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!”

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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.

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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

The Prophecy of Merlin: The Two Dragons

vortigern-dragons

Vortigern and Merlin and the Two Dragons – Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Arthurian realm of legend and romance destiny and fate play essential parts in many of the legends and stories.  The practice of some writers from the Romances back to Geoffrey of Monmouth to link to earlier works and legends often gives a sense that the main characters and events are governed by some supernatural force that shapes destiny and fate. Events that happened many years and sometimes centuries earlier, become linked to important events in later legends and stories returning to the fore after lying dormant. One of these events involved two important players in the Arthurian world, both having played a part in shaping the destiny of Britain before Arthur was even born.  These two were Vortigern who usurped the throne of Britain and a young Myrddin Emrys, also known as Myrddin Ambrosius or Merlin.  Vortigern gained infamy and a reputation for treachery and weakness and Merlin became the sorcerer, counselor and soothsayer of the kings of Britain in his time.

Fate and destiny combine in strange ways and an event from the distant past resurfaced to cause King Vortigern a problem he could not have foreseen and the only person who could solve this was the then young and unknown Merlin.  The two were brought together on Dinas Emrys where Merlin was inspired to make one of his most famous prophecies on the fate of Britain.  Sometimes  called the Prophecy of the Two Dragons or  The Prophecy of Merlin, it reveals the coming of Arthur and the future of Britain, making  him the leading soothsayer and sorcerer of his time.

Vortigern’s Fortress

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after the Treachery of the Long Knives, when the greater part of the nobility and leadership of the Britons had been brutally and treacherously murdered by Hengist and his Saxons, the wise men of King Vortigern, advised him to seek out a place where he might build a fortress as a place of safety to retreat to.

After searching what remained of his realm for a safe and suitable site he finally chose a rocky, wooded, hill about one mile from what is now called Beddgelert in Gwynedd, Wales, that rises to a height of about 250 feet above the valley of the River Glaslyn.  This hill was once called Dinas Ffaraon Dandde or fortress of Fiery Pharaoh, and later became known as Dinas Emrys which means fortress of Ambrosius.

Thinking he has found a good site Vortigern gave the command for the work on building the walls of the fortress to commence.   His builders worked hard building walls and towers in the daytime but no matter how far they progressed in a day, when they came back the next morning, they would find the previous day’s work in a heap on the ground.  Although the builders used all their skills and knowledge and worked as hard as they possibly could during the day, each morning they would return to find the previous day’s work once again in a pile on the ground. This went on for many days until Vortigern was obliged to seek help from his wise men. According to Nennius, a 9th century monk and writer, his wise men informed him that that he would have to seek out a young boy. “not conceived by a mortal man”. who would be sacrificed and his blood sprinkled in the mortar of the stonework in the hope of appeasing what ever dark power was hindering the construction of the fortress.

Myrddin Emrys

Vortigern sent his messengers out across the land seeking out such a boy.  After many days and much searching, one of the messengers returned with a boy named Myrddin Emrys or Merlin Ambrosius, who was the only boy they could find “not conceived by a mortal man”.

Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, 1137) says that Merlin was believed to have been the the son of an incubus, or demon and his mother was mortal and was a nun.   With the incubus representing Satan and the nun representing Jesus Christ, or God, he had been born from two opposing powers.  As such he was said to have inherited the wisdom, knowledge and powers of both of these forces.  He was brought before Vortigern who told him the fate he intended to inflict upon him.  Geoffrey says,

“A meeting took place the next day for the purpose of putting him to death. Then the boy said to the king, “Why have your servants brought me hither?” “That you may be put to death,” replied the king, “and that the ground on which my citadel is to stand, may be sprinkled with your blood, without which I shall be unable to build it.”

However, according to Geoffrey, Merlin was not intimidated by Vortigern.  Instead, he spoke with power and authority, demanding to know where he had got this idea from. He then declared to Vortigern he would reveal the real reason why the construction of the fortress was unsuccessful.

cotton_claudius_b_vii_f-224_merlin_vortigern

Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern – By Unknown illustrator. Per Nigel Morgan Survey, probably London, 1250 or earlier. Style of Matthew Paris, but not him. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Prophecy of the Two Dragons

Geoffrey of Monmouth then gives the following account of Merlin’s interview with Vorigern and his wise men,

“Who,” said the boy, “instructed you to do this?” “My wise men,” answered the king. “Order them hither,” returned the boy; this being complied with, he thus questioned them: “By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built, unless the spot were previously sprinkled with my blood? Speak without disguise, and declare who discovered me to you;” then turning to the king, “I will soon,” said he, “unfold to you every thing; but I desire to question your wise men, and wish them to disclose to you what is hidden under this pavement:” they acknowledging their ignorance, “there is,” said he, “a pool; come and dig:” they did so, and found the pool. “Now,” continued he, “tell me what is in it;” but they were ashamed, and made no reply. “I,” said the boy, “can discover it to you: there are two vases in the pool;” they examined, and found it so: continuing his questions,” What is in the vases?” they were silent: “there is a tent in them,” said the boy; “separate them, and you shall find it so;” this being done by the king’s command, there was found in them a folded tent. The boy, going on with his questions, asked the wise men what was in it? But they not knowing what to reply, “There are,” said he, “two serpents, one white and the other red; unfold the tent;” they obeyed, and two sleeping serpents were discovered; “consider attentively,” said the boy, “what they are doing.” The serpents began to struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent, and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated thrice. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the red one, disappeared. Then the boy, asking the wise men what was signified by this wonderful omen, and they expressing their ignorance, he said to the king,”

The wise men of Vortigern had no idea of what any these signs meant and could not hide their ignorance.  With growing confidence Merlin told them their meaning and then made a famous prophecy about the fate of Britain,

“I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress.”

Merlin then explained that the problems with the construction were actually caused by the two sleeping dragons waking up and fighting each other.  He explained the Red Dragon represented the defenders of Britain which although exhausted and appearing defeated would eventually rise up and repulse  the White Dragon of the invading Anglo-Saxons.   He told of the coming of Arthur who he referred to as the Boar of Cornwall which would be the emblem on his banner and prophesied that six kings descended from Arthur would rule before the Anglo-Saxons returned to rule over Britain.

Then Merlin told Vortigern that he was not destined to build his fortress on this site.  He told him that fate had given the ownership of the hill to himself and told Vortigern he must seek elsewhere for a suitable site.  Vortigern followed Merlin’s advice and eventually settled on Cair Guorthegirn whom some scholars think may be Craig Gwrtheyrn, Llandysul, Dyfed, but it is not proven and there are several other candidates. This was to be the place Vortigern met his death when it was burned down by Ambrosius and Uther, two brothers who attacked him out of revenge for killing another of their brothers who had been king.

For the defenders of Britain the prophecy of the two dragons was a momentous event, giving hope and inspiration for those who lived in those times to carry on the fight and was an important moment in the destiny of Britain and he went on to make further prophecies concerning the future of Britain beyond Arthur’s time. However, as with many other important events in the Arthurian world the seeds of this event were sown may centuries earlier before even the Romans ruled by a King of Britain named Lludd Llaw Eraint in the Mabinogion who in Geoffrey’s work is believed to be King Lud.

Lludd Llaw Eraint

The tale of Lludd and Llevelys from the Mabinogion reveals how these two dragons came to be placed in the pool on Dinas Emrys centuries earlier to be found later in Vorigern’s time and inspire the prophecy of Merlin.  In this tale Lludd and Llevelys are two brothers.  Lludd ruled Britain while Llevelys ruled Gaul.   There came a time when Britain was afflicted by three terrible plagues.  The first plague was that of the Coraniaid. The second was the plague of the two dragons.  The third was caused by a giant who would keep stealing the provisions from the royal stores.  It is the second plague that explains how the two dragons came to be entombed in the pool on Dinas Emrys.

The Plague of the Two Dragons

According to the tale they were placed there by Lludd acting on the advice of his brother, because they had caused Britain great fear and anxiety.   The story goes that every year on the eve of May Day a terrible shrieking scream was heard throughout the length and breadth of the realm which was caused by two dragons fighting each other.   One of the dragons was red and the other was white.   When the White Dragon fought the Red Dragon it caused it to make the fearful, shrieking cry.  It was this terrible scream that was heard throughout the country searing into the very hearts of the people causing great fear and anxiety among them.  The scream was so awful it caused strong men to wax pale and fall weak, women would lose their babies, and young men and maidens would become bereft of their senses. Furthermore, all creatures, plants and trees, waters and the earth itself became barren and infertile.  The plague was finally defeated when Lludd following the advice of his brother Llevelys set a trap for the dragons capturing and containing them.  He then buried them under the pool on Dinas Emrys which at the time was deemed to be the safest part of his kingdom.

His brother had advised Lludd that to capture the dragons he would need to dig a pit in the exact center of his kingdom.  After taking measurements from all corners of his realm Lludd determined that the center lay in a place now called Oxford.  He placed a cauldron of mead in the bottom of the pit and covered it with a sheet of satin.  To begin with the dragons took on the shape of terrifying animals and fell about fighting each other by the side of the pit. Then they transformed into huge winged beast and fought each other in the air.  Finally they exhausted themselves and transforming into pigs fell from the air landing on the covering of a satin sheet which gave way and they fell into the cauldron of mead.  Drinking the mead they fell into a stupor and fell asleep. Lludd then wrapped them up in the satin sheet and placed them in a stone coffin and took them to Dinas Emrys where they were placed under the pool on the hill.

Destiny and Fate

Centuries later Vortigern, seeking out a site to build a fortress, chose Dinas Emrys. There he encountered problems securing the foundations and sought to remedy this. According to his wise men he needed to sacrifice a boy “not conceived by a mortal man” and sprinkle his blood in the foundations.   Vortigern found such a being named Myrddin Emrys who made his famous prophecy and was to prove instrumental in ensuring the destiny of Britain unfolded.  This is how destiny and fate often come together to work in strange, unforeseen ways in the legends and romances of King Arthur.

© 05/07/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright July 5th, 2017 zteve t evans

The Questing Beast and the doom of King Arthur

arthur-pyle_mounted_knight

Image by Howard Pyle – Public Domain

The Questing Beast in Arthurian legend

In Arthurian legend the Questing Beast was a strange, unworldly creature sought by some of the knights of the Round Table such as Sir Percival, Sir Palomides and Sir Pellinore.   The beast  was so named because of the noise it makes from its stomach that sound like a pack of questing hounds.  Sometimes because of this it was called the Beste Glatisant.  The word glatisant is related to a French word glapissant that means the barking or yelping of dogs.  It was also known as the Barking Beast and the Bizarre Beast.

Just as it was difficult to catch in the hunt it is an elusive beast in Arthurian legend and is presented differently in many of the versions of Arthurian stories at the different times in which it appears.  When it does appear it is usually in a short, symbolic way that prepares the ground for something of a profound or important nature.

The changing beast

The Questing Beast changed in appearance  from its first mention in early French Arthurian romances through various other works of literature through the ages.  The earliest versions described it as being a beautiful, pure white creature, smaller than a fox. The noise that issues from its belly was supposed to be the sound of its offspring that were tearing the insides of the beast apart. In later versions it becomes a very strange and unworldly beast having the body of a leopard, the head and neck of a snake, the haunches of a lion and the hooves of a deer depending on which text it appears in.

The first stories of the beast in Arthurian romance tells that it appeared after Arthur had an affair with Morgause, his half sister, which resulted in the conception of Mordred. They did not know they were related to each other when the incestuous affair began or how devastating the future consequences would prove to be.  Incest and adultery are significant themes in Arthurian legend which crop up in a number of stories.

Arthur and the Questing Beast

Arthur had to fight many battles and defeat many kings before he was acknowledged as overlord of all.  Throughout the fighting he had two invaluable aids that he relied upon. The first was Merlin his enigmatic mentor and trusted councilor.  The second was  his sword, Excalibur which he only drew from necessity.  As his conquests and fame spread knights came to follow him from across Britain.  Knights also came from over the sea such as Sir Lancelot, Sir Palomides and and the brothers Sir Ban and Sir Bors from Gaul.  It came to Arthur’s attention that one of his friends, the King of Cameliard was being attacked and was in dire need of assistance.  He and Sir Ban and King Bors went to his aid.  It was during this time that Arthur first saw and met with Guinevere who later became his queen.  After they had been victorious in the fighting Sir Ban and Sir Bors returned over the sea to Gaul but Arthur traveled to a town then called Carlion that lay upon the river Usk.

A dream of chaos

On his way he stopped to rest from his labors and while he rested he had a strange dream. He saw in this dream a land ravaged and haunted by gryphons, serpents and monsters of all kinds.  They preyed upon the people killing them and making them live in terror and chaos.  In his dream he fought against the monsters and although he finally killed them all bringing order to chaos he was badly wounded in the process.

The hart

He awoke from slumber with a heavy heart for the dream had seemed real and now it troubled him greatly.  In an attempt to drive it from his mind he called his knights telling them they would go hunting and the party rode off into the forest in search of game.  Once in the forest they soon roused a hart and Arthur  gave chase.   The hart ran hard and fast and his horse could not out pace it but Arthur would not give up and chased it all day long. Still he could not gain on it and eventually his exhausted horse died underneath him from its exertions.

The Questing Beast

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Arthur and the Questing Beast – Public Domain

Unable to continue the chase Arthur sat underneath a tree until he heard the sound of a pack of baying hounds coming in his direction. Raising his head to look he was astounded to see that a most strange and unworldly beast was coming through the forest towards him.

The sound of the yelping dogs was coming from inside it.  Never before had he seen or heard of such a creature as this and he watched in silent astonishment as it passed by.

The beast made its way to a nearby spring where it stopped and drank.  While it drank the terrible sound emitted from its belly stopped.  When it had  finished drinking the sound began again and the beast moved off disappearing into the forest.

Pellinore

As Arthur sat thinking about the strange creature along came a knight riding on an exhausted horse.  Seeing Arthur resting under the tree deep in thought he reined in his horse and asked Arthur if he had seen any sign of a bizarre and fell beast. Arthur told him that indeed he had and that it had appeared from the forest taken a drink at the well and then returned to the forest.  He also told him the way it had gone advising that it was probably two miles away by this time.  Curious about the knight, Arthur asked his name and what he wanted with such an unworldly creature.

The knight not seem to recognizing Arthur as king and replied that his name was Pellinore and he had followed the breast for a long time over a great distance.  He said he had ridden his poor horse nearly to death in pursuit of it and would continue still if he could only find a replacement.  In other stories Pellinore nearly kills Arthur who is saved by Merlin and Pellinor becomes a Knight of the Round Table and serves Arthur valiantly.

At that moment one of Arthur’s squires arrived with a fresh horse for Arthur. Seeing this the knight begged Arthur for the horse telling him he had pursued the breast for twelve months and swore that either he would kill it, or it would kill him.  Arthur then spoke to Pellinore and advised that he should let go of the pursuit and he would take it up for the same duration of time that he had hunted it, saying he had done his part and urged him to accept this offer.  Pellinore though would not accept this telling him it was his family’s doom to seek the beast and called Arthur a fool for making such a suggestion.  He told him that no one else in the world could kill the beast save himself and his next of kin, though he was mistaken possibly through his obsession with it.  The beast could only be killed by a few chosen individuals whose qualifications for the task are not revealed, but those who join the pursuit become totally obsessed to the point of derangement with it.

Pellinore then sprang forward pushing his squire aside and leapt upon the fresh horse he led. Arthur shook his head and told him that while he could steal his horse by force while he was unmounted he would like the chance to see which of them was the best horseman with a lance. Pellinore replied that when he wanted him he should come to this spring and there he would always be found. He then spurred the fresh horse in pursuit of the beast leaving Arthur bemused at Pellinore and the events that had unfolded.  Puzzled and annoyed Arthur watched as Pellinore rode off after the beast.  Then he sent his squire to fetch another horse and sat down under the tree again to wait.

Arthur meets a boy

Merlin, Arthur’s councilor and enchanter, transformed himself into a boy and appeared out of the forest to Arthur to his surprise and asked him why he seemed so thoughtful. Seeing only a boy Arthur told him that after what he had just seen he had  a lot to think about as it was the strangest thing in the world. The boy told him that he knew what he had just seen and that he should not let his mind dwell upon it.  He then told him that he knew all of his thoughts and that he knew Uther Pendragon was his father and that the Lady Igraine was his mother. This angered Arthur who demanded to know how he knew what he did not. The boy turned and told him that no one in the world knew him better than he and vanished into the forest.

Arthur meets an old man

Merlin then transformed himself into an old man and appeared to Arthur in this guise and went and sat down by the spring to rest. As Arthur approached to talk to him Merlin asked him why he looked so sad.  Arthur told him he had a lot to be sad about and that he had just met a boy who told him him things about himself that he should not know, adding that he knew the names of his mother and father.   The old man told him that the boy was right and that if he had only have listened to him he would have told him that he had made God angry when he lay with his sister.  From this would come a child that would bring down his realm killing him and his knights.  Astounded and angry Arthur demanded to know who he was he was now talking to.

Merlin’s revelations

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Merlin – Public Domain

The old man transformed into Merlin and told Arthur it was he who had come to him as a boy and then an old man.  He then told him that he knew all things that were to come and explained the origin of  the Questing Beast.

Merlin reveals to him that a human princess had given birth to the beast after she had lusted after her own brother.  A demon had promised to make her brother love her if she slept with it.  She agreed to the bargain but  when it was done the demon manipulated her into falsely accusing her brother of rape.  Her furious father ordered that her brother should be torn limb from limb by dogs.

Just before he died her brother foretold that his sister would conceive a monster that would make the same noise that the dogs made as he was torn apart.  As he had prophesied his sister gave birth to the monstrous Questing Beast.

Arthur’s doom revealed

Merlin then revealed to Arthur his destiny saying that he would die nobly being killed in battle. He then told him his own destiny would be shameful being imprisoned alive in the earth.  While they were talking Arthur’s squire returned with fresh horses.  Arthur and Merlin both mounted the  horses and rode off to Carlion.  When they arrived Arthur sent for Ulfius and Ector who had both known him since birth and asked them the truth about his parents and his conception.  They confirmed to him that Uther Pendragon was his father and Queen Igraine his mother. Arthur then sent for Igraine who came bringing with her fair daughter, Morgan le Fay with her.  Arthur welcomed them both in a way befitting their status and with great respect and Igraine confirmed what he had been told..

Chaos and balance

In this story the appearance of the Questing Beast  can be seen as a precursor to introduce a situation that is not right, or is unnatural, where the combination of wrongs, or even a single wrong, work to influence and manifest in the future.  For Arthur his incestuous liaison with Morgause will produce Mordred dooms him even though both were unaware of their relationship to each other. The beast was born from an incestuous relationship between the princess and her brother that produced the abominable creature. In the Arthurian world incest is against  the natural order creating chaos and unbalancing the human world.  Somehow the balance of nature must be restored and it is Pellinore and others after him who join the quest to kill the beast that tries to restore the balance of nature.

In the Arthurian world sin is not forgotten or cast aside it comes back in later life often with devastating effect and some see the  Questing Beast as a manifestation of the incest, violence and chaos that eventually destroys Arthur’s realm.  The irony is the beast itself is innocent, as was Arthur in the deception that Merlin placed on Igraine when Uther laid with her.   Both are the product of the wrongdoing of others and yet they become the instruments of god, or the gods.

The doom of King Arthur

So when Arthur meets the Questing Beast after dreaming of his own downfall he is told by Merlin about the circumstances  of his own birth.  He is told how he will be the father of the man who eventually kills him and brings his kingdom to ruin through his incestuous affair with Morgause.  Once Arthur had this knowledge he needed to find a way to deal with it which in later stories he attempts to do.  Although he cannot save his earthly life some might say he successfully saved his soul in how he later  eventually deals with Mordred and dies nobly in battle as foretold. Yet there is disagreement over whether he died.  Some accounts say he died while others say he was taken to Avalon for healing. Still others say he sleeps in a cave or waits in Avalon for the time he will return to save Britain from her enemies.

© 11/04/2016  zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright April 11th, 2016 zteve t evans

Legendary Chalice Well of Glastonbury

Cover of the Chalice Well – Theangryblackwoman at en.wikipedia – CC BY 2.5

Chalice Well is a natural spring surrounded by gardens situated at the foot of Glastonbury Tor near the town of Glastonbury in the English county of Somerset.  Today it is managed by the Chalice Well Trust which was founded in 1959 by Wellesley Tudor Pole and is a grade 1 listed building.  In 2009, the the Exeter University School conducted research which revealed the well was fed by an aquifer.

Joseph of Arimathea

According to legend when Joseph of Arimathea came to England He brought along with him the cup Christ used at the Last Supper to serve his followers wine.  Immediately after Joseph had hidden the chalice the waters of the spring were sad to have turned red.   The Holy Chalice became associated and eventually interchangeable with the Holy Grail which originated in Arthurian legends.  Read more Continue reading