THE FAERY TRADITION IN ARTHURIAN LEGEND
Talk by Gareth Knight at 2nd Dion Fortune seminar,
the Assembly Rooms, Glastonbury, 1st September 2007
When we met last year we talked about Dion Fortune’s early work on Glastonbury – Avalon of the Heart. A book in which she cast her net wide. “Two traditions meet in Avalon,” she wrote, “the ancient faith of the Britons and the creed of Christ.”
And that is just the bare bones of it. In pursuit of these traditions she brought in strands that include Merlin, the Graal, Joseph of Arimathea, the old gods upon the Tor, even the lost continent of Atlantis. Indeed, she went on to say: “one cannot help being reminded of the super-circus which had three rings all going on at once, and the poor little boy who became permanently cross-eyed in his endeavours not to miss anything.”
Well I do not want anyone to stagger away from here any more cross eyed than they need. So I propose to concentrate on just one of these rings, the Faery ring if you like! Or more specifically the Faery element in Arthurian tradition.
I first became aware of the importance of the Faery element in Arthurian legend through a script that was produced by Dion Fortune in 1941/2 and elaborated by her successor Margaret Lumley Brown in the 1950’s. This script was known as The Arthurian Formula and it formed a focus for the advanced work of the Fraternity of the Inner Light for more than twenty years.
Something of its contents I was able to incorporate in The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend in 1983 but I am glad to say that, thanks to Thoth Publications, The Arthurian Formula itself is now available to all. It is the final volume in a ten year project of Thoth, the Society of the Inner Light and myself, to bring unpublished writings of Dion Fortune into the public domain.
Although this last one, I have to say, is likely to be the most challenging to readers. It was never intended for the general public, but was a document for private study by Dion Fortune’s close associates. So it is a far cry from the gentle ambiance of Avalon of the Heart. It plunges straight in to what I might call the Well of Deep Memory. Not simply to roots in Celtic myth and legend, but further in and further back – to mythopoeic strata that extend far into pre-history and ultimately to that ever recurring dream of ancient civilisations and the dawning of human consciousness.
Dion Fortune and Margaret Lumley Brown were adept at reaching this level by esoteric means, although it has also been done in the sphere of creative writing. In this respect the prime example that comes to mind is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose evocations of Middle Earth, Numenor and the rest under the cloak of fantasy literature run close to much that occultists have come up with independently.
There is also a great deal of Faery lore in Tolkien, not only in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion but in his monograph On Fairy Stories and his long short story Smith of Wotton Major. And the reason why he, above all fantasy writers, hit these deep levels was, in my view, because he was passionately committed to recreate a lost mythology. And furthermore, as a philologist, he went to it in the deepest possible way, through the avenue of language itself. That is to say he invented an Elvish language and orthography, after which an Elven mythology almost began to write itself.
So we are dealing with deep, deep matters here. In some respects it is like an archaeological dig through layers of group consciousness. At a site moreover that is not neatly stratified, but has been dug over, plundered, and generally messed about with just like any physical archaeological site might be.
And just as archaeologists may be hard put to interpret the significance of what they find, so we can have the same problem in the legendary field.
Let us take the case of Merlin. According to the legends that have come down to us he was conceived in a somewhat unusual manner, having a virgin mother and no discernible father. The Arthurian Formula suggests that he may thus have been a Theosophical Manu of some kind, his conception having taken place perhaps between an Atlantean temple priestess and a powerful Fire Elemental or even an angelic Lord of Flame.
On the other hand, the pious Robert de Boron writing in the early 13th century could not countenance the apparently blasphemous thought of what appeared to be a virgin birth, even if conceived in the womb of a nun. Thus the Otherworldly father had to be cast in the role of an incubus demon, sent by the Devil – whose nefarious plans however were thwarted by the innocent virtue of the pregnant holy maiden under direction of her confessor. Thus the youthful Merlin was diverted from being a false prophet and confirmed his holy credentials by upstaging the magicians of the usurper Vortigern.
The point I wish to make is, that there is not likely to be any “one and only true” interpretation for various events in the panorama of Arthurian legends. We each of us bring to them our own stock of preconceptions. And who is to say which of us is right?
Indeed it is possible for different interpretations, even apparently contradictory ones, to be correct at their own level. There are different levels of meaning, and they make their presence felt in different human generations. And for whatever reason, it is the Faery element in Arthurian tradition that seems to be coming to the fore these days.
In Dion Fortune’s contribution to The Arthurian Formula King Arthur himself is reckoned to have had close relationships with Faery women. And this goes beyond receiving the sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, even though a directly Freudian take on this symbolism might see it as some kind of sexual initiation, to say nothing of Morgan le Fay`s later high jinks with the scabbard.
And there is certainly a dalliance with one of his half-sisters, either Morgan or Morgawse according to which line of tradition one chooses to take. The Arthurian Formula favours Morgan in this respect, who has strong faery connections. She was, after all, known as “le Fay” and was married to Uriens of Gore, reckoned by some to be a faery king. Indeed the faery connection extends to her son Yvain, or Owein, who eventually met his faery bride at a magic fountain and after various adventures became king over her faery lands.
Anyhow, by whichever sister, Arthur incestuously fathered Mordred, which eventually brought about his own downfall and that of his kingdom and of the Round Table fellowship. Thus, according to The Arthurian Formula, confounding Merlin’s original great and cunning plan to found a dynasty of priest kings and queens in Logres, somewhat after the Ancient Egyptian fashion.
According to this account, Merlin looked upon the selective breeding of humans much as humans today look upon the selective breeding of cattle, dogs or horses. And the New Age he envisaged must be realised as being quite an old age by now, even if it had come to pass. Although I suppose the concept of constitutional monarchy is a latter day survival of its assumptions.
Thus Merlin arranged the birth of Arthur from the mating of Uther Pendragon, the current ancient British ruler of the land, and Ygraine of Tintagel, living in the far south west, who, The Arthurian Formula suggests, was of the blood line of the old Atlantean priest kings. Their child Arthur would then be wed to Guenevere, the daughter of King Leodegrance of Cameliard, keeper of the Round Table, bringing with her the Round Table as her dowry.
There is a certain star lore and magic at work behind much of this. Leodegrance, the Great Lion, suggesting the constellation Leo; and Arthur what we now call the Great Bear, or indeed Arthur’s Wain; the Pendragon the constellation of the Dragon that coils around the northern celestial pole; with the Round Table as the surrounding zodiac itself. A life’s work in itself to follow all that up I suspect!
However, The Arthurian Formula follows a more human level of interpretation, suggesting that Arthur and Guenevere’s son and heir would, in the original scheme of things, have been the Grail winner – in other words, Galahad. Whilst Galahad in turn, when he became king, would have wed the daughter of Lancelot of the Lake and the Grail castle maiden, Elaine of Carbonek. Thus establishing a ruling dynasty with a unique mixture of blood lines. Or, as we might prefer to call it today, inherited genes. With ancient British, Atlantean, Faery and Grail connections.
If all this seems to be like the convoluted plot of some kind of cosmic soap opera, bear in mind that it is a meld of ancient traditions that is being taught here, in the guise of a dynastic parable.
As Anna Kingsford, the greatly underrated pioneer of modern western esotericism was wont to teach, many of the characters to be found in the Bible were intended to be understood as archetypal or spiritual principles – not historical persons. Much the same may be applied to aspects of Arthurian legend.
But to return to the scenario of a dysfunctional royal marriage at Camelot, if Arthur preferred the company of faery ladies, Guenevere found her consolation in Lancelot, and as a consequence no royal crown prince Galahad could be born.
Thus Merlin had to devise a Plan B, and with a typical bit of Merlin type magic. Although Lancelot remained devoted to the Queen, with a crafty bit of magical shape shifting, he was induced to have a one night stand with the Grail maiden, Elaine of Carbonek. The realisation of the experience drove him mad for a while but by this means the soul of Galahad was able to be born.
But having displaced his intended bride in the very womb of his mother, he was doomed to a lonely life. And he was brought up, a paragon of dedicated virginity at the Grail Castle, before turning up at Arthur’s court to undertake the Grail Quest. Only once he had won the Grail, both he and it were spirited off to the inner holy land of Sarras, never to be seen again. And presumably we all still live in the consequent Waste Land.
Yet put this in terms of movements and traditions rather than personalities and we have a body of doctrine that suggests that a mis-use of relationships between the human and faery kingdoms aborted the full flowering of both Round Table and Grail traditions. As a result, a monkish veneer has been grafted onto much of it, such as the unlikely story of Lancelot and Guenevere repenting of their sins and ending their days in the religious life, as monk and nun respectively.
But that is not the whole story, for there are other lines of interpretation we can follow, particularly with regard to Guenevere.
It has come to the minds of certain respected academics, such as Professors Webster, Nitze and Cross to try to account for the number of times that Queen Guenevere has been abducted – which amounts to no less than fourteen!
Even allowing for a possible element of duplication this does seem to be excessive! It has indeed been remarked upon by a number of other commentators, with the general concensus that it probably derives from a Celtic version of the Persephone myth. That Guenevere is a representative of the Spring Maiden who is carried off to the Underworld for six months each year by the Winter King.
Now this interpretation may well be valid at one particular level, but there are elements that suggest it is not the whole story. For one thing, Guenevere does not appear to fit this goddess archetype terribly well. And so it has been suggested that a more likely explanation might well be that Queen Guenevere was not a human queen at all - but a Faery!
Startling as this premise may sound, once it is accepted much else falls into place. For example, the usual translation of the name Guenevere as “white shadow” or “white phantom” does not describe a pale ineffectual human being but a shining faery. An accurate description of how the white light of the faery world shines bright and clear through the physical form which she, and others of her kind, must adopt if they are to exist within the human dimension. A consequence of the tradition of faery blood being a radiant white as opposed to the more sluggish human red.
And why was she fetched from her father’s house to Camelot by Lancelot? Was it because he was a knight who already had one foot in the faery world through his fostership by the Lady of the Lake, who had seized him as a child? What is more, if she were a faery princess, she might well have been already betrothed to a faery lord. In which case her abductions might well be attempts by the Faery world to get her back.
Indeed we can see in all of this a startling parallel with the situation in The Immortal Hour, based upon the ancient Irish myth that inspired Rutland Boughton and Fiona McLeod. There it is Etain who is a faery who finds herself a queen in the human world, married to the human king Eochaid the High King of Ireland, and who is eventually taken back to Faeryland by her faery husband Midir.
However, whilst professional Arthurian scholars may be content to leave things there, as an academic hypothesis, if this contention is true it raises profound esoteric issues that reverberate through the whole of Arthurian tradition.
For if Guenevere is a faery amongst humans, and married to the human King Arthur, the relationship between human and faery realms lies at the very core of the Arthurian stories. Their marriage bridges two different worlds of reality in a way that effects both kingdoms of human and faery. Thus many of the Arthurian stories can be looked upon as the record of attempts to explore and heal the relationship between the two races which inhabit the earth, faery and human.
Some of these issues, and more besides, have been taken up by Wendy Berg, in a book entitled Red Tree, White Tree, which is in course of production by Thoth Publications and I recommend you look to out for it. In the meantime you can find a summary of it as an Appendix to The Arthurian Formula, or serialised in the latest two issues of The Inner Light Journal. [Spring and Summer 2007].
Taking this line of thought a little further it has occurred to me that it may not only have been Queen Guenevere or the Lady of the Lake or the likes of Morgan le Fay who are representative of the world of Faery in Arthurian legend. Time and again we find it is a maiden who lures a knight out onto a quest, often guiding him in the way, overseeing his various tests, and being quite sharp tongued about it too on occasion. And as to the nature of these quests, whatever the apparent reason for them, (rescuing a damsel in distress or whatever), there are common elements within them that suggest they are adventures into Faeryland. That is to say, the quest is a form of initiation into Faeryland.
With this in mind I began a close analysis of the works of the first Arthurian romancer, Chrétien de Troyes. In long verse romances he covered the stories of Erec, of Yvain, of Lancelot, and of the Graal, the last being a double length feature in which Gawain as well as Perceval appears as a Grail hero.
What is clearly evident from Chrétien’s romances is that there was amongst the French aristocracy for whom he wrote, still a quite widely held belief in Faery. And whilst he prides himself with being something of a sophisticated 12th century man of the world, a bit above really believing in such things, nonetheless he and his audience are fascinated by it all. And so it is all still there, thinly covered by a naturalistic veneer.
Even though the stories may be ostensibly concerned with promoting ideals of chivalrous and courtly behaviour, at a relatively barbarous time when such virtues were eminently needed, nonetheless the faeries keep popping out of the woodwork – or out of the green wood that is the Forest of Broceliande.
Let us take his first Arthurian romance, that of Erec and Enide, which may be more familiar to some of you as Geraint and Enid in The Mabinogion. There is a great deal to suggest, although it is never explicitly stated, that Enide herself is a faery.
She is the daughter of an hospitable host, an archetypal figure with a beautiful daughter who is invariably found on the outer margins of Faeryland, and who often provides the hero with arms or horse for his quest, and in this case with his daughter Enide. Having been proven the most beautiful woman in the land, when Erec eventually takes her to Arthur’s court, she is the very essence an Otherworldly figure – fabulously gorgeous, in clothes of an ancient cut, all of them white, the faery colour, with a hawk upon her wrist, and riding a remarkable steed.
And as Caitlín Matthews has perceptively shown in her work on the Mabinogion version, in Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain, Enide is no less than a surrogate for the Queen herself. But if Guenevere is in fact a Faery, what is more likely than for her surrogate to be one too?
Yet all this is just the prologue to the main part of the romance, when Erec, stung by the accusation that he is so besotted by Enide that he has forgotten how to fight, drags her off in a series of wild adventures, to prove himself very much the macho hero.
But on a closer reading he is by no means the dominating character that one might think. On the contrary all the initiative comes from her. By a series of feminine wiles it is she who provokes him into going off into these adventures, and they are plainly into the Otherworld.
First off there is a battle at a ford, the usual border between two worlds. Then comes a meeting up with an hospitable host in the form of a squire who feeds them and puts them up at an inn. This is followed by the need for Erec to fight off a lord who fancies Enide for himself, in what seems to me the typical reaction a faery lord might have in seeing one of his own kind being dragged around Faeryland by a human adventurer.
Then follows a testing confrontation with a diminutive but very powerful opponent Guivret le Petit, who appears to be a king of faery kings and contrives for their fight to become a draw. There is then the option for Erec to befriend and stay with the little king or alternatively to return to Arthur’s court, which is currently encamped in the forest. But he is drawn to an ever deeper Otherworldly test and adventure, when, after a confrontation with primitive giants he apparently dies and meets with the Count of Limors, a thinly disguised figure of Death, whom he overcomes and presumably his own physical mortality.
After this he is fitted to go on to the supreme test of fighting a faery guardian in an enchanted garden, and to blow a horn that hangs from an apple tree that disperses all evil enchantment – to universal joy. Then nothing remains but to be done but to go cross the sea to Brittany to undergo a double coronation, with Enide as his queen, to rule jointly over their lands. An epitome of a faery and human royal alliance.
That is just the first of Chrétien’s romances. I could go on, as indeed I intend to do, in the book I am currently writing, entitled The Faery Gates of Avalon.
However the stuff is all there for you to read for yourselves, and all you need is to be alert to what is of otherworldly origin in tales that have been partly secularised, where they have not been ecclesiasticised, by later writers.
So bear in mind that in the stories of the Knights of the Round Table, it may well be the ladies who are at least as important as the knights, of whom they are the awakeners, the initiators, the testers, the guides, and faery companions.
And in a strange way this also has a bearing upon the legends of the Grail. The point being that the Grail hallows, like King Arthur’s sword and its scabbard, originated in the faery world. Excalibur was a gift to Arthur from the Lady of the Lake and to her it had to be returned before he could be taken to Avalon in the faery barge to be cured of his grievous wound. Similarly the Grail hallows originate in a mysterious castle that is hard to find, that is capable of appearing and disappearing, upon the other side of a river bordering a lake.
Percival, whose original Grail was a dish, never did find it in Chrétien’s original tale. Whilst Gawain’s quest for other hallows, according to Chrétien, led into obvious faery realms involving a chess board castle, an apparently malevolent maiden who tests him in diverse ways, a remarkable ferryman who takes him to an island, and a castle of maidens or female ancestors, ruled by none other than his maternal grandmother, Ygraine, where further tests await him to see if he is fit to be their guardian.
All this is not to gainsay the relevance of the Christianisation of the Grail into a chalice or a cup of the Last Supper, and its being spirited off to Sarras, apparently the inner side of the Holy Land, in the Ship of Solomon. For when, in another body of legend, Joseph of Arimathea comes to Glastonbury, was he returning the Grail hallows to the place whence they had originated? Indeed what is the significance of his cruets of white and red? Ostensibly they are from the body of the Saviour. But are they also emblematic of faery as well as human blood?
And is there a talismanic connection with the waters that run red and white between the Tor and Chalice Hill?
One does not often come upon an association of the Faery world with the Christian, although when Dion Fortune and her friends experienced a remarkable contact on the Tor at Whitsun in 1926, (the one that brought them the Chant of the Elements that begins: The Wind and the Fire work on the hill - the Wind and the Fire work on the hill - and so on), it concluded with a very strangely Christian evocation:
Awaken and come, awaken and come, awaken and come.
Come from the depths of your Elemental Being and lighten our darkness.
Come in the name of the White Christ and the Hosts of the Elements.
Come at our bidding and serve with us the One Name above all Names,
the Lover of men and of the Elemental Peoples.
The Great Name – of JEHOSHUA – JESUS.
He who said as he descended into the Underworld:
There shall be no night where my people are –
And the night shall be as day in the light of the eternal fire –
And there shall be peace where my people are –
The peace of the heights above the winds.
And there shall be purity.
Fire and Air – Fire and Air –
For Power to serve the Master.
Who is this White Christ they mention? Is it their vision of the Second Person of the Trinity at the time of the Incarnation? I don’t know. But it is enough to stretch the parameters of belief of orthodox Christian and traditional neo-pagan alike.
And it gives point to Dion Fortune’s remark that I quoted at the beginning, that “Two traditions meet in Avalon, the ancient faith of the Britons and the creed of Christ.”
So let us also recall what she also said about the little boy and the super-circus. It is all a very challenging spectacle.
And if, like a knight of Arthurian legend, you should think about undertaking a personal quest into this territory beyond the material veil, or seek a Faery to guide you there, you must be prepared to be tested and surprised, and try to take in all that you may meet.
Even at the cost of ending up cross eyed. Whether you end up contemplating the Cross of the Elemental Kingdoms, or the Cross of Christ. Or that which partakes of them both, the Cross of Christian Rosencreutz, in a tangle of roses of red and of white.
Perhaps however the best way forward is to seek a particular cross roads, that can be found in vision, where roads from north and south and east and west, not forgetting the above and below, meet in what has been described as a Well of Light. And here I can do no better than to refer you to a recent book by R.J.Stewart of the same name, [The Well of Light, R J Stewart Books, www.rjstewart.net, including CD] which will give you all the directions you need for getting there.
There, where roses of red and of white may be seen to bloom, is the focus for a way of healing the wounded relationship between the human race and the planet. Where faery healing becomes earth healing, as well as a highly transformative and deeply rewarding personal spiritual path. And it comes about by cultivating a working relationship with the inner forces of the land or region in which you live. So what more important to think about than in our meeting today at Glastonbury?
In all of this I have tried to show you how the Arthurian legends, as part of what has been called “The Matter of Britain” may play a part. This depends of course on our reading them aright. Which may well be the case if we do so in the spirit of a well tested prayer and invocation:
“With us is the Grace of the Shining Ones in the Mystery of Earth Light. Peace to all Signs and Shadows, Radiant Light to all Ways of Darkness, and the Living One of Light, Secret Unknown, Forever.”