Archive for the ‘King Arthur’ Tag

Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part One   2 comments

[Updated 2 January 2019]

cropped-yakushima_forest_1024x7683With this post, A Druid Way marks its 4th anniversary — I started this blog on October 7, 2011.

I’m also committing to at least a weekly post each Wednesday. A hearty thank-you to you, readers of A Druid Way, for your encouragement and support over the past months and years!

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[Related Post: Arthur]

[Sex, Death, Etc.: Part One | Part Two| Part Three | Part Four]

This post and the next one pick up the theme of Arthurian myth and legend from the previous one. The “Matter of Britain” as it’s often called is an inexhaustible well of inspiration, of course. This time, however, I want to transition from King Arthur to his nephew Gawain and the Green Knight (and the Middle English poem by the same name), to the mysterious Lady that Gawain also encounters in between his meetings with her husband Bertilak, and more largely to the peculiar and delicious Medieval blend of Paganism and Christianity that surfaces in their story.

So what do we do until Arthur returns?

In the Arthurian peace and flowering of Britain which underlies much of the initial formation of the legend, the focus shifts from Arthur to his court, and more particularly to his knights and ladies, who leave Camelot to set off on their own adventures. A pattern to consider: first, achievement; but then, further exploration and spiritual challenge. Or the opposite — after a few iterations, it amounts to the same thing.

Round Table and vision of the Grail, from an illustrated manuscript, ca 1470, by Evrard d'Espinques.

Round Table and vision of the Grail, from an illustrated manuscript, ca 1470, by Evrard d’Espinques.

After all, once Arthur wins through to his throne, marries, and begins to assemble his court, he himself can seem less interesting (at least until time whirls round again to the Battle of Camlann, his final and fatal engagement with his bastard son Mordred). So singers and storytellers started to look for adventure elsewhere, with knights inspired by Arthur’s example and by the fellowship of the Round Table. King and Queen on the throne, or knight on a noble/ hopeless/ mysterious/ romantic quest — it’s easy to see where the greatest dramatic potential lies.

The Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight sets forth one version of the story in 600-year-old English. The language is intermittently still quite comprehensible to us moderns, if you make some allowances for spelling (I’ve done very minimal editing):

Astrid Briges Frisbee as an archetypical young Guinevere in King arthur 2014

Astrid Berges Frisbey as an archetypical young Guinevere in the upcoming (2016) film Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur.

“This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse” and “was cummen with knyghtes into the halle.” And there Guinevere rules beside him as queen, a Guinevere as yet untouched by the scandal of any affair with Lancelot, “full gay, graythed [arrayed] in the midst” of the noble gathering. And a more lovely lady, “sooth [truly] might no man say.” Here then are the archetypes, before they decline into stereotypes. Here are the originals, magical king and beautiful queen. Part of their appeal is to our own psyches, to the beauty and power we instinctively know both genders possess — or could possess, if only …

The story setting is the three-part holiday of Christmas — New Year’s — Epiphany, the ancient tradition — and ultimate source of the song — of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Midwinter, birth of the Son, rebirth of the sun, the new year at hand. The Court’s right in the middle of its fortnight of feasting. Shortly, it’s New Year’s Day. And as such gatherings and festivals and holidays so often do, this revel has already begun to spin off its own local customs. After all, when does your family open presents on a gift-giving holiday? And what rituals have you perhaps built around it? Or if not you, a relative or friend?

Not surprisingly, in Camelot it’s Arthur himself who starts it, ritualizing the festivities. “The kyng wold not ete til al were served.” It’s a gesture wholly in keeping with the holiday season of generosity and joy. And the king extends the ceremonial atmosphere still further, also refusing to eat before he hears a story: “he wold never ete upon such a dere [dear, special] day ere him devysed were of sum adventurus thyng an uncouthe tale …” Or until someone challenges one of his knights “to joyne with him in joustyng, in jeopardy to lay … life for life …”

And things Medieval and magical being what they are, if you’re Arthur — if you recognize and live from the throne of your spiritual sovereignty — sometimes the “uncouthe tales,” marvelous stories previously unknown — come to you.

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The Green Knight, William O’Connor, 1996

Right in the midst, then, of all the noble knights and fair ladies, heaping platters and heavily laden tables, sprightly servants and bold banners, talk and revelry, the Green Knight suddenly barges in on horseback. For a moment he just sits his mount, framed by the main door, towering over everyone. The perfect Medieval photo op.

Huge and red-eyed and green is he indeed: “for wonder of his hue men had.” Likewise “his strayt cote” and “his hood bothe” and on his legs “hose of that same grene.” A marvel! The hair on his head, “the barres of his belt and other blythe stones,” even the steed he rides, “a grene hors grete and thikke” — everything’s green! In one hand he holds a branch of holly; in the other, an enormous axe.

Then he spurs into the great hall. “Where’s the governor of this gang?” he demands, haughtily. “To knightes he cast his eye.” For an instant — no surprise — silence greets him. “Each mon had marvel what it might mean” that man and horse both shone “grene as the grass, and grener it seemed.”

Green Man, Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany, ca 1300s

Green Man, Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany, ca 1300s

Green can be  unseely — Northern dialect for “unlucky, unholy.” Corpses and cheeses rot to green, metals like bronze corrode, swamps give off their ghostly phosphorence, moss and weed, creeping vines and algae, all overtake things each in their green fashion. Even the Devil himself gets rendered in green in more than one Medieval painting.

With modern commerce and ecology, green is almost wholly a good thing — not so in Medieval times. It represented a mixed bag of lust and youth (we can still be green with envy, too; and an untried youth is still sometimes called a “greenhorn”), nature and fertility, and early versions of the Green Man beloved of Pagans. Another post on this blog, about Beltane, also treats of greenness in some detail.

[Most clearly, perhaps, we see and hear and feel this enchanting but deeply ambiguous green in Dylan Thomas‘s wonderfully Bardic poem “Fern Hill” : “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green” and later “I was green and carefree” and later still “And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman” and “it was air/And playing, lovely and watery/And fire green as grass” and then nearly done “And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows/In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs/Before the children green and golden/Follow him out of grace” and last of all “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” A poem that doesn’t merely describe but evokes … Follow the link to the poem and read it aloud.]

To return to the Medieval poem: Arthur answers the arrogant Knight with courtesy — the Medieval cortaysye — bidding him join the feast and tell his errand later. It’s an age-old gesture of hospitality, one that dates back to Homer, the traditional and trusting host’s welcome to a stranger. Eat and drink first, and only then speak your will, or recount your story.

Still haughty, the Green Knight declares his nature means he has no intention of lingering. I come, he declares, because of the fame of Arthur’s realm: castle and court are called “the worthyest of the worldes kynde.” The axe I carry, he announces, is no threat. Look to the holly sprig. Be sure “bi the braunch I bere here that I pas in peace.” If I wished for war, I’ld have come fully armed. “But if thou be bold as all folk tellen, thou wil grant me goodly the game that I ask bi ryght.” A Christmas challenge: “I crave in this court a Crystemas gomen.”

Besides, if he were spoiling for a bout, he’d win easily, he boasts. All he sees on the benches around the hall are “berdless children.” But if anyone’s got the guts, “leap lightly to me and latch this weapon. I schall give him of my gifte this axe, to hondele as he likes. I quit-clayme it for ever — keep it as his own. And I shall stond him a stroke” and promise “the doom to deal him an other … and yet give him a respite, a twelve-month and a day.” And again we’re into magical territory, the “year and a day” of testing and challenge, mystery — and mastery — and cyclic completion.

The Knight taunts the company further, and when no one rises to accept the challenge, Arthur himself reaches for the axe. But his nephew Gawain intercedes and claims the right, pointing out that with warriors in the Court to uphold its honor and reputation, the king needn’t lower himself to accept such a challenge. Gawain reasons further with him: besides, as your nephew, if I die, the loss is less.

To make short work of the next few stanzas, Gawain readies the axe, the knight stands with neck bared to receive the keen edge, and Gawain gives him a fierce blow that lops off that green head.  Through fat and flesh, the blade bites the floor. Blood spatters those nearest, and they kick at the head as it rolls past the benches.

sggk-armThe Knight, however, strides forward undaunted, retrieves his head, and turns back to his horse. “The brydel he cachches, steps into stirrup and strydes aloft, and his hede by the here in his hondes holdes.” And he speaks one last time: “On New Year’s morn, Gawain, come to the Green Chapel, I charge thee, to receive such a dint as thou hast dealt and now deserve …” And then, as British poet Simon Armitage* renders it in his fluent and lively translation, “So come, or be called a coward forever” (pg. 51)!

Knight, horse and now chapel — green and Christian mixed. The whole game’s unseely! The Knight departs, more food, drink and dancing displace everyone’s fears — except Gawain’s.

Thus the original anonymous Middle English poet closes this first of his four sections (here again is Armitage’s translation*): “But mind your mood, Gawain, keep blacker thoughts at bay, or lose this lethal game you’ve promised you will play” (pg. 53).

More to come in Part Two.

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Images:  manuscript illustration of the Round Table by Evrard d’Espinques; Astrid Berges Frisbey as GuinevereGreen Knight by William O’Connor; Green Man at Wikipedia; cover of Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

*Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007. (There are other good translations — notably one by J. R. R. Tolkien. But I like this one, partly because my high school seniors liked it when we read it in our British Lit. class, and also because it provides the Middle English text on the facing page, for linguistic nerds like me who enjoy fine language for its own sake. You can find it used and in paperback. Or get thee hence to thy local library.)

Updated 11 October 2015.

Arthur myghtern a ve hag a vyth — “Arthur king who was and will be”   2 comments

[This Related Post: Arthur]  [Sex, Death, Etc.: Part One | Part Two| Part Three]

Like their kindred words in the other Celtic tongues, the syllables* of this Cornish saying still echo, telling of the “Once and Future King.” They assert a living archetype of a king born in fulfillment of prophecy, a ruler recognized and granted kingship by the Lady of the Lake, a leader who struggles, fights and dies for his people. The king is the land.

Arthur1

Arthur from the Matthews’ deck

Nyns yu marow Arthur myghtern. “He is not dead, king Arthur,” the story continues, but sleeps, and will wake at his country’s direst need, and return. The king is the land.

Arthurian tarot decks like John and Caitlin Matthews’ Hallowquest, Anna-Marie Ferguson’s Legend and Stephanie and Philip Carr-Gomm’s Druidcraft packs often depict the archetypal king as card 4, the Emperor. This is Arthur as anointed ruler, secure in his kingship, enthroned, crowned and robed in power.

But surely what moves us more is not merely this static image, forceful though it can be. The young Arthur, ignorant of his destiny, is also the seeker, the Fool, the first card in the deck, a numerical 0. In Ferguson’s Legend deck he is Percivale, the callow and naive youth. With both Guinevere (Welsh Gwenhwyfar, “White Shadow”) and his own sister Morgan (with several other variants of her name) he is one half of the Lovers. And at least in the Matthews’ conception, he is the Wounded King, and also the Sleeping Lord.

The progression, as in most tarot decks, is the journey of the self toward fulfillment, wisdom, self-awareness.

As a tool for Druidic meditation and ritual, the Arthurian mythos offers rich and profound material. Map our lives onto such a mythic pattern, and we can animate energies to manifest the next step on our spiritual journey. At every point we spiral. We can look at all the steps, all the places on the curves and whorls of the spiral, as potentials for us — right now. Not later. Not after we do or learn or master or win X. Now. The king who will be, but sleeps, is a potential which can guide the questing boy who will be — and who also already has been — king. What might the king say to his younger self? What gift might our older selves pass to us right now, insight or wisdom or counsel we need as we grapple with problems, as it can often feel, in the dark?

So many traditions around our planet speak in their own ways of time and space as illusions. This need not mean they are not real, but rather that we need not accept our agreement with an illusion as the last and defining word about our lives. They don’t have to be the only reality. By playing a game with time, we can slip into past or future through memory and daydream, to the point of no longer “being here” but “someplace else” instead. And we’ve all experienced this.

For we do this effortlessly, ever since childhood, a natural talent, a birthright, a skill we keep all our lives, unless it’s been largely chased away and beaten out of us by our culture, teachers, parents, our own self-limitation, habits of thought, and so on. “Head in the clouds, dreamer, impractical, unfocused”: words so many of us may have seen in school reports, job assessments, personal evaluations. Or maybe we suffer from the opposite pole, and more and more of the lightness and joy has been leached from our days through routine, day to day cares, deadlines and installments and bills and mortgages and the nightmarish hope of someday “catching up” or “getting ahead” or “arriving.” Always, it can seem, one pole or the other. But polarized things gather power. That’s why an illusion can grab and hold us. But that’s also why change and growth and exploration are also — always — possibilities. Poles hold the energy for entrapment, but also for transformation.

sleepinglord

The Sleeping Lord (form outlined in the hillside under the hawk)

These images and this millennium-old mythos provide a wealth of meditation seeds, portals to discovery, and material for ritual that Arthurian orders of ritual and magic explore, but which are also perfect for solitary work, too.

Arthur myghtern a ve hag a vyth can be a contemplation seed (it’s one of mine), a cue to open the imagination to possibility. (I use it as a tool, a charm, a spell, a mantra of magical power. Pair it with an image, an object, an intention — intention being the flame which, I find, lights everything up.)

And if I’m willing to step across one more boundary, ritually priming myself with a “For behold: now am I ____ !” I can explore all the characters in the Arthurian realm. Taliesin-like, I can be the Green Knight, invulnerable to mortal blows, and Morgan and Merlin, Nimue and Mordred, too. What does it feel like to die as you kill your uncle-father (Shakespeare’s Hamlet knows!) in fulfillment of a prophecy from a time before your birth? What does it mean to lie asleep, waiting to fulfill a royal destiny? What part of me sleeps right now, that I can rouse if I choose? Or like Ygraine, Arthur’s mother, to carry an unborn child in my belly, a king, gestating and brooding and nourishing new and royal life from within? Or what can I see as Merlin in his cave or tower, looking up and down time itself, living backward as in T. H White’s version of the Arthurian boyhood story, The Sword in The Stone?

Then to close the rite, the meditation: “And now have I returned.” A simple formula, but helpful, to ground the meditation, to signal a shift of reality. (Return is as important as departure.) Open your eyes, and record what you experienced. In this way, over days and weeks, you build an increasingly persuasive document that can help loosen the hold of the illusion of this time, this place. Each time I sit to meditate, the pages telling of my previous journeys in front of me, the grip of illusion eases. For these two things, time and space, can be potential gifts, or they can remain prison walls. They’re a choice, if I choose them, rather than a given, if I merely accept them.

The Seeker from Matthews' deck. The Rainbow Path we're all on ...

The Seeker from Matthews’ deck. Before us all lies the Rainbow Path.

Figures as diverse as Henry Ford and physicist John Wheeler get credit for versions of the saying “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” It’s a way of ordering experience, making it intelligible to human consciousness. And so is space, which — to follow through on the whimsically powerful definition and construct its corollary — “keeps everything from happening here.”

Starting small, with the trick, if you will, of imaginative magic, will begin to unfasten the iron clasps around consciousness. It’s just one way, of course. Traditions in and outside of a whole range of religions and spiritual paths offer many tools and strategies for accomplishing this change, if we wish it. But these particular images and this story have spoken for a thousand years to many people, and the Arthurian drama that can be a mirror and key to our mortal and spiritual lives shows little sign of a diminishment of its power to move and inspire — and transform. Sleeper, whispers a whole nation of people inside each of us that we have been and are being today and will be someday, a multitude of selves. Sleeper, awaken to your crown and to your destiny.

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Images: Matthews’ Arthur, card 4; Matthews Sleeping Lord; Matthews’ Seeker (Fool in other decks) with three choughs (a raven-like bird) overhead.

*Note on pronunciation: The -gh- of the Cornish word myghtern “king” is essentially the same sound as in German “Bach” and close to English “h” in “aha!”: mikh-tayrn comes reasonably close for ritual purposes: AHR-thoor MIKH-tayrn ah VEH hahg ah VEETH.

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