. It is an allegorical work that both praised and criticised Queen Elizabeth I, who is represented in the poem by Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. The six human virtues of holiness, chastity, friendship, temperance, justice, and courtesy are all represented by a knight. Spenser raises many questions about Elizabethan society, especially about the role of women in maintaining the patriarchal order. This is represented by a spectacular battle between Britomart, the Knight of Chastity, and Radigund, the Amazon Queen.
Britomart the Knight of Chastity
Britomart is a virginal female
knight, who not only represents chastity but is also associated with
English virtue, especially military power. The “Brit” part of her name comes from “Briton” while “martis” comes from the Roman god of war, “Mars,” meaning
war-like person. From an early age she refrained from the traditional
activities of girls at the time, and was trained in the use of weapons
and combat, preferring such typically masculine activities. She dressed
in the armour of a knight, acted like a knight, fought like a knight,
and wielded a magical black spear.
After a long quest and many
adventures seeking him, Britomart married Artegall, the Knight of
Justice whom she had seen in the magic looking glass belonging to
Merlin. Yet, as was often the way with knights, Artegall was bound to a
quest he could not abandon without losing his honour. Gloriana, the
Faerie Queene, had given him the task of rescuing the Lady Eirena from
the tyrant Grantorto. It was his chivalric duty to complete the quest or
die trying. Despite her sorrow at his leaving, Britomart knew she had
to allow her husband to complete his quest, and looked forward to his
Queen Radigund, the Warrior Queen
On his quest, Artegall, accompanied by Talos, an iron-man who helped him in the dispensation of justice, came to the country of the Amazons, ruled by the warrior Queen Radigund. She fought against any knight who arrived in her realm and would not submit to her will. After conquering them, she forced them to obey her every command or die. Radigund made all defeated knights remove their armour and against their will wear female clothing, forcing them to work by spinning thread, sewing, washing clothes, and other tasks that women usually did. If any refused or complained, she executed them.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on November 29, 2018, titled British Legends: Morgan le Fay – Magical Healer or Renegade Witch? written by zteve t evans
In Arthurian tradition, the elusive sorceress Morgan le Fay becomes one of King Arthur’s most dangerous foes, breaking traditional family bonds and working to undermine and bring down the strict patriarchal system and chivalric order of the Arthurian world. Morgan is an enigma: despite attempting to kill King Arthur and usurp his kingdom, she takes him into her care after he is severely wounded by Mordred in the battle of Camlann, which brings an end to his kingdom. This work draws mostly from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, and Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, with influences from other texts, and looks at how Morgan’s character changes from benevolent, to malignant and then back to benevolent. To do this, we look at her early life, how she used Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur against him and stole its scabbard, and the disaster this would cause. This is followed by a discussion on two important topics that had a considerable influence on medieval society: the Querelle des Femmes or The Woman Question, and witchcraft, before concluding with Morgan’s return to Avalon.
As Ruler of Avalon
Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces Morgan into Arthurian literature in Vita Merlini, as ‘Morgen’, presenting her as the leader of nine benevolent sisters that rule the island of Avalon. She is the most beautiful, the most knowledgeable and the most powerful of the sisters. As well as being a skilled healer, she can fly or transport herself at will from place to place, and she has shape-shifting abilities.
It is not clear whether these ‘sisters’ are family, or members of some kind of religious or mystical order. In the work of some later writers, she becomes either the step-sister or full elder sister of King Arthur, but a radical change happens with her character. As Arthur’s elder sister, she breaks the traditional bond of love between brother and sister and the nurturing role so often associated with the elder sister towards their younger brother. Furthermore, instead of the wise and benevolent sorceress, she evolves into a malign, sexual predator, hating her brother and his wife Queen Guinevere, and forsakes her place at the center of the Arthurian establishment, moving to its periphery and becoming a renegade attacking the established order. She targets the Knights of the Round Table, especially Sir Lancelot, weaving dark spells and plots to trap them. Eventually, she becomes nothing less than an enemy of the state and, arguably, its most dangerous adversary, until Mordred emerges to usurp the crown, resulting in the battle of Camlann.
Morgan’s Early Life
In Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Morgan the youngest daughter of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Igraine. When the King of the Britons, Uther Pendragon, first set eyes on Igraine, he became wildly infatuated with her. Unable to contain his lust, he attacked Cornwall to take Igraine for himself. Gorlois sent his wife to his safest stronghold of Tintagel while he confronted Uther’s troops in battle. While the military confrontation took place, Merlin, using his magical arts, transformed Uther into the likeness of Gorlois to allow him to gain access to Igraine at Tintagel. The guards, believing it was Gorlois, let him enter the stronghold. Believing he was her husband, Igraine lay with him, and that night Arthur was conceived.
While this was taking place, Gorlois was killed battling Uther’s army. After satisfying his lust, Uther returned to his troops and, on learning of the death of the duke, took Igraine to be his wife. He married her eldest daughter, Morgause, to King Lot of Lothian and the next eldest, Elaine, to King Nentres of Garlot. Morgan was the youngest and he sent her to a nunnery.
Morgan hated Uther because she knew what had happened the night her father died, and deeply resented Arthur as the product of his lust. At the nunnery, she was introduced to astrology, the dark arts of necromancy and the skills of healing, becoming highly adept in this field. As her skill and knowledge grew, people began to call her Morgan le Fay in acknowledgement of her abilities. Eventually, she joined Arthur’s court and became a lady in waiting to Queen Guinevere.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com by zteve t evans, October 11, 2018
In Arthurian romance the mystical, magical quest of the Sangreal is a popular story that has its roots in medieval times, though its seeds may be from much earlier. It uses allegories to blend together pagan motifs, Christian tradition and political and social concerns of the day into a story of spiritual evolution for the main protagonists who must remain true to the quest. The Sangreal is another name for the Holy Grail which eventually became conflated with the Holy Chalice. There are several other versions of its name and in different stories it has appeared in different forms such as stone or wood, or as a cup or dish. The earliest of these romances was Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes who died before it was finished but was added to later by other poets. Other authors also created versions of the story such as Le Roman du Graal, Joseph d’Arimathe, Merlin, and Perceval by Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Cycle, whose authorship is disputed and Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Later, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte D’Arthur, blending together Arthurian and grail tradition, and it is from this that the greatly summarised version of the tale below draws the most.
Origin of the Sangreal
In this allegorical story set in the time of King Arthur, the Sangreal was the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the last supper, and the Sacred Spear was the one Longinus, the Roman soldier, used to pierce his side during his crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea brought them to Britain and his descendants, the Grail Kings of Castle Corbenic were granted guardianship on condition that each guardian lived a life of purity in deed and thought, dedicated to Jesus Christ. For many ages, the Sangreal remained a visible, tangible object — alongside the Sacred Spear — that pilgrims came from far and wide to pray before.
Over time, one of its guardians allowed the moral standards that behoved his role to slip, and sought forbidden love. The Sacred Spear punished his weakness, inflicting a wound to his groin that could not be healed, leaving the king maimed and kept alive only by the power of the Sangreal; after this, the Sangreal and Sacred Spear were hidden from the people’s eyes. In those days the fertility of the land was linked to that of the king, and his realm became a barren wasteland until the time came when he would be healed by the purest knight in the world.
At Camelot, Merlin had not been seen for some time and, worried at his absence, King Arthur sent out knights to find him. Sir Gawain went out searching, and while travelling through the forest of Brocéliande he heard the sound of someone groaning. Following the sound, he found a column of dense mist that he could not penetrate. From the mist came the voice of Merlin who revealed that his mistress, Viviane — the Lady of the Lake — had imprisoned him there for all time. He instructed Gawain to return to King Arthur and tell him of his plight. Yet, emphasizing that nothing could be done to save him, he gave an important message to relay:
“Tell Arthur a great event is now unfolding. The knight is born and ready to begin and accomplish this task for the good of the land and its people. Now is the time of the quest of the Sangreal.”
Gawain quickly returned and delivered the message to King Arthur, who grieved for his old friend as he turned over the message in his mind.
Pentecost at Camelot
It was the custom of King Arthur to celebrate the feast of Pentecost with all his knights around the Round Table. Each of the knights had their own seat at the Round Table with their name inscribed upon it, and there was one vacant seat known as the Siege Perilous. As the feast was about to begin a squire brought news that in a nearby river there was a red slab of marble that floated on the water. King Arthur led his knights to the river to investigate. Fixed firmly within this slab, as if it had been driven in, was a sword upon which was inscribed the following words,
“Never shall I be drawn forth except by he who is the perfect knight and at his side, I will hang.”
Sir Gawain tried to draw the sword but failed, as did Sir Percival and many others, but none could free it.
The Quest of the Sangreal
Having investigated, they returned to the Round Table to eat. While they were eating the windows and doors all suddenly slammed shut. The candles flickered, went out and then came back on again, and stood before them appeared a very old holy man accompanied by Galahad, the son of Sir Lancelot. The holy man led Galahad to the Siege Perilous and seated him there. They watched in awe as the lettering on the seat changed magically to read, Galahad. King Arthur led Sir Galahad to the floating slab of marble and he easily withdrew the sword to the wonder of all.
Arthur and his knights returned to their feasting and again, the candles suddenly dimmed and there was a peal of thunder. A ray of light shone down and in the middle of the Round Table there appeared the glowing Sangreal veiled in white silk. Inspired by this miraculous event, Sir Gawain declared he would not rest, day or night, for one year and a day, until he saw the Sangreal fully unveiled. Arthur remembered the message of Merlin and was full of disquiet. He knew the others would follow his example and realized there was every chance some would die on that quest, or not return. In the early days of summer, as one hundred and fifty knights rode from Camelot on the quest of the Sangreal, King Arthur wept, knowing the world had changed forever.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on 23/08/2018, under the title British Legends: The Divine Tragedy of Guinevere, written by by zteve t evans
Guinevere Goes a-Maying
The story began one day in the month of May, when Guinevere called together ten Knights of the Round Table. She told them they would accompany her and ten of her ladies in the traditional seasonal activity of Maying, in place of her own elite guards known as the Queen’s Knights, who usually accompanied her everywhere. In celebration of the season and to enter into the spirit of the celebration, she insisted they leave behind their armour and wear green clothing and bear only light arms. Therefore, bright and early the next morning, the party set off to go a-Maying in the woods and fields around Westminster.
The Malice of Sir Meliagrance
An evil knight named Meliagrance had a castle several miles from Westminster, and he had loved Guinevere since the first day he set eyes on her. He never dared to show this love for fear of Sir Lancelot, who was always near her. On this bright May morning, away from the security of the Royal Court, accompanied by only ten lightly armed knights, and with Sir Lancelot now absent, he saw his chance. He quickly mustered twenty of his own men-at-arms and one hundred archers to aid him in the abduction of Queen Guinevere.
Guinevere and her party joyfully entertained themselves fully in the ancient custom, adorning themselves and each other with flowers, leaves, mosses, and herbs. They were all relaxed and enjoying the traditional activity so they were easily caught unawares when Meliagrance with his men came out of the woods and surrounded the happy company. Aggressively, he demanded that Guinevere should be given to him, or he would take her by force. The ten lightly armed knights, without a shields, or armour, were not prepared to allow the queen to be taken easily and vowed to fight to the death to defend her. Meliagrance sternly told them, “Prepare with what weapons you have, for I will have the queen!”
The defenders placed themselves in a ring around the queen and drew their swords. Meliagrance gave the order, and his knights charged on horseback. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the ten knights defended the queen ferociously. After long and fierce fighting, six of the queen’s defenders were too badly wounded to fight on, but four were unhurt and still defiantly defended the queen, until they too were wounded but fought on bravely.
Seeing her valiant knights so badly hurt and to prevent their slaying, Guinevere ordered them to lay down their arms on condition they would not be slain and that she and they would remain together no matter what. Meliagrance agreed on the condition they did not try to escape and contact Sir Lancelot.
While Meliagrance was attending to his own wounded knights, Guinevere sent one of her youngest servants on a swift horse to find Sir Lancelot and tell him of her plight. On hearing the news, Sir Lancelot, in fear and alarm for the safety of the queen, called for his horse, his armour, and his weapons. Then he asked the servant to go to his friend, Sir Lavaine and tell him the news of the queen’s abduction and ask him to follow him to the castle of Meliagrance without delay.
The Knight of the Cart
Lancelot rode swiftly over Westminster Bridge and, making his horse swim the Thames at Lambeth, he soon came to the place where Sir Meliagrance had abducted the queen and her knights. Then he followed the tracks through woodlands, where he was waylaid by the archers of Sir Meliagrance who rained arrows down on him and slayed his horse. Having no other choice than carrying his armour, weapons, and shield, he set out on foot to the castle of Meliagrance.
As he walked he was overtaken by a horse and cart carrying a driver, and his assistant that was carrying wood to the castle of Meliagrance. The driver refused his request for a ride, so to avoid further delay Sir Lancelot commandeered the cart. He knocked the driver from his seat and forced his assistant to drive him with all speed to his intended destination. From his manner of arrival at the castle, Sir Lancelot was given the name “The Knight of the Cart,” and jumping from it cried out, “Sir Meliagrance, traitor Knight of the Round Table, where are you? I, Sir Lancelot du Lac challenge you! Come, face me and bring who you will, for I will fight you to the death!”