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

Unknown -Public Domain

Medieval England

In medieval England tales about the adventures of King Arthur and his knights were popular and were often found in the form of a long poem.  These were often read socially as entertainment at events such as celebrations or banquets.   The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is such a poem and appears as a parody  of the Arthurian world with a hidden mix of ancient motifs and themes such as The Loathly Lady, Sovereignty, the annual cycle of the sun, and a little humor blended into the story-line.  In many ways it turns Arthurian tradition on its head for in this story unusually the heroic King Arthur is found having to beg a vengeful knight  for his life. The knight agrees to put off his execution for one year when he must return to him with the correct answer to a question or die. The question is What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? No wonder Arthur is worried!

With the help of his faithful, but gullible nephew Sir Gawain he searched the world for the answer.  He finally came across Dame Ragnelle in Inglewood Forest who gives him the correct answer but only on the condition that Sir Gawain marries her. Dame Ragnelle is the opposite of the beautiful and well-mannered females who populate the Arthurian world.  She is repulsively ugly, openly lusty, and course of manners, nevertheless, to save his uncle, Gawain agrees to take her for his wife. Although it appears Gawain is too faithful and gullible for his own good things turn out extremely well for him in the end. Presented here is a retelling of the story.

Inglewood Forest

One fine day King  Arthur and a hunting party left his court at Carlisle to go hunting  in the nearby forest of Inglewood. For speed in the chase, comfort and practicality he had left his armor off and was lightly armed with bow, arrow and hunting  knife. While the hounds were seeking out a quarry Arthur noticed a fine stag standing stock still in a thicket.  Ordering the others to stay where they were he carefully stalked the stag.   Nevertheless the stag got a scent of him as he crept forward and ran off. Arthur gave chase and letting fly with his bow and arrow managing to wound the animal as the hounds took up the chase. He  told his huntsmen to remain where they were while he went after it.  He chased for about half a mile and managed to wound it again causing it to stumble and fall.   As he finished it off with his hunting knife a stranger appeared who was well armed and dressed in armour and  looked a most formidable warrior. 

Sir Gromer Somer Joure

The stranger knight stood  proudly over Arthur as he knelt over the stag and said, “Well,  met King Arthur, well met indeed!  All these years you have done me wrong and here I have you unarmed, without armor alone in the wilds.  I will have my revenge. You took my lands and gave them to your nephew Sir Gawain. Now I will unleash my anger and hatred upon you.  What have you to say now I have you alone in the wild unarmed?

Arthur stood  up realizing he was indeed alone, unarmed and vulnerable against this well armed knight dressed for battle who stood threateningly before him and said, “Well, Sir Knight, perhaps you could tell your name before you slay me?”

Replied the knight, “I am Gromer Somer Joure.”

“Then, Sir Gromer Somer Joure, good knight that you are, you will know slaying me unarmed and not attired for battle will bring you nothing but shame.  You will be shunned by knights everywhere you go. Perhaps there is something I can do to amend or alleviate the hurt you accuse me of before I leave?  Speak now!” replied Arthur.

“You will not escape me now that I have you.  If I let you go you will defy me again.” replied the knight.

“Slay me while I am unarmed and with no armor and you will have eternal shame.  Spare my life and perhaps there is something I can do to right the wrong you allege or reward you,” replied Arthur.

“There is nothing that will  help you. I do not desire land or riches just you death, but  if you agree that …”

“I  agree,” interrupted Arthur.

“Listen to my demand!  You must swear that you will return in a year with the answer to this quest I am about to ask you.  If have the right answer you will live. If you do not have the right answer I will take your head. The question is this.  What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? If you agree swear your oath and get gone. If you do not I will take you head now.  What say you, King Arthur?”

“Although it is disagreeable to me I swear and being a true king will return in a year and a day with or without the answer to your question and face my fate.” answered Arthur.

“Then get you on your way King  Arthur, you have no idea of the troubles that await you.  You must keep this secret and don’t even think of betrayal for I could kill you in battle,” said Gromer Somer Joure before mounting his horse and riding off.

Arthur blew his horn and the rest of his party came quickly to him. They found him with the deer but were surprised to see how sad he looked.  Telling them he had no further desire to hunt the party went back to Carlisle. Although no one said anything they all knew something strange and serious had happened by the look on his face.  Back at Carlisle, Arthur sat alone brooding and clearly unhappy.

Sir Gawain

At last his nephew, Sir Gawain approached him and asked what ailed him. He replied sadly, “While I was unarmed and alone in the forest I encountered an unknown knight armed and clad in armor, ready for battle.   He told me certain things that I must not tell unto others and gave my word. Therefore, I must keep my word or betray it.”

Gawain reassured  him that whatever he told him he did so in complete confidence and that he would never pass it on.  Therefore Arthur said,

“Today while hunting alone I slew a stag.  Afterwards, I met a knight named, Sir Gromer Somer Joure who wanted to slay me. I had no sword or armor and I spoke to him politely and courteously reminding  him of the shame and dishonor as a knight that would befall him if slayed and unarmed man. Of course I did not want to die and I swore on oath that I would return to him in one year, clad as I was and unarmed with the answer to this question.  What is it that women most desire? I am bound to return and give him the right answer. Should the answer be wrong he takes my head. If I give the right answer I am set free from the oath. If I don’t turn up, unless by death alone, then I am eternally shamed.  This, then is the cause of my woe.”

Sir Gawain by Howard Pyle [Public domain]

On hearing him Gawain said, “Let me help.  You search for the answer in one direction and I will search in the opposite.  On our way we will ask everyone we meet the question and write down the answers in a book.  At the end of a eleven months we will meet back here in Carlisle and I will give you my book and we will peruse the findings together.”

Arthur could think of no better plan and so agreed and they went off on their separate ways.  Each asked everyone they came across the question, “What is it that women most desire of men?”  and wrote down the answer.  Some said it was money. Some said it was fine clothing. Others said they liked to be courted and wooed, while the other said they liked lusty men who swept them off their feet.  By the time they arrived back at the court of Carlisle the both books were full with many different answers.

Eleven months later they met back in Carlisle and looked over each other books.  Gawain was confident that one of the answers contained in the books would be right but Arthur was not so sure. There were so many answers so he said, “I still have a month left and there is time to find something more definite.  I think I will look around Inglewood Forest for a while in the hope of finding the right answer.”

Gawain was confident that they had the right answer in the books already but said, “As you wish, but I have every confidence the right answer is in the books.”

Dame Ragnelle

Arthur Meets Dame Ragnelle – Public Domain

The next day Arthur rode to Inglewood and spent several hours wandering the many paths in the forest.  Eventually he came across and old woman seated upon a horse at a crossroads. She was the most hideous, ugliest and the most repulsive person he had ever seen.  In contrast to her the horse she sat was most handsome chestnut mare. Its saddle and bridle were decorated with gold, silver and precious gems. The magnificence of the beast was in stark contrast to the vile appearance of her.  She was sat on her horse in the middle of a crossroads seemingly in waiting for him. It was she that spoke first seeming to knew who he was and boldly greeting him thus,

“Well, met King Arthur, well met alone in the woods.  I have advice for you if you will listen that will save your life!”

Arthur was utterly repulsed by the loathly lady but politely asked what she had to say.  She told him she aware of him and his quest and knew the answer he sought,

“I know the right answer to the secret. I know you found many answers but the ones you have gathered to you are wrong. If I do not tell you then you will die.  If you grant me a request I will tell you the answer you seek, Your life is in my hands! Therefore, what say you?”  

Arthur was unpleasantly surprised that she appeared to know so much.  He looked at her in disgust of her appearance and said, “Lady, I dislike your words,  Tell me what you want and if I can I will grant it. Why is my life in your hands?”

The loathly lady cackled at him said, “Whatever else I am, I am not evil.  The bargain I would make with you is this.  To save your life I must marry Sir Gawain. Think, deeply, think wisely.  If you do not agree or if he does not agree the marriage you will die!”

Arthur was aghast at the thought.  The more he considered it the least able he thought himself of delivering it.  Therefore, he said, “In all  truth, fairness and honesty, I cannot promise Sir Gawain will agree to be part of this bargain.  It is for he alone to choose a wife, but I will ask his thoughts on the matter, though only because it may save my own life.  I would not blame him if he refused, but I will ask and see what happens from there.”

This appeared to satisfy the lady who replied, “Go now and speak to Sir Gawain and speak as fair as you can of me.  Yes, I am hideous, but I am as lusty as I am hideous! Go and speak to Gawain and you may yet live.  You will find me here when you have your decision.”

“What will I tell him your name is?” asked Arthur.

“You may tell him my name is Dame Ragnelle,” she replied

So Arthur rode back to Carlisle to talk to Gawain.  He knew his nephew would probably accept simply because of his own sake.  Nevertheless, he really regretted having to ask him with the terrible consequences involved but he had no choice.

The first person Arthur met was Gawain who greeted him happily and asked how he got on with his quest in Inglewood.  Arthur looked at Gawain sadly and said, “Everything went exceedingly bad.  I may as well kill myself now as I appear to be doomed to die!”

Gawain was shocked and wanted to know why he was so sorely depressed and unhappy.  Arthur said, “In Inglewood I met the most disgusting and hideous lady I have ever seen.  She has promised me that she will save my life if you will marry her. Gawain, I cannot let you do this, therefore I am doomed!”

Gawain replied, “No matter how foul or hideous I will marry her to save you.  You are my uncle, my king and my friend. We have fought side by side in many battles and it is my honour that is at stake if I refuse.  I will not dishonor myself or become a coward afraid of a lady, hideous or otherwise. I will marry her!”

Arthur told him how they had met at the crossroads and how she had told him her name was Dame Ragnelle.  He reiterated that she was the vilest, ugliest woman he had ever seen. He told Gawain that she had told she knew the answer to the question he sought.  She had told him there was only one answer and she was the only one knew. She would only reveal it if you married her.

Gawain was not to be put off and replied, “Have no fear, I will marry her regardless of her vile appearance, for my respect for you is even greater.”

Arthur was pleased by Gawain’s answer and told him, “I cannot thank you enough!  You are the best of my knights and I shall love you as long as I am king of this land!”

At the end of the last month, Arthur, accompanied by Gawain went to seek Dame Ragnelle at the crossroads as he had promised.  When they reached the forest Arthur told Gawain that here they must part. Gawain told him he would prefer to accompany him but as it was his wish they would separate.

When Arthur reached the crossroads he found Dame Ragnelle sitting as if she had not moved since he had left. She greeted him saying, 

“Well met, what is the news.  Are to be saved or are you doomed?”

Arthur looked upon her with a mixture of gloom and disgust and said, “I have spoken to Gawain.  As there is no other way he has agreed to the marriage.  Therefore, Dame, tell me the answer to the question for I  must go.”

Dame Ragnelle laughed long and hideously and then said,

“I will tell you what it is that women most desire.  Some men say it is beauty and youth we desire that we stay attracted to men and are lusted after. It is not that. Some say women wish to be flattered and feted and wooed, but it is not that either.  There are many other wrong things men say about women but now I will tell you what women most desire in all the world of men. It is this. We women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of our self and over men, so that all that is theirs is ours.  We will use all our wiles and skills to master the most manly, the fiercest and the most brutal of men and gain sovereignty over them. Now King Arthur, go and tell this to the adversary who would cut off you head and you will be saved. Just remember our bargain!

Arthur’s Answer

Wasting no time Arthur rode to the place where he had killed the stag and where he had agreed to rendezvous with Sir Gromer Somer Joure.  When he arrived Sir Gromer was already waiting. Arthur showed him the books with the answers he and Gawain had collected, Gromer spent a long time diligently studying them and at last said, “No, the correct answer is not here.  Therefore, prepare to die!”

Arthur held up his hand and cried, “Wait! I have one more answer, will you hear it?”

“I will,” said Gromer.

“It is this.  Women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of herself and over men so that all that is men’s is theirs,” said Arthur.

This infuriated Gromer who replied angrily, “Curse the woman, I hope she burns in Hell.  Clearly you have spoken to the old hag, Dame Ragnelle, who is my sister.  If not for her I would have your head here and now! Yes, you have given the right answer, but only thanks to her.  Go now Arthur, but never let me catch you alone and unarmed in the forest again, for I will not hesitate a second time!

Much relieved Arthur replied, “You can be sure I will never again be found at such a disadvantage.  From now on I will always be armed and armored to defend myself and defend myself I will. Now I go.”

With that Arthur mounted his horse and rode to the crossroads to meet Dame Ragnelle, leaving Sir Gromer Somer Joure angrily cursing his sister.  Although Arthur was glad to be free of the threat of death he now looked forward to his meeting with the loathly lady with disgust and dismay. He was desperately sorrow for what had been lain on Gawain and would have done anything to change it.  At the crossroads she was waiting patiently still sat upon her horse. She cackled hideously at his approach and said, “Ha, King Arthur! See it is just as I told you.  I have kept my part of the bargain and now you must keep yours.  Sir Gawain will be my husband!”

Arthur shuddered, deeply sorry for what he had got his faithful nephew into but said, “I have spoke to Gawain and he has agreed,  The marriage will go ahead though I wish for all the world it would not!   Therefore if you will have your wish follow my advice. We will go secretly …”

Dame Ragnelle cut him short saying, “We will do nothing in secrecy.  I will be married openly in public for all to see.  You will not leave me until I am the wife of Sir Gawain, or it will bring shame and dishonor upon you.   You will escort me royally to your court and all will see how I have saved your life and the gratitude you owe me! ”

Deeply embarrassed Arthur escorted Dame Ragnelle to court.  When they reached Carlisle she waved and smiled gruesomely at all she met lapping up the attention she received.  Everyone stared in shock and wonder at the hideous woman King Arthur escorted to his court. On arrival Arthur led her into his hall where she said joyfully, “Now bring to me Sir Gawain and summon your knights, noble and ladies.  Send out to all nobles and lords to attend that they may witness our marriage which will take place as soon as all is assembled as witnesses.  Fulfill your bargain King Arthur!”

The Marriage

Leon Bakst [Public domain]

Groaning inwardly, Arthur summoned Gawain and his knights, noble and ladies to meet Dame Ragnelle.   When Gawain arrived, Dame Ragnelle declared she was so taking by his handsome appearance she wished she was beautiful for him.   To his bemusement and embarrassment she reassured him she was as lusty as she was hideous, digging him in the elbow and winking, while Gawain stared blankly before him.

King Arthur held his head in his hands in despair while all of his knights and noble looked on in shock and bewilderment,  The ladies of the court wept at the sight of the handsome, heroic Sir Gawain sitting next to his grotesque fiance. Although Arthur and his queen begged her to have a small private ceremony Dame Ragnelle refused.  She declared it was her special day and she would share it openly with everyone. With resignation, Arthur summoned the lords and ladies of his realm to Carlisle to witness the marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.

After a few days everyone had arrived and all was in place and a magnificent wedding banquet prepared for after the ceremony.  Although she wore a most beautiful wedding gown the contrast between her and her gown made it all the more surreal. The ceremony took place and Arthur and his lords and ladies looked on in shock and horror as the jubilant Dame Ragnelle wedded Sir Gawain.  Although the horror could be seen in his eyes his courage was without fault that day. After the ceremony the banquet began and Sir Gawain led his bride to her chair at the banquet table.

The Marriage Banquet

It was a magnificent banquet but no one was prepared for what happened next.  Taking her seat next to her husband at the head of the table. After all the appropriate speeches were rendered and proper protocols observed, Dame Ragnelle wasted no time in tucking in to the banquet.  

To the sheer amazement of her new husband and the guests she began eating with amazing speed.  She stuffed her mouth full of various kinds of food while swallowing great gulps of beer and wine.  Everyone one stared in amazement and horror as plates of meat, pies, bread, sweetmeat and delicacies of all kinds disappeared into her voluminous mouth.  As she ate she belched and coughed sending saliva flying across the hall and causing the guests to cover their plates. Greedily she ate whole capons, whole ducks, even whole swans,  She ate a boar’s head and body to herself. She ate and she ate and ate and she drank and she drank and she drank.

Everyone looked on in embarrassed astonishment. All the time she chatted away gaily with her mouthful to her new bewildered husband and their equally bewildered guests.  Every now and then she would elbow Gawain urging him to up to build up his strength, while giggling coyly. Gawain sat blank faced staring in space before him while Arthur sat holding his head in his hands silently begging Gawain for forgiveness. 

At last she was satiated of food and drink and with  more than a wink and a nod to her guests carried her new husband off to their bedchamber.   Gawain stared forlornly out of the window while his wife prepared herself for her husband. At last she said, “Ah now, since we are now married you must not deny me in bed.  I cannot deny that if I were beautiful you would feel and act differently, certainly with more enthusiasm.  Nevertheless, do me the honor of turning to face me and kissing me. Show that you honor me!”

Gawain stood staring out of the window and sighing said, “Have no fear, I will kiss you and more.”

The Spell is Broken

Turning to face her he stood dumbfounded in astonishment at what he saw.  Stood before him was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

“What are you?” he asked.

“Husband, I am your wife,  Why do act so strange?”

Gawain stood in amazement at the transformation and said, “Forgive me, I am at a loss.  I am bemused and well and truly confused.  Earlier today at our wedding you were the most hideous and ugliest creature I have ever seen.  Now you are transformed into a vision of loveliness. The day began strange and has grown even stranger and I am at a loss to know what to say or do!”

His bride stood before him very much a vision of loveliness and she said, “You must make a choice.  My beauty as you see me now will not last.  I can only be fair at night or in the day time.  That means if you chose me to be fair at night I will be foul during the day.  If chose me to be fair in the day then I will be foul at night. Whatever you choose, I will remain, but you must choose one or the other.  What will it be?”

Gawain thought for awhile then said, “It is a hard choice to make.  To have you beautiful only for myself at night would be a sorrowful thing and I would do you dishonor.  To have you beautiful in the daytime would mean I have little reward at night. Truly, I would like to choose the best but I have no idea of what that may be.  Therefore, I give you the choice. Please make the choice that you prefer. I promise whatever that may be, my body, all of by possessions, my heart and soul will remain yours to do with as you please, this I promise before God.”

Thus transformed Lady Ragnelle said, “Sir Gawain you have proved to be an honorable and courteous knight and I bless you for the honor you have shown me.  Do not be grieved or confused by my sudden transformation. My wicked stepmother cast a spell upon me changing me into the hideous being you first saw.  I was to remain in that vile shape until the best and most worthy knight in England married me and gave himself, his body, his soul, all his worldly goods to me to rule and to do as I wished.  You have given me sovereignty over myself and also over you. Be sure that I will use that power most wisely and with all love.” 

Their wedding night was still young and they made the best of it.   When dawn came they laughed and kissed and remained in bed happy in each other’s company.   The morning passed and midday arrived and Arthur said to his knights with trepidation, “I think we better go and make sure Gawain has survived the night.  I fear the hideous thing may have killed him. Let us go and make sure he is alright.”

Lady Ragnelle

He led a party of knights to the newly weds bedchamber and began banging upon the door crying, “Gawain, it is midday. Why are you so long in bed, are you ill?”

Gawain got up and opened the door ajar and said, “My Lord, I would be most grateful if you would leave me be for all is well here and in good health as is my beautiful wife, see …”

And he purposely opened the door fully to reveal Dame Ragnelle standing in a stunning gown with her red hair hanging around her waist looking a vision of beautiful and loveliness.

“Now you can see for yourselves why I am in no rush to rise and meet the day. Meet my wife,  Dame Ragnelle who gave you the answer that saved your life.”

He told Arthur of the enchantment she has been under and how now it had been broken.  All of Arthur’s knights were greatly relieved at his safety and pleased at the way things had turned out for him.  The queen and her ladies were also delighted fearing that the hideous woman had murdered him, but even more pleased that his exemplary behaviour had won a  wife of outstanding beauty. There was much relief all around and Arthur told the queen of how he had been forced to swear an oath in the forest of Inglewood to save his life and how Dame Ragnelle had saved him.

Gawain explained how his wife had placed under an enchantment by her stepmother and how his marriage to her and the choice he made to grant her sovereignty over herself and him on his wedding night had broken the spell. 

Dame Ragnelle said, “I give my thanks to Gawain for without him I would still be the hideous, vile and misshapen thing.  Therefore, although Gawain has recognized my own sovereignty over myself and granted me sovereignty over him I swear I shall never abuse or misuse it.  I will be his wife and he my husband as it should be. There will never be discord between us.”

In return Gawain pledged his love and faithfulness, acknowledging the mercy she granted him.

The queen declared to her ladies that Lady Ragnelle was the most beautiful of the all and said, “I give my thanks to you for saving the king for I love him with my life!”

Gawain and Dame Ragnelle settled down and soon she bore him a fine strong son whom they named Gyngolyn, who grew up to be a good knight of  the Round Table. It soon became apparent that Gawain loved his wife more than anything in the world.  He gave up jousting and competing in tournaments and spent all his time by her side and she was reckoned the fairest lady in England.

Lady Ragnelle, begged Arthur to forgive her brother Sir Gromer Somer Joure for the wrong he had done to him and he reluctantly agreed.  If everything appeared happy for a time it was bound to change. Sadly, after five happy years together Lady Ragnelle passed away. Although Gawain remarried he was said to have never loved anyone else like he loved Lady Ragnelle.

© 28/08/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 28th, 2019 zteve t evans

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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 Quest for the Sangreal

The Sangreal

In Arthurian romance the mystical, magical quest of the Sangreal is a popular story that has its roots in medieval times, though its seeds may be from much earlier.  It uses allegories to blend together pagan motifs, Christian tradition and political and social concerns of the day into a story of spiritual evolution for the main protagonists who must remain true to the quest.  The Sangreal is another name for the Holy Grail which eventually became conflated with the Holy Chalice.  There are several other versions of its name and in different stories it has appeared in different forms such as stone or wood, or as a cup or dish. The earliest of these romances was Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes who died before it was finished but was added to later by other poets.  Other authors also created versions of the story such as Le Roman du Graal, Joseph d’Arimathe, Merlin, and Perceval by Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Cycle, whose authorship is disputed and Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach.  Later, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte D’Arthur, blending together Arthurian and grail tradition, and it is from this that the greatly summarised version of the tale below draws the most.

Origin of the Sangreal

In this allegorical story set in the time of King Arthur, the Sangreal was the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the last supper, and the Sacred Spear was the one Longinus, the Roman soldier, used to pierce his side during his crucifixion.  Joseph of Arimathea brought them to Britain and his descendants, the Grail Kings of Castle Corbenic were granted guardianship on condition that each guardian lived a life of purity in deed and thought, dedicated to Jesus Christ.  For many ages, the Sangreal remained a visible, tangible object — alongside the Sacred Spear — that pilgrims came from far and wide to pray before.

Over time, one of its guardians allowed the moral standards that behoved his role to slip, and sought forbidden love. The Sacred Spear punished his weakness, inflicting a wound to his groin that could not be healed, leaving the king maimed and kept alive only by the power of the Sangreal; after this, the Sangreal and Sacred Spear were hidden from the people’s eyes.  In those days the fertility of the land was linked to that of the king, and his realm became a barren wasteland until the time came when he would be healed by the purest knight in the world.

Merlin’s Message

At Camelot, Merlin had not been seen for some time and, worried at his absence, King Arthur sent out knights to find him.  Sir Gawain went out searching, and while travelling through the forest of Brocéliande he heard the sound of someone groaning. Following the sound, he found a column of dense mist that he could not penetrate.  From the mist came the voice of Merlin who revealed that his mistress, Viviane — the Lady of the Lake — had imprisoned him there for all time.  He instructed Gawain to return to King Arthur and tell him of his plight. Yet, emphasizing that nothing could be done to save him, he gave an important message to relay:

“Tell Arthur a great event is now unfolding. The knight is born and ready to begin and accomplish this task for the good of the land and its people.  Now is the time of the quest of the Sangreal.”

Gawain quickly returned and delivered the message to King Arthur, who grieved for his old friend as he turned over the message in his mind.

Pentecost at Camelot

It was the custom of King Arthur to celebrate the feast of Pentecost with all his knights around the Round Table.  Each of the knights had their own seat at the Round Table with their name inscribed upon it, and there was one vacant seat known as the Siege Perilous. As the feast was about to begin a squire brought news that in a nearby river there was a red slab of marble that floated on the water.  King Arthur led his knights to the river to investigate. Fixed firmly within this slab, as if it had been driven in, was a sword upon which was inscribed the following words,

“Never shall I be drawn forth except by he who is the perfect knight and at his side, I will hang.”

Sir Gawain tried to draw the sword but failed, as did Sir Percival and many others, but none could free it.

The Quest of the Sangreal

Having investigated, they returned to the Round Table to eat. While they were eating the windows and doors all suddenly slammed shut.  The candles flickered, went out and then came back on again, and stood before them appeared a very old holy man accompanied by Galahad, the son of Sir Lancelot.  The holy man led Galahad to the Siege Perilous and seated him there.  They watched in awe as the lettering on the seat changed magically to read, Galahad.   King Arthur led Sir Galahad to the floating slab of marble and he easily withdrew the sword to the wonder of all.

Arthur and his knights returned to their feasting and again, the candles suddenly dimmed and there was a peal of thunder.  A ray of light shone down and in the middle of the Round Table there appeared the glowing Sangreal veiled in white silk. Inspired by this miraculous event, Sir Gawain declared he would not rest, day or night, for one year and a day, until he saw the Sangreal fully unveiled.  Arthur remembered the message of Merlin and was full of disquiet.  He knew the others would follow his example and realized there was every chance some would die on that quest, or not return.  In the early days of summer, as one hundred and fifty knights rode from Camelot on the quest of the Sangreal, King Arthur wept, knowing the world had changed forever.

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The Arthurian Realm: The Divine Role of Guinevere

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on 23/08/2018, under the title British Legends: The Divine Tragedy of Guinevere, written by by zteve t evans

Guinevere Goes a-Maying

The story began one day in the month of May, when Guinevere called together ten Knights of the Round Table. She told them they would accompany her and ten of her ladies in the traditional seasonal activity of Maying, in place of her own elite guards known as the Queen’s Knights, who usually accompanied her everywhere. In celebration of the season and to enter into the spirit of the celebration, she insisted they leave behind their armour and wear green clothing and bear only light arms. Therefore, bright and early the next morning, the party set off to go a-Maying in the woods and fields around Westminster.

The Malice of Sir Meliagrance

An evil knight named Meliagrance had a castle several miles from Westminster, and he had loved Guinevere since the first day he set eyes on her. He never dared to show this love for fear of Sir Lancelot, who was always near her. On this bright May morning, away from the security of the Royal Court, accompanied by only ten lightly armed knights, and with Sir Lancelot now absent, he saw his chance. He quickly mustered twenty of his own men-at-arms and one hundred archers to aid him in the abduction of Queen Guinevere.

Ambush

Guinevere and her party joyfully entertained themselves fully in the ancient custom, adorning themselves and each other with flowers, leaves, mosses, and herbs. They were all relaxed and enjoying the traditional activity so they were easily caught unawares when Meliagrance with his men came out of the woods and surrounded the happy company. Aggressively, he demanded that Guinevere should be given to him, or he would take her by force. The ten lightly armed knights, without a shields, or armour, were not prepared to allow the queen to be taken easily and vowed to fight to the death to defend her. Meliagrance sternly told them, “Prepare with what weapons you have, for I will have the queen!”

The defenders placed themselves in a ring around the queen and drew their swords. Meliagrance gave the order, and his knights charged on horseback. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the ten knights defended the queen ferociously. After long and fierce fighting, six of the queen’s defenders were too badly wounded to fight on, but four were unhurt and still defiantly defended the queen, until they too were wounded but fought on bravely.

Guinevere Surrenders

Seeing her valiant knights so badly hurt and to prevent their slaying, Guinevere ordered them to lay down their arms on condition they would not be slain and that she and they would remain together no matter what. Meliagrance agreed on the condition they did not try to escape and contact Sir Lancelot.

While Meliagrance was attending to his own wounded knights, Guinevere sent one of her youngest servants on a swift horse to find Sir Lancelot and tell him of her plight. On hearing the news, Sir Lancelot, in fear and alarm for the safety of the queen, called for his horse, his armour, and his weapons. Then he asked the servant to go to his friend, Sir Lavaine and tell him the news of the queen’s abduction and ask him to follow him to the castle of Meliagrance without delay.

The Knight of the Cart

Lancelot rode swiftly over Westminster Bridge and, making his horse swim the Thames at Lambeth, he soon came to the place where Sir Meliagrance had abducted the queen and her knights. Then he followed the tracks through woodlands, where he was waylaid by the archers of Sir Meliagrance who rained arrows down on him and slayed his horse. Having no other choice than carrying his armour, weapons, and shield, he set out on foot to the castle of Meliagrance.

As he walked he was overtaken by a horse and cart carrying a driver, and his assistant that was carrying wood to the castle of Meliagrance. The driver refused his request for a ride, so to avoid further delay Sir Lancelot commandeered the cart. He knocked the driver from his seat and forced his assistant to drive him with all speed to his intended destination. From his manner of arrival at the castle, Sir Lancelot was given the name “The Knight of the Cart,” and jumping from it cried out, “Sir Meliagrance, traitor Knight of the Round Table, where are you? I, Sir Lancelot du Lac challenge you! Come, face me and bring who you will, for I will fight you to the death!”

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The Arthurian Realm: The Abductions of Guinevere

Coveting Guinevere

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

Caradoc of Llancarfan

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

Geoffrey of Monmouth

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

Chrétien de Troyes

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

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

Malory’s, Le Morte d’Arthur

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

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

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

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

Mordred’s Attempted Abduction

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

Gods of the Round Table

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

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

Pagan Origins

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

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

Winter

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

Spring

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

Summer

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

Autumn

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

Winter Returns

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

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

Goddess of Sovereignty

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

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

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

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

© 20/11/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 20th, 2018 zteve t evans

The Prophecy of Merlin: The Two Dragons

vortigern-dragons

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

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

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

Vortigern’s Fortress

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

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

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

Myrddin Emrys

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

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

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

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

cotton_claudius_b_vii_f-224_merlin_vortigern

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

The Prophecy of the Two Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lludd Llaw Eraint

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

The Plague of the Two Dragons

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

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

Destiny and Fate

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

© 05/07/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright July 5th, 2017 zteve t evans