Sunday, March 10, 2013

Camelot Revisited

One of my earlier works has recently reappeared in a new edition, namely The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend.  There is an involved and fascinating history to this book and to its origins. It was first published in 1983 following a quite remarkable workshop I conducted at Hawkwood college in 1981.  As Caitlín Matthews, who was there at the time, reported – “It was truly an awesome and splendid thing that we did. The power which we invoked was both visible and perceptible to every sense: the candles on the altar shimmering with a radiance greater than their own. None of us wanted to leave: we were gripped, not by fear, but by longing to remain. One by one the company dispersed to bear into the world the substance of what we had experienced, and to continue the work of the Round Table within our own sphere of life.”  The whole event is reported in somewhat more detail in my esoteric autobiography I Called It Magic.
            This series of workshops was part of an initiative based on the principle of the Externalisation of the Hierarchy to take into the public domain certain techniques that I had learned in the Society of the Inner Light, and from working with the occultist W.G.Gray in the late 1960’s, (whose biography, by the way, The Old Sod, by Marcus Claridge and Alan Richardson is a remarkable insight into the ways (and peccadilloes) of an earlier occult generation).
However, the theme of this particular Arthurian weekend, and much of the power behind it, was largely based on a Society of the Inner Light script called The Arthurian Formula. This had originated as a series of trance communications received by Dion Fortune between April 1941 and February 1942, assisted by her old Golden Dawn mentor, Maiya Tranchell-Hayes, and later supplemented by her remarkably gifted successor Margaret Lumley Brown. The script had formed the basis of the inner work of the Society for the following twenty years in a project known as the Redemption of the Archetypes. Although all was highly secret in those days, in 2006 I was able to edit a published edition of The Arthurian Formula, with an amount of supplementary material on Atlantean and Faery traditions.
But when it comes to the matter of revisiting Camelot, a lot depends on what route one is taking to get there. We need to bear this in mind to avoid being confused by what may appear to be direct contradictions in interpretation. Atlantean? Faery? Celtic? Malory? Mabinogion? Chretien de Troyes? Lancelot/Grail?
The Arthurian Formula, and by extension, The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend is largely based on Le Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory, a classic of early English literature published in 1485, and upon which Atlantean theories were grafted by Dion Fortune and Margaret Lumley Brown and their inner contacts.
Atlantean speculations had their heyday in the 1920’s, the ground having been laid in 1892 by a retired American politician Ignatius Donnelly with Atlantis: The Antediluvian World as part of a serious scientific proposition. That is to say whether such a catastrophe as a lost continent was geologically likely or possible, along with comparisons of flora and fauna and human culture on both sides of the Atlantic. Theories were taken seriously enough for the British Prime Minister, Mr Gladstone (unsuccessfully) to seek government funds to send a ship to test some of them out, and for the explorer Colonel Fawcett (also tragically unsuccessfully) to seek remains of a civilisation antedating ancient Egypt in the Amazon jungle. The respected occult researcher Lewis Spence  published a series of works on the subject during the 1920’s and Dion Fortune was familiar with all of these, so that the outlines of the tradition were replicated in The Esoteric Orders and their Work (1927). The more esoteric strands stemmed from Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), the clairvoyant researches by W. Scott-Elliot in The Story of Atlantis (1893), and Rudolf Steiner’s  Atlantis and Lemuria (1911).
Most of the scientific theories seem to have been sunk  by more recent oceanographic studies and the theory of tectonic plates, but the tradition of a lost continent lives on as a scenario that appeals to the popular imagination, and in a way has resurfaced with J.R.R.Tolkien’s evocation of Numenor in The Silmarillion. Not published until 1977 but which may have been written as far back as the early 1920’s, not that Tolkien seemed to rely on anything beyond his own mythopoeic imagination – and nothing wrong with that! And it is quite possible to build a workable Mystery tradition upon them.
Dion Fortune’s long term interest in the matter of sexual polarity as exemplified in her novels and in her early psychological work is also plainly shown in The Arthurian Formula in an analysis of the domestic problems experienced by Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot, and in which the king’s half sisters Morgan and Morgawse play a questionable role.  
Wendy Berg, however, has set a number of other hares running with remarkable pair of books, one theoretical the other practical,  Red Tree, White Tree and Gwenevere and the Round Table, with the suggestion (buttressed by at least a couple of respectable academic works) that the main problem at the court was not that King Arthur fancied faery women to humans, but that the queen herself was a faery. And following up on this suggestion, my own researches into the first Arthurian romancer, Chrétien de Troyes, have convinced me that faery elements played a major role in Arthurian legend, and that far from the emphasis being on chivalrous knights rescuing human damsels in distress, the damsels were more likely to be feisty faery women initiating a mortal knight into inner world planes and adventures. Such is my theme in The Faery Gates of Avalon.
The routes to Camelot taken by Wendy Berg and myself were, respectively the early 13th century Lancelot/Grail cycle, and the late 12th century romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Not that Sir Thomas Malory was ignorant of this material, for his Le Morte d’Arthur was a free translation of much of it. But he was a down to earth English knight with an outlook influenced by the culture of his day, that celebrated 14th century codes of chivalry as exemplified by Henry V, the hero of the battle of Agincourt in 1415.
Quite a natural tendency one has to say, for each generation is likely to see ancient material in its own light, and he certainly tells a good story, if a somewhat prolix one at times. Fast forwarding for some four hundred years we find the 19th century Idylls of the King by Lord Alfred Tennyson tends to feature the Camelot ladies as languorous Pre-Raphaelite maidens and the knights as decent Victorian chaps whose  characters could well have been formed on the playing fields of Eton
Nonetheless, before one gets too patronising it should be said that the most powerful working of that 1981 Hawkwood weekend was based upon a reading straight out of Tennyson!  
Our cultural attitudes today might well be characterised by a neo-Celtic influence. When The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend first appeared, it did attract some criticism for being largely based on Malory rather than more direct Celtic material such as The Mabinogion. But although the Mabinogion was translated by Lady Charlotte Guest as far back as 1838-49 there was not a lot of esoteric commentary on it at the time of the publication of The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend.
However this was soon put to rights by the end of the decade with major works by Caitlín Matthews Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain (1987) and Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain (1989); John Matthews on Gawain – Knight of the Goddess (1990); The Grail Seeker’s Companion (1986) by John Matthews and Marian Green; and R.J.Stewart’s The Mystic Life of Merlin and The Prophetic Vision of Merlin (1986) drawing upon Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain  and Vita Merlini. Most if not all of these writers were present at that Arthurian weekend – not that I lay claim to inspiring them, but simply that we were all part of a current that began to flow strongly in the 1980’s. And if there is one thing I have learned about practical occultism it is that, like small boat sailing, it is all a question of learning how to go with the winds and the tides – inner or outer. How to pick them up, use them to best advantage, and not be wrecked by sailing too close to the wind!
Looked at in this way, revisiting Camelot is like a voyage to a mystical island  through a network of various shoals and channels, deeps and shallows, that each are navigable with a bit of luck and skill, as long as you don’t stop en route to argue the toss as to which way might be the one and only true. For the best compass is your own character, motivation and intuition.
On that memorable occasion in 1981 when, upon impulse from I know not where, I took up a hunting horn and blew three long blasts at the end of an evocative reading, I had no sooner done so than it seemed as if great doors opened in the West bringing a waft of sea air, and even spray. A mighty figure of the King came through the doors, crowned, with short golden beard, robed, and with the great hilt of the sword Excalibur very prominent, impressive with its jewelled work, in its mighty runed scabbard. With the king came Queen Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawain, Tristram and all the knights and ladies. Larger than life they took up their positions about the Table Round. In the centre rose a column of incense smoke with astral rainbow colours manifesting as the powers of the Grail, the Cauldron, Merlin and Nimuë. The rest can be read up in Chapter 15 of I Called It Magic.
All images that could well come out of illustrations by Arthur Ransome rather than what any historical 5th century Arthurian dux bellorum might have been like. But like Atlantis, these images well up from the universal mind, rather than any physical historical scenario. For there are many interconnecting spheres that we inhabit, beyond the physical one we are currently anchored to in our outer lives.
And such images from them, once experienced, are never forgotten. But you need to have been there when the gates were opened, to experience the power. Although those gates have by no means since been shut. As was announced at the time from an inner plane source “A light has been rekindled tonight that has for too long been extinguished.”  It still shines if you go and look for it.
Likewise: “The sword is unsheathed and should be kept on the altar in that way.” It too is still there, if  you know how to find your way to the mystic chapel. By the crystal boat of the magical imagination.