Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Metaphysical Journey

This is another slight diversion from the realm of faerie, but the subject matter is intimately connected to our understanding of metaphysical realities through texts from our past. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is important, loaded as it is with symbology and deep insights into the human condition, that speak to us from over half a millennium ago. The characters, their motivations and their inner-lives, as expressed by the poet, remain recognisable to us in the 21st century. And at the centre of the story (even though she doesn’t utter a word) is a faerie, perhaps the most prominent faerie in English literature: Morgan le Fay. A version of this article was originally published on the Ancient Origins Premium website.

‘The paths he would take were strange,
With little cheer to glean,
And his hopes would often change
Till that chapel could be seen.’

Sir Gawain and Green Knight is a late 14th-century poem, set in an Arthurian world of the past, but which invokes the chivalric codes and environment of the time it was written. Despite numerous attempts to identify the author, it remains anonymous, although the Middle-English dialect used in the poem has been pinned down to the North-West Midlands of England, perhaps the county of Staffordshire. It is written in alliterative verse, suggesting that it was designed to be read aloud, with the alliteration acting as both a memory aid to recitation and as a prop to convey the humorous intonations, which run throughout the poem. It is generally seen as one of the most important examples of English medieval literature and fits within the corpus of Arthurian stories known as ‘The Matter of Britain.’ It certainly adheres to the usual frames of reference that medieval authors used when describing the Arthurian world, where a supernatural Otherworld was consistently interacting with physical reality, and symbolic layers of meaning provide an allegoric purpose that would have been recognised by the elite classes listening to, or reading the stories. Many of the characters in the poem are familiar from other Arthurian sources, but as the title suggests, the main protagonist is Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur. His adventures tell us much about 14th-century society, but also about a metaphysical belief system operating below the radar of Christianity, which, as usual with later medieval Arthurian literature, invokes an older, pagan atmosphere, perhaps more redolent of the immediate post-Roman Dark Ages, when the stories are ostensibly set. The use of such magico-folklore in the Arthurian stories can tell us much about the continuity of pre-Christian beliefs throughout the Middle Ages, and the motifs used consistently through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight retain a timeless folkloric quality, making the poem a commentary on humanity’s interaction with supra-natural dimensions that still manages to resonate with the 21st-century reader.

Image from original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th century. ‘Gawain sleeps in the open air during his quest’ British Library

The Plot and Landscape of the Poem

The action begins on New Year’s Day at Arthur’s court of Camelot, where feasting is in progress. Much Arthurian literature uses the device of Camelot as representative of a golden age in the past, often making derogatory (even satirical) comparisons to contemporary aristocratic courts. This is especially true of several stories from the Welsh cycle of stories known as The Mabinogion (also composed in the 14th century, although containing much earlier material) and the Gawain poet follows this trope, ensuring the reader is aware that Arthur’s court exemplified the pinnacle of chivalric code. But this standard description becomes turned round upon the arrival of the mysterious giant knight, who makes his abrupt entrance into the midst of the feast mounted on a horse. His apparel, his skin and even his horse are green:

‘Wonder at his hue men displayed,
set in his semblance seen;
he fared as a giant were made,
and over all deepest green.’

The Green Knight is not impressed with Arthur’s court or courtiers, who he calls ‘beardless children.’ And after some more disparagement he challenges one amongst them to a ‘Christmas game’ where the Green Knight is struck once with his own axe, on the proviso that in a year and a day’s time he is able to return the blow at his own ‘Green Chapel.’ This is the point of entry into the plot for Gawain, who spares Arthur the need to strike the blow, and takes up the challenge, lopping off the Green Knight’s head with one blow of the axe. But, to the amazement of all, he then proceeds to pick up his own head, mounts his horse and, from his decapitated head, reminds Gawain of his oath, before wheeling away out of Camelot, head in hand.

’The Green Knight enters Camelot’ by Herbert Cole (1906). This is from the 1913 edition (but painted in 1906) of English Fairy Tales by Ernest and Grace Rhys

This sets the scene for a quest journey, which takes up the rest of the poem as Gawain sets out alone to fulfil his pledge a year later. The first part of the quest describes his journey through a winter landscape; a desolate wilderness but firmly rooted in the real landscape of 14th-century Britain. Gawain takes a circuitous (but definitive) route through Wales, perhaps insinuating that the poet thought of Camelot as being situated in southern Wales (Caerleon is one of the traditional locations for Camelot) before heading east from Anglesea to the ‘wilderness of the Wirral’ and inland to the Peak District. Once here the descriptive qualities of the landscape becomes more detailed, with localised words for features in the environment being used such as frith (enclosed scrubland on the edge of a forest), knot (a hillock), and kerre (a marshy thicket), which has been a main element in allowing the interpretation for the author being a native of this part of the country where the counties of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire meet. Eventually, Gawain arrives at the moated castle called Hautdesert.

‘Now he had signed himself times but three,
when he was aware in the wood of a wall in a moat,
above a level, on high land locked under boughs
of many broad set boles about by the ditches:
a castle the comeliest that ever knight owned,
perched on a plain, a park all about,
with a pointed palisade, planted full thick,
encircling many trees in more than two miles.’

Image from original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th century. ‘Lady Bertilak tempts Gawain’ British Library

The castle is most likely identified as Beeston Castle, built by Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester in the 1220s, now a ruin, but in the late 14th century an imposing hilltop citadel. It is here that Gawain enters a somewhat hallucinogenic episode in the tale, as he is given hospitality by the Lord Bertilak. During the next three days Bertilak goes out to hunt (described in elaborate detail), leaving Gawain to rest in the castle. Bertilak proposes that what he gains in the hunt shall be Gawain’s, providing Gawain gives him what he receives during the days in the castle. Gawain soon finds out that the seductive Lady Bertilak has designs on him, and while her lord is out hunting she slips into his chamber to let him know that ‘You are welcome to my body; your pleasure to take all.’ She does this each day, but Gawain resists temptation and gives her only kisses, which are in turn exchanged with Lord Bertilak, on his daily returns, for the spoils of the hunt (a deer, a fox and a boar).

In the final segment of the poem, Gawain sets out for the Green Chapel (usually identified as Lud’s Church, an atmospheric deep sandstone chasm near the village of Gradbach, Staffordshire) to meet his fate with the Green Knight, although arraigned with a ‘green and gold girdle’ given to him by Lady Bertilak for his protection. The pair meet, and Gawain submits to three blows from the Green Knight’s axe, the first two of which are feigned and then the third merely nicking his neck to draw blood. Honour is satisfied, and the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Bertilak himself, magically transformed into the green knight by Arthur’s arch-enemy, his half-sister Morgan le Fay.

Lad’s Church, Staffordshire, possible inspiration for the ‘Green Chapel’

‘For it is mine that you wear, that same woven girdle;
my own wife gave it you, I know it well forsooth.
Now, know I well your kisses and conduct too,
and the wooing of my wife; I wrought it myself.
I sent her to test you, and truly I think you
the most faultless man that was ever afoot.’

Gawain returns to Camelot, chastened but wiser, realising that the whole ruse had been manipulated by Morgan le Fay in one of her perennial attempts to undermine Arthur’s precedence in Britain.

Arthurian Symbology and Metaphysics

The poem is loaded with symbology and metaphysical motifs, and while the themes of chivalry and Christian virtues run through the work, there is a clear undercurrent of pre-Christian, pagan value-systems integrated into the tale. The beheading game is evidently one of the central features of the story, and there are several precedents for it, for instance in the 12th-century Arthurian story Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes and the anonymous Perlesvaus from the 13th century. The earliest version is from the Irish story of Fled Bricrenn, dating from the 8th century, where the hero Cú Chulainn faces the same three blows as Gawain, from a giant. This would appear to be an ancient Celtic motif, embodying an ultimate test for the virtue and worthiness of the hero, that the author of Gawain was picking up from these and perhaps other sources.

The ‘game’ is intimately connected to the timespan allowed between blows by the disparate characters; a year and a day. This specific timeframe is important and frequently appears in medieval romances and folktales as the amount of time protagonists were given to succeed in quests. In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer highlights the ancient global concept of the Divine King, who was to be ritually murdered after a period of time in charge, which was often a year and a day. The time period was also used in common law to substantiate the legal situation of unwed couples, and it was (in theory) the amount of time a person living under feudal serfdom needed to be absent from his lord’s manor to gain his freedom. Interestingly, a year and a day is also used in Wiccan and other neo-pagan traditions for the time of learning required before being initiated into the first degree. The year and a day motif is evidently embedded within the Gawain story as a message, conveying the idea that it is a magical time-frame. It was a symbolic time-marker for life quests, ruling over others, decisions being made, learning a tradition, securing a marriage, or gaining freedom as one year tips over into another. It is a motif deeply ingrained in both esoteric tradition and everyday life from an early date, and rooted in the cycles of the natural world, in Gawain’s case from one New Year to the next.

Image from original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th century. ‘Gawain approaches the Green Chapel’ British Library

The overarching theme of the colour green in the poem links with this natural cycle. Although all the action takes place during winter, everything is dependent on the colour, from the Green Knight himself through to the protective girdle and the numerous descriptions of green vegetation, such as the holly branch held by the green knight when he enters Camelot and the ‘verdant dripping moss’ coating the Green Chapel. Green can be representative of rebirth and fertility, and one interpretation of its use in the poem is as the purveyor of life over death – the ‘Green Man’ sculptures found in so many medieval churches may be a codified pagan representation of fertile life overcoming death through the natural cycle. Many of these ‘Green Men’ date to the 14th century, and the Gawain poet would have undoubtedly been intimately aware of them, perhaps even conversant with their pagan cosmology. He certainly imbues every part of the poem with the colour, heightening the sense that the natural world (with green as its symbol) is more powerful and authentic than the veneer of the civilised world represented by the castles and chivalric codes of the stylised Arthurian world. The fact that no-one dies in the poem (unusual for an Arthurian story) strengthens the interpretation that it is at root an allegory about life triumphing over death.

Green Man sculpture from All Saints church, Sutton Benger, Wiltshire (14th century)

But everything that happens in the poem is dependent on the intrusion of the supernatural into consensus reality. The clue given during the Green Knight’s entrance into Camelot, when he is described as ‘of phantom and faerie’, is confirmed after Gawain is let off at the Green Chapel, and we find out that Morgan le Fay has manipulated the entire proceedings:

‘Through the might of Morgan le Fay, that dwells in my house,
and is mistress of magic, by crafts well learned
the mysteries of Merlin, many has she taken,
for she has dealt in depths full dearly sometime
with that excellent sage, and that know all your knights at home.’

’Morgan le Fay’ by Frederick Sandys (1864)

It turns out that she had been lurking in the shadows of Bertilak’s castle as ‘an ancient withered lady’, evidently disguising herself through faerie glamour. Despite having no dialogue in the poem, and appearing only briefly upon Gawain’s arrival at the castle, she has been pulling the strings with her usual metaphysical aplomb. The Green Knight/Bertilak even describes her as ‘a goddess.’ Despite having made her first appearance in Arthurian literature as a benign faerie half-sister of Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1136-50), by the 14th century she invariably played a villainous role in The Matter of Britain, and always executing her machinations via supernatural means. She is an arbiter of fate and representative of an accepted metaphysical intrusion into the physical world, in the case of Gawain and the Green Knight as a tester of courage and rectitude. Her presence in the poem (and her ubiquity in the Arthurian corpus) ensures a magical, supernal dimension, which is unquestioned and establishes a medieval understanding of the world where the natural world could be transcended through what is essentially a pagan belief-system, even if the anonymous poet was wrapping it up within an orthodox Christian worldview.

References

Arthur, Ross G (ed.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1999) Original Middle English text

Brewer, Elisabeth, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analogues (1992)

Brindley, Noel C., A Medieval Mystery (accessed 2018)

Elliott, Ralph WV, The Gawain Country (1984)

Elliott, Ralph WV, ‘Searching for the Green Chapel’ in JK Lloyd Jones (ed). Chaucer’s Landscapes and Other Essays (2010) 293–303

Friedman, Albert B, ‘Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ Speculum 35 (1960) 260–274

Hebert, Jill Marie, Shapeshifter: The Manifestations of Morgan Le Fay (2008)

Frazer, Sir James, The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion (1900)

Kline, AS, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Modern Translation (2007)

Rushton, Neil, Faeries in the Realm of King Arthur, Ancient Origins (2018)

Rushton, Neil, The Mabinogion: Ancient Welsh Tales Bridging the Celtic Mindset and the Otherworld Ancient Origins (2108)

Rhys, Ernest and Grace, English Fairy Tales (1913)

Smith, Michael, In Search of the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2017)

Wilson, Anne, Plots and Powers: Magical Structures in Medieval Narrative (2001)

Simon Armitage’s BBC4 Documentary Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 

The Mabinogion: Worlds and Otherworlds in Medieval Wales

The medieval Welsh stories contained in what has become known as The Mabinogion hold many faerie motifs, and certainly resonate a magical folkloric ambience. This is an introductory overview of some of the stories from the collection. It only scratches the surface, but the references suggest some possibilities for further study into these preternatural tales. A version of this article first appeared on the Ancient Origins Premium website.

“On the bank of the river he saw a tall tree: from roots to crown one half was aflame and the other was green with leaves.” The History of Peredur Son of Evrawg.

The Mabinogion

The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven stories from medieval Wales. Although only first committed to manuscript during the 13th century (the oldest surviving fragmentary manuscript dates to c.1225), the tales are generally accepted as fossilising an oral tradition that dates back many centuries previous to this. They contain a heady mix of history, pseudo-history, mythology and folklore, and provide our most direct route into the Celtic mindset and worldview of ancient Welsh culture. The stories of The Mabinogion appear in complete form in two 14th-century Welsh manuscripts, ‘The White Book of Rhydderch’ (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch), and ‘The Red Book of Hergest’ (Llyfr Goch Hergest). They were all, originally, separate stories, written by different (unknown) hands, and were only collated into an autonomous group in the 19th century (first published as a complete set in 1849) by Lady Charlotte Guest, who translated the Welsh texts into English, using in part the earlier work of the Welsh antiquarian William Owen Pughe (d.1835). The eleven stories are usually split into the ‘four branches’:

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed (Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed)
Branwen, daughter of Llŷr (Branwen ferch Llŷr)
Manawydan, son of Llŷr (Manawydan fab Llŷr)
Math, son of Mathonwy (Math fab Mathonwy)

and three ‘romances’:

The Lady of the Fountain (Chwedl Iarlles Ffynawn)
The History of Peredur son of Evrawg (Historia Peredur ab Efrawg)
Gereint and Enid (Geraint ac Enid)

and supplemented by four further stories of various dates:

Culhwch and Olwen (Culhwch ac Olwen)
The Dream of Macsen Wledig (Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig)
Lludd and Llefelys (Lludd a Llefelys)
The Dream of Rhonabwy (Breuddwyd Rhonabwy)

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Peredur Son of Evrawg and the flaming tree, artist unknown

The quote from ‘Peredur’, describing the tree half aflame and half alive, illustrates well the preternatural quality that resonates through all the stories, where a magical Otherworld imbricates itself consistently into the landscapes of early medieval Wales. For those telling, listening to and reading the stories, this metaphysical overlapping would have represented a legitimate way of describing a past, where mythology and folklore were as authentic realities as the historical narrative. The characters, and their environment, were in physical reality and the Otherworld at the same time with no contradiction.

An Oral Tradition

Although the scenes and settings in The Mabinogion would have been immediately recognisable to people in the 13th and 14th centuries, when they became codified in manuscript form, the stories are nominally located in a post-Roman Wales, sometimes known as the Dark Ages. While it is not possible to trace the route sources of the stories, It seems certain that they developed from an oral tradition, a body of recitation lore, which has been given the Welsh name cyfarwyddyd (cer-var-with-id). The Mabinogion scholar Will Parker sums up the nature of this dissemination: “In pre-modern societies such as these, the oral tradition is the medium of collective memory; fluid in its details, but essentially static and conservative in its overall ethos… and we might assume that much of this material was informed, directly or otherwise, by the ambient oral tradition.”

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The White Book of Rhydderch, National Library of Wales

Current academic opinion suggests that at least some of the stories in The Mabinogion can be dated back to the early 11th century, based on the structure and style of the narrative units, known by the medieval authors as chwedlau. But many of the themes contained within the stories are replete with pre-Christian imagery and tropes, and it is conceivable that they are transmitting much older traditions, originating from the 5th and 6th centuries. Although the stories would have evolved and mutated over such a long period of time, they do appear to represent a mythologised set of narratives, which could have been recited by storytellers at the courts of Dark Age chieftains just as well as within those of the later medieval Welsh aristocracy. But whatever the true origination of the lore, the subject matter portrays the real world of ancient Wales consistently energised and influenced by an Otherworld that was fully integrated into the consensus reality of both the storytellers and those consuming the stories.

The Arthurian Connection

One of the most intriguing aspects of The Mabinogion is that several of the stories connect to the Arthurian mythos. Without these stories, the earliest literary renditions of the activities of Arthur and his court are found in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who, between 1135-1150, wrote the highly influential Historia Regum Britannia and Vita Merlini. Geoffrey appears to have utilised much oral folklore in his works, but there is a minimum of overlap with The Mabinogion tales, suggesting that he was using different branches of oral (and perhaps lost written) testimonies. The Mabinogion stories do transmit as more ‘folkloric’, with a heavier Celtic footprint and more reliant on folk motifs, which might insinuate they are the older corpus of material. Apart from some of the names, the Arthurian elements in the stories certainly bear little resemblance to what became ‘The Matter of Britain’; the recognisable story of King Arthur, begun by Geoffrey of Monmouth and then propagated by continental authors such as Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, before ending up in the hands of Sir Thomas Malory in the late 15th century. For all the supernatural components included in this later literature, they are not as embedded with the surreal as the stories in The Mabinogion.

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Culhwch and Olwen at Ysbaddaden’s court’ by Ernest Wallcousins (1920)

In the story of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ (often seen as the earliest of the tales) the role of Arthur’s court is paramount. But the king’s men, who are requisitioned to help Culhwch in his quest to obtain the hand of Olwen from her father (the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr) are evidently drawn from otherworldly stock and are given supernatural attributes, such as Sgilti Yscawndroed, who is able to transport himself great distances by treading over the tops of trees and even flying over mountains by utilising the tips of reeds. This was a skill shared with the Tylwyth Teg, the folkloric faeries of Wales. The giant father demands that forty tasks are achieved before he allows Culhwch to marry Olwen, a common folktale motif, and the story proceeds to recount a small number of these tasks, all of which have fantastical qualities. The task of hunting the magical boar Twrch Trwyth takes up the most prose, and seems to be partly based on the 9th-century Irish legends of Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. But the deeper Arthurian connection is made in the task of retrieving the cauldron of Diwrnach. This cauldron can be equated with the grail of the later Arthurian mythos, and its alchemical significance is confirmed by the firepower Arthur and his men implement in its retrieval. The grail motif is made more explicit in ‘The History of Peredur son of Evrawg,’ where the hero Peredur, after being dispatched to his uncle’s castle by Arthur, is confronted by a procession lead by an entity carrying a salver with a severed head. As usual in The Mabinogion, the significance of this is left ambiguous, but the motif of a magical salver/grail seems to have seeped into later renditions of the Arthurian mythos, where it was given more prominence, until (in the early 13th century) Robert de Boron classified it as the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood of Christ on the cross.

There is some contention as to how much cross-pollination there has been from The Mabinogion Arthurian stories to the later ‘Matter of Britain’, and even whether the Welsh manuscript sources were reintegrating French and German literature from the 12th and 13th centuries. But even if they were capturing motifs from these continental sources, the Welsh stories retain decisive elements of a magico-folkloric quality that appear to come from a pure stream of Celtic mysticism. This is best demonstrated in what is usually thought to be the latest of the stories, but the one that includes the most magical symbolism, hinting at an early source to its metaphysical prose. This is ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy.’

Magico-Folklore in Medieval Wales – ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’

Although the beginning of the story is set in the mid-12th century, with known historical personages from the kingdom of Powys, the main bulk of the prose consists of Rhonabwy’s dream, which takes him into a magical Otherworld that interfaces with a Dark Age, Arthurian pseudo-history. The first clue that the writer of the story is tapping into some ancient belief-systems comes as Rhonabwy finds himself in the squalid, dilapidated home of ‘Heilyn Goch son of Cadwgan son of Iddon.’ Rhonabwy sleeps wrapped in a yellow ox-hide situated on the dais of the hall. Sleeping in an ox-hide in order to gain oracular insights is attested to in Inuit and Siberian shamanic cultures from the 19th and 20th centuries, and is also portrayed in pre-Christian Irish texts such as Togail Bruidne Dá Derga. Such an episode even finds its way into Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae. Listeners to (and readers of) the story may not have been aware of the significance of Rhonabwy’s action, but it is clearly a symbolic deed that indicates the story is about to enter the metaphysical.

Rhonabwy’s dream has the hallmarks of an out of body experience, where he is mostly a discarnate observer of events, consistently described as a vision: “As soon as sleep entered his eyes he was granted a vision.” This is enabled by his (spirit) guide Iddawg who discloses that it was he who was responsible for the disastrous last battle of King Arthur (termed emperor throughout the story) at Camlann. But, after the appearance of a horseman “with curly yellow hair and his beard newly trimmed, on a yellow horse, and from the top of its forelegs and its kneecaps downwards green,” the dream then immediately transposes back in time as Rhonabwy is taken by his guide across a plain to witness the prequel to the Battle of Badon, the scene of Arthur’s first and greatest victory of the Saxon armies at some point in the early 6th century. When they come upon Arthur, Iddwag tells Rhonabwy that by seeing the stone set within a ring on Arthur’s finger “you will remember all that you have seen here tonight; had you not seen the stone you would have remembered nothing.” The stone may be seen as a magic talisman, serving as the link between physical reality and the Otherworld, another common shamanic trope and folkloric motif.

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Arthur and Owain play a game of gwyddbwyll by Alan Lee

In his visionary state, Rhonabwy witnesses a series of surreal events, centred around a game of gwyddbwyll (a chess-like board game) between Arthur and his retainer Owain mab Urien. At one point the players are asked to intervene as a flock of ravens dismember a number of their men (dismemberment in the Otherworld is another shamanic device, meant as a sign of spiritual renewal before return to physical reality), before the enigmatic arrival of twenty-four donkeys with baskets of gold and silver, which were to be given to Arthur’s bards. The story ends before any battle takes place, and the purpose and meaning is left undisclosed, as Rhonabwy awakes on the ox-hide having slept for three days and three nights.

Much of the otherworldy symbolism in ‘The Dream of Rhonobwy’ remains undecipherable, and it seems probable that even the late-medieval purveyors of the story were not fully aware of the pre-Christian and shamanistic elements contained in the narrative. But like all the stories in The Mabinogion, it was transmitting an ancient set of folkloric and mythological motifs that relied on an Otherworld to give meaning to the historic past of Wales. In this sense, the stories retain an embedded function and purpose that transcends their historical context, and continue to enhance our understanding of the ontological inheritance of metaphysical belief-systems so fundamental to the Celtic (and especially Welsh) cultural mindset.

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A map of the stories of The Mabinogion

References

Ashe, Geoffrey. The Origins of the Arthurian Legends (1995) http://faculty.smu.edu/bwheeler/arthur/ashe.pdf

Davies, Sioned (tr.), The Mabinogion (2007).

Green, Thomas. Concepts of Arthur (2008).

Guest, Lady Charlotte (tr.), The Mabinogion (1877 ed.) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/mab/index.htm

Historia Regum Britannia by Geoffrey of Monmouth http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/gem/index.htm

Lacy, Norris, J. et al. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia (1996).

Parker, Will. http://www.mabinogion.info (2010). This site contains an in-depth discussion and interpretation of The Mabinogion, with links to the full translated texts with notes.

Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/vm/index.htm

Wilson, Anne. The Magical Quest: The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance (1988).

Wilson, Anne. Plots and Powers: Magical Structures in Medieval Narrative (2001).

A round-table discussion about The Mabinogion on the BBC series ‘In Our Time’ can be streamed or downloaded here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b1p5k7#play

The cover image is ‘Culhwch’ by Arthur Joseph Gaskin (1921).

Faeries in the Arthurian Landscape

The faeries who appear in the Arthurian mythos are a distinctive breed; ontologically different from the entities that most often surface in folklore. They usually have specific roles to fulfil, catering to the literate classes who were consuming the stories. But the genesis of the faeries in the Arthurian landscape is deeply rooted in an embedded folk belief-system, developed from a Celtic oral tradition, which informs many of the motifs within the legends. This article is a brief overview of a very complex subject, serving as an introduction for any readers who may be inclined to delve deeper. A version of the article appeared originally on the Ancient Origins Premium website.

The Development of the Arthurian Mythos

When Geoffrey of Monmouth produced his Historia Regum Britannia and Vita Merlini between 1135 and 1150, he became the central transmitter of the Arthurian mythos; from a largely oral testimony to a written body of legend that has continued to develop to this day. Geoffrey may have had access to some of the early sources, which suggest Arthur could have been a 5th/6th-century British chieftain, such as St Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (6th century) and Nennius’ Historia Brittonum (9th century), and possibly other lost literary sources. But it seems clear that much of his Historia and the Vita Merlini used an orally transmitted folklore to construct the ontology of the inhabitants of his Arthurian stories. Although many scholars of the following generation, such as Giraldus Cambrensis, derided Geoffrey’s account of Dark-Age history as ‘a book full of lies and made-up fables’, it retained its influence over later medieval authors and helped to imbue a supernatural ambience into the literary mythical cycle that would come to be known as ‘The Matter of Britain’. Writers such as Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach and Sir Thomas Malory took the core of Geoffrey’s Historia and Vita Merlini, and proceeded to convert it to their own literary ends. In part this involved them taking the opportunity to culturally code the stories to their own social milieus, but they were also channeling some of the deeply embedded folkloric motifs contained in the legends that have their roots in an ancient Celtic oral tradition. One of these sets of story motifs include the genus of characters who seem to be part of the physical world but also part of a metaphysical otherworld. These are the faeries, and they play a critical role throughout the Arthurian landscape. Their forms and functions contain clues to help decipher some of the deeper meaning ingrained within the Arthurian mythos.

Arthurian Faeries

‘The Matter of Britain’ was written for the elite class of European medieval society. The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems. Subsequently, the cast of characters specifically ascribed faerie qualities in the Arthurian mythos were invariably given the attributes of nobility. Much medieval and later folklore includes facets of a royal hierarchical organisation within the metaphysical faerie realm, but in the Arthurian cycle of stories the quality of ‘faerie’ is subsumed into an unique set of players whose nobility ensured their respect and credence among the aristocratic audiences listening to or reading the stories. However, the embedded supernatural elements of the medieval Arthurian landscape, most especially the faerie motifs, contain the footprints of an older, Celtic tradition, which demonstrates that the faeries who found their way into The Matter of Britain represent a deeper cultural legacy than their plot-line actors may suggest.

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‘The Fairy Circle’ by Gustav Doré, illustration for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1867)

One of the primary faerie characters in the Arthurian mythos, throughout the medieval period and beyond, is Morgan le Fay. She makes her first literary appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, where she resides within the Insula pomorum que fortunata vocatur, that is “The island of apples which men call The Fortunate Isle.” This is evidently a faerie otherworld where Morgan le Fay retains some form of precedence. Geoffrey describes the isle and Morgan’s magical abilities:

“The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There, nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus; when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia, and when she will she slips down from the air onto your shores… Thither after the battle of Camlan we took the wounded Arthur… and Morgen received him with fitting honour, and in her chamber she placed the king on a golden bed… At length she said that health could be restored to him if he stayed with her for a long time and made use of her healing art.”

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‘Morgan le Fay’ by Frederick Sandys (1863)

This is an important passage, which sets the gauge for all later representations of Morgan. Geoffrey’s spelling of the name as Morgen is also significant. The Morgens appear in Breton and Welsh folklore as shapeshifting water faeries, and it is possible that Geoffrey was basing his character on this folkloric oral tradition. Morgan represents a metamorphosic otherworldly creature, detached from physical reality on an enchanted island, with magical healing abilities. By the time the Arthurian mythos made its way to France and became what is now known as the Vulgate Cycle of stories, Morgan had become a more ambiguous personage, still retaining her faerie nature, but often with more malicious intent than in the early stories. In the late 13th-century Prophesies de Merlin, for instance, she is a shaman/witch-like character with zoomorphic abilities, living in ‘The Vale of No Return.’ In this text she even comes to be known as Morgan the Goddess. And in later medieval renditions of Arthurian stories, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century) and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (first published 1485), Morgan comes to be portrayed as Arthur’s nemesis, losing some of her faerie attributes and instead becoming an evil enchantress, bent on destroying Arthur and his chivalric order.

While Morgan slipped under the radar in many post-medieval Arthurian retellings, she re-emerged as a magical figure in the 19th century, most notably in the poetic cycle The Idylls of the King by Tennyson (1859) and through her portrayal in art, especially as a model for the pre-Raphaelite movement. And she has certainly found her place in modern cultural representations of the stories, most often as a malevolent character, as in John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur, but also in more sympathetic roles that emphasise her faerie roots, such as in the novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Fay Sampson. Since the mid 20th century Morgan has been characterised in over 200 portrayals, in literature, film, television, theatre, and even video games.

Of equal importance to Morgan in Arthurian plotlines, although less well-developed as a character, is The Lady of the Lake. She first appears in Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart in the late 12th century, and thereafter becomes almost ubiquitous in the Arthurian mythos. Her main role in these stories was as a water faerie, responsible for raising Lancelot in an otherworldly land, usually described as a magical island populated by faerie maidens under the command of a queen; frequently this queen was The Lady of the Lake. The conception of a faerie island inhabited by maidens matches Geoffrey of Monmouth’s earlier description of ‘The Fortunate Isle’, which suggests that this plot device was being drawn from earlier folkloric and mythological sources. These sources may have had Celtic origins; early Welsh, Irish, Breton and Cornish stories including various supernatural islands, did not usually find literary form until the 12th century, but the convention appears to have been well modelled in an oral tradition before this time.

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‘The Lady of the Lake Steals Lancelot’ by George Wooliscroft Rhead (1898)

By the mid 13th century (in the French Arthurian prose cycle now known as the Post-Vulgate) The Lady of the Lake became a more integral part of the mythos, while retaining her faerie qualities as a metaphysical entity. Most importantly it is she that provides Arthur with the magical sword Excalibur from within the waters surrounding the otherworldly isle. In several stories she also appears as one of the faerie hierarchy taking the wounded Arthur across the sea/lake to the island after the final Battle of Camlann, and it is here that her personality becomes somewhat enmeshed with that of Morgan le Fay, perhaps demonstrating that in the original folkloric traditions they were one and the same faerie construct. In Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur The Lady of the Lake (here named Nimue) is used as a magical, usually benign, figure who appears every time there is a major transition in the plot.

The Mabinogion and the Metaphysical Roots of Arthurian Faerie Tradition

The Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay represent a consistent supernatural element in the Arthurian landscape. Their characters developed within the courtly story cycles of medieval Europe, always culturally coded to the times, but also maintaining the components of an earlier tradition, where they constituted faerie entities, manipulating plotlines where the physical world was consistently affected by a metaphysical reality. There are many other characters in the Arthurian mythos with faerie qualities; Lancelot, Niniane, Mordred, Merlin, and sometimes even Arthur himself, giving a legitimate interpretation that the entire cycle could be seen as an elite faerie folklore, taking themes and motifs from vernacular folklore and overlaying them with tropes acceptable to noble and literate audiences.

51ujalxBceLBut these themes and motifs seem to have been spilling over into the medieval literature from older sources; an oral tradition that was encapsulating a deeply embedded belief system that included a metaphysical faerie otherworld. There is no direct route to this tradition but there is a cycle of stories, including many Arthurian narratives, that are disconnected from the main body of the mythos, and seem to retain a very ancient transmission, fossilised in writing during the later medieval period. This cycle has come to be known as The Mabinogion, a corpus of Welsh literature dated to the 13th and 14th centuries, but which were evidently drawing on much earlier material. Several of the stories are concerned with Arthurian narratives, and in them we can glimpse the genesis of the mythos, transmitted from a Celtic oral tradition that pre-dates Geoffrey of Monmouth and provides a window into the thought-worlds of early medieval culture. The Mabinogion Arthurian stories differ widely (in style and content) from the later medieval ‘Matter of Britain’, and there are none of the faerie characters, such as Morgan and The Lady of the Lake, that came to be central to the later mythos. But faerie themes and motifs are everywhere in the stories, creating a distinctly magical, sometimes surreal narrative landscape. The otherworldly nature of the stories seems more connected to vernacular folklore than courtly literature, and perhaps are filtered down forms of distinct early faerie belief systems in Wales.

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‘The Mabonigion: Culhwch and Olwen at Ysbaddaden’s court’ by Ernest Wallcousins (1920)

Three of the stories from The Mabinogion, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, ‘Llud and Llefelys’ and ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ are especially replete with faerie motifs. In ‘Culhwch’ Arthur’s retinue are given faerie-like attributes, such as Sgilti Yscawndroed, who is able to transport himself great distances by treading over the tops of trees and even flying over mountains by utilising the tips of reeds. This was a skill shared with the Tylwyth Teg, the folkloric faeries of Wales. And in ‘Llud’ the first part of the story deals with the Coraniaidd, a hostile race of diminutive invaders with supernatural powers, including the ability to hear any conversation held outside, another feature in common with the Tylwyth Teg.

But it is ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ that perhaps captures the deeper roots of what faerie themes represented in this ancient culture. The story is in the form of a dream-vision of the various deeds of Arthur, instigated when Rhonabwy sleeps wrapped in an ox-hide, itself a shamanic motif described in 19th- and 20th-century Siberian shamanic traditions and in Old Irish texts such as Togail Bruidne Dá Derga. This initiates a metaphysical story, replete with supernatural faerie motifs and disjointed timeframes, where Rhonabwy interacts with the esoteric Arthurian narrative almost in the form of a disembodied consciousness. This Arthurian story from the perspective of someone in an altered state of consciousness is an explicit indication that the people listening to or reading these stories were aware, at some level, that the faeries in the Arthurian landscape were attributes of non-physical consciousness rather than historical figures operating in physical material reality. By locating the stories at some indefinite location in the past, a type of magical-realism was invoked, allowing the supernatural and metaphysical elements of the stories, dominated by faerie themes, to become acceptable plot devices within the mythos. But ultimately, the characters in The Mabinogion and the later magical faeries such as Morgan le Fay and The Lady of the Lake are pointers towards an Arthurian cultural legacy that treat the faeries with reverence, as arbiters of wisdom, alchemy and power. The faeries were representative of an esoteric and occult knowledge that physical reality can be interacted with, and manipulated by, metaphysical forces beyond our full understanding.

References

Ashe, Geoffrey. The Origins of the Arthurian Legends (1995)

Briggs, Katherine. An Encyclopaedia of Fairies (New York, 1976).

Green, Caitlin, R. Arthuriana A resource for all things Arthurian.

Green, Thomas. Concepts of Arthur (London, 2008).

Hebert, Jill Marie, Shapeshifter: The Manifestations of Morgan Le Fay (Western Michigan, 2008).

Historia Regum Britannia by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Lacy, Norris, J. et al. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia (New York, 1996).

Le Morte D’Arthur (1485) by Sir Thomas Malory

Loponen, Mika. ‘Faerie Folklore in Medieval Tales – An Introduction’ (2017) 

Parker, Will. http://www.mabinogion.info (2010). This site contains an in-depth discussion and interpretation of The Mabinogion, with links to the full translated texts with notes.

Paton, Lucy Allen. Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance (Cambridge, US, 1903) 

Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Wilson, Anne. The Magical Quest: The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance (Manchester, 1988).

Wilson, Anne. Plots and Powers: Magical Structures in Medieval Narrative (Florida, 2001).

The cover image shows a knight meeting a lake faerie from a manuscript illustration to Chrétien de Troyes ‘Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart’ (c.1350) – BNF Français 1433 Le Chevalier au Lion.