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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



One can choose almost any book of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur at random and find within it the evocation of a slightly unreal world, in fact in many of the stories a hugely unreal world! The landscape in which most of his tales unfold possesses a strange aura of mystery seemingly unconnected with any recent departure of the Romans or hostile Saxon encroachment. 'The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney That Was Called Bewmaynes' for example. This is a tale that tells of a young man who arrives at King Arthur's court, accompanied by a dwarf and by two knights who have to prop him up. He cannot give his name, asks for a year's maintenance and lives for this time as a 'kychyn knave' sleeping with the 'kychen boyes'. Then at the end of the year he is knighted and rides off towards a series of knightly encounters on the way to rescue a maiden whose castle is under siege. This kitchen knave has turned out to be Sir Gawain's brother, Gareth. Sir Gawain was present at King Arthur's court for the entire year of Gareth's stay, and spoke to the 'knave' on more than one occasion, but never once seemed to recognise him as his brother!

On his way towards the damsel's besieged castle, Gareth arrives at the domain of the Black Knight - or to give him his full title, the Knight of the Black Woodland Clearings. Gareth and the maiden who is guiding him, the besieged damsel's sister, 'came to a clearing where grew a black hawthorn tree on which hung a shield, and beside it a black spear, and nearby was a black stone and a great black horse upon which sat a knight all armed in black.' Sir Gareth is obliged to fight with this knight in single combat, and when he defeats him he dresses himself in the dead knight's armour and rides off on his black horse, disguised as the man he has slain. Perhaps surprisingly, the armour seems to fit him perfectly. Shortly afterwards, Sir Gareth encounters a Green Knight riding a green horse. 'Is that my brother the Black Knight you have brought with you?' he asks the maiden guiding Sir Gareth. And on receiving a truthful answer, this knight goes to a green horn hanging upon a thorn tree and blows three times, summoning two damsels who arm him with a green shield and a green spear. Single combat ensues in which Sir Gareth, of course, is victorious.

The story continues with Gareth eventually reaching the besieged damsel's castle, having defeated two other brothers, a Red Knight and a Blue Knight, on the way. He lifts the siege by single combat with a Red Knight of the Red Woodland Clearings, Sir Ironside, who then becomes Gareth's man, vowing allegiance to him and abandoning his war with the damsel, in true Celtic fashion. Not surprisingly perhaps for a romance, Sir Gareth and the maiden he has rescued soon fall in love with each other. Wishing to consummate their love in her brother's castle, and having no scruples against doing so, the only impediment to their passion turns out to be the damsel's sister, the one who came looking for help at King Arthur's hall and who guided Gareth to the besieged castle. She sends an armed man to the bed where Gareth and her sister lie. Sir Gareth receives a fearsome wound in the thigh but cuts off the intruder's head. The affronted sister uses a magic ointment to restore the man to life and sends an armed man against Gareth a few days later, when her sister lies once more in Gareth's bed. Sir Gareth's wound opens again, but he beheads this knight also, cuts the head into little pieces and throws them out of the window into the castle ditch! But the sister is once again able to restore the man to life. We then learn that the castle lies on the Isle of Avalon.

A tournament is announced, between King Arthur's knights and the Red, Green and Blue Knight, and all their retainers, whom Sir Gareth defeated during his journey to the maiden's castle and whose allegiance he now holds, and also the Red Knight of the Red Woodland Clearings, whom Sir Gareth defeated at the maiden's Castle, and his five hundred knights. But curiously, and for no apparent reason, Sir Gareth is concerned that nobody should reveal his name at this tournament. He wishes to go in disguise. His wound has healed, with the help of the magic ointment, and he issues forth from Avalon, where a magic ointment can restore the dead, wearing a ring whose virtue is this: that '...everything that is green will change to red and everything red will turn to green, and everything that is blue will turn to white and everything white will turn blue; and in this way,' he declares, 'my appearance will continually change and my identity will be concealed.' This trinket is curiously similar to other magic rings that appear in Arthurian story, and which often confer upon the wearer an invulnerability to death. And indeed, it is a property of this ring that: '...who that beryth this rynge shall lose no bloode.'

Sir Gareth engages knight after knight in battle at the tournament, and: '...when the King of Ireland saw Sir Gareth fare so, he marvelled who this knight could be; for at one time he seemed green, and another time blue. And thus at every course that he rode, too and fro, he changed from white to red and black...'

Nowhere in this story is there any hint of a land besieged by Saxons. There are hints, however, that strange and curious things can occur in forest clearings, in just the same way that Julius Caesar, in his history of the Roman campaigns he led in Gaul in the middle of the first century BC, tells that 'the leading men [of Gaul] arranged meetings at secluded spots in the woods' before the rebellion of Vercingetorix; perhaps the same woods of oak and mistletoe that Pliny the Elder describes the Gallic druids frequenting in the first century AD. We are confronted by a knight who seems to have a pathological desire not to be recognised. And again we are introduced to this curious place, Avalon.

One of the earliest tales we possess set in this, possibly figurative Arthurian landscape – one of the earliest mythological tales to reach us of the world of King Arthur – was written in the 1170s by a Frenchman named Chrétien de Troyes. He was a man who may have known Marie de France personally, a man steeped in the legends and tales transmitted by Breton minstrels and poets and whose work flourished through the encouragement of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of King Henry II of England, and her daughter Marie de Champaigne, – in tales evoking a world of Breton myth and perhaps reaching back to an age in which Britain was infused by the belief that the souls of men are immortal, and that after a period of time would enter into another body.

Chrétien de Troyes' long poem The Knight of the Cart appears to contain meaning hidden behind the outward form of events. The story is this: a knight arrives at King Arthur's court to remind the king that many of his subjects are held captive in his land. 'And be in no doubt that you will die before you are able to rescue them.'

The king replies that he has no other choice but to accept this since he can do nothing about it, although this saddens him greatly.

This does not sound like the King Arthur who defeated a Roman army in Geoffrey of Monmouth's account! But we are now in mythological territory and a possibility must now exist that these captives lie in a land that is truly beyond King Arthur's reach; a land beyond the grave.

Events conspire such that Queen Guinevere and Sir Kay ride off to meet with this knight in the forest, and 'everyone who was there with King Arthur and who witnessed this, grieved as though the queen was already lying in her coffin.' Shortly, Sir Gawain and the king stir themselves from a passive acceptance of events and follow in hot pursuit. Near the forest they come across Kay's horse emerging from the trees riderless, with bloodstains on the saddle. Of the queen, there is no trace.

Out of the forest comes an unknown knight on an exhausted horse, who begs Sir Gawain for one of the two fresh horses he is leading. Gawain lets him choose one and follows him into the forest, in pursuit of the queen. When Gawain finally catches up with this unknown knight, he finds him on foot – the fresh horse has already been killed from under him – chasing after a horse-drawn cart being driven by a dwarf. 'Dwarf!' cries this unknown knight, 'In God's name, have you seen my lady the queen come this way?'

'Get into this cart, and by tomorrow you will understand exactly what has happened to her,' replies the dwarf, darkly. Such carts, we have already been told, were used primarily in those days to transport condemned men; and when the cart carrying this unknown knight arrives at a town, everyone asks: 'What means of execution will be used against this knight? Will he be hanged or flogged, drowned or burned to death?'

We discover the answer to this question very shortly. While staying the night in a richly-furnished hall, the bed on which the unknown knight lies becomes the target for a burning javelin that is hurled from a wall into the centre of the mattress. The unknown knight has been executed by impaling and by fire.

Early in the morning, and, miraculously, only slightly injured by this encounter with the spear, the unknown knight, who is later revealed to be Sir Lancelot, sees from a window the body of an unknown knight being taken for burial.

In the procession is Queen Guinevere. Lancelot and Gawain rush to put on their armour and follow in pursuit of the funeral cortege. However, they find, in true dream-sequence fashion, that they are unable to overtake the crowd; it is moving too quickly for them and they soon find themselves on a forest track which they follow for much of the morning until they meet up with a girl. She tells them that the queen has been taken off to a land from which no stranger to it ever returns. On further questioning, she tells them that there are only two ways into this curious land, both of them fraught with dire peril. One crosses into it via a Sword Bridge, and the other via an Underwater Bridge. Lancelot agrees that Gawain should choose one of the routes and that he will take the other.

So they split up, and soon afterwards, Lancelot meets with another girl, and not the only other one he will meet on his journey to the Sword Bridge. It is as though Chrétien is trying to hammer something home to us. Lancelot is pursuing Queen Guinevere and finding only a succession of girls. The girl offers to give him lodgings for the night, as it is getting dark, provided that he agrees to sleep with her. Lancelot reluctantly accepts these terms, but the damsel can see that his heart lies with the queen and so releases him from his promise. Perhaps she is testing his loyalty. The next day, as she accompanies him on his journey, a very curious incident occurs.

Seeing that they are approaching a stone beside a spring – one of many stones beside many springs in Arthurian legend – this girl tries to guide Lancelot away from the path, but he will have none of it. They regain the track and ride on together until they near the stone and see a comb lying upon it. 'This comb belongs to Queen Guinevere,' the girl informs Lancelot, as though she has known all along what was lying there. But how does she know this? Chrétien does not tell us. And upon learning that the hair in the comb is Queen Guinevere's, Lancelot nearly falls out of his saddle in a faint. The girl dismounts and runs as quickly as she can to help him. Lancelot is ashamed and asks why she is so concerned for his welfare.

'Do not imagine that this girl will reveal the truth,' Chrétien tells us, enigmatically, and reveals nothing further. The girl insists upon Lancelot giving her the comb. She is adamant. One cannot help getting the impression that it might be her own. Lancelot gives her the comb but not without first removing some of the hair to wear next to his heart. Lancelot 'would be very upset were he to learn the truth,' we are told.

A little further on, Lancelot and the girl encounter a knight who challenges Lancelot to hand the damsel over to him. Riding to a meadow where there is room for them to joust and where the knight's father happens to be standing with a large entourage, the belligerent young knight is treated disrespectfully by his father, who is clearly on Lancelot's side. The son is prevented from fighting and, humiliated by his father, has to watch Lancelot claim the victory.

Shortly afterwards, the girl leaves Lancelot and he continues his long journey to the Sword Bridge alone. Lancelot's pursuit of Guinevere leads him to a strange encounter with another damsel, and when he finally reaches the Sword Bridge, he finds that it is indeed a perilous crossing. There are hints that lions lie on the other side. He is warned that he could no more cross this bridge than 'a man could climb again into his mother's womb and be born for a second time.' But Lancelot manages to cross this bridge quite successfully. On the far side, he meets with the knight who arrived at King Arthur's court and who took Queen Guinevere away. He is the son of King Bademagu. They prepare to fight one another for Queen Guinevere, but this man's father, the King, is no less opposed to his son than was the father of the knight who faced Lancelot in the meadow. Notwithstanding this, the fight takes place, but is stopped by the king, who intervenes and gives Lancelot the victory. There is a clear parallel with the fight in the meadow. But here, in the land beyond the Sword Bridge, Lancelot fights for Queen Guinevere. In the meadow, he fought for a girl who felt a strange affinity with Queen Guinevere's comb. Is the poet again trying to reinforce a link between the two?

Despite the fact that Lancelot has just defeated King Bademagu's son, Meleagant, in single combat for Queen Guinevere, in the Queen's presence, so effecting her release from captivity, Guinevere seems curiously displeased when Lancelot comes to see her afterwards. She will not even speak to him. Later, she brushes this off as a joke! This is patently absurd. So what could be the real reason? Another is offered by Guinevere a little later in the poem and is no less absurd. It is because Lancelot hesitated for a moment before stepping into the cart on the way to rescue her. What could be the reason for this ridiculous rebuff? Could she be hinting at something else? This is what she actually says: 'Did you not feel shame when you were confronted by the cart?' she asks. 'Did you not feel fear – were you not frightened by the cart?' She clearly knows everything about an incident at which she was not present. Or perhaps she can guess. 'By hesitating for an instant you demonstrated a great reluctance to climb onto it. This, to tell the truth, is the reason why I didn't wish to speak with you.'

Perhaps Guinevere was hesitant to see Sir Lancelot for the same reason that Lancelot hesitated before stepping into the cart. It was a cart for a condemned man. Guinevere was frightened. For it is reasonable to assume that a journey from King Bademagu's land back to King Arthur's court will entail a re-crossing of one of the only routes into and out of this land, the Sword Bridge or the Underwater Bridge. It seems perfectly logical to imagine and to fear, perhaps with Guinevere, that this must be the case. When Lancelot is later captured on his way to meet Gawain at the Underwater Bridge and false news of his death reaches Guinevere, she mourns for two days until it is thought that she is dead. When Lancelot learns the false news of Guinevere's death, he almost succeeds in hanging himself with his belt. Their symbolic deaths have been enacted. Yet it is also true that, as a result of Lancelot's overcoming of Meleagant, King Arthur's people are now free to leave. The perilous bridges seem to have vanished. A new paradigm has kicked in; one in which the land of King Bademagu has become a part of the real world and access between it and King Arthur's court is the same as between any two normal kingdoms. Having been released by Lancelot, Queen Guinevere and the captive people of King Arthur's land are now free to leave, as is the custom. A few days later, Queen Guinevere, Sir Gawain and Sir Kay all return quite normally from King Bademagu's castle back to King Arthur's court.

But while the arrival back at court of Queen Guinevere and the others is celebrated by King Arthur, Lancelot has been thrown into prison under the orders of Meleagant. Here, Lancelot learns of a tournament at which the Queen will be present and, desperate to attend, begs the wife of Meleagant's seneschal to allow him to go, under oath that he will promise to return to his prison immediately afterwards. She concedes and lends to Lancelot her husband's armour, sword, lance and steed. All at the tournament are intrigued by this unknown knight bearing a red shield. Lancelot is at first invincible; but then, under instructions conveyed secretly to him by Queen Guinevere, he acts as a cowardly incompetent. Finally he is invincible again and rides off before anyone but the queen has any inkling who he is. Or in other words, Lancelot reappears from the land of the dead with a new identity and, at least for a while, a new character.

But as we have already noticed, a strange transformation has come over the land from which no stranger returns, the land of the dead. Gone is the Sword Bridge and the Underwater Bridge which were the only crossings into this perilous land. When Meleagant leaves King Arthur's court, where he had gone to reissue a challenge to Lancelot, knowing full well that he would not be there, he rides off to find his father and reaches him easily because 'at this particular time [King Bademagu] was presiding over a festival in his capital city of Bath.' And when Meleagant's sister, who is also now at King Arthur's court, suspects the truth and rides off on a mule in search of Lancelot's place of imprisonment, she travels 'across valleys, over ridges, up and down,' until she comes across the tower in which Lancelot is incarcerated. Her search, although long, is through a wholly natural terrain and does not entail the crossing of any strange bridges. The land of the dead is now very much united with the land of the living. Bath is its capital city!

So the land of the dead, which began as a sinister place beyond two perilous bridges, has become a benign corner of King Arthur's own high kingdom. The subjects of King Arthur, who had been taken to 'the land from which no stranger returns' – a land whose entry necessitated, for Lancelot, a journey in a condemned prisoner's cart, a brush with a lethal javelin, the pursuit of his own funeral cortège and the crossing of a Sword Bridge (as though these hints are not enough) – these people are then found to be alive and well and living in Bath! Is this really what is intended? And is there any significance in the fact that when Lancelot returns to King Arthur's land, he does so in disguise, just as Sir Gareth travelled from Avalon to a tournament, in disguise?

Chrétien de Troyes' The Knight of the Cart, then, is possibly not the Christian romance that many of us might have expected. Roger Sherman Loomis, that eminent American scholar, pointed to the Otherworldly nature of the land beyond the Sword Bridge in this tale, in a book published as long ago as 1927. He saw in the land from which no stranger returns another manifestation of the abode of the Irish god Manannan, an Irish mythological influence that can, he argued, be found in many other Arthurian romances. But he was of the opinion that these tales are essentially incoherent, a random scattering of themes based upon Celtic motifs and adventures drawn from Irish and Welsh mythology in which the true meaning has been all but lost. Modern scholarly opinion concurs with this by and large, that the exotic in Medieval Romance was put there simply for decoration and effect. Some of it undoubtedly was. But we have seen that the tale of The Knight of the Cart may, in fact, be a superb example of a sustained metaphor, a playing out of complex ideas in figurative form by an accomplished poet. Perhaps this is true of other Arthurian stories as well. We will see. But it cannot be denied that on the surface of most Medieval Arthurian stories, and of Medieval Romance in general, there is a thick patina of piety that attempts to hide what is really underneath. But why this concealment? Why is there, for example, such a liberal sprinkling throughout the text of The Knight of the Cart of exclamations such as: 'Lancelot swore by Holy Church...' 'swore to me by the saints above...' 'as God is your salvation...' 'I swear to you that with the aid of the Apostle Paul...' 'May God never have mercy upon me...' 'In the name of God...' 'if it pleases God...' 'As God is my witness...' 'to God and to you alone I give thanks...'

The stories have been given a thick veneer of Christianity, but when the surface is scratched through, timber of antique European oak is revealed. This must be borne in mind later when we come to look at the Grail legend. A master poet and storyteller like Chrétien de Troyes was concerned with transmitting old and powerful material, but he had to do so in a way that would not put his liberty in danger; particularly from the bishops, abbots and clerics who would undoubtedly have been present from time to time at the courts of King Henry II of England and the Count of Champagne and all over the Angevin lands. He was composing and, perhaps, reciting his work, after all, only a generation before the Albigensian crusade against the heretics of southern France, in which men, women and children were put to the sword and the flames by the thousands in the name of God. Jerusalem was shortly to fall to the infidel. In 1233, King Louis IX of France was to organise the Inquisition and hand it over to the Dominican friars, with the backing of the Pope and with the support of the royal armoury. Heretics were tortured and killed by the dozens in Burgundy and Champagne. Could it be a clue to the wider existence of such poetic leanings that Geoffrey Chaucer, in the late fourteenth century, felt obliged to write to his friend Bukton, urging caution: 'God grant you your life to live freely, for it is unpleasant to be imprisoned.' We shall briefly explore such possibilities in the next chapter. Imprisonment was the penalty for heresy in England at that time.

The late Middle Ages was a time of general rediscovery of pagan material, not only of Breton lais but of classical Roman and Greek learning. And it was a time when the Catholic establishment smelt heresy in the air.

Some authors may have gone to extraordinary lengths to disguise their work. In one of the manuscripts in Old Welsh that have come down to us from late-Medieval times, the very-late-fourteenth century Red Book of Hergest, there are two poems that may have been deliberately made to read like nonsense because their lines were shuffled together like playing cards. This was Robert Graves' theory, expounded in his book The White Goddess. When teased out, he argued, when the order of the lines is reconstructed and the riddles solved, these poems record a religious conflict that took place in the first millennium BC. Whether or not this is true, Robert Graves believed that these two Old Welsh poems had been deliberately confused, their lines shuffled and their meaning obscured, in order to record them without attracting the attentions of the Church. He suggested that at the heart of the dispute lay the idea of a female deity, a Triple Goddess. In the words of Virgil: 'Hecate of three manifestations, who, as Diana, is the maiden of the trinity', and whose worship was once widespread over the whole of Europe. Robert Graves believed that the true poetic theme – and he was himself a poet, one of the four principal 'war poets' of the Great War – the urge that drives all true poets to their poetry, is a sense of female deity, a Muse who, in the guise of Venus, Hera, Gaia, Diana, Artemis, Hecate, Brigid, Isis, Cerridwen, Epona or Arianrhod, was once the principal deity of the ancient western world.

Perhaps, before plunging more fully into the marvellous world of Medieval Arthurian legend, as we will do shortly, it is worth looking for evidence for the wider exploration of this theme in the Middle Ages, and in the work of a true poet of the late-fourteenth century, a poet who knew the popular Arthurian stories of his age, in which knights, like Sir Lancelot, and like Sir Gareth, are not slow to risk laying down their lives for a lady; one who may himself have known all the arts of metaphor and concealment, and one who knew how to look for a goddess.

A brief look at the work of Geoffrey Chaucer may help to enlarge our understanding of the wider ripples of poetic thought that were building once again in the late Middle Ages; hints and allusions that might guide us further in our quest for the true nature of druidic belief that may, miraculously, have come down to us across a gulf of over two thousand years.


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