This week in English Studies Abroad has been Arthurian readings and discussions. You might ask, how do you cover Arthur in one week? The obvious truth is you can’t. The subject is vast, wide, and never-ending. So settle in for a long winter’s post! My approach was to tackle some of the medieval texts on the first day of class and then move into the post-medieval Arthurian tradition on the second in order to get a sense of how authors have manipulated, deployed, and co-opted the legends.
Some thoughts of the week…
Continuing in the spirit of considering our readings in light of locations we plan to visit, we took a look at the sections related to Stonehenge in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. The story goes that Aurelius wanted to erect a monument to honor those loyal men who had been slain by the treacherous Saxon Hengist. Merlin advises that he relocate the Giant’s Dance from Ireland:
“If you are desirous,” said Merlin, “to honour the burying-place of these men with an ever-lasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.” (Book VIII, Chapter X)
Pulling Stonehenge even more fully into the Arthurian tradition, Merlin is accompanied by Uther Pendragon on this expedition, fittingly so given that their mission leads to a battle with the Irish, who must be thoroughly routed. I am always amused at how Merlin, his mischievous, devlish side coming out, sends the men to try their luck at moving the large stones while he simply watches and chuckles at their fruitless efforts. It is reminiscent of the later iconic story of Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, when everyone else tries and tries to remove it to no avail. Here Merlin waits until they pretty much give up and then he comes to their rescue:
Merlin laughed at their vain efforts, and then began his own contrivances. When he had placed in order the engines that were necessary, he took down the stones with an incredible facility, and gave directions for carrying them to the ships, and placing them therein. This done, they with joy set sail again, to return to Britain; where they arrived with a fair gale, and repaired to the burying-place with the stones. (Book VIII, Chapter XII)
Of course, the exact nature of these “contrivances” and “engines” is left to the imagination. After all, we can’t give away all the secrets, can we? I try to imagine the ships it would require to sail away with Stonehenge, but it boggles the mind.
Reading further in Geoffrey’s Historia, we focused in particular on the sections detailing Uther’s reign and then Arthur’s origin story. Our discussion led us to the collective origin stories of Merlin (parentage, early history, etc.) and what he is both capable of as well as the choices he makes and their effects on the Arthurian world. In this case, the choice to use his skills to transform Uther into the form of Gorlois in order to sleep with Igerna is a trade-off – an anti-Christian act which brings about the creation of the great king Arthur:
The same night therefore she conceived of the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity. (Book VIII, Chapter XIX)
The ramifications of this choice – his “ends justify the means” attitude – is not fully explored by Geoffrey, but later authors, of course, run with it. In the discussion of Merlin’s parentage, I was even able to work in my previous research into the role of his mother in various incarnations of the story. She’s quite a character, particularly with her ability to manipulate speech in order to protect herself and her son.
As an example of Arthurian romances, I chose Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal. There were a couple of reasons for this choice. One, a couple of students in the class took my Middle Ages class last semester and read Cligès and Le Chevalier de la Charrette; thus, I wanted to assign a different text. Two, Le Conte du Graal provides opportunities for different discussions: the representation of Arthur, the development and definition of a knight (and an Arthurian knight at that), the tradition behind the popular concept of the Grail, certain customs (real or fictional) Chrétien embeds in the narrative, the interaction between the religious and secular, the romance form (with a digression into the English/French similarities and differences), the French interest in and contributions to the Matters of Britain, among other topics. It’s a rich text and serves as a useful window for our brief foray into the medieval Arthurian world.
Also, speaking of mothers, we have here a fascinating one. She prevents Perceval from knowing about his true heritage in an attempt to protect him – and herself, as it happens, from more grief. Her advice shapes Perceval’s early development in the text, even as he misinterprets her. Her death occurs early, yet she continues to influence his choices, requiring him to leave the side of his lady out of concern for her.
On a personal note, I have always been particularly fascinated by the Fisher King (coincidentally, another figure I have spent a great deal of time researching in the past – our teaching reflects our own interests, no?) and was again upon this re-reading. This time around, I was struck by his soothing qualities. He is in great pain, unable to stand, though he lifts himself up to the best of his ability in order to honor his guest. His demeanor is no doubt courtly and courteous, as any number of characters are in this and other romances. Yet, his persona appears more than that as I read, as if his courtliness is less performance (as so often it comes across) and more an intricate part of him. His disability seems to soften (but certainly not weaken) him. Perhaps part of this impression lies in his willingness to express his suffering as indicated by one of his few lines of dialogue (in translation, as we read it in class):
“Friend, now it is time for bed. Don’t be offended if I leave you and go into my own chambers to sleep; and whenever you are ready you may lie down out here. I have no strength in my body and will have to be carried.” (422)
Though we are given little insight into his history or his societal role, I would hesitate to say – at least as I mull my reaction this time – that the Fisher King is rendered “real” by his hardship.
As a segue between the medieval Arthurian world and the post-medieval one, I had assigned Tolkien’s recently-released The Fall of Arthur; however, I was a bit overly ambitious in the amount of reading assigned and thus made this one more optional. It does, however, fulfill its intended role well, as a work written in Old English alliterative verse at the same time that it pays homage to the literary tradition concerning the collapse of Arthur’s kingdom. Even from the beginning of the poem, Tolkien captures the Old English sense of elegy while marrying it to the collapse of the Arthurian world:
As when the earth dwindles in autumn days and soon to its setting the sun is waning under mournful mist, then a man will lust for work and wandering, while yet warm floweth blood sun-kindled, so burned his soul after long glory for a last assay of pride and prowess, to the proof setting will unyielding in war with fate. (17)
I look forward to spending more time with this work in a future class.Due to the fact it is a rather well-known modern rendition of Arthurian literature as well as the fact it conveniently paired well with our other readings, I chose to assign the first sixty pages of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. This section parallels Arthur’s origin story that we read in Geoffrey of Monmouth, providing fodder for discussion, particularly as Bradley’s work is so focused on telling the story from the women’s perspective, which is not a concern of the Historia. There is an echo in Mists of the tension between the Christian and pagan found in early medieval texts influenced by or written in the time of conversion. At the beginning of the novel, Merlin and Viviane identify a need and a desire to allow the two to live in harmony n parallel worlds; as Viviane states:
“We must have our own leader, one who can command all of Britain. Otherwise, when they mass against us, all Britain will fall, and for hundreds and hundreds of years, we will lie in ruins beneath the Saxon barbarians. The worlds will drift irrevocably apart and the memory of Avalon will not remain even in legend, to give hope to mankind. No, we must have a leader who can command loyalty from all the people of both the Britains – the Britain of the priests, and the world of the mists, rules from Avalon. Healed by this Great King . . . the worlds shall once again come together, a world with room for the Goddess and for the Christ, the cauldron and the cross. And this leader shall make us one.” (14-5)
Geoffrey’s “most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity” is expanded by Bradley into a king who will “command loyalty from the people of both the Britains – the Britain of the priests, and the world of the mists” and who “shall make room for the Goddess and for the Christ.” There is still the sense of manipulation by Merlin as he orchestrates the creation of this king, though the story shifts with Igraine’s fore-knowledge (and her reluctance and initial disgust) that she has been chosen as mother to this savior. Bradley, intentionally or unintentionally, parallels Igraine’s story with that of the Virgin Mary, whose pregnancy as well as the special qualities of her son are also foretold. And, just to belabor a point, we have returned once again to the subject of mothers.
Bradley weaves in the concept of the Waste Land, so integral to the Fisher King narratives, in a rather effective way. Viviane explains to Igraine about the relationship between a king and his land:
“In the old days . . . the High King was bound with his life to the fortunes of the land, and pledged . . . that if the land comes upon disaster or perilous times, he will die that the land may live. And should he refuse this sacrifice, the land would perish.” (22-3)
The barren Waste Land of the Fisher King is so affected, it is often said, because he himself has been rendered impotent. Bradley inserts this idea into her novel by claiming that kings take blood oaths, and, if they refuse to honor these oaths, their people and lands will suffer the consequences. It is a much less metaphoric connection between the king and his land, attributing to the lord an active role in maintaining the health of his kingdom. Any may sacrifice his blood to counter disaster (or refuse to do so), yet, in the metaphoric reading, an impotent king can do little to rectify his situation (on his own at least – a hero is required).
Special side note: Stonehenge makes its appearance again in a story rife with Druids and the “old religions.” It is referenced as a “ring of stones . . . in a great circle” that is “precisely calculated . . . so that even those who did not know the secrets of the priests could tell when eclipses were to come, and trace the movements of stars and seasons” (55). And, thus, across the centuries, the record of Merlin’s deed in bringing Stonehenge to England echoes in the modern Arthurian tradition.
A section of the film version of The Mists of Avalon:
In class, we split up into smaller groups to take a more in-depth look at some of the writings in Alan Lupack’s Modern Arthurian Literature, particularly the sections on “The Victorians” and “The Modern Period.” We did some small group bonding while discussing different readings, getting a feel for the reasons authors co-opt the Arthurian world. Its flexibility, malleability, the sheer magnitude of the stories and characters, and the possibilities of a “once and future king” were theories we explored.
As before, here is the link to our ongoing Google Map project. And this is the link to a collection of some of our online readings in Readlists. Our Storify journals are also taking shape here.
Next week’s stop: London!
Annis, Matthew. “The Fisher King.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, 2007. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Knopf, 1982. Print.
Chrétien de Troyes. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. Trans. William W. Kibler. New York: Penguin, 1991. 381-494. Print.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. “Arthurian Passages from The History of the Kings of Britain.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.
Modern Arthurian Literature. Ed. Alan Lupack. New York: Garland, 1992. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fall of Arthur. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Print.