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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

John Donne (1573-1631), quoted by Ernest Hemingway in his novel 'For Whom the Bell Tolls'.

The King Arthur of Medieval legend is a king who rules over lesser kings: King Ryon, King Urien, King Bademagu of Bath, King Pellinor, the King of Orkney, the King of Benwick, the King of 'Northe Galys', the King of a Hundred Knights, King Yder, King Cadiolan, King Amanguin, the First Conquered King, the King of the Outer Isles, King Lac; the list could go on. Perhaps King Arthur ruled his kingdom in the way that the High King of Ireland, in his palace at Tara, presided over the lesser kings of 'Connacht', Munster, Leinster and Ulster in the Old Irish tales, or perhaps in the way that some Gallic tribes held sway over other, less powerful Celtic tribes in the first century BC. And at the edges of King Arthur's extended Celtic Empire is sometimes a shadowy and powerful presence, like that of Rome in the pre-cyclic 'Lancelot' and in the Alliterative Morte Arthure; an advancing and threatening Rome, a Rome seeking tribute and plotting conquest, not a Rome beset by barbarians and struggling to retain its possessions. The stage upon which the mythical Arthurian characters play their part seems to resonate more strongly with the druidic world of the Celtic Iron Age.

Perhaps the king of a Celtic tribe in Britain became High King over a great empire of Celtic tribal kingdoms. This, after all, was the natural state of affairs in the Celtic lands. Tribe subjugated tribe and High Kings were placed over kings. Julius Caesar, in his description of the wars he fought in Gaul in 58-51 BC, explains that the tribe of Suessiones, in the Paris basin, 'had been ruled within living memory by Diviciacus, the most powerful king in Gaul, who had controlled not only a large part of the Belgic country, but Britain as well.' Perhaps the king of a Celtic tribe in Britain became High King over the Teutoni, Cimbri and Helvetii, who swept all before them and subjugated the tribes of Gaul for a number of years before threatening Rome itself. These tribes did indeed conquer Gaul over the space of a few years near the close of the second century BC, as is made plain by Julius Caesar in his account of his own Gallic wars of half a century later. The tribe of Cimbri may have had links with Scandinavia, which is precisely the direction in which Geoffrey of Monmouth has King Arthur expanding his empire before turning his attention to Gaul.

But whatever the dubious merits of trying to fit the myths of King Arthur into a specific period of history, Geoffrey of Monmouth's account spawned a welter of tales and legends whose roots lay in Brittany, and to King Arthur became attached myths and stories that must have lingered from an even more distant age; legends and tales of brave warriors and giants, battles to win a maiden's inheritance, omniscient damsels, combat and disguise, the transportation of bluestones from far in the west, tales which in Cornwall and perhaps in other pockets of Britain survived the Roman occupation and were later accreted, along with the antique world they described, onto a warrior of Romano-British ancestry, perhaps a Christian, Arthur, whose exploits in the fifth century AD were chronicled briefly by Nennius in the eight century AD and borrowed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth in order to set the ball rolling. So from Brittany to the courts of King Henry II of England and Henri the Liberal, Count of Champagne, and thence, ultimately, to the pen of Sir Thomas Malory, the printing press of William Caxton, and to the modern world.

Should it come as any surprise if we find elements in the tales that come down to us from this age that seem to resonate with a belief in reincarnation, albeit in an unexpected and challenging way? Roman authors make it clear that the Celtic nations held a belief in reincarnation. But may it once have been the druidic belief that one can be reborn into a world whose unfolding events one may already have experienced before? Might this incredible proposition explain the necessity of the waters of forgetfulness? The river Lethe that Virgil showed us. Well, there is a work of Chrétien de Troyes we have only so far taken a brief look at and which, in these closing pages, we ought to look at more closely. Written only a few years before the Conte du Graal, the Story of the Grail, and possibly at the same time that he was composing The Knight of the Cart, 'The Knight of the Lion', who is Sir Yvain, rides to a place where a pine tree grows beside a pool and a chapel. A very similar place, in fact, to the temple of Uppsala, a pagan sanctuary in Sweden where men were sacrificed (or criminals executed?) by hanging, until as late as the eleventh century AD. Adam of Bremen described this temple overhung by a great evergreen tree close to a well in which men were drowned as sacrifices to the gods. But the ambience at Yvain's spring seems to be more ancient still. Sir Yvain approaches the well and, having earlier been instructed in the necessary procedure by a knight at King Arthur's court, proceeds to pour water from the pool onto a stone. Immediately, rain descends in torrents, the winds howl, and a Black Knight rides towards him, seeking battle.

Sir James George Frazer, an eminent anthropologist, wrote an entire collection of volumes entitled 'The Golden Bough' to discuss the presence outside ancient Rome of a 'Priest of Nemi'. He sought to explain why this priest, in his retreat beside a mountain lake and a wood dedicated to the goddess Diana, had to fight anyone who could seize a golden bough of a sacred tree; and why this intruder, if he managed to take this bough and subsequently kill the 'priest', would then take over his office and become the Priest of Nemi himself. It was an institution that was ancient even in classical times. J G Frazer was able to peel back layers of myth and primitive belief to reveal a King of the Wood who was spouse or lover to the goddess who presided over the nearby lake and forest. Frazer discussed the primitive belief that such sacred kings were expected to be able to control rainfall, and how their continuing physical fitness for such high office had often to be tested. But most importantly for our purposes, he traced the institution of the Priest of Nemi back to ancient, prehistoric Latium.

Before following Sir Yvain's startling adventures, it should be said that this is not the only instance of such an antique setting in Arthurian legend. Sir Gareth of Orkney, in Malory's account, as we have seen, approaches a place where hang the bodies of knights defeated by the Knight of the Red Launds - the Red Forest Clearings. '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 the horn and make himself ready to do battle.'

Girflet, destined to be the last man to see King Arthur alive, was knighted at the age of fifteen in order to avenge a knight slain beside a spring, and so he 'rode a grete walop tylle he com to the fountayne.' On a tree hung a shield, which Girflet beat with the butt of his spear to attract attention. The Knight of the Fountain was 'kynge Pellynore'.

And in the pre-cyclic 'Lancelot', Sir Gawain and four companions approach a valley where there is a spring with a lone pine tree growing beside it. Here they find a knight who exchanges his own shield for another one hanging on the tree before jousting with each of Sir Gawain's companions in turn. In another part of this romance, Lancelot is led away from a path because it is dangerous to continue upon it; but insisting that his guide pays no heed to this danger, he is taken to a 'block of stone beside a beautiful spring.' Nearby, in a pavilion, is a knight guarding a damsel, a knight who is accustomed to fighting all comers. The knight will not fight Lancelot, however, but instead, eludes him. In pursuit, Lancelot comes to a place where a damsel is held prisoner beneath a sycamore tree in a meadow on an island in the middle of a lake. She is guarded by two knights.

So Sir Yvain's arrival at the spring is, thus, both a motif that is repeated elsewhere in Medieval Arthurian stories and one that may take us back again to the deepest layers of the myth of Arthur; layers from which giants, matriarchy and female omniscience may all derive. Yvain, the hero of the story, journeys to a place where a large pine tree stands beside a spring. By this spring is a stone and a bowl, and by pouring water from the spring onto the stone, rain falls in torrents and a Black Knight comes seeking battle. When Yvain defeats the Black Knight, he marries the Lady of the Fountain and is expected in turn to defend her spring against all comers. Yvain therefore becomes a sort of Priest of Nemi, defending an institution that seemed ancient and inexplicable even in the days of classical Rome. And the theme of matriarchy persists.

But there is one final thing to say before exploring this revealing if enigmatic tale. There is a Middle English poem in the Auchinleck Manuscript - a manuscript that may once have been owned by Geoffrey Chaucer - which if nothing else may serve to highlight the antiquity of this story even further. And it may allow us to understand some perplexing months or years that Sir Yvain spent wandering naked in a forest.

The tale of Sir Orfeo is a Breton lai in which the eponymous hero is Orpheus, who in the classical tale told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, travelled into the underworld to try to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead. Sir Orfeo presides over a Medieval court, and when his wife is abducted from an orchard by a fairy king, the King of the Underworld, Orfeo wishes himself dead and flees into the forest where he lives like an animal for ten years. 'He who has had food in plenty, meat and drink of the finest quality, now has to root about all day in order to find enough to live on. In the summer he lives on wild berries and fruit... in winter there is only the bark of trees and roots with which to eke out an existence...'

In this forest Sir Orfeo one day comes across 'sixty ladies riding on horseback, happy and courteous with not a man among them!' A woodland of ladies. Amongst these ladies he finds his own Eurydice, but he is prevented from speaking to her so he resolves to follow them. 'In at a rock the ladies rode, and he followed them without any pause... When he was in the roche y-go, wele thre mile other mo [or more], he com into a fair cuntray, as bright so [as the] sonne on somers day... It is an Otherworld, and here he 'looked about and saw lying there many people who had been brought in because they were thought to be dead, but they were not. Some were headless, some had no arms and others had horrific wounds to their bodies. Some were bound like madmen, some had choked to death, others had been drowned or burned.' By the skill of his harping he is able to liberate his wife and they return together to Winchester. 'To Winchester he is come, that was his own city; but no man knew that it was he.'

Having become the Knight of the Fountain, Sir Yvain defends the spring against the forces of King Arthur when the King makes a journey to the place with his entire Round Table. But in the ensuing feasting and entertainment, Sir Gawain, who is one of Sir Yvain's greatest friends, persuades him to abandon his lady and to travel the world with him seeking glory in tournament and joust. Sir Yvain receives his lady's blessing and leaves with Sir Gawain; but he must be away for only a year. He must return within the year. The terms his lady has given him are binding.

Sir Yvain forgets about his promise, spends the following Midsummer's Eve with King Arthur, and the Lady of the Fountain rejects him for desertion. When informed of this by a damsel sent to fetch back a ring given to him by the lady - a ring which confers invulnerability to death - he goes mad and runs into the forest where nobody can find him. One gains the impression that he spends a long time in this forest. He hunts wild animals and eats their flesh raw. When first encountering a hermit's hut he is already tormented with hunger, and once he and the hermit have established a reciprocal relationship regarding food provision - he hunting game and the hermit baking bread and cooking the game - 'this was the life he led from thenceforth.' Perhaps, like Sir Orfeo and like Malory's Sir Tristram, he will wander naked in the forest and when at last he returns he will not be recognised by his friends. Should we expect this? A Middle English version makes explicit what is at least hinted at in Chrétien's story: 'This life led he ful fele yere [for many years] and sethen [afterwards] he wroght als ye sal here [made out as you shall hear].' That he spends if not many years then at least a great many months in this forest is definitely the impression one gets when reading, or listening to, the poem by Chrétien de Troyes.

Sir Yvain is eventually found in this dreadful condition by the Lady of Norison who gives her damsel some ointment to rub on his temples, to relieve his madness. But Yvain is not mad, and so it should come as no surprise that the damsel, instead, uses all the ointment to rub over Yvain's entire body, to the displeasure of her mistress. But this revives him in just the way that the ointment of another damsel revived the men whom Sir Gareth beheaded in the castle in Avalon.

Yvain remains with his hostess and rescuer until his strength is fully recovered and then one day an enemy of the Lady of Norison approaches. Back on his feet now, Sir Yvain defends the Lady of Norison against this hostile Count and receives an offer of marriage for his pains. He refuses, rides off, rescues a lion who subsequently befriends him, and taking upon himself a new name, a new name, the 'Knight of the Lion', travels for nearly a fortnight, we are told, with this beast until finding himself back at the magic spring and the stone.

Soon afterwards Sir Yvain encounters a giant. Defeating this giant, he frees Sir Gawain's niece and four of his nephews from dire peril. The young men wish to travel to King Arthur's court to bring news of this marvellous rescue to their uncle: 'But who shall we say has rescued us?' they ask. 'Greet Sir Gawain on my behalf and tell him that he is well acquainted with me, as I am with him, although he will not recognise me,' replies Yvain. Although he will not recognise me! It actually says this! '...I must also beg you to tell him for me that he knows me well and I him, though he would not recognise me.' Why will Sir Gawain not recognise him?

Perhaps Sir Yvain has spent so long in the forest, and so many years have passed, that nobody will recognise him. But, as subsequent events will show, both Sir Yvain and Sir Gawain are still in their prime, still agile warriors and besides, we are soon told, and it will soon become integral to the plot, and its very jarring dislocation and ridiculousness will surely underline its significance, that only a month or so has passed since Sir Yvain's initial flight into the forest. A month! Something odd is going on. And knowing Chrétien as we now do, it is very unlikely to be bad storytelling. Perhaps it is another of those mythological moments, those moments that are intended to jar, and one whose significance may lie at the very heart of this story.

Sir Yvain proceeds very quickly to rescue a maiden who is about to be burnt at the stake. Along comes Sir Yvain, fresh from defeating the giant, past the pine tree and the spring that he knows so well to where his wife and a crowd of people have gathered to watch the execution. But nobody at all recognises him! This is astounding! After rescuing the damsel, whom he had found imprisoned in the chapel beside the spring only the day before, Yvain speaks with the damsel's lady, his own wife! She asks: 'For God's sake, Sir, how can it be that we have never seen you before or heard of you even?' But Sir Yvain is happy that nobody recognises him and he will not reveal his identity.

But something very peculiar is going on. The damsel who was about to be burnt at the stake was a maiden who helped Sir Yvain immediately following his fight at the spring with the old Knight of the Fountain. She tells Sir Yvain that when he failed to return home after the year had expired, she was seized and accused of treason for the part she had played in bringing about his marriage to her lady. With impetuous courage, she had offered to find a champion to defend her rights and accepted the usual forty days in which to find one. The forty days were about to expire when Sir Yvain had arrived just now, in the nick of time. But are we to believe that so much has happened in only forty days! Sir Yvain's flight into the forest, his life as a derelict, his convalescence at the castle of the Lady of Norison, his journey with the lion, which alone took a fortnight! Could this jar be intentional? We know that Chrétien is no fool! In fact, we know him to be a brilliant poet! So this is, we can surmise, intentional.

The scene is set for the climax of the story. Two sisters squabble over a kingdom left to them by their father. The older sister is intent upon disinheriting the younger. The younger threatens to go to King Arthur's court to find a champion to uphold her rights in a trial by combat. In the ensuing scramble towards King Arthur's court, the older sister arrives first and enlists the help of Sir Gawain, who has just returned from the adventure of 'The Knight of the Cart', we are told. The younger sister arrives at the very moment that news of Sir Yvain's victory over the giant comes to court in the shape of Sir Gawain's niece and nephews. 'My lord Gawain's nephews greeted their uncle in the name of the Knight of the Lion, and his niece explained how he had rescued them all from peril, and how Sir Gawain knew this knight very well, although he would not recognise him.'

The younger sister resolves to set out to find this 'Knight of the Lion', to champion her in her dispute against her older sibling. King Arthur gives her forty days to do so, as is the custom. And on the final day she returns with Sir Yvain. But for some strange reason, which is not properly explained but which might have something to do with his having recently returned from 'the land from which no stranger returns', Sir Gawain has gone into hiding and arrives for the combat, 'equipped in such a way that even those who had always known him could not recognise him by the armour he wore.' He and Sir Yvain are led into the centre of a courtyard where a crowd gathers to watch the combat. But: 'Those who were to fight did not recognise each other at all, though they had always loved one another.'

The fight is long and hard, and only at the very end, when they are both utterly exhausted, is the truth revealed and an emotional reconciliation made. The younger sister is given her inheritance.

But Chrétien has one final twist to the tale. Sir Yvain becomes distraught again at the loss of his beautiful wife, the Lady of the Fountain, and so he travels once more to the spring beside the pine tree and throws water incessantly at the stone, causing all sorts of atmospheric turmoil and disruption. From the safety of her castle, the Lady of the Fountain discusses this predicament with her damsel, the one whom the Knight of the Lion rescued. She advises her lady that they should seek the knight who defeated the giant and who rescued her from the stake - they should seek this knight to fight with the intruder at the spring. And so the damsel goes off to find Sir Yvain, who is after all, presumably, still the Knight of the Fountain and should ride to engage this intruder. Of course, she finds Sir Yvain at the Fountain, but the paradox has been placed before us, and it remains, nagging away in the mind, as the tale ends happily with Sir Yvain at last reconciled with his lady. Sir Yvain has not, thank goodness, been forced to fight with himself, but even so, the seeming necessity lingers and will not go away.

It may now be possible to explain the significance of the rebounding arrow in the tale of Guigemar - remember? the scene in the twelfth century Breton 'lai' that we looked at in the Introduction in which Guigemar goes hunting, shoots an arrow at a deer and is himself impaled by the projectile. For Marie de France to have put such a seemingly unlikely event (at least it reads like an unlikely event) in a prominent position in her story should alert us to the possibility that it might be there for a purpose, just like Sir Yvain's inability to be recognised; it could be intended as an integral part of the deeper meaning of the story.

Where we left the 'lai' when we visited it last, Guigemar had just been discovered in the castle of the lady who had healed him of his wound. He had been forced to re-embark upon his mysterious boat once more. Two revealing scenes that ensue might throw some light into the deeper recesses of this tale. But for the light to penetrate one must be able to unfocus one's mind a little, in the same way, perhaps, that one has to unfocus the eyes to make one of those colourful kaleidoscopic messes on paper suddenly become a three-dimensional image. And a vital clue is that right at the beginning of the tale, when he is still hardly more than a youth, we are told that Guigemar had one fault and one alone - he could not fall in love: 'Nature had done him one disservice, and one only - he could find no inclination at all to fall in love.'

So Guigemar goes out hunting, shoots the arrow, is wounded himself, finds the mysterious boat, journeys to the castle of the lady with whom he falls in love, is discovered by her husband and is forced to set off once more in the boat. The lady herself then encounters this same vessel: 'It was all so easy. She walked down to the harbour and there she found the boat, right where she intended to throw herself into the water. On it was a bed draped with silk and at its prow were two candelabra with lighted candles. She went aboard, telling herself that it was in this place that Guigemar had drowned. The ship set sail, although there was nobody aboard but her, and at length it came to a harbour beneath a castle in Brittany.'

Guigemar and the lady have already exchanged tokens; she a knot in his shirt that only she can undo, he a buckle around her waist that only he can unclasp. When Guigemar arrives back in Brittany: '[He] landed and came almost at once upon a young squire, who was leading a horse. Greeting this young man, whom he knew very well, Guigemar mounted the spare house and the two rode off together. It seemed that many years had passed since he had left, and he was now the lord of his land. Everybody was delighted to see him return from his trip in good health. But Guigemar remained unable to fall in love. There was great pressure on him to take a wife. But he refused to consider any lady who was not able to untie the knot in his shirt without tearing or cutting it. A great many beautiful women tried, but none were able to.'

Guigemar remained unable to fall in love. And the reason, we know, is that he has been searching for the woman who can untie the knot in his shirt. And his landing back in Brittany seems to have been peculiarly soft.

Unfocus the mind a little. When Guigemar shot the arrow at the deer, he was shooting an arrow at himself. He died of the wound, embarked upon a journey to a place where he was healed of his injury and returned to a world where he waited for a lady he had fallen in love with in another place. He went hunting, oblivious to the significance of his kills, became a lord in Brittany and only at a gathering in a local castle one evening is reunited with the lady he has been searching for since he was a child.

This 'lai' has a happy ending.

There is an Irish tale that ends in a similarly intriguing way to Chrétien de Troyes' story of Sir Yvain. The Voyage of Maeldun is found in the early-twelfth century Gaelic 'Book of the Dun Cow'. It bears similarities to the voyage of Saint Brendan. In fact, the legend of the voyage of Saint Brendan was probably an attempted Christianisation of this tale and that of the Voyage of Bran. In the tale of the Voyage of Maeldun, the oldest of its kind that we possess, Maeldun learns that his father was murdered before he was born and sets sail to avenge himself upon his father's murderers. But a storm blows up as he approaches their island and he is blown into a strange ocean. Perhaps he is drowned, because he then sails around this enchanted sea of Manannan just like Bran, and Saint Brendan, encountering many strange and Otherworldly islands. Some of these we have visited already. An Island of Apples. An Island of Women. An island with a glass bridge that leads into the castle of a lady who has a pail with the property that anyone served from this vessel will find in it that which he most desires; in other words, the Grail. There are many islands where giants roam. There are some most peculiar and unlikely places, such as an island full of sheep tended by a 'big man' where a fence divides the black sheep from the white, and whenever the big man puts a black sheep amongst the white it turns white, and whenever he puts a white sheep amongst the black it becomes black. And they encounter a sea of mist where they float as though among the clouds looking down onto a world below. And in another part of the sea, a great silver column thrusts towards the sky, from whose distant summit a net is cast by an unknown hand. But eventually, after encounters with countless islands, or perhaps after countless incarnations, Maeldun arrives back at the island he initially set out to find:

'As night fell they saw on the horizon a land that looked as though it might at last be Ireland, and on an offshore isle they beached their boat and went ashore. On this island lived the men who had killed Maeldun's father. At a door of the fortress they overheard the following conversation:

'What will we do if Maeldun comes?'

'That Maeldun has been drowned.'

'If he should come,' said a third, 'we should welcome him with food and hospitality, for he will have been through a great deal.' Then came a banging on the door. Maeldun hammered on the door.

'Who is it?' shouted the gatekeeper. 'Maeldun,' came the reply. And he was received warmly, and given fine new clothes to wear; and he and his companions sat at the table and ate, and afterwards they spoke of the wonders they had seen.'

Strange behaviour, perhaps, for a man who was intent upon revenge. Maeldun does not seem to be the man he once was. And we know why. 'That Maeldun has been drowned.' Besides, forgiveness is considered, rightly, to be one of the greatest of Christian virtues, but might it not be easier to forgive when it is acknowledged that it is we ourselves, however many times removed, whom we are being asked to forgive?

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. Given the poetic images of Manannan and Lug and the often human shapes assumed by other members of the Tuatha de Danaan, such as their physician Diancecht, Midhir the Proud, Bodb Dearg and Goibniu the Smith, it cannot have been the human form which amused him. Perhaps it was that the Greeks believed in gods at all.

Manannan, the 'god' Manannan, as we have seen, roamed about Ireland taking on different forms, now a minstrel, now a warrior, now a conjurer, now a fool. The Welsh Manawydan was a hunter, then a saddler, then a cobbler, then a shield-maker and then a farmer. Lug, whom the Romans considered to be the principal god of the Celts and whom they equated with Mercury, was, like Manawydan, a master of all trades. And Woden, the Anglo-Saxon god, shared Manannan's attributes as master of the runes and conductor of souls to a land of the dead. Woden was an ancestor. Like King Arthur, he was once a man. Like Lancelot, he came back from the dead, from the world tree; perhaps, like Lancelot, again and again.

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.

Perhaps he returned in the same way as William Langland in the fourteenth century religious allegory Piers Ploughman.

'"Old Age has visited me!"' cried William, the cleric whom some considered to be mad. '"Avenge me, Nature, if you will, for I long to escape him." "If you want to be avenged," said Nature, "go into Unity, and stay there until I send for you. And before you come out again, see that you learn some occupation."'


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