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

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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.

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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