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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



Guigemar returned to Brittany for a few weeks, to visit his parents and his sister, and the desire came upon him one day to go hunting. Knights were gathered and they all went off into the forest where they were very soon able to unleash their dogs at a large deer. In the ensuing tumult, Guigemar found himself left behind when suddenly, he came across a snow-white hind in a thicket. Letting the rest of the hunt go on ahead, he shot an arrow towards the animal as it bolted, having been startled from its refuge. The shaft flew through the air and hit the creature on the front of the head, knocking it to the forest floor where it lay very badly hurt; but incredibly, the arrow bounced off the deer's skull, flew back through the air and transfixed Guigemar through the thigh, pinning his leg to his horse. Guigemar dismounted and, bleeding profusely, limped and fell beside the deer which lay fatally injured on the ground. The creature spoke:

'Alas! you have wounded me terribly,' it cried, 'and you will receive no cure for your own injury until you are healed by a woman whom you must learn to love with the same intensity as she loves you. Now go, and let me die in peace.'

Guigemar lifted himself from the ground and asked his squire to go and fetch all his companions. Then he bound his wound with his shirt as best he could, limped with great difficulty back to his horse, mounted, and rode off through the forest. Desiring suddenly to be alone, and not wishing his companions to find him, he followed a path that came out at last into an open plain. A distant mountain fed a stream that ran down to a harbour, and in the harbour was a single ship lying as though ready to sail. Approaching this ship, Guigemar saw that it was made of ebony; it was black, and the sail was of silk.

Guigemar was deeply worried, for he had no idea that such a plain existed beside the forest and there should be no harbour, to his knowledge, anywhere within the district. Nevertheless, he got down from his horse and made his way up the gangplank onto the vessel, expecting to find men on deck who might be able to help him. But there was no one to be found. All he could see in the boat was a large bed, very richly made and adorned with drapes and covers of silk and gold thread. As to the pillow, anyone who lay his head on it would not get any older, and that is the truth! I can tell you this much about the pillow: no one who had lain his head on it would ever have white hair. At the prow of the ship were two candelabra filled with lighted candles. Guigemar was intrigued and in such pain from his wound that he lay upon the bed in order to rest for a few moments.

When he came to again, he found to his dismay that the ship was already underway and far from land. The wind was blowing fair and the sea glided swiftly by, although there was not a soul on board but himself. Guigemar knew that there was no possibility of his going back, and he could only try to take his mind from the pain of his wound and to put his trust in God to bring him to a safe landing. He lay down again to sleep. But there was no need for him to worry, for ahead lay the place where he would be healed of his wound.

From the Breton lai 'Guigemar', by Marie de France: Old French, written around AD 1170.

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NB. This fragment of the Breton tale of Guigemar has been abridged and retold. For the full and original Modern English translation of the lai, upon which this abridgement has been based, see Glyn S Burgess and Keith Busby, 1986. The Lais of Marie de France, Penguin Books Limited, available through the Amazon link above.

Spooky? Why did the arrow rebound so incredibly? What is the nature of this mysterious unmanned boat with lighted candles at the prow and upon whose deck lies a bed? Is this dreamscape simply a wild flight of the imagination through a magical Celtic woodland, or could it have a deeper significance? Could it all be an allusion to something deeper-lying – a metaphor?

Scenes like the one above evoke not only a mysterious atmosphere but a sense of something undisclosed, something alluded to but not fully explained. The passage is from a Breton tale of the twelfth century. Such tales, known as Breton 'lais', are sometimes set explicitly in the world of King Arthur – King Arthur, who was himself taken away in a mysterious boat to be healed of his wounds, on the Isle of Avalon.

Here is another strange scene from a twelfth century romance. The story of the Grail. Perceval calls from the banks of a river to ask if there is a crossing place nearby and is told by a gentleman fishing in a boat that he can lodge with him for the night if he likes, since evening is drawing in. The fishing nobleman gives Perceval directions to his castle, but when Perceval climbs to the top of a ridge he sees – nothing. Nothing but an endless expanse of forest. But then, as though by magic, a castle appears amongst the trees below him.

That is a scene from the original Grail story by the Frenchman Chrétien de Troyes, written in about 1180. In an earlier tale by Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, Sir Yvain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table, arrives at a spring. Beside this pristine pool grows a pine tree next to a chapel, and beside the water is a stone to which is attached a basin. Yvain fills the basin with water and pours it onto the stone. Immediately, and as a direct result of his actions, thunder crashes, lightening streaks, and rain descends in torrents. Then, when this violent squall has passed, the sky clears and the tree is suddenly alive with birds, the air is filled with glorious birdsong. Immediately, a mysterious Black Knight arrives, seeking to defend his spring by armed combat.

Another knight, in another tale, approaches a place where hang the bodies of knights defeated by a Knight of the Red Launds – the Red Forest Clearings; perhaps a sacred parkland of purple English Oaks. 'And beside a sycamore tree there hung a horn, the largest they had ever seen, made of elephant's bone; and the Knight of the Red Forest Clearings had hung it there for this purpose: that if there came any errant knight he must blow this horn and make himself ready to do battle.'

That is from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. And it is scenes like those above that make one suspect that there is more to Medieval legend than meets the eye. Sir James George Frazer, after all, in the nineteenth century, wrote a huge work seeking to explain the significance of a 'Priest of Nemi' who guarded a tree beside a lake in the Alban Hills thirty kilometres southeast of ancient Rome, near a wood that was sacred to the goddess Diana. Frazer was able to trace parallels back into prehistoric culture and belief, from a setting that seems almost identical to the one evoked in Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. So perhaps there is something deeper-lying beneath all this Medieval Arthurian chivalry, knights in shining armour and nostalgia for a lost king and a lost age. The tales of King Arthur include not only strange and supernatural happenings, they evoke a mysterious ambience and often a real sense of something undisclosed. Perhaps this is why they have remained so popular for so long.

There are many books about the Arthurian tradition that attempt to peel away layers of myth to find a kernel of historical fact in the Medieval tales of this legendary British warrior. Others seem to have no concern with facts at all and bathe only in the literary light of a marvellous world brought to life by these stories. This present work will take a different view to both of these. Recent research has highlighted the unreliability of early references to a historical Arthur and found instead, in the early Medieval Welsh poetry that has come down to us, a folkloric figure, a defender of Britain against supernatural threats and a parallel to the Irish mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. So the reader will find no detailed detective hunt for clues to a historical Arthur who fought Saxons in Dark Age Britain, but this is not to say that facts will not lie at the very core of this enquiry. Historical material will be stripped away in order to try to lay bare the mythical material upon which many of the stories are based. In this way it is hoped that the tales and legends can provide a window into a pre-Christian and pre-Roman Britain whose religion can then be examined.

Because this is truly what happens when the history is removed. It is not a Christian world that emerges. What emerges is the dark and sinister world of pagan Europe.

Much of the historical material in the Medieval legends of King Arthur is of the age in which it was written. Knights ride across a feudal landscape with lances fewtered in the latest military fashion. Castles are stormed with the latest siege engines. Seas are crossed in contemporary, fourteenth century 'cogs'. But there are other things which do not sit comfortably with the age. Knights are required to defend sacred groves. Supernatural happenings occur beside springs and lakes. Young knights are keen to fight for the hand of a lady, for the control of a kingdom. It is she who maintains the royal line. Omniscient women arrive on cue. Giants are fought with. Human heads are taken as trophies. These and others, it will be argued, are the ancient elements, the themes and occurrences that pervade the Arthurian stories and which bear no relation to any post-Roman, fifth century character who fought the Saxons and whom we may wish to put forward as the historical King Arthur. It is the spirit of an age that was antique even in the fifth century AD.

But then the question occurs, why did the stories of King Arthur find such resonance in the late Middle Ages, an age of Catholic dogmatism? There are those who believe the Arthurian stories to be Christian, particularly the legend involving the Grail. But if this book does anything, it hopes to show that the mythological world celebrated in the Arthurian stories is not Christian.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's widely popular 'The History of the Kings of Britain', completed in AD 1136, in which King Arthur is first introduced to the Medieval world, five long verse romances by the Frenchman Chrétien de Troyes in the 1170s and 1180s, poems which injected much of the mythical element into the Arthurian legends, and the Breton 'lais' of Marie de France were the catalyst. Another two centuries of voluminous composition, often anonymous, always mysterious and exciting, testifies to the popularity, not to say fascination, found with the material. The spell culminated in England, before its nineteenth century revival, with the printing of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur on William Caxton's new printing press at Westminster in 1485; a work that remains in print to this day.

During this late Medieval period, lost works of the Roman and Greek classical age were beginning to find their way back to Europe via the Arabs. The first stirrings of the European Renaissance took place in the twelfth century, awakenings that were much later to bloom into the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. Pagan authors became highly sought after. Geoffrey Chaucer, in the late fourteenth century, could write of the Roman goddess Venus, 'to whom I pray always' and to the daisy, 'the mistress of my wit, and nothing I', and pledge to serve the goddess Flora, who was also Alcestis, he discovered, a mortal queen who was turned into a daisy.

It will take some discussion to show that these thoughts betray, in Geoffrey's case, ideas that are not as trite as they seem; are, in fact, central to the theme. In fact, we shall be visiting the work of three of the greatest poets in the English language: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser and William Blake, in order to see that the light has been kept alive, through the poetic intuition that William Blake considered to be the very source of religion. The Celtic druids, one feels sure, would have agreed. But the stronger thread will wind back into the depths of pre-Christian Britain to a world of Celtic chieftains, Iron Age druids and perhaps much earlier even than that. Along this umbilical cord will come ideas that fed the renaissance of Arthurian legend. One theme in particular is endemic in Arthurian romance and in late Medieval romance in general, so endemic that it is often not given the attention it deserves. This is not because it is in any way obscure; although in Christian Europe of the late Middle Ages its possible meaning could not have been alluded to directly. Occurrences are so widespread in Medieval literature, so ubiquitous in romance and in Arthurian legend in particular, that its significance is assured. This endemic motif and others in these stories obtain their power, it will be argued, from an underlying imperative, a need that fuelled the twelfth century literature in which it occurs and that goes a long way to explaining the popularity of these tales, and others derived from them, for many centuries afterwards. It was not so much the re-creation of an Iron Age world of druids and sacred springs that these tales sought to achieve as a recasting of the ideas that underlay this world, ideas that were ancient, ideas that among other things sought to portray the reality of reincarnation.

There is no need to look to the east, to Buddha, to Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand or to the proud but exiled Tibetan monks to find this idea nurtured and cherished. Irish mythology is steeped in a metaphorical landscape that illustrates the ideas that have come down from a pagan European past in a beautiful and passionate way, if one has the imagination to see. Scottish folk tales tap into ancient ground and Scandinavian mythology emerges from a pre-Christian age through the literature of Medieval Iceland, although written after the introduction of Christianity. There are clues to Anglo-Saxon beliefs. There exist books of ancient poems and tales in Old Welsh; and underlying the Arthurian stories and the weird but fascinating Medieval romances in Old French and Middle English, are twelfth century minstrel tales recorded in Breton lais that claim ancestry in the distant Celtic past. The stories contained in the vast Arthurian corpus have the feel of a world long vanished, a vibrant antiquity that their Medieval clothes were perhaps never intended fully to conceal.

But how far back in time do the Arthurian legends really reach? And if King Arthur is portrayed as a Christian king, how can the Medieval stories attaching to his reign shed light upon a pre-Christian age?


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