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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



So a pressing task is to look at the Medieval stories of King Arthur that evoke a strange landscape, perhaps ones in which a knight pursues his chosen quest amongst magic springs or Otherworldly castles, or under the watching gaze of giants or prescient maidens, with not a Saxon in sight. We will also soon find ourselves looking far more widely at late Medieval literature in general, and, in particular, at Medieval Romance and even the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. For it will become increasingly clear as we go along that the late Middle Ages, that era which generated such an obsession with the age of King Arthur, was a hotbed of potential heresy; which was perhaps why the Christian Church felt itself obliged to come down upon it so heavily. Pagan authors were highly sought after. Greek and Roman literature was not found to harbour the devil in every page. Memories still lingered. Ancient lore became romantic fiction. Chaucer reflected the spirit of his times not only in his evocation of the Arthurian world in a Canterbury tale by the Wife of Bath, but in his attraction towards the pagan and the feminine in books and in nature. The poet Robert Graves has called the invocation of this feminine principle the 'grand poetic theme'. It quickens the minds of all true poets to the exclusion of everything else, he claims. Chaucer may well have agreed; and so, one feels, might the Celtic druids, who were themselves, among other things, poets. There was no written word of God in the druidic faith, only the spoken word of poets.

But our first step must be to establish the origins of the Arthurian poetry and prose from which all our stories of King Arthur derive. We have already made a start, with the pseudo-historical Alliterative Morte Arthure. The world it presents to us gives hints now and again, whether intentional or not, of the age of Republican Rome. There is, as we shall see, another important Arthurian romance that does this. But how on Earth could such ancient times as these have found expression in poems composed in the thirteenth and fourteenth century?

Since the possibility seems to exist that the symphony of Arthurian tales contains within it one or two musical themes, perhaps, we may even find, an entire movement or two, of truly ancient pedigree, it must be asked where these stories of King Arthur, as we have them today, actually originated. The first written records of Arthur can be found in Welsh poetry that, although surviving today only in manuscripts dating to the fourteenth and fifteenth century, originate possibly as far back as the seventh or eighth century AD. These allude to an Arthur who is entirely mythological in nature and whose legends were already well-established when the poems were written. In the ninth century, the monk Nennius introduces a historical Arthur which, in 1136, the Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth builds upon. But the first coherent mythological tales set in an Arthurian world occur as five long narrative poems composed by a Frenchman named Chrétien de Troyes.

Chrétien de Troyes was associated with the court of Henri the Liberal, Count of Champagne. Writing in the mid- to late-twelfth century, only a few decades after Geoffrey of Monmouth had exercised his pen, there is evidence that Chrétien de Troyes spent time in Champagne and also at the court of King Henry II of England. At these, and other French-speaking royal and baronial courts, 'jongleurs' or conteurs from Brittany were popular entertainers. In particular, it is known that the Breton lais of a 'Marie' of France were popular in England, and it is certain that Chrétien de Troyes would have come into contact with these and other, similar tales of Celtic origin at the courts of England and France. It is widely believed that this material formed a basis for many of the themes which pervade the five Arthurian romances he composed, including that of the Grail. These Arthurian verse romances are not pseudo-historical, like Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae or the Alliterative Morte Arthure, but unashamedly mythical. Chrétien's tales, and many of those in Old French, Middle English and many other Medieval European languages that were inspired by them, can be shown to have themes that may be directly borrowed from story elements that are found in Irish mythological tales. So how is it that legends of an ancient British mythological folk hero could have been maintained most significantly in north-west France? Time for a final plunge into history!

In Roman Britain, the south-west of what is now England was not as wholly absorbed into Romano-British culture as was much of the rest of modern England and Wales. Romano-Celtic Britain accommodated the Roman pantheon, often, it must be assumed, adjusting their own Celtic beliefs accordingly, and numerous religious ideas from the east also found their way into the Roman province of Britannia, culminating in the new state religion of Rome, Christianity, near the end of the fourth century AD. As a relative backwater, the south-west, Devon and Cornwall, might therefore be likely to have retained the old beliefs in a less Romanised form than in other parts of central and southern Britain. This conjecture gains some support from a story of the life of Saint Samson, in a near-contemporary biography of the saint whose existence is independently recorded for around the year AD 560. Saint Samson is depicted remonstrating with a large gathering on a Cornish hilltop in summer, a crowd that scholars have interpreted as a celebration of the pagan festival of Lughnasa, the feast day of the Celtic god Lug.

Wales, on the whole, at least near the coast, appears to have been every bit as 'Romanised' as the rest of central and southern Britain during the Roman occupation. Wales as a separate nation did not exist; it was a part of the Roman province of Britannia. The lowland regions were well served with roads, and the Roman ports were active. Christianity in Wales developed alongside that in the rest of southern Britain and by around AD 600 was widespread and well-established. However, in Britain west of Exeter, there is no sign of any proper extension of the system of Roman roads, suggesting that at least pockets of the region may not have been fully integrated into Roman culture; and more significantly, the area seems also to have lagged behind as regards the development and popularity of Christianity.

Near the end of the sixth century, the south-west was isolated from the rest of Christian Britain by the advancing Saxon kingdoms. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae ('History of the Kings of Britain') describes an exodus from Britain into the Armorican Peninsula, into Brittany. During the mid-sixth century, conflict between British kingdoms, rather than Saxon advances, may have driven the kingdom that included the area of Devon and Cornwall into defeat, prompting an exodus. The king of this region in AD 540, Cunomorus, according to Gregory, bishop of Tours, spent a great deal of his time administering his lands in Brittany. The victorious kingdom in this instance would have been Christian. By the late-six century a stronghold at Tintagel is associated with Christian burials nearby. The exodus that Geoffrey of Monmouth describes was much earlier even than this, but linguistic evidence suggests that, surprisingly perhaps for Geoffrey's 'history', just such a migration did in fact take place at some time during this period. Not only is the Breton language closely related to Cornish, but a more detailed linguistic study points to a first wave migrating into Brittany from a population west of Dorset and a second wave from an even more narrowly-defined region centred on Cornwall. It is possible, perhaps probable, then, that such an early Cornish migration would have been of a still largely pagan population. If this was the case, it becomes less difficult to understand why ancient British mythic material might have reached the court of King Henry II of England most clearly via Brittany. It is possible that an unbroken line of tradition stretches from Iron Age Britain via a Cornwall that contained areas that were only sparsely disturbed during the Roman occupation, into a Brittany that carefully protected much of its cultural heritage (as displaced communities often do) in the face of early Medieval Christendom, and that stories whose origins lie in the mists of north-west European prehistory found their way into the courts of King Henry II and the Count of Champagne by way of Breton conteurs in the late twelfth century AD.

A flavour of some of these tales can be obtained from the Breton lais of Marie de France. These stories were committed to writing between 1150 and 1170 and come down to us in a thirteenth century manuscript that now lies in the British Library. And it is important to look at these since we know that they are Breton. It then remains to show that these Breton themes occur also in the Arthurian tales of the same period. The link will then be complete.

There is a Breton story recorded by Marie de France a scene from which we have already looked at in the Introduction. One that may deal, in fact, with life after death. A young knight is wounded by an arrow in rather curious circumstances, the arrow having rebounded from the head of a deer. Sending for help, this knight wanders through the forest until he comes to a plain. 'A distant mountain fed a stream that ran down to a harbour, and in the harbour was a single ship lying as though ready to sail. Approaching this ship, Guigemar saw that it was made of ebony; it was black, and the sail was of silk.' On board is a bed, 'very richly made and adorned with drapes and covers of silk and gold thread. As to the pillow, anyone who lay his head on it would not get any older, and that is the truth!' In great pain from his wound, he lies for a while on this mysterious bed and when he rises again, he can see that there is still nobody on board but himself, and worryingly, the vessel is already underway. Near evening, this mysterious boat makes land at a castle.

Here Guigemar finds a lady whose husband is 'a jealous old man with white hair who kept his young wife incarcerated behind the stonework of his castle. She was of high birth, noble, courteous and wise, but was allowed no contact with the people of her city; instead she was forced to live her days behind a wall of marble'. Guigemar sails into her private harbour, is befriended by this lady and soon they become lovers. She heals him of his wound but after the passage of more than a year, the inevitable happens. The old man, her husband, angry and distraught at what he has been told, 'had the door to her rooms forced open by three armed men, and there he found Guigemar. He ordered that the knight be slain.' Soon, Guigemar is forced to board this mysterious boat once again and to lie upon its bed for a second time.

This bed makes an appearance in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur: a strange boat, a vessel draped with red silk, draws up against the banks of the river Humber. 'Sir Tristram went aboard the vessel. And on deck he saw a magnificent bed, covered in fine drapery, and thereupon lay a dead knight who was fully armed except for his head, which bore the terrible injuries that had obviously killed him.' In this knight's hand is clasped a letter that explains the circumstances of his death.

And there is an obvious parallel here with the death of King Arthur. In an Old French prose epic called La Mort le Roi Artu (The Death of King Arthur), written in the thirteenth century, and upon which Sir Thomas Malory, in the fifteenth century, based the ending to his own Arthurian epic, the King lies mortally wounded after the battle with Mordred, with only Girflet as companion. Having finally persuaded Girflet to throw the sword Excalibur into a nearby lake, and being told of the wondrous hand that rose from the water to catch it, Arthur dismisses his companion. Girflet rides to a hilltop and sees a boat filled with women coming towards the shore. When the vessel has approached as closely as it can to the beach near to where King Arthur lies, the women call to the King. His own sister, Morgan, is amongst them, her hand held by the lady of the vessel who urges King Arthur to wade over and climb aboard. Girflet gallops back to the shore, but the boat is already a good distance out into the water when he arrives. Girflet knows that he has lost the King. He dismounts in anguish and weeps upon the sand.

A few days later, having retraced some of the route inland towards the battlefield, Girflet finds Arthur's tomb. Inscribed upon it are the words: 'Here lies King Arthur, the courageous, conqueror of twelve kingdoms.' The hermit of this chapel tells Girflet that the body was brought by some ladies he did not recognise.

Sir Thomas Malory, however, incorporates into his version of the story a widespread belief that Arthur will one day return. Girflet has become Bedivere, and when 'Bedivere took the King upon his back and carried him to the water's edge, there was floating there a little barge with many beautiful ladies in it.' Arthur calls to Bedivere as he departs: 'Comfort yourself, and do the best you can. I can no longer help you, for I must go into the vale of Avalon to be healed.' Bedivere finds the chapel and the fresh tomb that Girflet found, but 'yet the ermyte knew nat in sertayne... yet the hermit knew not for certain that it was the body of King Arthur... And some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead but was taken, by the will of our Lord Jesus into another place; and men say that he shall return, and he shall win the Holy Cross. Yet I cannot say that this will happen; rather, I would say that here, in this world, he changed his life – but rather I wolde sey: here in thys worlde he chaunged hys lyff. And many men say that there is written upon the tomb – HERE LIES ARTHUR: THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING.

In another Breton lay of Marie de France, found in the thirteenth century manuscript lying in the British Library, the knight Lanval, on trial at the court of King Arthur for alleged seduction of Queen Guinevere, is rescued from a possible death sentence by his Otherworldly lady. 'She took him to Avalon, so we are told by the Bretons, to an island of great beauty, and nothing more has been heard about him.'

The depiction of death as a journey in a boat is a well-known European motif, particularly in Scandinavia, but by no means confined to this region. As early as 1000 BC, graves are found in Sweden in which stones are piled up around the burial, or cremation, in the shape of a boat. On engraved gold and ivory seals used to imprint a pictorial signature into warm wax in the Bronze Age Minoan culture of Crete, dating to before 1500 BC, a female presence is often depicted in a boat carrying a shrine. Euripides, an Athenian playwright of the fifth century BC, gives to a lady who is facing imminent death the vision of: 'a double-oared boat, I can see it there on the lake! Charon the ferryman is calling me, urging me to embark!' The Sutton Hoo ship burial in seventh century East Anglia, the Gokstad ship at Vestfed in Oslo Fjord, in which King Olaf Geirstada-Alf was buried, and cemeteries such as one at Badelunda on the shore of Lake Mälär in Sweden, where grave monuments are found in the shape of boats, all bear witness to the widespread nature of this analogy and its deep meaning among the pagan Europeans. So to find it both in a twelfth century Breton lay and in an Arthurian setting is encouraging. And there are similarities in these Breton lais also that resonate with the mythological world of pagan Ireland.

In one story in particular, called Yonec, a young lady is married to an old man who is both wealthy and jealous, and who keeps her prisoner in his castle, locked in so that she cannot escape. One day a hawk flies in through the window of her bedroom and after a while, the bird turns into a young knight. He is an Otherworld being, and she can summon him at will. She passes many joyful months, calling her lover to her whenever her husband is away, until her new-found happiness is noticed and suspicions are aroused. The young lady is spied upon and knowledge of the means by which her visitor enters her room is conveyed to her husband. He has sharp spikes set into the window and when the hawk next comes, it is mortally wounded by them. In grief at her lover's injuries, the young woman escapes through a window and follows a trail of blood that leads into a hillside, through an earthy darkness and out into an Otherworld of beautiful meadows and solid silver towers. The trail of blood leads to a wonderful building where she finds her knight. He is dying, but gives her a sword to keep for the child of his that she carries in her womb, and, urging her to depart, she obediently retraces her steps back through the side of the hill and out into the world again.

Compare this with the following story of Ilbrec of Ess Ruadh, from ancient Irish and West Highland legend of the time of Fionn mac Cumhaill published by Lady Gregory in 1904. Caoilte, an Irish warrior of the Fianna, the battalion of warrior champions in pagan Ireland, meets one of his former comrades who now lives beneath a hill, with the ancient fairy population known as the Sidhe (pronounced 'Shee'). This young man nostalgically recalls his time with the Fianna, and invites Caoilte into the hill of Ilbrec, as night is coming on.

Here, Caoilte is told how for the past year a nightly visitant in the shape of a great bird has wreaked havoc in their dwelling.

The bird comes again that night, and all the spears that can be cast fall only upon the people who have thrown them. Caoilte at last makes a cast of his spear and kills the ravaging bird. The people of the hill celebrate with feasting and when the bird's avengers are defeated in the morning, Caoilte takes his leave.

A long time afterwards, Caoilte is wounded badly with a poisoned spear, and goes again into the hill of Ilbrec, now in search of healing. Once again he helps to defend the hill against its enemies, casting stones at a flock of birds to drive them away. 'And there is something else we would like you to do for us,' they said. 'Every year three ravens come flying from the north when our youngsters are playing their games upon the field, and each of these birds carries one of the lads away. And these games are due to be played again tomorrow.'

Caoilte destroys the ravens and receives his healing; and then with much lamentation from those inside the hill, almost as though he is being mourned at his wake, he re-emerges again into the world of men.

In both these stories, the Breton and the Irish, there is a clear sense in which the world inside the hill, the world from which the Otherworld beings emerge in order to interact with men and women, is a world of animals. The hawk becomes a knight in the Breton tale, and when he is wounded, the young woman follows him into the side of a hill and out into his own kingdom. When Caoilte, in the Irish tale, goes into the side of the hill, he encounters not only his fallen comrade but enemies that are often birds; birds that would not normally trouble humans.

In a number of places in this book it will be seen stated that such and such a tale is found in Lady Gregory's compilation of Gaelic stories and legends from Ireland and the West Highlands of Scotland, published in the first decade of the twentieth century. Lady Augusta Gregory researched surviving Irish manuscripts and translated and collected together folk tales and stories that lay scattered at the time in Gaelic academic periodicals, themselves transcribed and printed from manuscript copies dating to the fourteenth and even as far back as the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Her work also took note of more recent visits to cottages in Gaelic-speaking Ireland, where the stories told around the peat fires were found to be identical in kind to those recorded in the Medieval Gaelic manuscripts. Many of these stories tell of the adventures of Fionn mac Cumhaill.

The world that Fionn inhabits is that of pagan Ireland. His adventures take place ostensibly at the time of Cormac mac Art, High King of Ireland in the third century AD. His son Oisin, in extreme longevity and old age, meets with Saint Patrick – and in another version of the tradition Saint Patrick meets with Caoilte, whom we have just followed into the side of a hill to do battle with the birds, in Caoilte's extreme old age. There are some beautiful lines recounting this clash of cultures. Other Irish tales are set in the pagan bardic landscape of Cú Chulaind and Queen Maev and recount tales of famous cattle raids reputed to have taken place at about the time of Christ. But as W B Yeats observes in his introduction to Lady Gregory's volume, the world of Fionn mac Cumhaill seems older even than that of Cú Chulaind and Queen Maev. The geographical distribution of the stories of Fionn, too, suggest that they are older than the tales of Cú Chulaind, whose exploits are celebrated only in Ireland, and only in the bardic literature, not in folk-memory. Perhaps it is no small hint that the dolmens and cromlechs of the Neolithic landscape of Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland are known as 'beds of Diarmuid and Grania', recalling one of the most moving and, as the reader will find later, one of the most revealing episodes in these stories of Fionn. But overlain upon this age is the anxiety of the ninth century AD, when the shores of Ireland were under attack from the sea. The Viking age. Fionn's adventures, like those of King Arthur, capture a flavour of many of the ages through which they have passed, but are rooted in the very features of the landscape itself.

Irish tales are replete with people who take human form but who are also able to cast themselves into the shapes of animals. These are often the Tuatha de Danaan - the Sidhe, the people beneath the hills. The member of the Sidhe may take on the appearance of a deer or a fawn, as when Fionn, the heroic leader of the Fianna, chases a fawn up a mountainside until the animal vanishes, only to reappear as the daughter of Cuilinn the Smith who dwells in a fairy mound nearby; she has lured Fionn away from his comrades and vents her anger upon him before plunging into the depths of a lake.

And one time in a mound by the river Boyne, an ancient burial mound, the warrior Fionn of the Fianna and Angus Og of the Tuatha de Danaan were feasting together with their men, and a drunken argument led to a test of skill at hunting in which many of Fionn's men were killed and many of Angus's boars were slain; and Fionn went back to Angus Og to exact revenge for the killings: but 'Oh Fionn,' said Angus, 'what a great sorrow and a great cause of lamentation it is to me, the loss of my own flesh and blood. For that black pig that appeared before you during the hunt, and that you killed with your spear, was no ordinary pig but my own dear son!'

And in Arthurian legend, as told by Sir Thomas Malory in his Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones, a part of his epic Le Morte d'Arthur – when a woman loved a certain king: 'by her magic art she made him chase a deer, all by himself, until it led him to an old castle, and there he was taken prisoner by this lady who loved him.'

We can see from this that parallels exist between the Arthurian tradition and the pagan tales of Ireland. The academic scholar Roger Sherman Loomis, as long ago as the first half of the twentieth century, has demonstrated many more. The hart that this knight chases is almost certainly a creature of the same kind that often leads Fionn and other members of the pagan Irish warrior class into a hill of the Sidhe and a night of revelry within its earthen confines. In the Arthurian cycle, King Mark of Cornwall is led by a deer to a cave, or in a Middle English version, to an 'erthe hous', inside which he sees Tristan and Isolde lying together on a bed of marble as though dead, and yet alive. And the Breton knight Lanval is taken to Avalon by his Otherworldly lady. With this intermingling within the old tales of Brittany of pagan Irish mythical elements and the Arthurian world, tales that were popular in the courts of twelfth century England and France, it is time to take a closer look at some more Medieval Arthurian tales. One is a story that Chrétien de Troyes composed, drawing from material circulated by itinerant Breton minstrels and with the encouragement of his patron, Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine the wife of King Henry II of England, in the 1170s. Another is from Sir Thomas Malory's collection. But all include within them a motif that is a hallmark of tales of this kind. And a motif that will be seen to have more and more significance as this book unfolds. You will undoubtedly be able to spot what it is.


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