An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (4) King Arthur, Pt 4: Supernatural Wonder
Good Morning, Everyone!
King Arthur still looms large in the popular imagination, his name usually evoking equally legendary and supernatural images. Most familiar, perhaps, are the images of the ‘Wart’ pulling from a stone the enchanted sword Excalibur in Disney’s animated classic, The Sword in the Stone (itself an adaptation of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King); then there’s Colin Morgan’s wonderful portrayal of a teenaged Merlin for five seasons on the eponymous BBC tv series, magically protecting Camelot while the future (also-teenaged) ruler trains by his side, and featuring a reimagined Guinevere, Lancelot, Perceval, and Knights of the Round Table who all desultorily join Arthur before his final battle.
Most famously, there’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s 1975 take on the legend that skillfully critiqued medieval religion and popular culture as Graham Chapman’s Arthur, John Cleese’s Lancelot, Michael Palin’s Sir Galahad, & Terry Jones’s Sir Bedevere et al rode broomsticks-cum-horses through a parody-filled medieval landscape. (“It’s just a flesh wound!”/ “How could a 5-ounce bird possibly carry a 1-pound coconut?” / “Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.”)
For all of the cinematic examples above, the wellsprings for these renderings of Arthur’s legend actually lie deep in the medieval literary tradition, the canon flowing from the imaginations and quills of a select number of 12th-15th Century writers. I last discussed the “martial” and historical aspects of Arthur, and today want to touch on the theme of “supernatural wonder” that one associates with Arthurian lore. This theme is a unique blend of pagan and Christian elements, as Corinne Saunders elaborates in the introductory paragraphs of her essay, “Religion and Magic”:
[Excerpt from Corinne Saunders, “Religion and Magic”]: The themes of religion and magic, interwoven in the supernatural, are crucial to the Arthurian legend. Many of its most resonant motifs, both secular and sacred, are linked to the supernatural (quest and adventure, magic and enchantment, prophecy and destiny, miracle and marvel, the search for the Holy Grail), as are some of its most powerful figures (Merlin, Morgan le Fey, the Fisher King). The leitmotif [recurrent theme] of the supernatural echoes through Arthurian romance from its origins in the twelfth century to its modern manifestations.
Writers such as Chrétien de Troyes, the Gawain-poet, Malory, Tennyson, T.H. White, and Marion Zimmer Bradley engage in vastly different ways with the supernatural, but it remains a constant, fundamental to their narratives. While in some contemporary works the supernatural is reduced or floats free of Christianity, the intimate connection between magic, religion and romance, established over something approaching a millennium, is not readily lost. Magic and the supernatural more generally provide romance with its quality of the marvelous, but may also be treated with profundity and realism. Medieval Arthurian legend, the focus of this essay, reflects a Christian world view in which the supernatural is assumed to play a part, and in which religion does not negate the possibility of magic. Some of the central tensions in Arthurian romance, however, arise from the clash between different sorts of supernatural, in particular between the secular (with its origins in the pagan) and the sacred, and the ways that chivalric ideals engage with these.
[continued excerpt from Corinne Saunders, “Religion and Magic”]: The thought-world of the later Middle Ages included a complex mix of ideas of magic and the supernatural, which stretched back through classical and Judaeo-Christian as well as Germanic and Celtic belief and ritual. Classical thought was infused with a strong sense of the supernatural: this was a world of gods and daemons, spirits who could act for good or ill. Classical literature told of celebrated practitioners of magic such as Medea and Circe, and of the flesh-devouring, child-killing strix or witch. There was also a strong tradition of what would come to be termed natural magic: Pliny’s Natural History ferociously condemns magic as dependent on the powers of demons, but also repeatedly refers to the extraordinary attributes of plants, stones and animal substances. The oppositions between secular and spiritual, natural and demonic, licit and illicit magic established within the classical world remains crucial.
[continued excerpt from Corinne Saunders, “Religion and Magic”]: In the early Christian world magic was associated with the pagan. Augustine states categorically in The City of God that magic is demonic, whereas miracles occur through faith. Yet, like Pliny, Augustine readily accepts as part of God’s universe the marvelous in nature, such as the properties of plants and stones. Theologians of the early Middle Ages followed Augustine, identifying pagan superstition as demonic and heretical, although its endurance is clearly indicated by the many references to practices such as the rise of amulets, love-magic, medical magic and divination in secular and canon laws, penitentials and sermons, as well as the existence of collections of charms and remedies … . [END Excerpt: Corinne Saunders, “Religion and Magic,” in Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009; at 201-202.]
Whenever adopting any of the Arthurian supernatural wonders, some of today’s fantasists would do well to study such influences as classical times (Greco-Roman Antiquity), Judeo-Christian beliefs, and pagan (Celtic & Welsh) practices. You can still write a story in the Arthurian vein without knowing about these origins, of course, but I think that a reader is better entertained when an adventure is wrought with some of these elements in mind. Respectively, Arthur’s ‘defense of Britain’ is a concept that needs some grounding in Roman frontier-life or knowledge of late-antique modes of kingship for verisimilitude; we may enjoy an idealized Camelot of the High Middle Ages, but the myth of Arthur is compelling because of the conflation of its (possible) 6th Century roots in provincial British vs. Saxons conflicts and a hyper-idealized late-medieval English/French court life.
Then, there’s the infusion of Judeo-Christian religious ideals into the Arthurian stories. To me, this inheritance is on of the least tended to in modern fantasy because of the emotional charge that electrifies any expression of Hebrew, Christian, or Muslim faith within the fantasy genre; and, “literally,” God help any author tries to seriously engage any or all of these religions in a fantasy story! Religiosity, however, can’t be ignored in the Arthurian tradition. Indeed, can we really imagine any Arthurian tale without a chivalric ideal informed by the Christological allusions to sacrifice, obeisance, etc? Without the knight kneeling in vassalage to a feudal lord-cum-spiritual guide? Both of these relationships mirror aspects of the monotheistic belief that lies at the heart of a Biblical tradition that transformed Western Europe and the British Isles in the Middle Ages. Without such a religious presence, there’d be no Joseph of Arimethea or Holy Grail, no piously questing Knights of the Round Table, nor even Guinevere retiring to a convent, to name just a few examples.
Lastly, without the Celtic and Welsh traditions that predated the advent of Christianity in Britain, whence warlocks such as Merlin, or witches/fairies like Morgan le Fey? One could probably study many of the Arthurian works in isolation — e.g., finding all of the Christian and 15th century references in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur — but, to me, the admixture of explicitly rendered Christian themes and fabled phenomena such as Stonehenge and the druids, the Gaste Forest (Wasteland), white stags and wild hunts, the Lady of the Lake, the Questing Beast, Nimue, and the Otherworld of Annen Verden is where Arthur’s tales truly come to life. Appreciate the Classical & Judeo-Christian elements, but never forget the Welsh and Celtic ‘pagan’ traditions that infuse all of the writers’ works!
If you take into account folk tales such as the Mabinogion or Culhwch and Olwen, you start drawing from some of the same traditions that the 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth did when he wrote the Vita Merlini (“Life of Merlin”) and related the young wizard’s prophecy about why a castle couldn’t be built on an outcropping of apparently solid rock (Merlin said that two dragons fought in a pool below, a red beast, emblematic of the Britons, and a white one, which represented the Saxons).
Drawing upon such a diversity of historical, religious, and mythological traditions is the fun part of writing fantasy, and also one of the reasons why the Arthurian legend has endured for almost a thousand years.
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