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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages

15

THE ISLE OF AVALON

Having taken a little detour into King Arthur's court, we must now stride out onto the hillside again and make resolutely for the summit.

Geoffrey Chaucer, in his long poem 'The House of Fame' describes the image of a goddess with her feet on the Earth and her head touching the heavens. He found himself looking at this marvellous sight (he dreamed) having been taken in the claws of an eagle high up into the heavens. Into this rarefied realm come all the sounds made on Earth.

'But there [is] no crowding in this vigorous and pleasant place; and high up upon a dais, in an imperial seat of solid ruby, I saw a creature forever seated whom nature had created only once. At first I truly thought that she was so small as to be less than a yard in height, but after a while she grew so wonderfully that she touched the Earth with her feet and with her head she touched heaven. And there I saw a greater wonder still, looking into her eyes; but I did not count them all, for she had as many as there are feathers on a bird, or on the four beasts that honour God's throne, as John wrote in the Apocalypse. Her hair, wavy and curly, shone like burnished gold and she had as many ears and tongues as there are hairs on a beast. And on her feet I saw partridges' wings and lord! the jewels and riches I saw on this goddess!'

The English poet Edmund Spenser wrote a long epic in verse called The Faerie Queen that features a protracted search for a 'goddess'. Spenser was an Elizabethan, probably born in 1552, and he revered the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, although two hundred years divide them. The Faerie Queene is an epic that is full of surprising allusions to our theme. In Book One, for example, a Red Cross Knight is escorting a damsel named Una to her country, where a dragon is terrorising the land. On the way, they meet with Arthur, Prince Arthur, before he has become king. Price Arthur tells them that he has had a dream - it seemed to him to be more than a dream - a woman visited him one night and told him before they parted that she was the Queen of Faerie, of the Otherworld. So now he searches this region for the creature he loves.

They go their separate ways, and Una brings the Red Cross Knight to the house of a holy woman. She is the lady of the house and she has three daughters. The lady greets them; and soon two of her daughters enter. One is dressed in white and carries a golden chalice filled with wine and water in which a snake is curled – 'in her right hand [she] bore a cup of gold... in which a Serpent did himself enfold, that horror made to all, that did behold;'. In her other hand she holds a book, within which, we are told, 'darke things were writ, hard to be vnderstood.'. She is able, we are given to understand, to kill and to raise again to life. The other daughter is dressed in blue and carries a silver anchor upon which she leans. Perhaps the snake is the snake of reincarnation. Perhaps the strange and unlikely anchor is an anchor that keeps us on the Earth; or perhaps it is the anchor belonging to Hope, or perhaps by 'anchor' Spenser means 'ankh', the ancient Egyptian looped cross. Elsewhere in the poem, Spenser leads his heroine Britomatis into a temple of Isis so this possibility cannot be discounted. But be this as it may, Una enquires of the third sister and is told that she is recovering from the pains of childbirth. They visit her; she is dressed in yellow and surrounded by a swarm of suckling offspring, like a goddess of fertility.

The Red Cross Knight is taken to a hermit, to whom, we are told, the sister in white has given the keys to heaven. The sister in white has given him these keys. They climb the highest mountain, the hermit and the Red Cross Knight, and view the new Jerusalem.


'"Lo, Enitharmon, terrible and beautiful in Eternal youth!
"Bow down before her, you her children, and set Jerusalem free."'

William Blake; The Four Zoas, Night the Eighth

Geoffrey Chaucer found himself privileged, if a little perplexed, to see within the House of Fame a goddess whose feet touch the Earth and whose head reaches into heaven. But as we have seen, she is not the first goddess to excite his poetic need. And before arriving at the entrance to this marvellous building he had dreamed that he was in a temple made of glass, a temple of the Roman goddess Venus, upon whose walls were inscribed Virgil's story of Aeneas; including therefore, one must presume, the episode of his descent into the underworld, the fields of Elysium, and the rebirth of souls into the world above. From this temple Chaucer is taken in the claws of an eagle far above the Earth to a region where sounds gather and everything spoken on Earth can be heard. This is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, where Ovid describes a 'House of Rumour', lying 'between the Earth, the sea and the sky, where these three realms meet.' It is in this building that Geoffrey sees his goddess. And the building itself is curious. It is made of a solid piece of beryl - solid crystal - and lies on the top of a high hill made of ice. Why crystal? Why ice? And why was the temple of Venus made of glass?

We have asked this question before - about the crystal cell in which Lancelot was incarcerated by the Lady of Malohaut in the thirteenth century Old French pre-cyclic Lancelot, and also the glass walls and paths of the Isle of Ladies in the fifteenth century Middle English poem.

The conception of the universe in Chaucer's age had not advanced for over fifteen hundred years. In fact, it had on occasions during the early Middle Ages taken some rather large backward steps, but had, by about the thirteenth century, rediscovered the teachings of Aristotle, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century BC. He taught, among many other things, that the Earth was a sphere, lying stationary at the centre of the universe, surrounded by spherical transparent crystal shells which were the homes of the sun, the moon and the planets, and whose movement caused the movements of these celestial bodies. Beyond the outermost spheres, that of the fixed stars and the primum mobile was the abode of the gods - that is, heaven. And from this must surely come the idea of a journey through structures made of crystal. The very nature of the material of Chaucer's Temple of Venus and the House of Fame points to an ascent towards heaven. Does this explain the unlikely construction of the prison into which the Lady of Malohaut incarcerated Sir Lancelot; a prison made of transparent crystal so that he could see out and everybody else could see in? He spent a year behind this transparent wall, then rode out into the world again, in disguise.

A journey to heaven is a journey into the afterlife. Geoffrey Chaucer is taken up in the claws of an eagle, recalling a similar journey taken in the claws of a vulture by the Scandinavian hero Arrow-Odd, who found himself at the end of this journey in Giantland.

When he reaches his lofty destination the eagle tells Geoffrey Chaucer that everything spoken on Earth comes to the House of Fame where it miraculously takes on the form of the person who has uttered it. Here may a name live on, and a person also. When Geoffrey enters this building, he finds Orpheus, the Greek legendary poet Orpheus, whose greatest claim to fame was that he travelled to the underworld in search of his dead wife Eurydice, and returned. Chaucer encounters Circe - Circe, whom Odysseus found on an island, in the epic poem by Homer, an island in a mysterious sea out of which Odysseus could not escape, where she turned his men into pigs. There are 'olde wicches' and 'phitonesses', old witches and oracular priestesses. Is Chaucer doing the same to us here as he did in the forest of the Book of the Duchess? Dropping hints?

Fame has a timeless quality. It spans the ages. Geoffrey moves through a doorway and finds a hall filled with people. And: 'I am not about to describe all the devices that they wore on their coats,' he warns us, 'for I would find it impossible; men might make of them a book twenty feet thick I would estimate! Anyone able to do so could have picked out all the heraldic emblems worn since the birth of chivalry.' All the heraldic emblems. Given Chaucer's conception of chivalry, which includes the classical world as well as the Medieval, almost everybody from history is represented here!

Geoffrey then goes outside where he sees a very curious thing, and to the reader one that appears to be ridiculous at first sight. In fact, it appears ridiculous for a long while, until one realises what Chaucer might mean by it. He sees a house in a valley, somewhere below the House of Fame, a building that turns about and is never still. This house is revolving - it is whirling around. Despite this, Chaucer asks the eagle if it is possible for him to enter, and the eagle replies that only he, the eagle, can get Geoffrey in, since the house is spinning about so much.

Before speculating further on this impossible building, it must be said that, in one way, Geoffrey Chaucer's evocation of a journey upwards from the Earth is startlingly up-to-date. The crystal mountain on which stands the House of Fame is made of ice; in the same way, for example, that the moon is a frozen body. The depths of space are cold. And then there is this curious rotating house. It is made of 'twigges', of osier or wickerwork, 'shapen lyk a cage', and is sixty miles in length! But, most intriguingly, it makes a noise 'as does the whizzing of a stone ball that is released from a siege engine.' This is astounding, and it takes a little reflection to realise that the ever-cautious Geoffrey Chaucer might mean it to represent the Earth. In fact, if this is so, by describing the sound it makes as that of a whirling rock flying in an arc through the air, he comes as close as he can to depicting the Earth as an orbiting planet without being mentioned in the same breath as Copernicus! This whirling object's sounds ascend towards the House of Fame, we are told, where everything from the Earth is heard. The sound it makes is of a stone whirling through the air, but the intrinsic nature of this house is biological. It is made of 'twigges', and it contains, Geoffrey tells us, every person whom Nature has ever conceived. Because of its rapid motion it is impossible for the poet to enter without the eagle's help; but when the eagle does take him in through a window, suddenly - all is still and there is no feeling of motion at all. Just like the surface of the Earth.

But Geoffrey Chaucer was not an astronomer, nor could he see into the future. He was a reader of old books; 'wel oghte us than (then) honouren and beleve these [books]'. In one or more of these 'olde bokes' he may have come across the high point of the old Pythagorean teachings regarding the universe. Aristarchus was the last of the Pythagorean astronomers. Born in 310 BC, he produced a model of the universe in which the sun lay at the centre; a heliocentric system that was not seriously considered again until Copernicus in the sixteenth century AD and not refined into a working model of a 'solar system' until Johan Kepler and Galileo early in the seventeenth century and finally Sir Isaac Newton just before the beginning of the eighteenth.

The planetary model of Aristarchus, however, in which a spinning Earth orbits around a stationary sun, had survived in the fragmentary references of classical authors throughout the Middle Ages and Chaucer, being so widely read, might well have come across it. And if he did choose to allude at the end of The House of Fame to such a model of the universe, it is surely significant.

Perhaps he saw himself as a Pythagorean.

The image of the timeless goddess whom Chaucer sees in the House of Fame was almost certainly inspired by his reading of Ancius Boethius. Boethius, in his book 'The Consolation of Philosophy', was visited by just such a lady, who seemed, like Chaucer's goddess, to be sometimes the size of a normal person, and at other times to grow so large that her head touched the clouds; and when she raised herself even higher she was lost from sight. She was his Muse, Philosophy, and it was her wisdom that consoled him in his need. For Boethius was in exile under house arrest in Pavia, in northern Italy, when he wrote this influential work, sometime around AD 520 - a time when an old warrior might have been listening, in his old age, less than a thousand miles away, to ancient British legends of the times before the Roman conquest, five hundred years before; listening perhaps with a scowl to the pagan religious elements in these heroic stories that would one day absorb and eulogise his own name and era! Boethius, also, was a Christian, but the circumstances in which he wrote - he was soon afterwards executed - seemed to focus his mind and cause him perhaps to temper Christian ideas with pagan. Geoffrey Chaucer translated The Consolation of Philosophy from Latin into Middle English.

There are two ideas contained in Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy that may shed light upon the truly astounding idea we are now seeking confirmation of. The first is the image of the goddess Fortune. Boethius denies the operation of chance in human affairs. All takes place, he believes, in accordance with divine will. The will of God. But he presents a powerful image of the way that the goddess Fortune was seen to work. Since one comes into the world with nothing, he says, anything one acquires can rightfully be withdrawn. Fortune says: 'Yes, ascend upon my wheel if you wish, but don't complain when you begin to fall again, for the two go hand in hand.' If you accept the good times you must accept the bad. A man's life contains both summers and winters. This is the nature of the goddess Fortune. She gives, she takes away. If Fortune turns an unfriendly eye on you for the first time, do not grieve. The world is governed by change.

Very Pythagorean.

The underlying idea is that the ups in life have to be taken with the downs, the rough with the smooth. Life comes as a package and cannot be 'cherry-picked'. In order to enjoy the good times, one must, as Boethius puts it, accept the opportunity of strengthening during troubled times.

There is almost a sense of Newton's third law in it. Action and reaction are equal and opposite. Neither can exist without the other. For every crime there is a victim.

One cannot help but think of the moment in the story of Gologras and Sir Gawain when King Arthur's nephew, riding high on the wheel of Fortune, moves voluntarily to the low seat that Gologras finds himself in. Gawain's victory makes necessary the other's defeat. But Gawain rides on both sides of the wheel simultaneously, and tastes both victory and defeat.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure describes a dream visited upon King Arthur when he has defeated the forces of the 'Emperor' Lucius and the way to Rome lies open to him, just as it did to the Celtic forces in 105 BC. It involves the Wheel of Fortune. King Arthur dreams that he is in a forest full of wild beasts and, anxious to find safety, comes to a meadow full of flowers. Here a lady descends from the sky: 'Then a lady descended from the clouds down into a valley; she was beautifully clothed - a duchess dereworthily dight in diapered weedes... about sho [she] whirled a wheel with her white handes...' On this wheel sit kings, some ascending to greatness, others toppling from it and descending into poverty. One of these monarchs tells King Arthur: '"I was considered in my prime to be one of the finest that wielded a weapon on earth; but I was brought down at the peak of my strength by this maiden so mild that moves us all."' The goddess Fortune has brought him down. The wheel turns.

King Arthur is raised by Fortune to the highest seat on the wheel, he dreams. But after a while the mood of this goddess changes and he in turn is cast down: 'She whirls the wheel about her and whirls me under, til all my quarters that while were squashed all to pieces...'. King Arthur wakes in a panic, knowing that his luck is about to change. And indeed it does. Soon afterwards, word arrives that Mordred has usurped the kingdom and taken Guinevere as his wife, prompting King Arthur's premature and inauspicious return to Britain.

Chaucer, too, invoked a divine female will and it, too, seemed to have a fickle quality. 'Although there is no justice in me...' says Chaucer's goddess with her feet on the Earth and her head in the heavens. But unlike Boethius's goddess Philosophy, Chaucer's goddess has a myriad eyes, recalling statues of the Greek goddess Artemis, whom the Romans knew as Diana.

This leads on to the second idea, that of unity. We have already glimpsed it in the pool of Narcissus; a pool in which everything in a self-contained garden was reflected at a place where only the gazer's reflection ought to be: birds, animals, trees - everything. And here Boethius makes perhaps a startling statement. That that which we call God is the state of perfect happiness, and 'perfect happiness is identical with highest divinity.' Those possessing happiness have done so by achieving unity and possess also divinity, and whoever acquires divinity is necessarily divine. Every happy person is therefore divine, says Boethius, and a part of the unity. And what is the nature of this unity?

It involves eternity, he tells us. And eternity is existence outside of time. All things that exist within the limits of time, even though they have no beginning and will have no end and can therefore be said to be infinite, are still not 'eternal'. They are infinite in duration but not eternal. As Geoffrey Chaucer explains in his own Middle English translation of Boetheus's Latin: 'Thanne thilke thing that suffreth temporal condicioun... - then that thing which exists in time, although it might have had no beginning and might expect to have no end, as Aristotle supposed to be true of the Earth, but might be said to exist for an infinity of time, yet this thing cannot be said to be eternal because this is not what is meant by eternity.

Eternity is that which contains everything simultaneously; everything from its past and everything from its future, a state that possesses the totality of its past and awaits nothing of its future. This is the state of eternity.

So the divinity, of which we are all a part and to whose unity we shall all return, exists in a state in which past, present and future coexist, according to Boethius, whom Geoffrey Chaucer translated from Latin into Middle English and whose thought, therefore, Geoffrey was fully conversant with.

The three Fates were sometimes given the names Past, Present and Future. Clotho, Lakhesis and Atropos. The Moirai. In Anglo-Saxon England, one of these three goddesses, Weird, gave her name to the unfolding of the future. Three in one. Three hags interacting together, like those in Shakespeare's Macbeth, stirring the cauldron of destiny, from which, perhaps, as in the Welsh and Irish tales, the dead emerge again as healthy as the day they were born.

Pulling a thread of destiny - or weaving a cloth of destiny. An Icelandic saga written in the thirteenth century but dealing with events in the tenth describes a vision seen by a Norseman in Caithness on the morning of a battle being played out in Dublin. This man caught sight of twelve women riding up to a house and vanishing inside. Peering through the window of this building, he saw them working at a loom. The warp was weighted with human heads and the threads were of human intestines, beaten into place with a sword. 'The Valkyries weave with their swords drawn,' they sang. 'Let us wind a warlike web... the slain can be chosen only by us... the web is now woven.' They tore the cloth from the loom.

A cloth, of course, contains a single thread, the weft, going backwards and forwards through the warp. Backwards and forwards. A single thread.

Perhaps this might go some way to explaining an otherwise enigmatic tale in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The tale of Balyn and Balan. We have already seen Balyn strike off the head of the Lady of the Lake and give it to his squire to take to his friends, in true Iron Age Celtic fashion. The full story is this: Arthur has only recently established himself as High King over the many smaller kingdoms of Britain, and some petty kings still resist him. He is young, and his conquests lie in the future, as does his marriage to Guinevere. One day a strange woman comes into his court, wearing a sword. She says she has been to the court of King Arthur's enemy, King Royns, but no knight there has been able to remove the sword from its sheath. She asks Arthur to allow her to see if any of his knights can do so. King Arthur himself tries first, but fails, then all the knights of the Round Table in their turn, but to no avail. Just as the damsel is preparing to leave, a former prisoner of King Arthur's, a poor knight, rushes into court and draws the sword easily from its sheath. At this point, the Lady of the Lake arrives unexpectedly, apparently knowing all that has just taken place. She demands Balyn's head, or that of the damsel. The ensuing scene we have already encountered; Balyn responds to this outrageous request by cutting off her own head, earning King Arthur's rage and enmity for shaming his court, and Balyn sends his squire off with the head as a trophy.

By achieving the sword, Balyn becomes known as the Knight with the Two Swords. But he was singled out by the damsel on purpose. The sword carries a curse. Whoever achieves it will kill with it the person he most loves in the world.

But for the moment. Balyn carries the sword defiantly, and sets off to try to make amends for the shame he has brought to King Arthur's court by killing an unarmed woman within it. He resolves to capture King Arthur's enemy, King Royns, and bring him to Arthur's court, which, with the help of his brother Balan, he does; and in the final thread of the tale, now fully reconciled with King Arthur, Balyn sets off to fetch back to court a knight who has been insolent to the King. This knight is killed by a mysterious and invisible hand and Balyn's search for the killer leads him eventually to meet again with his brother Balan. But Balyn is wearing another knight's shield and is mistaken for this knight. And neither is Balan recognised by his brother Balyn. The brothers destroy one another, the curse of the sword is fulfilled and the story ends with them placed in one tomb. The lady of the castle 'let it be mentioned how Balan had been slain at his brother's hands, but she did not know Balyn's name.' Shortly afterwards, Merlin arrives and writes on the tomb: 'Here lies Balyn, the Knight with the Two Swords.'

There is no law which says that brothers cannot be given names which in colloquial English, even of the fifteenth century, would be pronounced as Bal'n and Bal'n. It may well simply be an oversight that when Balyn's one sword is shattered by a blow during a fight in a castle, this 'knyght with the two swerdes' has to rush frantically about the castle looking for a new weapon to use, eventually finding a spear. He is not carrying two swords.

It may be a genuine plotting device that makes Balyn's brother Balan take on a relatively minor role in the story, so we focus only upon the one knight during the combat between them in the closing pages of the story. It may be coincidence that a damsel slays herself beside the body of her lover aiming these words at Balyn with prophetic intensity: 'A! Balyne, two bodyes thou haste slain in one herte (heart), and two hertes in one body...'.

It may simply be through a lack of any real interest that when King Mark asks the brothers to tell him their names: '"Sir," seyde Balan, "ye may se he beryth two swerdis, and thereby ye may calle hym the Knyght with the Two Swerdis."

'And so departed kynge Mark...', satisfied with only the one name.

Some of this is admittedly subtle, but when viewed against Malory's other stories, the hint seems there to be taken; that by Balyn and Balan should be understood one knight, the 'knyght with the two swerdes', the knight with the two sword-arms; two bodies in one heart. And if this is so, then when Balyn kills Balan, he kills himself. 'And with this sword,' he was told by the damsel from whose scabbard he originally drew it, 'you will kill the man you most love in the world.'

It is interesting that in Malory's story of the 'Sankgreal', the Holy Grail, we encounter this same sword, sticking out of a stone in which Merlin set it at the end of the tale of Balyn and Balan. King Arthur invites Gawain to attempt to draw the sword, but Lancelot warns him that if any knight other than the one divinely chosen to draw the sword attempts to do so, it will later be wielded against him. In other words, whoever presumptuously aspires to grip the sword that was once fated to kill the man he most loves in all the world, will find that sword used against himself.

The story of Balyn and Balan unfolds with a believable logic. In a desire to atone for bringing shame upon King Arthur by murdering a woman in his court, Balyn endeavours to bring King Royns, King Arthur's enemy, dead or alive, back to Arthur's court. This, with the help of his brother Balan, he succeeds in doing. He then rides to apprehend a knight who has ignored a direct command from King Arthur, then journeys to avenge the unexpected and unexplained murder of this knight in mysterious circumstances, and finally to escape from an enchanted wasteland that he has caused by maiming the murderer's father. It is at this point that he dons a shield that conceals his identity and, thus disguised, fights to the death with his brother, killing him with the ill-fated sword.

Disguise, as we have seen, is the hallmark of Arthurian romance and legend. And perhaps all we now know will throw a little light on two curious incidents in Malory's tale of Balyn and Balan.

In one of these, Merlin arrives mysteriously beside the tomb that King Mark has made for a knight and a damsel whose deaths Balyn has brought about, during his hunt for King Royns. Merlin prophesies that two knights will fight there. 'And Merlin wrote upon the tomb in letters of gold the names of the knights who would fight there; and they were Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristram.' But why write these names on the tomb? It seems slightly curious. We are given no further explanation.

And later, when Peryne de Mounte Belyarde, a knight who accompanies Balyn on his quest to avenge the murder of the insolent knight, himself lies slain by the same invisible hand, 'Balyn and the hermit buried the knight under a rich stone and a magnificent tomb. And in the morning they found written in letters of gold how Sir Gawain shall avenge his father's death on King Pellinore.' Again, where is the connection between Sir Gawain's father and Peryne de Mounte Belyarde? None is given; it is a non sequitur.

Perhaps it is no coincidence - here we go again - that the killer of Peryne de Mounte Belyarde is eventually transfixed by the very shaft with which he slew the insolent knight, his first victim. Another instance, perhaps, of a man's weapon killing the man he most loves in all the world. Himself. The insolent knight's damsel had carried this 'truncheon' as she accompanied Balyn in his long pursuit, and after mortally wounding the murderous knight with his sword, Balyn asks the damsel for the 'truncheoune'.

'With that troncheon thou slewyste a good knight' says Balyn, 'and now hit stykith in thy body.'

In all this there seems to be a common thread.

Skeins of this yarn seem to weave their way through much of Medieval romance. Perhaps they go some way towards explaining the otherwise inexplicable 'weirdness' of the stories. We have already witnessed Sir Gowther race into a hall and under a table like a hound. He has been given Papal instructions to eat only food that has been in the mouth of a dog; and, of course, if his own mouth is that of a dog...

Later in the story Sir Gowther rides forth disguised as a black knight; he helps the Emperor of Germany to defend his daughter from an invading Sultan and rides out on following days as a red knight and a white knight, offering similar help and assuming these disguises through the help of a little holy 'magic'. It has been suggested, in the light of his penance, that the transition from black to white has some spiritual significance.

This episode of disguise in the story of Sir Gowther, however, is taken directly from a sequence in an earlier romance of the late-twelfth century by an Anglo-Norman author, Hue de Rotelande, in which the hero, Ipomadon, rides forth on the three consecutive days of a tournament first as a white knight, then as a red knight and finally as a black knight, so the original sequence carries no hint of a transition from evil to good. And this is not the only episode in the story of Ipomadon that has been lifted in order to craft a later romance. The tale of the Fair Unknown has as its centrepiece, as we have seen, the journey of a knight from a royal court at which the hero has arrived as a stranger, unexpectedly, and asked to be given the first adventure to present itself. A maiden Elaine soon arrives and asks for help on behalf of her mistress who is under siege in a castle far away. This journey, too, is taken directly from the twelfth century tale of Ipomadon and may hint at the true significance of this earlier romance. Let's take a brief look.

At first, the tale of Ipomadon seems to be a simple 'strive and you will achieve' story. The hero, Ipomadon, is serving at table in his father's royal court where he hears the conversation turn to a young Queen of Calabria who is known as 'the Proud', because she has vowed to marry only the man who has proved himself to be the finest knight in all the world. Ipomadon resolves to travel to her court; he does so and there is accepted by the Queen of Calabria as a courtier. Soon they fall in love with each other although neither chooses to reveal the true extent of their feelings. Ipomadon, however, cannot help but reveal a failing – he has no interest in jousting nor the martial arts; hunting alone occupies his time. One fateful evening an exchange of meaningful glances between them is cut short when the Queen drops a heavy hint that only men who engage in martial pursuits can ever hope to win the love of a beautiful lady. Ipomadon knows the remark is directed at him and in shame, he packs and leaves for home early the next morning.

Ipomadon has been known at court simply as the 'Curious young man' and now the Queen is distraught since she has no inkling of his real name and no idea where she can even begin to look for him. This is the theme which resonates through the rest of the tale. And it ought to be a simple story. Ipomadon reveals the true reason for his sudden departure and his retainer suggests that he learns to fight in tournaments. Ipomadon becomes an invincible warrior and the scene is set for a happy ending when the Queen's uncle declares a tournament at which the winner will be given in matrimony to his niece, 'the Proud' of Calabria. But here the story takes the first of a number of curious turns.

Ipomadon does not travel straight to Calabria but via the court of the King of Sicily, where he becomes the 'Queen's favourite'. From here he travels with the King of Sicily to the tournament where he pretends to go hunting each day while in reality he issues forth as a white knight, then a red knight and finally a black knight, earning glory for himself and proving himself the best knight at each day of fighting. But every evening he flees the tournament field and returns from a secret hideaway in his hunting clothes, to the derision of the Queen's maidens.

Even now the scene is set for him to reveal his identity at last and to marry the lady he loves. But there is more to this story than that. Ipomadon goes away from Calabria leaving 'the Proud' husbandless. He travels from land to land, from tournament to tournament, and in a unique way that has been described earlier in the tale. 'Wherever he came, to any battle, he rode away with the prize. And he grew into such a valiant warrior that no one could withstand a stroke of his sword. But always he was careful to conceal his identity and commanded his men to let no one at all learn who he was nor where they were from. Men could not refer to him in any other way than 'the worthy knight who has no name', both in lands far from Apulia and in lands close to it!'

Possibly, it should come as no surprise then that Ipomadon, on hearing a year after the tournament for her hand in marriage that 'the Proud' is besieged in her castle by a hostile knight who is issuing challenges to single-combat to win her hand - that Ipomadon on hearing this should travel once more to the court of the King of Sicily where he disguises himself now as a fool. Nobody recognises him as the 'Queen's favourite'. It is at this point in the tale that one begins to detect a whiff of similarity with Irish tales of Manannan. From the court of the King of Sicily he journeys to Calabria, disguised as a fool, in the company of the maiden Elaine, fighting a succession of battles with hostile relatives of the knight who is menacing 'the Proud' and anticipating the journey of the Fair Unknown. But the grand finale of the romance is wholly unexpected.

It might have been anticipated that something strange could be in store for us when Ipomadon was given a ring by his mother, a ring to prove his identity to someone who might otherwise not know him and a ring that will magically staunch a wound he will receive in the fight to come. In other romances such a ring has been known to confer to its wearer an invulnerability to death.

We might have anticipated something strange and significant when during the tournament for 'the Proud' in Calabria a parallel competition was played out in which Ipomadon's white hound, then his red hound and finally his black hound received the honours at the hunt. On each occasion, as Ipomadon won the day's fighting at the tournament a similarly-hued animal had won the prize in the forest in which Ipomadon claimed to have spent his day.

And now, as he approaches the castle in which 'the Proud' is besieged, Ipomadon sends his squire to find out how his adversary is armed. On hearing that he is wearing black arms, Ipomadon dons an identical suit of armour. Thus clothed, Ipomadon rides out to hear what the hostile knight has to say.

'Ipomadon was armed identically to Sir Lyoline, from head to toe.

'You, Sir Knight!' exclaimed Sir Lyoline. 'Have you come to fight with me?... You must know that 'the Proud' has loved me for many years and suffers the pain of unrequited passion! Many times has she begged me to have my will of her!'

'I don't believe you! She would rather see you hang!'

'No, my friend. I could have had her long before now, but I want her to hold to her vow, and therefore I have sought to see if there is any man on this Earth valiant enough to defeat me.'

The black knight, Sir Lyoline, has arrived in the story out of the blue. But he speaks words that could easily explain the curious behaviour of Ipomadon, were he in a rare enough mood to be truthful. And at the end of the battle between them, when Ipomadon has defeated his greatest adversary... 'Ipomadon rode into Lyoline's tent and there was no one to challenge him. In the city the people groaned in anguish. Ipomadon took a black banner from the tent and then everybody believed that he was Lyoline!

'He rode to the walls of the city and cried: 'Cease all this delay and get yourself ready, damsel. Now you can see for yourself that Lyoline is invincible! Know that I am he! Tomorrow you shall set off with me for India, for I have killed your knight!'

The reader is left for a while in utter bewilderment.

We will be looking in a moment at a second tale of Chrétien de Troyes', besides the story of the 'Graal', that found its way into the Welsh Mabinogion: 'Owein, or The Countess of the Fountain,' to show how truly endemic this all is. Tales known as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi are contained in the White Book of Rhydderch, dating to about AD 1325, and in the slightly younger Red Book of Hergest. Other stories in Old Welsh that are closely associated with these include 'How Culhwch won Olwen', where we have seen Culhwch enter a land of giants as a body washed in by the waves, and how he then achieved a list of impossible tasks with the aid of his cousin King Arthur. In one of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi we have seen Math turn Gwydion and Gilvethwy into deer, then pigs, and finally wolves, and to bear fawns and cubs and piglets from each other as a punishment for rape. The first of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the story of Pwyll Lord of Dyved, features a similar exchange of identity to that between Gologras and Sir Gawain, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But in the case of Pwyll, the hints are more diverse. Everything occurs in the cycle of a year, the cycle within which spring growth and summer flourishing leads to the death and decay of winter, and rebirth in a new spring. Pwyll meets a fairy knight, a king, in a forest clearing. They exchange identities and for a year, Pwyll lives as this other man in his own, Otherworldly kingdom, unsuspected of being anyone other than the man whose identity he has assumed. Then Pwyll returns, sits on the top of a burial mound, and is soon lured once again into the Otherworld.

The beautiful Rhiannon has summoned him to marry her, although she is betrothed to somebody else, a man named Gwawl. Pwyll and Gwawl exchange roles in the following way: Pwyll sits at the wedding feast only to have Gwawl enter and obtain Rhiannon by trickery. Then a year later - exactly a year later - while Gwawl is sitting at the wedding feast, Pwyll enters and obtains Rhiannon by trickery, distributing Gwawl's wedding gifts to the minstrels as though they were his own. Gwawl is cast into a bag and abused as though he was now a badger.

Rhiannon later gives birth to a son who mysteriously disappears during the night. The maids in attendance make out that Rhiannon has killed her own child, since they fear that if they are thought to be involved, they will be lucky to escape being burned alive. So Rhiannon is accused of infanticide, and the reader waits in trepidation to learn the judgement and sentence that Rhiannon will have to suffer. But the punishment meted out to Rhiannon is for her to stand at a mounting block for seven years and offer to carry all comers on her back!

So here at the summit, we suddenly catch a glimpse of where it all began. And that was astounding enough. That human beings can be reincarnated into animals, and animals, when they die, back into human beings. This was the doctrine of Pythagoras. But we have come into some rarefied realms since then. And here, where we now stand - these are dizzying heights indeed! Is there a unity behind everything we see on Earth! Is this the creed that the druids taught? Were they right? Is it a unity that allows one to look into the eyes of a friend and to see a person that we once were, or will one day become? Should we love our neighbour as ourselves?

Scholars are discovering that the gulf between early Christianity and paganism was not as profound as most of us have been taught. The Celtic Church replaced the druid faith in Ireland without any great trauma. Gnostic Christianity itself was an attempt to import an ancient European pagan tradition into the Jewish quarters of cosmopolitan Alexandria, according to some, but was then hijacked far away in Rome by, dare one say, the less able. But can all the weirdness of the Medieval tales we have been looking at over many chapters now really point to a belief held by the Celtic druids? - a belief they might have inherited from forgotten ages going back to the times of the Neolithic dolmens and standing stones of Britain, Ireland and elsewhere? Is this the meaning of the disguises that Lancelot assumed around the Dolorous Castle? Is this the meaning of the confusion of identity between Ipomadon and Sir Lyoline and the exchange of identity between Gologras and Gawain, and the pretend exchange between Sir Gawain and the lord who owned a castle near the Green Chapel, itself perhaps a Neolithic long barrow? Is this why Tristan was able to return again and again to Isolde? Is this why the falling Irish compatriots of Fionn mac Cumhaill all, incredibly, 'had the look of Diarmuid upon them' as they tumbled out of 'the beautiful Druid tree'! That one should treat one's neighbour as one would wish to be treated oneself? That one should try to love one's enemy?

Perhaps it is no wonder that the Celtic Church was able to capture the hearts of a pagan populace. But in one respect, the Arthurian tales and works of Medieval romance that can trace their origin to twelfth century France alert us to what may have been a fundamental difference between the druids and the monks. And the difficulty in comprehending the magnitude, if not the horror, of a weft (whose individual fibres measure the span of the lives of men and women) threading backwards and forwards through a warp of destiny - a single thread - may explain why the druids liked to keep their faith under wraps. Not for them an eternity in heaven or hell, but an eternity here on Earth. And there was one other difference.

Arthurian story gives many instances of an omnipotent presence, an awareness that seems to know more than it should, and it is often female. On his way towards the Sword Bridge, for example, Lancelot defeats a hostile knight when, from very far off appears a damsel riding hell-for-leather towards him, as though aware telepathically that she is late for an event at which her presence is required. She asks for the defeated knight's head, receives it and rides off again without any further explanation, sending a shiver down the reader's back. Lancelot of the Lake, in the pre-cyclic 'Lancelot', is more than once guided by a damsel of the Lake whom he meets unexpectedly in a forest clearing or on a lonely road, and who seems to know his business intimately. Sir Tristram is guided by similar encounters with strange and itinerant damsels in Sir Thomas Malory's Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones. The unfolding plot, the theatre of events in this Arthurian world, seems choreographed by a force whose messengers are damsels; and not damsels in distress but sturdy and omnipotent representatives who scurry about, helping the action along and seeking knights whose stage appearance is imminent, directing them to the next encounter.

In Malory's Book of Sir Gareth of Orkney, a damsel appears unexpectedly and out of the blue to warn Sir Gareth that, unbeknown to him, he is fighting with his brother, Sir Gawain.

The Middle English poem 'Sir Launfal', based upon a twelfth century Breton tale, describes how the knight Launfal, for ten years steward to King Arthur, is forced to leave court on the occasion of King Arthur's marriage to Guinevere, who takes a dislike to him. He lives in Caerleon for a while, with mounting debts and increasingly ragged clothes, until one day, humiliated by his poverty, he flees to the solitude of the forest where two damsels approach him. Taking him to their Otherworldly mistress, she declares her love for him and they become lovers. She gives him endless riches and he lives in Caerleon now as a wealthy knight, where she visits him often. But during her visits she is never noticed by anybody else. And Launfal must never reveal her to anyone.

Back, now, in favour, Launfal returns to King Arthur's court and is quickly seduced by Guinevere; but in privately rebuffing her advances he reveals to her that he has a secret lover. Instantly, and with no possibility of any normal communication, his fortunes collapse as a result of breaking his vow and he sees his lady no more.

Only when Sir Launfal is threatened with execution does his beautiful lady return, to take him to the Isle of Avalon. Perhaps it is a timeless Avalon, where Ipomadon might find himself reborn as Sir Lyoline. Or Balyn as his brother Balan. Or a deer. Or a wolf.

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