This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on November 29, 2018, titled British Legends: Morgan le Fay – Magical Healer or Renegade Witch? written by zteve t evans
In Arthurian tradition, the elusive sorceress Morgan le Fay becomes one of King Arthur’s most dangerous foes, breaking traditional family bonds and working to undermine and bring down the strict patriarchal system and chivalric order of the Arthurian world. Morgan is an enigma: despite attempting to kill King Arthur and usurp his kingdom, she takes him into her care after he is severely wounded by Mordred in the battle of Camlann, which brings an end to his kingdom. This work draws mostly from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, and Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, with influences from other texts, and looks at how Morgan’s character changes from benevolent, to malignant and then back to benevolent. To do this, we look at her early life, how she used Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur against him and stole its scabbard, and the disaster this would cause. This is followed by a discussion on two important topics that had a considerable influence on medieval society: the Querelle des Femmes or The Woman Question, and witchcraft, before concluding with Morgan’s return to Avalon.
As Ruler of Avalon
Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces Morgan into Arthurian literature in Vita Merlini, as ‘Morgen’, presenting her as the leader of nine benevolent sisters that rule the island of Avalon. She is the most beautiful, the most knowledgeable and the most powerful of the sisters. As well as being a skilled healer, she can fly or transport herself at will from place to place, and she has shape-shifting abilities.
It is not clear whether these ‘sisters’ are family, or members of some kind of religious or mystical order. In the work of some later writers, she becomes either the step-sister or full elder sister of King Arthur, but a radical change happens with her character. As Arthur’s elder sister, she breaks the traditional bond of love between brother and sister and the nurturing role so often associated with the elder sister towards their younger brother. Furthermore, instead of the wise and benevolent sorceress, she evolves into a malign, sexual predator, hating her brother and his wife Queen Guinevere, and forsakes her place at the center of the Arthurian establishment, moving to its periphery and becoming a renegade attacking the established order. She targets the Knights of the Round Table, especially Sir Lancelot, weaving dark spells and plots to trap them. Eventually, she becomes nothing less than an enemy of the state and, arguably, its most dangerous adversary, until Mordred emerges to usurp the crown, resulting in the battle of Camlann.
Morgan’s Early Life
In Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Morgan the youngest daughter of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Igraine. When the King of the Britons, Uther Pendragon, first set eyes on Igraine, he became wildly infatuated with her. Unable to contain his lust, he attacked Cornwall to take Igraine for himself. Gorlois sent his wife to his safest stronghold of Tintagel while he confronted Uther’s troops in battle. While the military confrontation took place, Merlin, using his magical arts, transformed Uther into the likeness of Gorlois to allow him to gain access to Igraine at Tintagel. The guards, believing it was Gorlois, let him enter the stronghold. Believing he was her husband, Igraine lay with him, and that night Arthur was conceived.
While this was taking place, Gorlois was killed battling Uther’s army. After satisfying his lust, Uther returned to his troops and, on learning of the death of the duke, took Igraine to be his wife. He married her eldest daughter, Morgause, to King Lot of Lothian and the next eldest, Elaine, to King Nentres of Garlot. Morgan was the youngest and he sent her to a nunnery.
Morgan hated Uther because she knew what had happened the night her father died, and deeply resented Arthur as the product of his lust. At the nunnery, she was introduced to astrology, the dark arts of necromancy and the skills of healing, becoming highly adept in this field. As her skill and knowledge grew, people began to call her Morgan le Fay in acknowledgement of her abilities. Eventually, she joined Arthur’s court and became a lady in waiting to Queen Guinevere.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on 23/08/2018, under the title British Legends: The Divine Tragedy of Guinevere, written by by zteve t evans
Guinevere Goes a-Maying
The story began one day in the month of May, when Guinevere called together ten Knights of the Round Table. She told them they would accompany her and ten of her ladies in the traditional seasonal activity of Maying, in place of her own elite guards known as the Queen’s Knights, who usually accompanied her everywhere. In celebration of the season and to enter into the spirit of the celebration, she insisted they leave behind their armour and wear green clothing and bear only light arms. Therefore, bright and early the next morning, the party set off to go a-Maying in the woods and fields around Westminster.
The Malice of Sir Meliagrance
An evil knight named Meliagrance had a castle several miles from Westminster, and he had loved Guinevere since the first day he set eyes on her. He never dared to show this love for fear of Sir Lancelot, who was always near her. On this bright May morning, away from the security of the Royal Court, accompanied by only ten lightly armed knights, and with Sir Lancelot now absent, he saw his chance. He quickly mustered twenty of his own men-at-arms and one hundred archers to aid him in the abduction of Queen Guinevere.
Guinevere and her party joyfully entertained themselves fully in the ancient custom, adorning themselves and each other with flowers, leaves, mosses, and herbs. They were all relaxed and enjoying the traditional activity so they were easily caught unawares when Meliagrance with his men came out of the woods and surrounded the happy company. Aggressively, he demanded that Guinevere should be given to him, or he would take her by force. The ten lightly armed knights, without a shields, or armour, were not prepared to allow the queen to be taken easily and vowed to fight to the death to defend her. Meliagrance sternly told them, “Prepare with what weapons you have, for I will have the queen!”
The defenders placed themselves in a ring around the queen and drew their swords. Meliagrance gave the order, and his knights charged on horseback. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the ten knights defended the queen ferociously. After long and fierce fighting, six of the queen’s defenders were too badly wounded to fight on, but four were unhurt and still defiantly defended the queen, until they too were wounded but fought on bravely.
Seeing her valiant knights so badly hurt and to prevent their slaying, Guinevere ordered them to lay down their arms on condition they would not be slain and that she and they would remain together no matter what. Meliagrance agreed on the condition they did not try to escape and contact Sir Lancelot.
While Meliagrance was attending to his own wounded knights, Guinevere sent one of her youngest servants on a swift horse to find Sir Lancelot and tell him of her plight. On hearing the news, Sir Lancelot, in fear and alarm for the safety of the queen, called for his horse, his armour, and his weapons. Then he asked the servant to go to his friend, Sir Lavaine and tell him the news of the queen’s abduction and ask him to follow him to the castle of Meliagrance without delay.
The Knight of the Cart
Lancelot rode swiftly over Westminster Bridge and, making his horse swim the Thames at Lambeth, he soon came to the place where Sir Meliagrance had abducted the queen and her knights. Then he followed the tracks through woodlands, where he was waylaid by the archers of Sir Meliagrance who rained arrows down on him and slayed his horse. Having no other choice than carrying his armour, weapons, and shield, he set out on foot to the castle of Meliagrance.
As he walked he was overtaken by a horse and cart carrying a driver, and his assistant that was carrying wood to the castle of Meliagrance. The driver refused his request for a ride, so to avoid further delay Sir Lancelot commandeered the cart. He knocked the driver from his seat and forced his assistant to drive him with all speed to his intended destination. From his manner of arrival at the castle, Sir Lancelot was given the name “The Knight of the Cart,” and jumping from it cried out, “Sir Meliagrance, traitor Knight of the Round Table, where are you? I, Sir Lancelot du Lac challenge you! Come, face me and bring who you will, for I will fight you to the death!”
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.
Instead the King decided to spare him and banished Tristan from his realm. Now healed, Tristan left Ireland and Isolde the Fair and returned to the court of King Mark.
King Mark was delighted at the return of his nephew and insisted that he tell him every single detail of his adventures. Tristan told him everything, but when he spoke of Princess Isolde he spoke in such glowing terms that his uncle fell in love and became infatuated with her and asked him for a boon.
In the chivalric world a boon was a solemn and serious promise to fulfil whatever was requested, and, because his uncle was his benefactor, Tristan readily agreed. Had he only known what the boon would be he might have refused, because Mark asked him to return to Ireland and bring back Isolde the Fair to be his wife. Bound by the boon and heavy in heart, Tristan changed his armour to disguise himself and set sail for Ireland.
Camelot and Return to Ireland
On route, a storm forced his ship to shore near Camelot where King Arthur was holding a tournament with many of his Knights of the Round Table. Without revealing his true identity, Tristan took part in the tournament, winning many jousts and contests of arms. Coincidently, Argius, the King of Ireland, was at the court to answer allegations of treason against King Arthur made by a knight named Sir Blaanor. Argius maintained he was innocent but cases like this were often settled in combat between the accuser and the accused. Argius was too old to face Blaanor in single combat and sought a champion who would fight for him.
He did not recognise Tristan in his new armour but seeing how well he fought he approached him asking him to be his champion and swearing his innocence. Tristan believed him and revealed his true identity. Despite this, Argius still wanted him to fight for him and promised to grant him a boon should he succeed. Tristan agreed and defeated Blaanor, clearing Argius, who was so pleased he invited him to accompany him back to Ireland, lifting the banishment.
Princess Isolde was also delighted to see Tristan. She was even happier when she learned that her father had granted him a boon, thinking he would ask for her hand in marriage. However, as he gazed upon her radiant face and shining eyes he remembered the boon he had granted to his uncle and benefactor and was torn in two. One selfish part of his soul desperately wanted Princess Isolde for his wife, yet he was bound by the boon. As his trembling voice asked for the gift of the Princess Isolde to be the bride of King Mark, he felt a part of him shrivel and die, watching the radiance drain from her face and her shining eyes fall into darkness.
King Argius agreed and it was decided one of her favourite maids named Brengwain would accompany her. Tristan would escort Princess Isolde the Fair to King Mark to be his bride.
The Love Potion
Before they left, Queen Isolde called Brengwain to her and told her that she still believed Tristan and her daughter were in love. Then she gave her a potion instructing her to secretly administer it to Princess Isolde and King Mark on their wedding night, saying it would make them feel deep love for one another.
Queen Isolde was right. Tristan still loved her daughter and she loved him but she was destined to be the bride of King Mark. On their voyage, the weather was warm and sunny and the two became thirsty. Looking around for something to drink Tristan found the bottle containing the love potion that Brengwain had neglectfully left in view. Taking the bottle to Isolde they both drank from it. When she found out, the shocked Brengwain revealed the truth to them.
King Mark of Cornwall married Princess Isolde and many days of celebration followed. However, they had not taken the love potion as intended; Isolde and Tristan had drunk it instead, and the love they already had was greatly magnified. Tristan could not bear to be part of the wedding celebrations and instead roamed the countryside alone until they were over.
One day Tristan visited Isolde in the privacy of her chamber. They sat at a table with a game of chess in front of them but were more intent on talking to one another. Outside in the passage, a sly knight named Andret passed by. Hearing them talking he looked through the keyhole. He went to King Mark, exaggerating and twisting the words he had heard, words making the King suspicious and jealous. Mark followed Andret to the door, and, looking through the keyhole, flew into a rage at what he saw and banished Tristan from his kingdom. Tristan reluctantly left Cornwall, roaming wherever whim took him. Wherever he went he found danger and adventure and gained great fame and renown, but for all the glory, he yearned deeply to be with Isolde.
Back in Cornwall, Isolde passed her time in sadness and misery pining for her absent lover. She wrote a letter setting out her feelings for him, and gave it to Brengwain, begging her to find and deliver it to Tristan. On receiving the letter, Tristan was overjoyed. He asked Brengwain questions about Isolde and how she fared. He begged her to remain with him until a tournament held by King Arthur at Camelot was over. He intended entering and wanted her to take news of his victories to Isolde.
On the day of the tournament Tristan excelled, and none could match his courage, strength and skill. As a result, King Arthur asked him to join the Knights of the Round Table. This pleased Tristan because Brengwain returned to Isolde telling news of this honour and of his great victories.
The Jealousy of King Mark
Back in Cornwall, King Mark was suffering a brooding depression, fuelled by a most soul-destroying jealousy. Brengwain returned and told of the deeds of his nephew and the great prestige he received at King Arthur’s court. Isolde, on hearing news of Tristan, confessed to Mark her love for his nephew and his jealousy burned hot.
Mark resolved to disguise himself and go to Camelot and kill his nephew, choosing two of his longest serving knights to accompany him. Fearing to leave Isolde behind, he took her with him, along with her servant, Brengwain.
The King had said nothing of his murderous plan to anyone, but when they drew near to Camelot he took his knights aside to reveal his plot to them. They were horrified and told him they would have no part in it, leaving his service there and then. Leaving Isolde and her servant in a nearby abbey, Mark rode on alone.
At the abbey, Isolde took to walking in the forest with Brengwain. Not far from the abbey she found a beautiful fountain where she would rest and think of her missing lover. An evil knight named Breuse the Pitiless was riding nearby and hearing her sweet voice singing, dismounted and crept up and hid behind bushes to spy.
Leaping from his hiding place he grabbed Isolde who screamed and fainted. As Brengwain screamed, Breuse dragged Isolde back to his horse. A passing knight heard the screams and spurred his horse towards them to see what the cause was. Breuse had to leave Isolde and quickly mount his horse. The knight lowered his lance and charged: Breuss was unhorsed and lay flat upon the ground as if he was dead. The knight then left off the fight to attend to the stricken ladies. With his adversary’s back turned, Breuse jumped up and quickly mounting his horse, rode off.
As the knight approached, Isolde looked up and saw it was none other than her beloved Tristan, who was overjoyed to see her again. The two then spent three days in happiness together at the abbey and then Tristan escorted her to Camelot to meet up again with her husband.
The two knights of King Mark had reported the plot to King Arthur who had placed Mark under arrest and in prison. Mark had confessed to his intended crime but because it had not actually been committed, Arthur did not impose a punishment, on condition that he ceased all further hostility towards Tristan. He also made Mark promise this before the entire court of Camelot before he would allow him to depart for Cornwall, taking Isolde with him, while Tristan remained.
With Isolde gone, Tristan now felt alone and hopeless, believing that he would never again find happiness. Therefore, to distance himself from his beloved, he crossed the sea to Brittany to the court of King Hoel. At the time Brittany was under attack and Tristan volunteered to lead the army of the Bretons. This proved a great turnaround in fortune for King Hoel, whose army was almost defeated. With Tristan’s might in arms and his courage and inspirational leadership the Bretons rallied behind him and achieved a great victory.
Isolde of the White Hands
In gratitude, King Hoel offered his beautiful daughter to him in marriage. She bore the same first name as Tristan’s first love, Isolde the Fair, but she was known as Isolde of the White Hands. Tristan found himself in conflict with his heart. Although he loved Isolde the Fair with all his being he knew they could never marry or live happily together. After much soul-searching, he came to the conclusion this was his only chance to fill the void in his soul and agreed to the marriage.
Indeed, it seemed that they had been destined for one another and they enjoyed many months in peaceful happiness in each other’s company. Yet even in happiness the world turns, and the enemies of King Hoel once again waged war against his kingdom. Tristan drove the enemy back, but as he led the attack on their last stronghold, he was caught a blow on the head by a rock that the defenders were throwing down on the attackers.
He was knocked insensible and fell to the ground but the battle was won and he was carried home to his wife, Isolde of the White Hands. Being skilled in healing, she would let no one other than herself attend and administer to him. Under her loving hands, Tristan slowly began to recover and with her caresses and kisses, his love for her grew. Her devotion and skill appeared to be returning him back to full health, but then a dark malady took hold of him. It could not be driven out or cured, and as it took hold, its grip could not be broken. With each passing day his health and vitality slipped away. At last in desperation he called his wife to him. He told her how Isolde the Fair had once cured him and that he believed in her lay his only hope and asked his wife to send for his former lover.
Isolde of the White Hands reluctantly agreed and sent Gesnes, the best mariner in the kingdom, to sail to Cornwall and request that Queen Isolde the Fair return with him to Brittany. Before he left Tristan called Gesnes to him and gave him his ring to give to her so she would know him, saying,
“If she agrees to come, before you return fit your ship with white sails and then we will be forewarned of her arrival. Should she refuse, hoist the mast with black sails for then my death will be near.”
As soon as Gesnes reached the Cornish shore he disembarked from his ship and made his way quickly to the court of King Mark. Showing the ring to Queen Isolde the Fair, he told her Tristan was near to death and she was the only one who could save him. Without question or hesitation she agreed to go to Tristan’s side. Therefore, as soon as they boarded ship Gesnes ordered the unfurling of the white sails and sailed with Queen Isolde to Brittany to her stricken lover.
During this time Tristan’s health continued to deteriorate rapidly. He charged a young girl servant with the task of looking out from a high cliff over the sea to report the return of Gesnes, hoping all the time that he would be displaying the white sails.
The Deception of Isolde of the White Hands
Isolde of the White Hands had known about the intimacy of Tristan and Isolde’s previous relationship and feared their passion would revive and wreck her own happiness. She still believed she had the skill to save her husband. When the girl on the cliffs saw the white sails of Gesnes on the horizon she ran to tell the news to Tristan. However, Isolde of the White Hands stopped her and, when told the sails were white, ordered her to tell her husband that the sails were black. When Tristan was told the sails were black, he believed his time had at last come and taking his last breath said, “so it comes to pass that we shall never see one another again, goodbye my love, goodbye.”
As Isolde the Fair set foot ashore, the news of the death of Tristan was given to her, and in grief, shock and sorrow she was taken to his body. Lying down next to him and taking him in her arms she too gave her last breath and died.
Before he died Tristan had asked that his body should be returned to Cornwall along with his sword and a letter he had written to King Mark. In the letter he explained about the love potion and reading it King Mark at last understood and was sorry. He commanded that the two should be buried in his own chapel.
A short while after the burials, from the grave of Tristan, there grew a most beautiful vine that spread along the wall and reached down to join with the grave of Isolde the Fair. No matter how many times it was cut down or pruned, the plant returned. Even in the coldest of winters or hottest of summers it retained its lustrous green colouring, and so ended the tale of Tristan and Isolde the Fair.
The story of Tristan and Isolde remains one of the great love stories of the Arthurian world, having been portrayed in many works of art, songs, poems and stories, opera and films, in many languages and many countries around the world. It is one of those evergreen stories that, like the vine that sprang from Tristan’s grave, returns again and again and does not die.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle English alliterative poem from the 14th century. It is a chivalric romance that uses the folkloric motifs of the beheading game and the exchange of winnings. The poem is from a single surviving manuscript known as Cotton Nero A.x which also hold three other narrative poems called; Pearl, Purity, and Patience. These three poems are of a Christian religious nature as is the Sir Gawain poem while many people see it as also containing pagan allusions. The author of the manuscript is unknown but generally referred to as either the Gawain Poet or the Pearl Poet. There are many different ways to interpret Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but what is provided here is a brief synopsis of the poem.
Brutus of Troy and the Founding of Britain
The poem begins by mentioning the mythical founding of Britain by Brutus of Troy in the Historical Prologue and tells how after the fall of Troy the descendants of the exiles founded new cities and countries. According to the poem, Rome was founded by Romulus, Tuscany by Tiscius, Langoberde begins the settlement of the country later called Lombardy and Brutus became the founder of Britain. This information is designed to give Camelot political significance and legitimacy and introduces King Arthur the noblest and greatest king and leader of the country. This also gives him historical significance and legitimacy while also linking the poet’s own text with such classics as Virgil’s Aeneid, providing a literary link to those ancient times.
The Appearance of the Green Knight
The story begins in Camelot on the feast of New Year’s Day with the members of Arthur’s court giving and receiving presents from one another when Arthur requests to see or hear of a thrilling experience of exploit from someone before the feast commences. Apparently, in answer to this request there rides into the hall upon a massive green horse the huge figure of a knight. He is not dressed for battle wearing and not wearing armor but his clothing and even his skin and hair are all green. In one hand he holds a most splendid battle axe while in the other he holds a branch of holly.
The Christmas Game
The Green Knight refused to enter into combat with anyone declaring there was no one present who could match him. Instead he invited any who dared to take part in a special Christmas game. Explaining the rules he tells them that someone must strike him one blow with his axe but within one year and a day they must themselves take a blow from him. Whoever decides to play can keep the axe. On hearing these terms all the knights present at first refused to play but when it appeared that no one had the courage Arthur agreed. However, The youngest knight present, Sir Gawain, offered to step in and play the game for him which Arthur and the Green Knight accepted.
The Green Knight knelt and bows his head to receive a blow which is duly given by Sir Gawain severing the head from the body in one stroke. After the blow is delivered to the shock of all present the Green Knight is not killed but picking up his severed head mounts his horse. Holding the severed head to face Queen Guinevere the lips speak reminding Gawain and all those present that the two players in the game must meet again at the Green Chapel within the agreed space of time. The Green Knight then wheels his horse around and carrying his severed head aloft rides from the hall leaving the bemused Gawain, Arthur and his knights with little else to do other than admiring the battle axe left with Gawain. They made fun of the strange event, laughing while encouraging Guinevere to make light of the matter. Life at Camelot soon returned to normal but time marched on.
Gawain’s Quest for the Green Chapel
With the approach of the allotted time and with only a few days left for the game to resume Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel to keep his promise to the Green Knight. On his way, he has many adventures which he overcomes but is severely tested by the cold and bitter weather of winter. On Christmas morning he prays he might find somewhere to hear mass and finds a beautiful castle. The lord of the castle is a knight named Bertilak de Hautdesert who has a beautiful wife and both are highly honored to have Gawain as a guest in their castle. There is also a female guest present at the castle who although being old and ugly was treated with great respect and reverence by the lord and lady.
The Castle of Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert
Gawain explains to them about the game with the Green Knight telling them he is due to meet up with him on New Year’s Day and has only a few days left to find the Green Chapel. Bertilak reveals that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away and suggests Gawain rests for the remaining time at his castle. Gawain, after his long hard journey, is only too pleased to accept this proposition.
Bertilak tells Gawain he is going hunting in the morning and that he should stay and rest himself in bed after his long and arduous journey. He then proposed they make a pact with each other. Whatever he gains in the hunt he will bring home and give to Gawain. Whatever Gawain gains the next day by staying in the castle he will give to his host on his return. Gawain accepts the pact and goes to bed.
Gawain’s Pact with Bertilak
With Bertilak out hunting Gawain remains in bed in the castle and Lady Bertilak goes to his bedchamber and attempts to seduce him. Gawain though greatly tempted does not wish to betray Bertilak and at the same time does not wish to offend the lady. Gently and politely he refuses her advances, but in doing so accepts a single kiss from her. Bertilak has a successful day out hunting catching a deer which when he returns he fulfills his side of the bargain and gives it to Gawain. Gawain to fulfill his part gives Bertilak a kiss but does not reveal where he got it from pointing out that was not part of their pact.
The next morning Bertilak again goes hunting leaving Gawain in his castle. Again Lady Bertilak tries to seduce him and although greatly tempted all he will accept is a kiss. Later that day Lady Bertilak tries again but he will courteously only accept another kiss. When Bertilak returns he gives Gawain the head of a boar he has killed and receives from Gawain two kisses and again the source of these is not revealed.
On the third morning, Bertilak once again goes off hunting leaving Gawain in the castle with Lady Bertilak. She asks him for a small gift or keepsake to remember him by but he tells her he has no such thing worthy of her. Again Lady Bertilak tries to seduce Gawain while offering him a gold ring to remember her by. Gawain courteously refuses the gift but she begs him to accept the green and gold girdle of silk she wears telling him it is magical and wearing it will keep him safe from all physical harm. Gawain is mindful that the next day he must face the Green Knight in the Green Chapel to complete their game which he does not expect to survive and accepts the gift.
This time when Bertilak returns from hunting he has caught a fox which he gives to Gawain as agreed. In return, Gawain gives him the three kisses he had received again not revealing where he got them from but withheld Lady Bertilak’s gift of her girdle saying nothing about it at all.
The Green Knight at the Green Chapel
The next morning Gawain wraps the girdle twice around his body and sets off with a guide provided by Bertilak to take him to the Green Chapel to play the final part of the strange and grim game with the Green Knight. When they draw near the guide tells Gawain that if he should decide to give up the game and ride away he would tell no one. Gawain is determined to keep his promise to the Green Knight. The guide tells him that he is too afraid to go further himself that shows Gawain the way who rides on alone. When he arrives at the Green Chapel he finds the Green Knight already there sharpening a massive battle-axe.
Gawain dismounts and kneels and bows his head to receive a blow from the Green Knight. As the Green Knight prepares to bring down the axe on his neck Gawain flinches slightly as he swings. This cause the Green Knight to stop and berate him for cowardice. This shames Gawain who then waits unflinchingly for the blow but the Green Knight swings again but holds it from the final blow telling Gawain he is testing his nerve. Gawain, now angry berates the Green Knight insisting he gets on with it. This time the Green Knight does bring the axe down on his neck but at the last instant withholds force, causing only minor wound to Gawain’s neck and with this, the game is over.
Gawain then arms himself preparing to fight but the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Bertilak de Hautdesert who had been magically transformed into the Green Knight. Bertilak then explains that the entire game was a trick caused by the old ugly woman who had been his other guest and that she was the sorceress, Morgan le Fay in an attempt to frighten Queen Guinevere to death and create a test for Arthur and his knights.
Return to Camelot
After this revelation, Gawain is ashamed and tells Bertilak about the gift of the girdle. Birtilak laughs and absolves Gawain of any guilt calling him the most blameless knight in all the land. The two part as friends and Gawain returns to Camelot where he tells Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table of his adventure. Arthur and the knights also absolve him of the blame for not revealing the gift of the girdle and in an act of solidarity with him, all agree to wear a green sash to remind them to keep their integrity.
Sir Galahad first appeared in medieval Arthurian romance in the Lancelot-Grail cycle of works and then later in Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. He was the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic and became one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. When he came of age he was considered the best knight in the world and the perfect knight and was renowned for his gallantry and purity becoming one of only three Knights of the Round Table to achieve the Holy Grail. The other two were Sir Bors and Sir Percival. Pieced together here is a brief look at his early life and how through his immaculate behavior he rose to such an exalted status achieving the Holy Grail and a spiritual dimension which remained frustratingly out of reach of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and most of the the other Knights of the Round Table and concludes by comparing his achievements with those of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot.
King Pelles the lord of Corbenic the Grail Castle, in the land of Listeneise and was Galahad’s maternal grandfather. He was also one of the line of the guardians of the Holy Grail. In some Arthurian romances Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Britain and gave it to Bron, his brother-in-law, to keep safe and Pelles was descended from Bron. In some versions of Arthurian romance Pelles is also known as the Fisher King or Maimed King.
Pelles had been wounded in the legs or groin resulting in a loss of fertility and his impotence was reflected in the well-being his of kingdom making it infertile and a Wasteland. This is why he was sometimes called the Maimed King. The only activity he appeared able to do was go fishing. His servants had to carry him to to the water’s edge and there he would spend his time fishing which is why he is sometimes called the Fisher King. Galahad was important to King Pelles as he was the only one who could heal his wound.
Elaine and Lancelot
King Pelles had a daughter named Elaine and he had been forewarned by magical means that Lancelot would become the father of his daughter’s child. This child would grow to become the world’s best and most perfect knight and be chosen by God to achieve the Holy Grail. He was the chosen one who would be the only one pure enough to be able to heal his wound. There was a problem though. Lancelot was dedicated solely to Guinevere, his true love and would never knowingly sleep with another woman. Nevertheless Pelles was desperate for the liaison to take place and decided to seek magical help from Dame Brusen. She was one of Elaine’s servants who was skilled in the art of sorcery to help his cause. She gives Pelles a magic ring for Elaine to wear which gives her the likeness of Guinevere.
Elaine wears the magic ring and transforms into the a double of Guinevere. Lancelot is fooled by the masquerade and they sleep together. When he discovers the deception he is angry and ashamed and threatens to kill her. She tells hims she is with his child and he relents but leaves Corbenic.
Elaine in due course gives birth to his son who she names Galahad. This is the name Lancelot was baptized with when he was born. It was the Lady of the Lake who fostered and raised Lancelot in her magical realm and it was she who named him Lancelot du Lac, or Lancelot of the Lake.
The madness of Lancelot
Soon afterwards Elaine goes to a feast at Arthur’s court. Although Lancelot is also there he refuses to acknowledge her, making her sorrowful and lovelorn. She calls her servant Dame Brusen to her and tells her how she is feeling and asks for her help. Dame Brusen tells Elaine that she will fix it so Lancelot lies with her that night. Pretending to Lancelot that Guinevere has summoned him she leads him to her chamber, but it is Elaine waiting there for him in bed in the dark and again he sleeps with her.
While he is with Elaine, Guinevere summons him and is furious to discover he is not in his bed chamber and even more so when she discovers him lying with Elaine in hers. She tells him that she never wants to see or talk to him again and will have nothing more to do with him. Lancelot is so upset and disturbed at what has happened and with Guinevere’s admonishments that madness takes him and he leaps out of the window running off into the wilderness.
Lost in madness and consumed by grief and sorrow he wanders alone through the wild places before he eventually reaches Corbenic where Elaine finds him insane her garden. She takes him to a chamber in Corbenic Castle where he is allowed to view the Holy Grail, but only through a veil. Nevertheless this veiled sight of the holy relic is enough to cure him of his insanity. Although he sees it through the veil, having committed adultery he is not pure enough so he can never be the perfect knight that achieves the Grail.
When his son is born he finally forgives Elaine but will not marry her and instead returns to the court of King Arthur. The child is named Galahad, after his father’s former name and given to his great aunt to bring up in a nunnery. Merlin foretells that Galahad will be even more valiant than his father and will achieve the Holy Grail.
Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail
It was not until Galahad became a young man that he was reunited with Sir Lancelot, his father, who makes him a knight. Lancelot then takes Galahad to Camelot at Pentecost where he joins the court. A veteran knight who accompanied him leads him to the Round Table and unveils an empty chair which is called the Siege Perilous or the Perilous Seat. At the advice of Merlin this seat was kept vacant for the knight who was to achieve the Quest for the Holy Grail.
This was his first test or worthiness as this chair in the past had proved deadly for any who had previously sat there who had hoped to find the Grail. Galahad sits in the seat and survives. King Arthur sees this and is impressed seeing that there is something special about him and leads him down to a river where there is a floating stone with a sword embedded in it which bears an inscription which says,
“Never shall man take me hence but only he by whose side I ought to hang; and he shall be the best knight of the world.”
Galahad tries and takes the sword from the stone and Arthur immediately declares that he is the greatest knight ever. Arthur invites Galahad to become a member of the Round Table which he accepts. Not long after the mystical presence of the Holy Grail is briefly experienced by those at King Arthur’s Court and the quest to find the grail is immediately begun. All the Knights of the Round Table embark on the quest leaving Camelot virtually empty. Arthur is sad because he knows many will die or not return and fears it is the beginning of the end of his kingdom.
Galahad mainly traveled alone and became involved in many adventures. In one he saves Sir Percival when he was attacked by twenty knights and rescued many maidens in distress. Eventually he meets up again with Sir Percival who is accompanied by Sir Bors and together they find the sister of Sir Percival who takes them to a ship that will take them over the sea to a distant shore. Sadly when they reach the shore Percival’s sister has to die that another may live. To ensure she gets a fit and proper burial Sir Bors takes her body back to her homeland.
Sir Galahad and Sir Percival continue the quest and after many adventures arrive at the court of King Pelles and his son Eliazar. Pelles and Eliazar are holy men and take Sir Galahad into a room to show him the Holy Grail and they request that he take it to a holy city called Sarras. After being shown the Grail, Sir Galahad asks that he may he may choose the time of his own death which is granted.
While he is on the journey back to Arthur’s court Joseph of Arimathea comes to him and he experiences such feeling of ecstasy that he asks to die there and then. He says his goodbyes to Sir Percival and Sir Bors and angels appear and he is carried off to heaven as his two friends watch. Although there is nothing to say that the Holy Grail will not once again be seen on earth it was said that since the ascension to heaven of Galahad there has not been another knight with the necessary qualities of achieving the Holy Grail.
Galahad’s achievement of the Holy Grail
Sir Galahad and the quest for the Holy Grail is one of the later stories that appeared as Arthurian romances grew in popularity. The thought is that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were not pure enough to achieve such an important religious task. Galahad was introduced into the fold as one of the few who had the purity and personal qualities to qualify him as worthy enough to achieve the Holy Grail. Just as when Arthur drew the sword from the stone and became the chosen one, Galahad did the same and also became the chosen one. He chose the kingdom of God whereas Arthur built a kingdom on earth. In taking up the quest for the Holy Grail the priority is to the spiritual rather than the earthly life and Galahad fulfills the spiritual dimension of Arthurian romance and becomes the example for his contemporaries and those coming after him to aspire to.