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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



Thinking Aloud

Sir Thomas Malory included a Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot Du Lake in his fifteenth century epic Le Morte d'Arthur. It is not a particularly long tale, but one with a very curious ending. Lancelot makes up his mind to wander the country taking any adventure that happens to come his way, with the intention of returning to King Arthur's court at Whitsun. He achieves this aim, meeting again with all those knights with whom he has 'had ado' in the course of his travels and whom he had instructed upon pain of death to journey to King Arthur's court to present themselves as prisoners to the King at this Whitsun feast.

One night, as Lancelot lies asleep in a small castle and before his return to King Arthur's court, he is awoken by the sound of fighting. Looking out of the window, he sees three knights setting upon one. Thinking it shameful for him to stand by and watch the probable outcome of such unfair odds, he makes an exit through a window and lends his support to the distressed knight, who turns out to be Sir Kay. Having defeated the aggressors single-handedly, Lancelot makes them yield not to him but to Sir Kay. At first they refuse, since it is Lancelot who has defeated them; but they have no choice.

In the morning, Lancelot wakes, dresses himself, inexplicably, in Sir Kay's armour, picks up Kay's shield and rides off towards a string of adventures in his new disguise, before Sir Kay has awoken. 'So sir Launcelotte rode into a depe foreste, and there in a slade he sey four knyghtes hovynge undir an oke, and they were of Arthurs courte... And anone as these four knyghtes had aspyed sir Launcelot they wende [believed] by his armys [arms] that hit had bene sir Kay.' Sir Kay has no choice but to travel back to King Arthur's court dressed as Sir Lancelot.

In Malory's tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney, Sir Gareth, as we have seen, is keen to attend a tournament at which King Arthur will be present, but is concerned also that he should go in disguise. So he wears a magic ring with the property that his identity will change every time he turns his horse and gallops forwards once more into combat.

Sir Lancelot, in Chrétien de Troyes' story of the Knight of the Cart, was eager to attend a tournament while imprisoned by the wicked Maleagant, and went to this gathering in disguise. None recognised him, except for Queen Guinevere.

Before this tournament, Lancelot had crossed the waters of Styx in order to rescue Queen Guinevere from a land of the dead. This land could only be reached by crossing these waters via a Sword Bridge or an Underwater Bridge. Death by bleeding or death by drowning.

And a few days before, this unknown knight, who was later revealed as Lancelot, had ridden in a cart as though he was being taken to the gallows. 'What means of execution will be used against this knight?' the people had asked: 'Will he be hanged or flogged, drowned or burned to death?'

Beside the pagan temple of Uppsala, in Sweden, one of the last such temples to survive in Medieval Europe, was a tree on which victims were hanged, and a spring in which others were drowned. Many readers will be familiar with the 'bog people' found in the peat bogs of northern Europe, whose miraculously preserved bodies testify to their having been cast into marsh lakes; whether dead or alive, criminal execution or human sacrifice is still a disputed question. Thrown into water to facilitate, perhaps, their journey into the next life, their journey across the Underwater Bridge.

One can perhaps imagine what the natural springs at Bath were like before their hot waters inspired the Romans to erect the wonderful buildings we see surviving today; could there have been a druid temple here, pre-dating the Roman one? – a temple or perhaps simply a sacred location which the Romans claimed for their own purposes after the dissolution of the druid colleges in the first century AD? It is easy to suppose that there was. And if so, what rights were conducted at this pagan temple beside the miraculous spring? And is it significant that, when casting around for a location in King Arthur's realm with which to identify the city that lay beyond a perilous Bridge, an Underwater Bridge, Chrétien de Troyes, or the tradition upon which he drew, identified Bath as that city?

One can speculate further and hear faint echoes of another name in Lancelot, particularly when pronounced in French. Ullr is a shadowy deity of pagan Britain and Scandinavia. Snorri Sturluson describes him briefly in the Prose Edda as an accomplished warrior, step-son of Thor and a god to call upon in single-combats. Could his name be preserved in the English Lake District 'Ullswater' and Scottish 'Ullapool'? Sir Lancelot was, of course, known as Lancelot of the Lake.

Ullr had a home in Asgard near to the other Viking gods, a place called Yewdale, near Freyja's Alfheim, and he seems to have been associated with the Nature gods and goddesses, the Vanir, of whom the goddess Freyja was one; although by the time Snorri Sturluson came to write, in thirteenth century Iceland, he seems to have diminished somewhat in importance. Loki learned the ability to change into a hawk from Freyja and, in Snorri's account, Freyja owned a half-share in all the slain with the shape-changing god Odin. These gods and goddesses, of course, were known to the Normans, who were Viking settlers in northern France, and whose half-remembered traditions must have impacted upon the Anglo-Norman development of the Arthurian legend in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A shield, in skaldic verse, was called a 'ship of Ullr' and the twelfth century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus tells that 'he crossed seas on a magic bone,' perhaps iceskates.

Manannan crossed seas in a magic coracle, as we have seen, and he and his Welsh incarnation, Manawydan, are much better known. We have met Manannan before. He is a son of the Tuatha de Danaan, the folk who live beneath the burial mound. Irish heroes encountered him when they descended into pools or springs or lakes, or crossed over the sea, on their way to the Otherworld. Bran met him riding his steed across the waves when journeying to a Land of Women. His half-brothers and sisters, the Children of Lir, lived for nine hundred years as swans, in different and far-flung seas.

Manawydan son of Llyr, in the Welsh Mabinogion, also moved from existence to existence. He was sitting one day on a burial mound with three companions when a mist descended, and when it had cleared again, the land was deserted. They lived for a time as hunters, surviving on whatever they could catch in the forest. But this life could not continue and Manawydan went from Dyfed into England, earning his living as a saddler. But professional jealousy amongst competing saddlers put his life in danger and he moved on, to become a shield-maker in another town. Again, his life was threatened and he moved on once more, to become an eminent shoemaker. Finally, with his life again under threat, he returned to Dyfed to become a farmer and to grow corn.

This role taken on by Manawydan, as supremely competent at all trades, recalls the great Celtic god Lug. Caesar observed that the Gauls worshipped Apollo. Many attributes of Lug correspond to those of a sun god. 'Lugh son of Kian, the Sun-god par excellence of all Celtica...' But Caesar, referring to what he regarded as the chief god of the Gauls, chooses to identify this highest of deities as Mercury. Mercury, of course, conducted souls into the afterlife, as Odin received the souls of those slain on the battlefield and as Manannan guided boats across magical seas to distant isles. Lands of the Living.

When a Celtic leader invaded Greece with an army and sacked the holy shrine and sacred oracle of Delphi in 279 BC, he laughed with scorn, apparently, when told that the Greeks believed in gods with human form. In the ancient Irish tales, Manannan, as the reader will discover in a few moments, often has human form. So what could he have meant?

Perhaps the Celtic myths in those days were similar to those of Lancelot; tales like the Knight of the Cart which we have already explored and another, just as intriguing and just as revealing, which we will explore in a moment. Perhaps the Celtic leader was amused that the Greeks believed in gods at all. Woden, who also roamed the countryside and summoned into the afterlife those who were to die, was once, in Anglo-Saxon England as we have seen, an ancestor, a man.

Manawydan was more than a supreme artisan. He was each in turn. A hunter, then a saddler, then a shield-maker, then a shoemaker, and then a farmer. And between each incarnation, his life had been placed in jeopardy. A similar story is told of Manannan. One day, he arrived shabbily dressed at a chieftain's residence; it was as though a clown was approaching the fortress, dressed in garish clothes and with puddle water squelching in his shoes. His sudden appearance inside the hall, however, unseen by the gatekeeper, had an air of mystery, and when this clown was seated listening to some eminent musicians playing in the hall, he stopped the performance, calling it a noise, like iron beating against iron, and proceeded to enchant the audience with his own music.

They were unable to retain Manannan's excellent services, however, and the next day, evading the threat of imminent death from twenty axemen if he dared to leave, he arrived at a new fortress with a new identity. Dressed as before, but now a very learned man, he was Duartane O'Duartane. The chieftain of the fortress had often heard of this man's learning and of his prowess with the harp, but curiously, found the man unable to play or recite a thing.

Then these talents returned briefly before he vanished away.

He turned up again with a new identity in Connacht, as a great warrior, in a successful cattle raid against the men of Munster.

Then he arrived at a new fortress in his old striped clothes and shoes full of puddle water, this time as a conjurer. One of his conjuring tricks led to the decapitation of a boy. 'I would rather that such a thing was not done in my hall,' censured the chieftain, Tadg O'Cealaigh, so Manannan rejoined the boy's head to his body and the lad stood up, unconcerned, as though nothing had happened.

The pre-Vulgate Old French Romance 'Lancelot of the Lake'

The thirteenth century French prose epic known sometimes as the pre-Cyclic Lancelot repeats exactly the two themes we have seen associated with Manannan, and which we have already encountered in Chrétien de Troyes' The Knight of the Cart. A man who guides the slain back into the land of the living, and a man of more than one identity.

Lancelot, as we saw earlier, was left as a baby beneath some horses feet as his mother rushed to minister to his dying father, King Ban of Benwick. When the queen returned, after a delay brought about through grief at her husband's death, she found him in the arms of a damsel who immediately dived into the nearby lake and submerged beneath the water carrying the baby with her; in other words, he was trampled to death beneath the horses' hooves and taken down into the Otherworld.

Despite becoming a nun and living a cloistered life beside the lake, visiting it every day to pray for her little boy, Lancelot's mother never once encounters nor hears of her growing son. This is despite the youth's increasingly adventurous travels and extensive hunting forays around the home of the Lady of the Lake, which appears in many respects to be quite a normal aristocratic home. There is air to breathe and social contact with surrounding towns; the same towns that existed in the landscape of Lancelot's babyhood, before he was taken by the damsel and carried by her to the bottom of the lake. But his home seems to be nowhere near the margin of this lake through which he was taken. His mother plays no further part in his life. It is as though the lake was a gateway to another part of the kingdom, in which the young boy now enjoys a normal and active life. '"Now, let me tell you," [the Lady of the Lake] said, "that whoever took you for a king's son was mistaken, for you are not one."'

Lancelot grows up to manhood and the Lady of the Lake takes him to King Arthur's court, and to knighthood. But Lancelot will not permit himself to be knighted by King Arthur. He manages events so that he receives this honour from Queen Guinevere. He is a man of matriarchal persuasion.

Having achieved knighthood, Lancelot rides off towards adventure, in order to earn the love of the queen. He finds a test of his martial prowess very quickly in a setting that occurs more than once in Arthurian literature; he fights a knight who guards a damsel. Then Lancelot fights as the champion of the Lady of Nohaut in what is intended to be a single combat to determine the outcome of an armed dispute over land, until Sir Kay arrives to confuse the issue.

Next, Lancelot comes to a 'Dolorous Castle'. In order to enter this mysterious fortress, Lancelot needs to achieve great deeds of arms. In these he is helped by a damsel sent by his foster mother, the Lady of the Lake. She gives him three shields, to go with the white shield he already carries. One has a single red diagonal band across its white surface, another, two such bands, and the other, three. It is the property of the shield with one stripe that when it is hung about his neck, as shields are when going into battle, it will confer upon Lancelot the skill and energy of another knight besides himself. The shield with two red bands will give the additional strength of two knights, and the shield with three bands, a prowess that is marvellous to behold!

So Lancelot goes into combat with the aid of such changes of shield, finding new strength in his limbs when fighting tires him, and conquers the ten knights who guard the Dolorous Castle. And with the aid of this varying identity, now a knight of one red stripe, now of two, now of three, he manages to elude recognition by Sir Gawain and later by King Arthur himself when he arrives. One wonders why this white knight will not allow himself to make contact with King Arthur and his retinue. Lancelot acts at best like an indifferent stranger and at worst like an enemy; on no account like a friendly knight who has just conquered a castle that will bring him great credit in the eyes of his new lord.

But perhaps there is more to it than meets the eye. When Gawain enters the first gate of the castle, he comes to a strange cemetery which perhaps explains the shenanigans of avoidance. Within the cemetery appears to lie the fresh grave of the white knight.

It is truly a Dolorous Castle. But we know that Lancelot is still alive. He is now a white knight with a red band across his shield, or one with two, or another with three. The white knight may be dead, but these knights are very much alive.

When Lancelot had first entered the Dolorous Castle, a few days before Gawain, he was led to this same 'very strange graveyard, between the outer and the inner walls.' Above each grave, in a battlement of the wall, was the head belonging to the knight whose grave it was. Each inscription read: 'Here lies so-and-so, and this is his head.' Some graves lay empty, anticipating their future occupants. Lancelot lifted the lid of his own grave to read the inscription beneath. Of the occupied graves, many were knights of King Arthur's Round Table.

However, these knights, too, are not dead. They are, in fact, held prisoner in a 'Dolorous Tower', imprisoned by the same lord who ruled over the Dolorous Castle before Lancelot stormed and captured it. They are eventually rescued by Lancelot and reunited with King Arthur, to everybody's joy.

So the theme is exactly the same as in Chrétien de Troyes' Knight of the Cart. Lancelot enters a Land of Death, in this case a Dolorous Castle, and achieves the rebirth or resurrection of other knights who lie in the graveyard there. Lancelot, of course, although ostensibly himself dead, is not really, but constrained to take on a disguise in the outside world; again, just as he does in the Knight of the Cart. So we might perhaps predict that Lancelot will not now return in triumph to King Arthur's court to receive the accolades due to him for being the first knight ever to overcome the perils of this weird castle and for returning King Arthur's knights to him, those who were thought to be dead. Perhaps he will feel no inclination to receive any commendation for his exploits from the queen who has so recently knighted him and with whom he has already fallen in love. Perhaps, instead, he will choose to journey about in disguise, pretending to be other knights.

Well, our prediction is borne out. Lancelot does not, indeed, return in triumph to King Arthur's court, but instead takes on a succession of different disguises, in the form of changes of armour, and sometimes of personality. He allows himself to be captured by an incompetent knight while wearing a 'blackened shield'. And as this knight's prisoner, he is led into the presence of Sir Yvain and Queen Guinevere, who do not recognise him. Bizarrely, he makes no attempt at all to identify himself.

Then comes a curious episode whose meaning we may almost be able to guess. As a result of killing a knight in pursuit of an oath of vengeance he has made, the dead knight's mistress slams Lancelot into her prison. This lady was holding a knight – the story tells us – whom we know to be Lancelot, in a prison made of stone, and the rock from which it was built was so transparent, like crystal, that nothing outside was hidden from the prisoner inside, and the prisoner was in full view of everybody outside.

Given Lancelot's penchant for entering the Land of the Dead, we might perhaps guess what this crystal prison is – but why crystal? And why was the Isle of Ladies in the Medieval poem initially made of glass? It could be that to reach heaven in the late Medieval universe it was considered necessary to travel through the transparent, crystal spheres upon which the sun, moon and stars rotated. So Lancelot is now separated from the world by a wall of transparent crystal. Can we predict that, on emerging from this prison, Lancelot will not be recognised as the same knight who entered it?

Again, our prediction is borne out. Lancelot emerges, this time as a Red Knight, to fight at an 'encounter'; an encounter, incidentally, in which pitched battle and tournament are strangely mixed, as though war between kings, each with armies of tens of thousands of fighting men, was waged as a kind of tournament. Gawain meets the Lady of Nohaut who is journeying to the battle, for we are told that in those days high-ranking ladies attended encounters; just as the Roman general Tacitus describes women looking on during conflict in Germany, in the first century AD, shouting encouragement to their warriors. 'Encounter' seems to encompass full scale war. When Galehot brings an army for an 'encounter', it is sixty thousand strong.

At the beginning of this battle, the First Conquered King comes forward as though looking for single combat, which Lancelot, in his disguise, gives him.

The Red Knight goes on to do great deeds of valour, is proclaimed the best knight of the encounter, but returns to his prison behind its glassy walls in the evening, leaving King Arthur's retinue wondering who he is. Sir Gawain, in fact, is sent on a quest to find him; unsuccessfully, as it turns out, because Lancelot stays locked away in his crystal cell for a further year, until at another encounter, he rides forth again, this time as a Black Knight.

Lancelot takes on thirteen different identities between his presentation at King Arthur's court as a young squire and the disclosure of his name to King Arthur near the end of the romance. He is armed in white by his foster mother, the Lady of the Lake, then as we have seen, is given three white shields with one, two and three red bands on them by a damsel of the Lake. Then he sports a red shield with a white band in order to conceal his identity, then a simple red shield, then a white shield with a black band, then the blackened shield with which he is captured by the idiot knight, prompting Guinevere to remark of Lancelot, whom one feels she ought to recognise, and whom one feels that he ought to wish to reveal his true identity to, that he seems a little simple. He then goes off and defeats two giants, and then kills the knight of the Lady of Malohaut who, as a punishment, puts him into her crystal cell. From here he issues forth with a red shield given to him by this lady, and a year later with a complete suit of black arms, also provided by this lady. He fights for King Arthur, then changes sides and fights for Arthur's enemy, Galehot, on two occasions wearing Galehot's own armour.

And Galehot himself is an interesting figure. He is the Lord of the Distant Isles, or the Outer Isles, bringing to mind the isles to which Bran sailed. Galehot is the son of a giantess, acquired this kingdom by force of arms and intends to pass it on to his nephew. Not his son, it will be noted, but his nephew. He will do this by marrying his nephew to the daughter of the king he defeated. Thus there are two matriarchal allusions at once; inheritance through a nephew and legitimacy through the true king's daughter. But his kingdom is also called Sorelois, which some see as a French approximation of the name Scilly.

During the early Medieval period, access to many of the hundred or more islands that make up the Scilly Isles may have been across causeways; the islands themselves, lying thirty miles west of Land's End in Cornwall, had been only one or two large islands as recently as the Bronze Age, with uplands that possess disproportionately large numbers of Bronze Age cairns and entrance graves. Galehot has an island where access can only be made across one of two perilous causeways. These causeways possess inferred similarities to Chrétien de Troyes' Underwater Bridge and, in addition, are guarded by a knight and ten men at arms, recalling the ten knights who defended the Dolorous Castle against Lancelot. So, an Isle of the Dead.

Sir Gawain and Sir Hector finally meet up with Sir Lancelot in a tower on another of Galehot's islands, the Lost Island, where Lancelot is staying as a guest of Galehot. But news has come that King Arthur is besieged by Saxon and Irish armies near Arestel, in Scotland. How are Lancelot, Galehot, Gawain and Hector to emerge from one of Galehot's Otherworldly islands in order to help King Arthur? The answer should come as no surprise: '"...let us go," said Galehot, "in such a way that we shall not be recognised, and all take unfamiliar arms." And they agreed.'

So they arrive at Arestel in such a way that nobody will recognise them. Sir Lancelot wears a black shield with a white band running from corner to corner. Sir Gawain bears a shield of blue and white which belongs to one of Galehot's finest knights. Sir Hector carries a shield of white and red which is owned by another of Galehot's knights. And Galehot carries the shield of the King of a Hundred Knights!

Galehot emerges from the Land of the Dead, then, bearing the identity of a man with whom he has been able to speak and engage with in his previous life. So do the others. Lancelot even fights in Galehot's own arms for a while, then with a black shield with a diagonal white band. Then Guinevere gives him a shield depicting herself and himself, with which he defeats King Arthur's enemies in a glorious day's fighting, releases the King from prison and reveals his identity at last as Lancelot of the Lake, son of the late King Ban of Benwick and foster son of the Lady of the Lake.

Lancelot, it will be remembered, took on the identity of Sir Kay in Malory's tale. Are these stories trying to say that we can look at a person we know and see in them the person we may once have been, or may one day ourselves become? That reincarnation does not conform to a forward flow of time, but can deposit us back into a world we have already played a part in before? That we should treat our neighbours as we would wish to be treated ourselves? Is there any further evidence for this in Arthurian legend or Medieval romance?


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