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

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Elen of the Hosts: Goddess of Sovereignty, King Maker, Warrior Queen of the Britons

This article was first published #FolkloreThursday.com as British Legends: Elen of the Hosts – Saint, Warrior Queen, Goddess of Sovereignty on 21/06/2018 by zteve t evans

Elen of the Dream

Historically, Elen of the Hosts was a real woman who lived in the 4th century, but in British legend and Welsh and Celtic mythology, may go back even further.  She appears to have been a woman of many roles that have grown and evolved over the centuries to the present day. Today, Elen is best known for her part as the subject of the affections of the emperor of Rome in strange tale of The Dream of Macsen Wledig, from the Mabinogion. The story depicts her as a mysterious woman of power who knows how to gets what she wants and appears linked to the giving and taking of sovereignty a very powerful attribute.  Presented here is a discussion about who Elen was, and how she has changed and evolved over the centuries, hopefully  encouraging the reader to perhaps research and create their own ideas for themselves.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

Her story begins one day when the emperor of Rome, Macsen Wledig, was out hunting. Feeling tired in the midday sun, he decided to take a nap. As he slept, he experienced a dream that had an incredible effect on him. In that dream, he travelled across mountains and along rivers, and undertook a sea voyage which brought him to a fair island. He crossed that island and found a magnificent castle and in that castle, seated in a golden hall, was a beautiful woman and he fell in love with her. Macsen had found the woman of his dreams within his dream and, typical of a dream, he never gets his kiss. When he moves to kiss and embrace her, he awakens, and in the waking world there is no Elen. But Macsen wants his kiss badly and now the world has changed for him. He is obsessed with her to the point that he can think of nothing and no one else. His health fails and he begins to waste away and pines for her, telling his counsellors, “and now I am in love with someone who I know not. She may be real and she may be unreal, but I am mortally stricken, so tell, what am I to do?”. Although he did not know it at the time, the woman in the dream was named Elen, and it is clear from the dream that she was someone very special, but who was she?

Who was Elen?

Although very little for certain is known today about her, it can be seen from the dream that Elen was not an ordinary woman. Today she is known by many names. She is Elen Luyddog in Welsh or in English, Elen of the Hosts, and also known as Elen of the Ways, Elen of the Roads and Elen Belipotent in reference to her military leadership skills. She also is known as Saint Elen or Helen of Caernarfon, sometimes being named as Helen rather than Elen, and there are still more names. Elen was believed to be the daughter of Eudav, or Eudaf Hen, a Romano-British ruler of the 4th century who became the wife of Macsen Wledig, also known as Magnus Maximus, a Western Roman Emperor from (383-388AD). She was the mother of five children including a son named Constantine who was also known as Cystennin, or Custennin. She introduced into Britain from Gaul a form of Celtic monasticism and founded a number of churches. There are also many holy wells and springs named after her and there still exist roads were named after her such as Sarn Elen.

She was also a warrior queen. According to David Hughes in his book, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, after Macsen was defeated and executed, Elen reigned over the Britons. She led the defence of the country against invading Picts, Irish and Saxons. After a long, hard fight she pushed the invaders out, earning the name Elen Luyddog, or Elen of the Hosts and Elen Belipotent meaning “mighty in war”. In the Welsh Triads, Elen of the Hosts and Macsen Wledig, or in some versions Cynan her brother, lead an army to Llychlyn, which some scholars such as Rachel Bromich see as a corruption of Llydaw, or Armorica which does fit better with what is known.

There is a line of thought that sees characters in the Mabinogion as Christianised versions of far older gods. Some people also see her as being a conflation of several women and ultimately derived from an ancient Celtic goddess of sovereignty. The theme of sovereignty in one form or another does appear in the dream and she appears as the catalyst that can make it happen, or take it away.

Elen’s Power

From the dream, we learn that she was in the company of her father, Eudav, who was the son of Caradawc and is also known as Eudaf Hen, (Eudaf “the Old”), or Octavius, a King of the Britons, so she was a lady of considerable importance. This is evidenced by the surroundings in the dream, which matched exactly those she was in when the messengers of Macsen find her. Her response to the messengers is not one from a woman who sees herself as being subordinate to men or emperors, or anyone else no matter who they may be. When the messengers tell her about the great love their emperor holds for her and request she accompany them back to Rome, she revealed part of her true power by flatly refusing. Instead she told them to return to Rome and tell the emperor that he must travel to her if he truly loved her as he claimed. Macsen obeyed …

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