The Arthurian Realm: The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle Retold

Unknown -Public Domain

Medieval England

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.

Inglewood Forest

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.

Sir Gawain

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.”

Sir Gawain by Howard Pyle [Public domain]

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.”

Dame Ragnelle

Arthur Meets Dame Ragnelle – Public Domain

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!

Arthur’s Answer

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!”

The Marriage

Leon Bakst [Public domain]

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.”

Lady Ragnelle

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.

© 28/08/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 28th, 2019 zteve t evans

The Arthurian Realm: The Madness of Merlin

Artist: William Blake – Public Domain – Source

This was first published as a two part article titled, British Legends: The Madness of Merlin (Part 1), on #FolkloreThursday.com, 24th, January, 2019, and British Legends: The Madness of Merlin (Part 2) on 31st January, 2019 by zteve t evans. Here it is published as one piece and the ending is different.

The Vita Merlini

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 Camlann

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 animal.

Ganieda Seeks her Brother

William Blake [Public domain] (cropped) Source

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.

The Fountain

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.

Ganieda Unmasked

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 finally agreed.

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

Artist: William Blake – Public Domain – Source

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 derangement. 

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 Merlin’s prophecy.

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

Frank Vincentz [Public domain] Source

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 his treasure.”

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 the shoes.

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.

Maeldinus

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 Maeldinus.  

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 saying.

“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.

© 24/01/2019 zteve t evans and #FolkloreThursday.com

References, Attributes and Further Reading

Copyright January 24th, 2019, zteve t evans and #FolkloreThursday.com

The Arthurian Realm: Morgan le Fay – Healer, Witch and the Woman Question.

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

Introducing  Morgan

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.

Read More

The Arthurian Realm: The Quest for the Sangreal

The Sangreal

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.

Merlin’s Message

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.

Read More

The Arthurian Realm: The Divine Role of Guinevere

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.

Ambush

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.

Guinevere Surrenders

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!”

Read More

The Arthurian Realm: The Romance of Tristan and Isolde

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com as British Legends: The Tragic Romance of Tristan and Isolde on September 27, 2018 by zteve t evans.

The Romance of Tristan and Isolde

The tale of Tristan and Isolde became a popular Arthurian tale during the 12th century, though it is believed to go back much further, having connections to Celtic legends. It is a tragic romance that tells of the adulterous relationship between Tristan, and Isolde, the wife of Tristan’s uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, making a classic love triangle that sooner or later must be broken by death. In many ways it mirrors the love triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere and King Arthur, though it is believed to be older. The spelling of the names and the names of some characters vary and there are many different versions, but all hold to the same basic structure and story-line. Presented here is a shortened version of their story created from the sources below.

Tristan and King Mark

Tristan was the son of the King Meliadus and Queen Isabella of Lyonesse, but sadly, his mother died giving birth to him. Meliadus loved his son greatly but remarried an evil woman who was jealous of his affections and plotted to kill the boy. Tristan had a devoted servant named Gouvernail, who becoming aware of the plot, took him over the sea to the court of the King of France where he was given sanctuary. As the years passed, Gouvernail sought a place where Tristan could complete his education and took him to the court of King Mark of Cornwall. King Mark was Tristan’s uncle and welcomed him and educated him in all of the knightly manners and fighting skills, at which he soon excelled.

Each year King Mark was obliged to pay tribute to King Argius and Queen Isolde, the rulers of Ireland. To collect this payment, they sent their strongest and most feared knight, Moraunt, the brother of Queen Isolde. Tristan went to his uncle, offering to fight Moraunt if he could be fully knighted. King Mark was very fond of Tristan and feared for him, but his nephew persisted until he reluctantly agreed, and Tristan challenged Moraunt to a duel to the death. After being wounded in the thigh, Moraunt told Tristan his sword was smeared with a deadly toxin and the only one who could save him was his sister, Queen Isolde, who was a skilled healer. In reply, Tristan struck a blow to Moraunt’s head, incapacitating him and notching his own sword in the process.

The servants of Moraunt carried him back to his sister but he died on the way. When his body was finally brought home, his sister found a splinter from Tristan’s sword embedded in his skull. Removing it, she studied it carefully and kept it.

Healing in Ireland

For Tristan, the initial wound was not that bad but the poison was now spreading through his body and the best healers could not find a cure. He decided to seek out Queen Isolde hoping she would heal him. Arriving at the Irish court, and aware of the queen’s relationship with Moraunt, he told them his name was Trantis. Not knowing his true identity, Queen Isolde agreed to heal him, and using special herbal baths and potions she gradually began restoring him to health.

The King and Queen of Ireland had a beautiful daughter, who they had named after her mother. She was known as Princess Isolde the Fair. While Tristan was there, they held a tournament and a knight named Sir Palamedes won the honors on the first day. On seeing Princess Isolde for the first time, he was so smitten he could not take his eyes off her, making no secret of his feelings. Seeing this, Tristan grew jealous and decided he would enter the competition the next day despite still not being fully fit.

In every fight he was victorious and when he fought Sir Palamedes he defeated him and was named champion. Despite Tristan’s triumph, the extraordinary physical effort caused his wound to open and he began to bleed profusely. Princess Isolde took over his care and nursed him back to health, growing to love him more and more every day.

One day while cleaning Tristan’s sword, a servant noticed that it was notched. He had been present when Queen Isolde removed the metal splinter from the head of Moraunt and took the sword to her knowing she still had the splinter. On examination, she found it fitted perfectly together and realized that this was the weapon that had killed her brother. She took the sword and the splinter to the King and, telling him of her suspicions, demanded the death penalty for Tristan.

Read More

The Arthurian Realm: The Abductions of Guinevere

Coveting Guinevere

The theme of the abduction of Queen Guinevere runs throughout Arthurian tradition and is taken up by numerous medieval writers.  Caradoc of Llancarfan mentions it in his version of the Life of Gildas, as does Geoffrey of Monmouth, in Historia Regum Brittaniae, (History of the Kings of Britain).  The theme is also taken up by medieval French poets Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron, and in the work of Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur.   Here we look in brief at various versions of the abduction and then discuss ideas about how they may have been influenced by pagan elements and may be distant echoes of the dramas of ancient gods and goddesses before the arrival of Christianity.

Caradoc of Llancarfan

Probably one of the earliest examples of the abduction of Guinevere comes from The Life of Gildas, By Caradoc of Llancarfan (c.1130-1150).  Guinevere’s abductor is the evil King Melwas of the Summer Country, or Somerset. He may have been an early prototype for Chrétien de Troyes Méléagant, and Malory’s Meliagrance.   In this story Guinevere is abducted and violated and Arthur, who is referred to as a tyrant, spends an entire year seeking her out.  Finally learning she was being in held by King Melwas in Glastonia, or Glastonbury. He raises a vast army intending to free his wife but as the two sides were about to clash, the cleric, Gildas and the clergy step between them. Gildas persuaded the two kings to parley and negotiated that Guinevere be returned to Arthur in peace and goodwill preventing a bloody battle to free her.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth names Mordred, Arthur’s nephew and illegitimate son, as the villain who attempts to covet  Guinevere. Arthur had left Britain in Mordred’s stewardship while he went off fighting the Procurator of Rome, Lucius Hiberius, leaving Guinevere at home.   While he was out of the country with most of his army, Mordred seduced Guinevere and claimed the crown from Arthur forcing him to return to Britain and fight.  This culminated in the catastrophic Battle of Camlann where Mordred was killed and the badly wounded Arthur taken across the sea to Avalon to recover and the end of the Arthurian realm.

Chrétien de Troyes

In Lancelot, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, also known as Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, by Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot is the hero of the story who saves Guinevere from the Méléagant, the evil son of King Bagdemagus.  In this story he races to the rescue of Guinevere having a series of adventures along the way. These include having to suffer the indignity, for a knight, of riding in a horse and cart driven by a dwarf that was carrying criminals to their execution.  He then had to scramble over a sword bridge whose edge was turned upright and razor sharp. Although sustaining serious wounds crossing the bridge he was still ready to combat Méléagant, but Guinevere at the request of King Bagdemagus stopped the fight.

Later he was forced to fight Méléagant after the  badly wounded Sir Kay was accused of raping Guinevere while she slept.  Sir Kay was too bad wounded and had no strength available for such exertions and had been wrongly accused.  Blood had been found on her sheets and because he was laid recuperating in the same room as her, he was blamed.  In fact the blood was from Lancelot who had kept an illicit tryst with the queen and slept with her. Lancelot, knowing, but not admitting the truth, stepped in to fight and clear Sir Kay who was too weak to defend himself.

Malory’s, Le Morte d’Arthur

In Malory’s, Le Morte d’Arthur,  wehn the month of May came, Guinevere decided she would participate in the age old tradition of a-Maying in the woods and fields of Westminster.  Therefore, she set off with a party of ladies-in-waiting, along with servants and ten lightly armed Knights, who she insists wear all wear green. Sir Meliagrance, a name probably derived from the Méléagant in Chrétien de Troyes work,  had long lusted after the queen and with 160 men-at-arms attacked the small company. Although her knights fight valiantly they are lightly armed and hopelessly outnumbered. To prevent their slaying she agreed to surrender provided they are spared and remain by her side.  Meliagrance agrees but she manages to send a messenger boy to Lancelot telling of her abduction and requesting his aid.

On hearing the news Lancelot immediately set off in pursuit.  Meliagrance, realising he would follow, set a trap for him and archers killed his horse.  Lancelot was forced to hijack a horse and cart carrying wood for the fires of Meliagrance’s castle.  From this he was given the name, Knight of the Cart. On arrival at the castle gates he shout for Meliagrance demanding he come down and face him.  On learning Lancelot is at his gates Meliagrance begs Guinevere her forgiveness for his behaviour and begs that she protect him from the enraged knight.  She agrees and persuades Lancelot to put his sword away. Lancelot agrees and she leads him to the chamber where the ten knights are kept.

They are both so glad to see each other they agree on a secret midnight tryst. Lancelot appears at her window at midnight and Guinevere tells him she would prefer it if he was inside with her.  Although the window is barred Lancelot pulls the bars out cutting himself in the process and climbs in through the window. The two slept together that night and Lancelot stole away before Sunrise, replacing the bars of the window as he left.

The next morning Meliagrance seeing blood on the sheets of Guinevere’s bed accuses her of sleeping with one, or more, of her wounded knights.  Lancelot, without revealing the truth, challenges Meliagrance to a fight to clear the queen’s name. Meliagrance brings a charge of treason against Guinevere believing she had slept with one or more of the knights.  Although innocent of this accusation, Guinevere had slept with Lancelot which is not revealed to him, but he was not one of the individuals accused. The case is brought before King Arthur and he reluctantly agrees she must be burnt at the stake unless Lancelot proves her innocence by defeating Meliagrance. In the resulting duel Lancelot slays Meliagrance proving her innocence of the charges brought against her and freeing her.

Mordred’s Attempted Abduction

In Le Morte d’Arthur, Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son and nephew by his sister Morgause, covets Guinevere, but does not quite manage to abduct her.  Mordred lied to Guinevere telling her4 Arthur had been killed by Lancelot and claimed the throne for himself intending to marry her. Guinevere persuaded Mordred to  allow her to go to London so she could procure all the things a wedding needed but instead locked herself in the Tower of London with her entourage.  Although Mordred tried to persuade her to come out his efforts were cut short by the news that Arthur had arrived back in Britain with his army.  Consequently, he was forced to leave Guinevere and confront Arthur, resulting in his own death and Arthur being severely wounded and taken to Avalon.

Gods of the Round Table

Some scholars of Arthurian legend and romance see many of the stories of King Arthur and his knights, in legend and medieval romance, as being dramatizations of the adventures of Celtic gods and important natural events. They believe there was a special relationship between the king and the gods and the king and the land and to ensure the fertility of the land the king was wedded to the goddess of the land.

David Dom, in his book King Arthur and the Gods of the Round Table proposes that Arthur, Guinevere and the main companions of the Round Table to be a the distant and distorted memories of the old Celtic gods and Arthur is seen as representing a Solar God.  To complicate matters, these stories were overwritten, or influenced by various culture over time, including Roman, English, French and European medieval Christianity and modern thinking. It centers around the idea that Arthurian legends and stories originally were dramatizations of the deeds and adventures of ancient pagan gods with the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table making up the pantheon, being a part of it.

Pagan Origins

There is an intriguing idea that the stories of the abduction of Guinevere are echoes of earlier pagan traditions centered around the annual cycle of the seasons in Northern Europe. One of the ways this annual cycle may have been dramatized was in that the seasonal changes were due to the activities and adventures of the gods. In both Malory’s version and that  of Chrétien de Troyes, Guinevere is abducted in the spring, and in Malory’s it is while she is celebrating May Day, or Beltane, the time of the renewal of vegetation. Many scholars see this as evidence that the kidnapping was originally a season myth with Guinevere being a goddess and her abductor a god. In the original versions by Chrétien de Troyes , after being abducted Guinevere was take across water – an indication that she was leaving the Earthly world for the Otherworld – and her rescuers had to cross the water to reach her in that world.  After her rescue Guinevere and Lancelot became lovers which also happened in the spring, around Beltane.

This comes after the bleak barren days of winter and is seen to represent the marriage of the god and goddess heralding the end of the dark, bleak period of winter and the greatly looked forward to renewal of vegetation and fertility to the Earth.  In the Chrétien de Troyes version the entire episode takes place over one year, tying it further to the annual seasonal cycle. The abduction stories while only hinting at pagan influence on the surface have been heavily overwritten with Christian influences which tend to cover up the inherent pagan elements of the loves and romances of the gods.  To pursue this further it is worth taking a look at the annual cycle of seasons for Northern Europe and what follows is a very simplified version of one of the many versions

Winter

In winter the days are cold, dark and short.  Vegetation dies and crops do not grow and food becomes in short supply.   In some pagan northern European societies winter was thought of as the imprisonment of the eternally young, Earth goddess in the depths of the Earth by the aging winter solar god.  As winter progressed the power of the Sun god waned as the Sun rode low in the sky. As his power waned he became more like a malignant god of the underworld and feared the arrival of a young, potent Sun god who would steal the Earth goddess from him.  Desperate to preserve his own power and survive, he imprisoned the Earth goddess in the underworld to prevent anyone from stealing her. The imprisonment of the Earth Goddess resulted in a loss of fertility and renewal being withdrawn from the Earth, causing dramatic and disastrous consequences for humanity.

Spring

In spring the young Sun god arrives and takes a higher path across the sky providing longer days, more daylight and warmer weather.  His youth, strength and virility defeats and supplants the aging Sun god and frees the Earth goddess from imprisonment.  With a  more agreeable climate and the freeing of the goddess the Earth returns to life and seeds germinate, plants bud and grow and animals breed. The young Sun god takes the eternally young Earth goddess for his bride around the time of the festival of Beltane, commonly held on the 1st of May, or halfway between the March, or vernal equinox and the summer solstice, or midsummer,  when the Sun’s power is at its height.

Summer

As the  days grew longer and warmer, with the marriage of the Sun god and the Earth goddess the Earth is fertilized, plants grow and thrive and harvest time arrives which is the product of this marriage.  The young Sun god has reached the heights of his power at midsummer and the coming days will see his power decline.

Autumn

With the decline of power of the now aging Sun god there is a steadily decrease in sunlight and warmth, the days grow steadily shorter, vegetation begins to shrivel and die.  The cycle of the previous years repeats and slowly and inevitable the aging Sun god loses his strength, vigor and virility just as his predecessors had and just as those who come after him will.

Winter Returns

As his strength and potency diminish he appears lower in the sky, days become shorter and darker as winter sets in.  In a desperate attempt to keep his beautiful and eternally young wife he imprisons her in the underground. The Sun god reaches his lowest and weakest point at midwinter, or the Winter Solstice and is defeated by the young Sun god who frees and marries the Earth goddess.  This cycle must continue eternally to bring fertility, renewal and growth to the Earth.

In the version of the abduction of Guinevere by Chrétien de Troyes the drama was played out over one year with Meleagant, Guinevere’s abductor representing the doomed and aging Sun god and Lancelot the virile and potent, young Sun god.

Goddess of Sovereignty

There is also an idea that Guinevere was either an ancient Goddess of Sovereignty, or a representative of one.  A Goddess of Sovereignty was an aspect or servant of the Earth goddess, also known as the Earth Mother or Mother Earth and Goddess of the Land, in some cultures.

Those who follow this idea point to the fact that the story begins in May which is around the festival of Beltane.  It is at this time of year the everywhere is green and fertile and in celebration Malory tells how Queen Guinevere decides she will go a-Maying.  Those who see Arthurian characters as divinities, see Guinevere as representing a Goddess of Sovereignty that bestows the sovereignty of the land onto the King, who in this case is Arthur. As such his role is taking care of the land and inhabitants ensuring it remains fertile.  To do this she needs a strong, virile king but in these stories Arthur is usually portrayed as aging and losing power. Lancelot being the younger and more potent of the two may be seen by a Goddess of Sovereignty as an ideal replacement, but despite his love for Guinevere he remains loyal to Arthur not wanting the crown.

It may also be the case that simply being in possession of a representative of the goddess would be enough to give authority to the claim of kingship. This would make Guinevere a valuable prize for anyone who would be king and helps explain her numerous abductions, especially Mordred’s interest in her.  It also explain why, for the most, part Arthur appears reluctant to acknowledge, or deal with the situation of her affair with Lancelot until he is forced into it.

The affair with Lancelot may not have been about Guinevere’s alleged sexual promiscuity but more about her fulfilling her role as representing a Goddess of Sovereignty. Furthermore her abductions may not necessarily have been about love, lust or desire for her as a woman, but more about possessing the representative of the goddess. For all of that these are just ideas and theories and it is up to each person to decide what it means to them.

© 20/11/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 20th, 2018 zteve t evans