“With the opening of any Arthurian book begins a new adventure!”
~ Helen Borrello, Professor of Arthurian Literature (my college professor!)
Why Arthurian legend?
Arthurian legend is an entire world in itself.
Little kids really do still play “pretend”, pretending to be a cool king who pulls a sword out of a stone. Or a badass wizard with amazing powers. Students study the literature in school. Historians delve into ancient manuscripts and Romano-British excavations to find any clue to a real Arthur. Fantasy authors pour out novels every year of a fascinating new retelling of the legend. New movies and fantasy TV series are booming now more than ever, with subtle ties to Arthuriana. Shakespeare even drew inspiration from a few of the tales. Hell, even “Sonic the Hedgehog” has a video game based on the Knights of the Round Table.
Arthurian legend is not dead. It is alive now more than ever. Perhaps it’s because we, as a society, need it now more than ever. We need stories of justice; of righting the wrongs of greedy kings and granting mercy even to those who don’t always deserve it, so that they may learn and live more wholesome lives. Stories of true, honest to goodness chivalry, where heroic knights treat women with an almost incomprehensible respect. Where women make the most of their situations and find their way to freedom, vocality and happiness in a world where such things were rare to come by. Stories of danger and adventure, of bravery and sacrifice, of love and wisdom and victory against all odds. Stories of magic.
Thus, I’ve decided to start an Arthurian blog!! *cough* *finally* I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time, if only to get some topics off my chest that keep me awake at night. Everything from ancient texts, to more recent books, to movies, travel, to discussions about romance, revenge, portrayal and adaptation… The list goes on! So if you think you might be interested, I’d be honored if you’d be so kind as to give this page a follow! (I’d be eternally grateful. Having these sort of conversations with oneself only goes so far.)
I’m an actor, fantasy writer, studier of medieval British history and culture, and an overall Arthurian fanatic. So I hope to keep these posts interesting, and while I by no means call myself anywhere near an expert, I pledge to at least remain mildly entertaining. 🙂
For more, follow my Arthurian podcast, “Of Swords and Magic”, on SoundCloud or Podomatic, and follow me on Instagram @ofswordsandmagic.podcast for more updates! More posts to come soon! Until then, brush up your Arthuriana…there’s a lot of legend out there!
Mabon is the celebration of the arrival of autumn, falling each year on the fall equinox. The name “Mabon” derives from the name of the Welsh god of light, Mabon ap Modron, son of the Earth Mother goddess, Modron (or Matrona). Modron is believed by some to have been a possible inspiration for the character of Morgan, and therefore, her son is thought to share a few similarities to Mordred. In Celtic mythology, the figure of Mabon is even said to have joined Arthur’s war band and fought alongside him on the battlefield.
Modron and Mabon were a powerful mother-son pair that were worshipped in the area of Britain around Hadrian’s Wall, most likely around harvest season, to give thanks for a successful crop year. That’s why today, in Wiccan and Celtic religious and spiritual practices, the fall equinox is called “Mabon”; it’s usually spent picking apples, decorating for fall, or baking delicious treats! It’s also time to start welcoming the darker half of the year, and the darker Arthurian entities that go with it. ❤
Around this time of year, I usually make an apple-carrot harvest loaf, and I thought I’d share the recipe with you! It’s delicious and super easy to make. Pair it with a glass of apple cider or a steaming cup of tea, and you’re good to go for the first breezes of autumn! Enjoy. 🙂
Apple-Carrot Harvest Loaf
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
1 apple, peeled and diced
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and cloves in large bowl.
Combine eggs, milk and oil in small bowl.
Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients.
Fold in apple, carrots and raisins.
Pour batter into loaf pan (or Dutch oven!). Sprinkle the top with a pinch of cinnamon and sugar.
An in-depth exploration of the connection between Celtic gods and Arthurian characters
Hi, friends! So sorry for the huge gap in between posts. A lot’s been going on in my life but we’re finally getting back to a semi-normal schedule! Which means it’s time to get back to researching and writing more Arthurian legend! ❤
So, let’s talk mythology. It’s no secret that Arthurian legend stems from ancient Celtic roots. The legend, itself, is set in 6th century Britain, when the land was split up into several different kingdoms inhabited by the Celtic Britons. Some Celts were Christian, as we know Arthur to be. But many were pagan and believed in their respective gods and goddesses.
Christianity plays an enormous part in the legend; we know this. The values of the Knights of the Round Table were based entirely in Christian virtues. Without that (not to mention the Holy Grail, the Siege Perilous and other legendary Christian components), we wouldn’t have the iconic legend that we do today. But so many people tend to forget the legend’s roots.
The stories of King Arthur were an oral tradition (and much more pagan-based) looong before they were first penned to paper in the 12th century by Christians. These stories may have been different from the ones we know today…but they included characters we do know, like a mystical and all-powerful wizard. They included an undefeated warrior who knew a certain Green Knight. They included a beautiful flower queen who was the envy of all women. There were tales of a wild Welsh knight who had a tragic past with his mother, tales of a dark and powerful enchantress, and tales of a “head dragon”– or Pendragon – who was chosen by the Goddess, herself, to rule over all. These stories were told around campfires and hearths; in cottages and in great halls. The legend had already been a huge crowd favorite for centuries before it was written into books in monasteries. It’s because of this that I think remembering and acknowledging the legend’s pagan past is so important. And these first spinners of our tales had to have had something to inspire them.
Looking closer at the Arthurian characters, it’s easy to see major similarities between them and the gods and goddesses that the Celtic people believed in. While we don’t have a lot of info on how the Celts worshipped these deities (the way we do the Greeks, Romans or Scandinavians), we do know they revered these godly figures as idols. They were thought to be responsible for everything in nature, and were to be respected through daily interaction with the earth. So why wouldn’t the Celts’ stories feature characters that resembled these great gods?
1. These are connections that I, personally, have made. I’m not saying it’s absolute fact that the Celts based the Arthurian characters off of these figures; it’s just a theory that I’m excited to share. I’m also positive I’m not the only person with these ideas.
2. I’m nowhere near an expert on Celtic mythology. Just excited to share what I’ve discovered in my own self-education!
3. There is more than one race of Celtic mythological figures. This topic features a combination of both Gaelic deities from the Tuatha Dé Danann and Welsh deities, mostly mentioned in the Mabinogion.
Either way, they’re all Celtic mythological figures that seem to have a strong influence on the characters of our favorite legend! ❤ So grab a cup of tea and get comfy…we’ve got a handful of crazy, wonderful characters to explore!
Lugh ~ Gawain
Perhaps one of the most obvious is the connection between Lugh and Gawain. Lugh, Irish sun god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, is one of the greatest warriors of all time. And one of the most popular Celtic gods. (Lleu is his Welsh counterpart.) The warmth and strength of late summer sun is the work of Lugh, hence where the name of the Irish sun festival every August, Lughnasadh, comes from. He is (usually) kind to all and has a very “host”-like personality. His spirit is bright and warm as the sun, and from what I know, he has no problem being the center of attention.
Sounds a bit like someone we know. Gawain is first noted in Chrétien de Troyes’ romances as being the “The Knight of the Sun”. Several authors afterwards began giving him that same title. In some stories, Gawain is given a special gift. He is given the gift of the sun’s strength during the day. In other words, while the sun is out, he has an almost superhuman strength; he fights the way Lugh would in combat. And likewise, when the sun sets, his power is reduced. In fact, in Gillian Bradshaw’s Hawk of May, Gawain is given this gift by Lugh, himself! (Warning: Spoilers!!) Gawain falls asleep and has a “dream” that he feasted in Lugh’s Hall, where the mighty Lugh gave him this gift to help him in the fight against the darkness that’s ever at his heels. Our homeboy wakes up to find that years have passed while he was asleep, and he now has the sun’s strength and spirit coursing through his veins. This connection makes even more sense knowing that Gawain was raised in the Orkney Isles of Scotland, where the Tuatha Dé Danann would have been common household names. Lugh could easily have been a god that Gawain would have actually worshipped or paid homage to through rituals or offerings.
Other parallels include the fact that Lugh fights with a giant, mighty sword and Gawain fights with the magical sword, Galatine. Lugh is also thought to have flame-red hair and Gawain, in many versions, has the same.
There’s also a story where Lugh is stabbed with a spear, but instead of dying, he turns into a falcon. This bird imagery is represented in Gawain’s very name, seeing as his name in Welsh is Gwalchmei, meaning “May hawk”, or “spring falcon”. In more modern Gawain stories, which are growing more and more reverent to those early pagan roots, Gawain’s bird and sun imagery is more prominent. It seems modern authors are trying to convey more of a connection between Gawain and the Celtic sun god– as well as another god we’ll get into soon!
Mâth ~ Merlin
A slightly lesser known Celtic god is Mâth, or Math, pronounced the way you think. Math ap Mathonwy is from the Welsh tradition; a mysterious, extremely powerful sorcerer that lives in the wilderness of north Wales. He’s the lord of Gwynedd and unless away at war, he must rest his legs in the lap of a virgin woman at all times or he’ll die. Why that is, we don’t know. There’s likely more about this in the fourth book of the Mabinogi, which centers around Math and his tale. Math interacts with a lot of the other deities in the Welsh tradition, just as Merlin interacts with so many other major Arthurian characters. Math is tricked by family, he tricks other people that aren’t family…and his character can often be considered questionable.
While Merlin is certainly on the good side of things in our legend, he does have questionable characteristics. For someone with so much power and wisdom, he makes mistakes and makes other people sacrifice a lot for the sake of Camelot. Math makes others sacrifice a lot, too. For instance, when Math runs out of virgin women on whose lap he can rest his feet, he offers the virgin position to the goddess, Arianrhod, who is pregnant. Obviously not a virgin. He knows she’s pregnant, and that she won’t fulfill the needed requirements for his “condition” but commands that she try to take the position anyway. (TW: Miscarriage) And as soon as she agrees and steps over Math’s magic rod/staff that he keeps on the ground, to accept, her baby literally falls from out of her onto the floor. It’s described as “a lump of flesh” that she suddenly realizes is her dead baby on the ground.
While Merlin doesn’t kill babies, he has certainly taken things from women for the sake of Camelot. When Igraine gives birth to Arthur, he not only tells her it was never her husband, Gorlois, she conceived with…but also takes away baby Arthur on the night of his birth and basically says, “Sorry, you don’t get to raise him. It’s for the good of Camelot, though, so relax. He’ll be a great king one day and he’ll be good to you, so it’s fine.” And then she either dies, or dies shortly after Arthur becomes king. Or she goes mad and is sent to a convent to “repent for her sins” (for cheating on her husband with Uther, who was disguised as her husband, so HOW could she have known?? Don’t get me started on poor Igraine.) Anyway. Merlin does some shady stuff like that, too. In other versions, Merlin does similar things with Nimue and/or with Morgan. Merlin and Math both have a history of tricking women to get what they want– even if it’s not for personal gain, and it really is for the sake of Britain.
On a more positive note, we can also see the old Welsh sorcerer similarity between the two. Merlin is said to have grown up in the town of Carmarthen, in southwest Wales, while Math rules over Gwynedd, in north Wales. Both could be considered products of their environment, having both been raised in what was then a wild land, full of faeries, dragons and magic. This upbringing centered their gifts and both men grew to be extremely powerful sorcerers, with a wisdom of the world matched only by few.
In some cases, Merlin, himself, is considered one of the Welsh gods. His name in Welsh, Mryddin Emrys, is the name of a god of magic and the supernatural. He’s the same figure who is said to have moved mountains, to have carved out the shape of Mount Snowdon and created Snowdonia. He’s also the same figure to have moved Stonehenge from Scotland to England, placing the stones where they align perfectly with the sun on the winter and summer solstices.
It’s in the earlier texts that Britain’s greatest sorcerer is referred to as Myrddin or Math, and only later that his name was changed over time to Merlin. But very recently, modern authors are starting to use the old names in new stories. While Math ap Mathonwy may be cast aside more so than other Celtic gods, more Arthurian authors are beginning to honor the mysterious Celtic god of sorcery and magic.
Rhiannon ~ Igraine & Herzeloyde
Rhiannon is the Welsh goddess of horses and the moon. (Often associated with the Celtic goddess, Epona.) Her story is quite a tragic one, which correlates strongly with Igraine, mother of Arthur. Rhiannon has quite an extensive love story, which we don’t really need to get into. Long story, short: she marries a prince named Pwyll, whom she met when she rode on horseback every day in a gown of gold, past a stone he always sat on. Eventually, they fell in love and got married and lived happily ever after. Or so she thought. She had a child with Pwyll named Pryderi and that’s when things get rough.
On the night of his birth, baby Pryderi went missing. When Rhiannon woke up the next morning, her servants made up a terrible lie and “informed” her– and all the kingdom– that she ate her son. They even covered her in blood while she slept. So when she rose from her bed and caught herself in the looking glass, she almost believed it, herself.
But she knew that was preposterous and insisted to everyone that it was a lie. She insisted that the servants had framed her because someone else stole the baby on the servants’ watch, and they didn’t want to ‘fess up. But everyone believed the servants. Even her husband, Pwyll. So Pwyll punished Rhiannon for seven years by making her sit on a stone outside the kingdom gate, just as he used to when they met. And every day, when anyone entered the gate, she had to tell them the tale of what she “did” and offer to give them a ride into the castle on her back. Like a horse. For she was no longer fit to ride her precious horse, but to be one.
While Igraine was never humiliated on that level, the parallel is definitely there of having her only son taken from her on the night of his birth. And because of that, and the way he was conceived (without her knowing the truth until after), she was forced to repent her sins for the rest of her life, in a convent. And King Uther just let it happen. Not to mention, the gossip and whispers and stares she had to endure the rest of her time at Camelot until she was banished. Just like the kingdom’s gossip about Rhiannon. In some versions, Igraine is banished by her own daughter, Morgan, who blames her for cheating on her husband– Morgan’s father– Gorlois.
Luckily, Rhiannon at least gets a happy ending! Her son, Pryderi, grew up into his teens (in seven years! He grows abnormally fast because he’s the son of a goddess.) He was raised by a couple who rescued him from the arms of a monster as a baby. (A clue, perhaps?) As he got older unnaturally fast, they noticed how much he resembled their king, Pwyll, and how much he seemed to have an affinity with horses. Meanwhile, several other children and domestic animals went missing, and the whole kingdom turned to Pwyll for help. Suspicions start to arise that maybe Rhiannon didn’t eat her newborn son. Shortly after, the couple that raised Pryderi take him to the castle, asking if he’s the royals’ son. Of course, Rhiannon and Pwyll are overjoyed, and take young Pryderi back into their home to stay forevermore. The couple says that they rescued him from the arms of a monster, who must have stolen him from the castle. So Pwyll sends out a search party and, lo and behold, they find the monster and all the stolen babies and animals. The knights kill the monster and return all the lost children and animals to their rightful families. And Pryderi is home.
From what I know, Pwyll sort of apologizes to Rhiannon, and so do the servants of the castle. But they were never punished. So there’s that. Anyway, Pryderi, who had only ever known his commoner, forest-boy life, realizes he’s a half-god prince. And they all live happily together after that.
There could also be considered a correlation between Rhiannon and Lady Herzeloyde, Percival’s mother. When Pryderi finally returns, Rhi is understandably quite protective of him. There’s even a passage where everyone in the entire kingdom magically disappears and instead of trying to fix the problem, Rhi and Pryderi realize they like the time alone together. Pwyll agrees to forego searching for everyone for a bit, and for a good while, Rhi has her son (and Pwyll) all to herself. Eventually, Rhiannon is encouraged to bring everyone back, and so she does. But she treasured that time alone, when Pryderi belonged to no one but her, safe in her care. But mothers can’t protect their children forever. Percival’s mother learns that when her son finally decides to leave against her wishes; to escape the forest that she had secluded him in for fifteen years, safe from the world, and venture off to become a knight.
So (for those familiar with the stages of the triple goddess), Rhiannon could be considered a parallel of Igraine in the beginning of her tale, when she’s a maiden goddess, and a parallel of Herzeloyde towards the end of her tale, when she’s a mother goddess. Nowadays, she’s a deity associated with horses, the moon, rebirth and self-worth. She’s a reminder to know your worth and know your truth. You are a not a horse to be ridden around. ❤ How wonderful it would be if we could reach into the books and remind Igraine of that.
Pryderi ~ Percival
Because Rhiannon has a correlation with Percival’s mother, it only makes sense for her son to have a parallel with Percival. The two have very similar upbringings and personalities. While Pryderi did have both both parents (even the adoptive ones), both young men did grow up in isolation from the rest of the world. From what I know, the couple that saved Pryderi as a baby lived out in Welsh woods, away from Pwyll’s kingdom. So he grew up knowing nothing but simple cottage life. And likewise, Percival was raised in a forest in Wales by his mother, with only birds and trees for company.
Because of this, both figures are a little “slow” to the understanding of the outside world. But they’re also both quick learners. They both use a javelin, or spear, as their signature weapon, and use it well. Pryderi even becomes king, just as his father was, and in many stories Percival does the same. When he achieves the Holy Grail, he becomes king of Corbenic, or Munschalve, or whatever name you prefer for the Fisher King’s land.
The last and perhaps most obvious correlation is their names. I don’t know how the name “Percival” came about but Percival’s original name in Welsh is Peredur, meaning “hard spear”, which could easily be mistaken by ear for “Pryderi”. The actual meaning of pryderi, however, is literally “worry” or “anxiety”. It could be that he was named so in the tale because his loss would bring great worry to Rhiannon until she found him again. (How befitting it is that Percival’s running away to Camelot would cause his own mother so much worry that she literally dies of a broken heart! That’s a correlation that could be examined, in itself.)
Pryderi is now a half-god associated with music and healing– just as Percival is the Pure-Hearted knight, associated with light, healing and peace. (And as far as music goes, he does do a fair amount of singing in just about any tale of his.) There’s no doubt that the Welsh god with a sharp spear and gentle heart influenced the naïve but sweet, spear-wielding Sir Percival.
The Morrígan ~ Morgan/Morgause
This one’s pretty hard to beat. Even their names are almost identical. The Morrígan is one of the oldest known Irish gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann; the goddess of war, fate and death. She is associated with the ‘triple goddess’ figure and her name literally translates to “Phantom Queen”. The shadows of nightfall, the electricity before war, the calm before death is all the work of the Morrígan.
On the Arthurian side, we know Morgan as the dark enchantress. Originally, though, she was a healer and had no ill-will towards Arthur or anyone at all. If anyone wished for war, it was her sister, Morgause. Morgause had a dark, churning energy surrounding her and always longed for power. In Zimmer-Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which is based on earlier myths, Morgause was the one who not only cursed Guinevere with barrenness, but almost left baby Mordred out in the cold to die and stole everything from her sister, Morgan, that might have made her happy. She also wanted the Old Ways to remain in the ever-growing tidal wave of Christianity. So she– and Vivenne– did terrible things to see that through.
An aside: This said, Morgause could also have been inspired by the Celtic queen and sorceress, Medb. Sometimes pronounced “Maeve”, Medb was a dark warrior goddess, known as the villain of the Ulster Cycle. She was known to be cruel and demanding but very sensual, sexual and aware of her worth. In fact, her name translates to “she who intoxicates”. In the 1988 mini-series, Merlin, Medb is even the evil witch who teaches Merlin how to hone his craft and use his powers to his full potential! However, the Morrígan has more similarities to Morgause and even Morgan.
Over time, the figure of the dark enchantress switched over to Morgan, who became the iconic villain of the Legend we know today. It made the stories juicer, since Morgan was Arthur’s half-sister and wanted him dead so she could rule in his place. Eventually, she became associated with the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur and Mordred meet their death. And so, the connection between Morgan and the Morrígan strengthened. Even Morgause is associated with the arts of war. Whether the story stars Morgan or Morgause as the wife of the evil King Lot, she aids her husband in battle strategies and uses dark magic to bring death to her enemies. The Celts would have prayed to the Morrígan for victory in battle. And they would have expected to see her when death was near. Just as Camelot soldiers would have Morgan le Fey.
A physical parallel is their similar features. Morgan and Morgause usually have either black or red hair, and the Morrígan has the same. Both the Morrígan and Morgan are also known to be shape-shifters, able to change their physical appearance to anything they desire. And their iconology is very similar. The Morrígan is associated with the raven or the crow; a bird of prey that would soar over the battlefield, which are both also associated with wisdom. In many Arthurian stories, Morgan has the same imagery. In my upcoming novel, Percival, Morgaine (Morgan) has a flock of crows that follow her where she goes. They are her eyes beyond the valley where she dwells, and her most trusted companions– far more so than any humans. (Whether that’s taken as a nod to the Morrígan, or a nod to Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, is up to the reader!)
As Morgan grows more and more in touch with darkness over time, over the course of countless new stories, the Morrígan truly begins to live in her. It makes me wonder if Netflix’s fey-heavy Arthurian series, Cursed (which already made a connection between Morgan and the Cailleach) will make that connection any time soon!
Cernunnos ~ Gawain
Yes, Gawain can be associated with another of the Tuatha Dé Danann; one of older and darker Celtic deities, Cernunnos. This deity has many names– Herne the Hunter (as mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor), Pan (in the Greek pantheon), The Green Man, or the Horned One, for instance. He’s associated with the stag, or the deer, and is usually pictured as a young (often quite attractive) being with antlers on his head. I say he’s sometimes a “darker” deity because he often represents the more wild, less tame parts of nature. Over time, Christians took his antlers and turned his image into their image of Satan. Sculptures and drawings of Cernunnos were soon called satanic and any offerings to him were thought to have been forms of devil worship. What’s funny is that he’s the opposite of demonic and evil.
Cernunnos is the god of virility; he represents all that is the forest. He’s very much a teacher figure, or even a father-like figure, walking with and guiding the animals of the forest. In association with the forest, he also represents the forest floor, or the earth itself. As he is a god of fertility, he’s usually celebrated during the rites of the spring festival, Beltane. He’s also the image of healthy masculinity. I think we can connect each one of these dots with Gawain.
Gawain is the “teacher” figure, in that he aids many new knights in their quests and their journeys towards greater knighthood. He’s very in tune with the earth, having grown up in wild Scotland, in a household of the Old Ways. He’s also more commonly known as “the Maiden’s Knight”. I think we all know what that’s means. Let’s just say he’s not Lancelot, with googley eyes for only one woman. That’s NOT to say he doesn’t respect women with utmost grace, chivalry and kindness. But he does like to spread his “earthly roots” in the bedchamber, often with more than one maiden, if you catch my drift. He can definitely be considered the human parallel of a fertility god. And he’s also often the “ideal picture” of masculinity out of all the men in our legend, besides Lancelot.
But the biggest connection with this Celtic god is arguably tied to his other name of “The Green Man”, with leaves of ivy and mistletoe all around his face. Remind you of Christmas? You guessed it. The Green Knight is heavily based off Cernunnos. I could write a whole essay about it but so many collegiate thesis papers have already done so, so I’ll spare you more rambling. The Green Knight goes back to tales of The Green Man, who is not only tied with the spring but with the winter. On the winter solstice, it was thought that the Green Man would travel to great halls and seek worthy warriors to play his “game”. Contrary to popular belief (looking at you, those who read SparkNotes for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in high school English class), the Green Knight never intended to kill Gawain. He only wanted to test him. He knew that Gawain would grow to be a great and legendary knight one day, and he wanted to make sure Gawain would be worthy of that honor. So he taught him a lesson. The same way the Green Man would go from hall to hall, seeking out the best new warriors and testing their mettle.
Out of all the Celtic gods out there, I can definitely say Cernunnos is my favorite. I love his playfulness in the spring and his quiet wisdom in the winter. Perhaps that’s why Gawain is one of my favorite Arthurian characters…the two are practically one and the same!
Blodeuwedd ~ Guinevere
Blodeuwedd (pronounced “bluh-DIE-weth) is the Welsh goddess of flowers. Her story starts with Lleu (Lugh, or Llew. Since we’re talking about Welsh tradition, we’ll stick with Welsh spelling.) Lleu was cursed by his mother (unfairly, many might say) with the inability to ever marry a human woman. The sorcerer, Math, decided to help him out. He decided to create a woman out of flowers for Lleu to marry. Technically not a human wife, right? So Math took meadowsweet, broom and oak and blended them together with his magic to make Blodeuwedd, a beautiful flower bride. Her name, Blodeuwedd, even directly translates to “flower face”. Neither of these men thought that maybe Blodeuwedd would develop a mind of her own…she was made of flowers, right? Literally designed for a man’s lust as her only purpose. But long story short, while Lleu was out one day, Blodeuwedd met a hunter named Gronw. The two fell madly in love and realized they couldn’t live without each other. So they plotted a way to kill Lleu and live happily ever after. And they did kill him. But just when Blodeuwedd thought she’d finally be able to start living for herself, she was turned into an owl forevermore, as punishment for her unfaithfulness.
We can definitely see where this translates to Guinevere. Before even mentioning the unfaithfulness aspect, there is a big correlation between Guinevere and flowers. She is known in the Legend as the flower queen; she is seen as a “flower maiden” figure, very much connected to springtime, especially in May. Then, of course, there’s the love triangle. But while I used to have such a hard time feeling sympathy for Guinevere after cheating on Arthur (who only ever loved her as hard as he could), Blodeuwedd has opened my mind a lot more. Blodeuwedd is unfaithful not because she has any hatred for Lleu, or because she’s selfish– but because she was never given a choice to do anything that makes her happy. She was literally created to please Lleu, without ever being asked if she gave her consent. Gronw also makes her feel loved; he makes her feel seen and heard. She’s literally made of flowers and his love for her feels like sunlight, which flowers need to survive. In the Arthurian world, Lancelot gives Guin what Arthur simply cannot; a riveting, passionate love that’s electric and powerful and limitless. While Arthur loves her dearly, he will always put his people before all else. He might never have truly been able to be her “sunlight”.
Then there’s the death. While Guin and Lance would never plot to kill Arthur…they metaphorically did so with their affair, alone. Especially since Lance is one of Arthur’s closest friends.
As far as iconology goes, the owl imagery is strong with Blodeuwedd in many depictions of her. Since the owl represents wisdom, I feel like this corresponds with Guinevere, too, after the affair. The whole affair matured her, in a sense, and forced to see things from a new perspective. It seems fitting that her character would be so wisened after it all– just as Blodeuwedd is “wisened” by turning into an owl. However, she was only trying to do something for herself, for once, and this gives her a strong female agency, as she’s known for today. Guinevere is seen as the same sort of figure nowadays. Where she was once a damsel in distress (in all the old Christian stories written by men), she is now a fierce, strong ruler in all the new stories, especially written my female authors. I have no doubt that our Camelot Flower Queen was inspired by the Welsh flower goddess who did what it took to make herself happy.
Olwen ~ Blanchefleur
Those of you who are familiar with the tale of Culhwch and Olwen will probably be able to attest to this fairly well. Olwen is the beautiful woman that Culhwch faced many seemingly impossible tests for, to have her hand in marriage. She is a Welsh mythological figure, now a flower and sun goddess, that’s even seen in Arthurian tales. She is associated with the arts, creativity, the sun and– similarly to Blodeuwedd– flowers. It is said that Olwen was so beautiful, kind and pure-hearted, that wherever she walked, white flowers grew in her footsteps. The last part of her name, wen, even means “white”, or “pure”.
Lady Blanchefleur, Percival’s love interest, is known to represent the same things. Her name, Blanchefleur, is French for “white flower” or “white lily”. She’s an Arthurian figure symbolizing purity and sometimes the sun, especially when depicted as the “Grail Maiden.” In many versions, she’s the only maiden capable and pure enough to hold and guard the Holy Grail, until Percival (or Galahad, depending on the version) comes to take it out of her hands and save the land of Corbenic.
White flowers are definitely part of Blanchefleur’s iconology, thanks to her name, directly corresponding with Olwen’s. While the character of Blanchefleur is said to have been created by Chrétien de Troyes, she was undoubtedly inspired by the Welsh flower goddess, seeing as Chrétien took much of his inspiration for Arthurian stories from older Celtic tales. In my WIP, Percival, Blanchefleur is even given the nickname, “Lily”– partly due to her albino features, which Percival says remind him of a spring lily and because her name translates to it in French, but also partly as a nod to Olwen. How befitting it is, too, that the lily is a flower representing purity; one of Olwen’s main virtues! (It’s why lilies are the flowers of Easter.) Olwen is also associated with red and gold, and wears red in many of her depictions. In Percival, as a small nod to Olwen, I’ve included a banquet scene in which Blanchefleur wears a lavish, velvet red gown; a bold color for someone of her reserved personality to wear, especially for her first time at a party, but also a symbol of confidence. Just as the red dress is still known for with women today. Perhaps the Welsh goddess, Blodeuwedd, wore red for that reason, as well. ❤
Aengus ~ Lancelot
We can’t talk about romance without mentioning Lancelot. His Irish deity counterpart is the god of love and poetry, Aengus Óg. Son of the Dagda and the river goddess, Boann (who could definitely be a Nimue figure, especially since the Lady of the Lake is Lancelot’s mother in many versions), Aengus was known for loving a woman so passionately, it almost killed him.
First of all, Aengus was born within a single day instead of nine months. So in that regard, he represents youthfulness, just as Lancelot tends to. Secondly, Aengus falls in love with a girl he met in his dreams! Every night for a year, he dreams about her and they have this romance that grows into a full-fledged relationship over time, as he dreams about her more and more each night. And he tells no one, out of shame. He spends all day long thinking about her and waiting anxiously to fall back asleep, so he can see her again. And while he waits during the day, his head is circled by four little birds at all times. (Ever see that in cartoons? When a character hits their head, or is so love-struck that little birdies circle their head? It comes from this! Except that, in this case, Aengus’s birds were once literal kisses that he used his shapeshifting gifts to turn into birds.) Over time, Aengus becomes so sad without his dream girl there with him in real life that he literally grows sick. It gets so bad, to the point where he might not last past the spring, that Aengus finally admits his spritely love affair that takes place in his dreams to his parents. His mother, Boann, and the Dagda decide that something needs to be done.
There’s a huge search for this girl in the real world and it goes on forever. So, long story short: they eventually find the girl. But a curse has been laid upon her that has turned her into a swan. Only Aengus knows what she really looks like, as a human. But of course, no one will allow anything to happen between them. How can it? She’s literally a swan. But Aengus loves her so deeply, that eventually, he uses his shapeshifting abilities to transform himself into a swan permanently. When that happens, no one knows what to do…but Aengus and his dream girl do. They fall in love as swans and run away together into the night; the wind beneath each others’ wings. ❤
The obvious parallel is his love for her versus Lancelot’s love for Guinevere, yes, but also in the fact that it’s forbidden. Lancelot and Guinevere keep their love for each other a secret for as long as possible, just as Aengus keeps the dreams about his girl secret.
As the son of the Dagda, Aengus was blessed with quite the amount of charm and extremely handsome features. He was said to be able to woo any maiden at the drop of a hat, with little to no effort. Sounds exactly like someone we know! However, just like Lancelot, Aengus only ever had eyes for one woman, for whom he forgot all others.
Iconology-wise, Aengus is associated with birds (especially the ones that were once kisses) and weapons; two swords and two spears. Both of these are symbols his youthfulness. The kiss-birds represent his youthful love and creativity, while the swords and spears represent his great skill in combat. Lancelot is certainly an embodiment of both of these things. Most paintings of Lancelot depict him either in combat, with sword in hand, or surrounded by flowers and birds, rescuing Guinevere. Also, the fact that both Aengus and his lover turn into swans in the end are representative of Lance and Guin’s love, too. Swans are graceful, beautiful creatures, but are paddling their little feet hard and fast underneath the water, where no one can see it. Both Lance and Guin are also beautiful and graceful on the surface, but underneath, are secretly working so hard to keep their love a secret and to keep the fire of their love tamed and kindled.
There are many more stories involving Aengus but this one seemed to scream “Lancelot” more than all the others. While Lancelot is a Christian knight created by Chrétien de Troyes, I’ve no doubt that he based at least some of his attributes on those of the Irish love god. ❤
The Dagda ~ Arthur
And last but not least, we come to our King. The Dagda remains one of the more popular Irish gods of the Tuatha Dé Dunann. While the Dagda is usually depicted as a more robust, hearty man (think Hagrid from Harry Potter), he is sometimes portrayed as an older, slimmer man beside a fire, playing his harp. The Dagda is the Chief of the Tuatha Dé Dunann, and considered the “Good God”. He is full of good spirits, a kind heart from top to bottom, with a father-like personality, and a very skilled warrior. A military leader, just like Arthur, he is charming and has an enormous presence.
All of these qualities can be found in Arthur, especially considering his origins; a Romano-British military leader that grew his presence so widely and so fast that men from all over Britain and the Continent came to serve him. If Arthur really did exist (Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Romano-British war hero certainly did), such a thing would have been mind-blowing. There’s no doubt the Celts would have compared him to the “Good God”.
Despite his huge physical stature and military skills, the Dagda was also very passive and gentle in behavior, among friends and his people. He was very Druidic in nature; he played the harp and kept a “cauldron of plenty” at all times. We know Arthur has this quality. He may not have a harp but he is kind, gentle-natured, fatherly, humble and very respectful towards the Druidic peoples of his land.
Iconolgy-wise, there are three parallels between the great Irish god and our beloved High King, all deriving from Dagda’s three sacred treasures. One is the Dagda’s signature club; a weapon that was known by all in his race. Like Excalibur, right? Two is the Dagda’s cauldron. In it, he kept a blend of delicious food at all times, which never ran dry. Many believe the Celts to have used this as the inspiration for the Holy Grail, which also never ran dry. I, personally, also see the Cauldron as an inspiration for the Round Table. In the Dagda’s cauldron was a blend of food for all, which served the purpose of keeping everyone full and satisfied for all time. Arthur had that same hope for his Round Table; a group of men from a blend of different backgrounds, all united to serve the purpose of keeping the people of Camelot safe and satisfied. The third treasure is the Dagda’s harp, which was known to control men (as needed), as well as the seasons. He also used his harp to make people happy. One could make a parallel between the harp and Arthur’s crown, metaphorically speaking. He used his crown and status to influence and inspire men until he became High King of Britain; to create peace throughout Britain. ❤
Another (less pleasant) parallel is that his lover was the Morrígan, whom we compare to Morgan, Arthur’s sister. And, of course, Arthur and Morgan were unfortunately lovers, too, in many versions. (Even if Arthur wasn’t aware of it until after the fact.)
But overall, the Dagda was a great leader and chief of his race of gods. It’s not impossible to believe that the Celts took great inspiration from him in the creation and embellishing of the great King Arthur.
And that about sums it up! So hopefully, we can see from this (extensive, sorry! :P) discussion how likely it is that the Celts were inspired enough by their gods to humanize them into characters that walked the earth and lived human lives. Now when we look at our favorite characters from the Legend, we can see their even deeper origins.
If you know of any other deity connections, please feel free to talk about it in the comments below! I’d love to hear what other fellow Arthurianists think! I love that so many of you have already discussed some of these connections with me on Instagram. What fun conversations! Thankfully, while modern storytellers still honor Christianity in the Legend, we are also continuing to honor the early mythological roots that birthed such timeless characters. ❤
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If there’s one thing that King Arthur does well in every version of the legend, it’s hosting a feast. Whether it’s for Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Pentecost, Easter, Beltane, Midsummer, or literally any wedding, Arthur knows how to plan a BOMB banquet.
Just take a look at Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Le Morte d’Arthur, or any of Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances. Every description of a feast of Arthur’s is filled with sizzling, juicy meats, exotic fruits and wild desserts. The dishes are most decadent; Turkish meat tarts, roast duck, goose, pheasant, peacock. The desserts are delicate cream puffs or scrumptious fruit tarts, or beautifully colored heaps of sugar in the shape of a swan. And not only is the food mouthwatering; it’s also beautiful. The sight of these fabulous suppers is always stunning. Each dish is served on a platter of gold or silver, and wine is drunk from fine goblets. These feasts are rich and hearty; a worthy display of status for the High King of Britain. And the most extravagant ones seem to take place during the winter.
Arthur felt these winter feasts were important. A feast was a time to connect; a time to reflect on the year past and ring in the new. A time to catch up with friends and family, to hear stories, to celebrate the end of a long, hard quest.
To this day, gatherings like this are still important for that reason. To be around loved ones and share the celebration of the end of a long year. The pandemic, of course, has made it difficult to have such gatherings. I know this holiday season has been hard on so many of us. Many have spent the holidays alone. Many have faced unspeakable hardship, not just this winter but throughout the whole past year. And so, as quarantine has continued on, lots of us have turned to fun recipes to add a little joy back into our lives. More people are cooking at home now, even in places where quarantining is over, and the creativity level has only gone upward. ❤
I, personally, am still learning to cook a decent meatloaf. But baking and free-styling I’ve got– and I love nothing more on special occasions than making a lovely rustic British-style dinner for myself. Especially if it’s got a fantasy theme. (Not to toot my own horn but I made a Game of Thrones feast for the start of the final season and it was dope.) So, I figured I’d share some of my (SUUUPER easy) medieval-ish winter time recipes that you can string together to make an Arthurian-themed feast! We’re all searching for a little something to bring us joy right now. And for us Round Table nerds, an Arthurian dinner with dishes inspired by the characters might be just the way to do that. Especially in honor of the new year. ❤ These are recipes that I’ve made for myself many times and tend to impress friends and family with. (A big deal for me.) I’m so excited to share them! And the best part is…most of these, you can buy at your local store! You’ll only have to cook a few things, and each of them are pretty simple to make. This can be a fun thing to do– alone, or with friends/family– when you’re looking for a way to have a little fun in the kitchen. 🙂 Let’s get to cooking!
Bill of Fare
First off, here is a list of the night’s menu items that shall soon be displayed upon the banquet table. (Yes, I made this online for fun.)
Looks like a lot– but so much of it you can get at your local grocery store! We’re only making a few recipes, here. And they’re super easy! So with that, grab your oven mitts and let’s head to the Camelot kitchens!
Camelot Kingdom Bread
Like I said, quite a few of these menu items you can get at your local grocery store. If you know how to make homemade bread from scratch, then by all means, do it! I definitely do not know how to do that, so I will be buying my bread from ShopRite. If you can, try to find a more rustic loaf. Rosemary bread works perfectly. Any artisan bread that strikes your fancy. Loaves with herbs, sea salt, even cheese, if that floats your boat.
Quick history fact: While you can certainly use brown bread if desired, white bread would probably be what Arthur would have used. More work was involved in producing and sifting white flour in the medieval period, and therefore, it was more expensive. So it was seen as a sign of high status. Whiter breads were typically eaten by nobility, while brown bread (usually barley or rye) was eaten by commoners and baked with other things to make it more filling. Seeds, herbs, nuts and fruit, for instance. Do with that what you will! 🙂
Lancelot’s Benoic Salade
Named after Lancelot’s childhood home in France, this salad is straight from medieval recipes that speak of each one of these ingredients. I’m sure Lance ate plenty of hearty food to fuel himself for all his grand quests. But I also like to think he would have often enjoyed lighter, finer fare that reminded him of home. ❤ French in style but still commonly eaten in Britain, this salad is a very light, very tasty salad straight from the 13th century!
Cold green beans or asparagus
Cottage or brie cheese
Salt and pepper
Mix it all up! That’s it! Make sure the green beans or asparagus pieces are chopped into bite sized bits, of course. The brie should also be chopped into very small bite sized pieces, so that it’s not overwhelming. (And although most western Europeans might not have had access to it back then, feel free to add a bit of cucumber to give your salad a bit of crunch!) Then once everything is mixed up, pour a little olive oil on top as your dressing and sprinkle your salt and pepper! Et voila! You have a French-Briton medieval-style salad, fit for the charming Sir Lancelot, himself!
Gawain’s Northern Isle Pottage
Our northern knight would have had many a cup of pottage growing up in the Orkney Isles. Pottage was a peasant’s dish, comprised of whatever one had lying around the cottage to throw in a pot for supper– hence the name, “pottage”. This usually consisted of root vegetables, chicken or beef broth, onions, beans, herbs, oats (yes, oats!) and anything else one could use to add a bit of flavor. But while it was a peasant dish, northerners (even of nobility) would also have eaten pottage during the winter, when meat was scarce and the best tasting food were the oats and harvest vegetables that were picked in autumn and stored for winter. Our homeboy, Gawain, would have enjoyed a hot cup of pottage in his youth, after a long day of ice fishing and axe training. This dish is warm and savory but very light; perfect for an appetizer. And probably one of the most delicious soups I’ve ever had. It’s also just my personal spin on it; you can modify it as you like! ❤
2 cups chicken broth
Baby carrots, chopped
1/2 red onion, cubed and diced
Handful of leeks, chopped
Slices of ham (or any meat of your choice), cut into tiny pieces
Handful of oats (even instant oatmeal works fine!)
Herbs (I suggest dried thyme, rosemary, parsley and sage)
Spices (Ground cloves and pepper work great!)
Heat up the 2 cups of chicken broth on the stove. Keep on low/simmer.
Add baby carrots, onion, leeks and ham to the broth.
Add your herbs and spices. Stir on low or medium until it almost comes to a boil.
Add oats. Stir well until oats are thickened.
Serve and enjoy! (Or keep warm while you prepare the rest of your feast!)
This recipe is super flexible given its intended purpose. So feel free to add more root vegetables or modify anything you like! I kept it at a minimum here, since it’s supposed to be an appetizer. But if you ever decide to use it for a main course, adding peas, squash and even several different types of meat all make it a much heartier soup. Just go easy on the salt with this one; the chicken broth already adds a lot of salt, and the red onion gives it a sweetness to balance it out. So add any other seasonings at your own risk! 🙂
Once and Future Meat Pie
Pretty self-explanatory. It’s a meat pie. 🙂 This is a family-sized, beef-based, British-inspired, medieval-style pie. Meat pies would actually have been used in Arthur’s time for more of a quick fast food than a feast’s main course. (The crust wouldn’t have even really been edible!) But this is 2021 and we appreciate simple. So we’ll stick with this. It’s hearty and delicious, and certainly fits bearing the title of a king’s dish. (It also goes great with eggs for breakfast in the morning!) It would be much more authentic if the crust was made from scratch– which you can certainly do! I’m just impatient…so I admittedly stick to buying a store-bought crust most of the time. But more props to you if you go entirely homemade!! And while we may not have goose or peacock…this certainly tends to do the trick for a main course. I’ve served it many a Winter Solstice and it adds a sort of magic to the meal every time. ❤ Make sure to serve it on a nice big platter, if you have one, and add a pretty doily or fine cloth underneath for even more magic!
About 2 lbs ground beef
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 can beef broth or 1 cube beef bullion
A sprig or two of fresh rosemary
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp ground/rubbed sage
1 tsp salt
Grind up the meat with your hands and place in a large pan. Add onions. Cook on low.
Add the peas and carrots. Stir occasionally.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Mix thyme, salt, cloves and rosemary in a small separate bowl.
If using beef bullion, heat the water and drop in the cube.
Sprinkle the herbs, salt and spice mix over the meat and onions. Stir well. Cook until cooked enough to eat but still a bit pink.
Drain all. Add 4 spoonfuls of beef bullion or beef broth. Stir well.
Pour all into pie crust. Use the other crust (or rest of dough if made from scratch) to cover the entire top of the pie.
With a watered knife, cut 3 slits in the pie for breathing.
Optional (but suggested): Put foil around the edges of the crust to keep from burning.
Bake for 25 min. Then serve on a beautiful platter and enjoy!
The Lady of the Lake’s Winter Fruit
By “winter fruit”, I literally just mean winter fruits that you can get at your grocery store. The table is just given a delightful splash of color when dessert includes fruit. I like to use apples, blackberries and orange slices. (Pomegranates will definitely also do!) Nimue (or Vivienne, or whatever name your Lady of the Lake has) is a woman of the earth. I think if Arthur were to invite her to a New Year’s feast and everyone was asked to bring a dish, she would bring baskets of Britain’s finest, ripest, sweetest fruit.
For orange slices, I like to sprinkle them with a little sugar and bake them in the oven at 325 degrees F for just a few minutes! They come out slightly crunchy and delectable. For the apples, I slice them and sprinkle them with cloves and cinnamon. Spiced apples might be my favorite winter dessert! 🙂
Guinevere’s Royal Cream Puffs
Store-bought. If you know how to make cream puffs, then obviously go for it! I, personally, love Delizza cream puffs. They’re in the frozen section at most grocery stores and they give any feast the icing on the cake. I feel like no dessert in the world sums up Guinevere better than cream puffs. ❤ She would approve of such a light, elegant indulgence; she might even sprinkle a little cinnamon on top.
Make sure to thaw them beforehand, so they’re ready to go by dessert time! And if you’re not a cream puff fan, fear not. Honey cakes always make a fine substitute.
Percival’s Welsh Honey Cakes
Honey cakes, or tiessenau mel in Welsh, are a Welsh teatime delicacy. Though the recipe may have changed over time, they were popular as early as the Middle Ages and are still enjoyed today. I like to think that Percival, raised by his mother in south Wales, would have enjoyed a hot plate of honey cakes after spending the day in the forest. Casting javelins and gossiping with the birds can be a tiring business, and one would look forward to a nice, steaming plate of these little muffin-like cakes for dessert.
These cakes are full of winter spices and go great with tea. If you’re drinking tea with your feast instead of wine, now might be a good time to put the kettle on!
1/2 cup honey
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup softened butter
dash of white sugar
bit of milk
Mix flour, cinnamon, cloves and baking soda in a small or medium bowl.
In a larger bowl, mix butter and sugar.
Separate egg; add yolk to butter/sugar mixture. Keep the egg white for later.
Add honey. Mix well.
Add flour/spice mixture. Stir well.
Add enough milk to keep the batter stirrable but still thick. (Is “stirrable” a word? I just made it one, I guess.)
Whisk egg white until stiff.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F and grease a muffin tin.
Mix egg white into batter and pour all into muffin tin.
Important! Fill only half full and sprinkle the tops with white sugar.
Bake for 12-15 min. (I bake mine for 12.) Mywnhau!
Morgan’s Avalon Spiced Wine
Once again, store-bought. If you make your own mulled or spiced wine, go for it!! I like the brand called “Silk and Spice”. It’s a red wine that’s fairly cheap, found at most liquor stores I’ve been to, and it tastes delicious. Even friends of mine who don’t care for spiced wine tend to quite enjoy it. It tastes of a deep red vineyard, sweetened with hints of cinnamon and cloves.
I like to think Morgan would enjoy a good red, especially flavored with winter spices. She would toast to Avalon and to the year ahead; to the Goddess as she lays to rest until spring. ❤
Merlin’s Peppermint Lavender Tea
If you’re opting out of alcohol for your feast, a warm cup of tea works perfectly fine. Merlin would have been very familiar with healing herbs, such as peppermint and lavender. Steeping these to make a tea is delicious and perfect after a large meal. The cool peppermint is soothing for the stomach, working as a digestive, and the floral lavender works to soothe and relax. And you can make it caffeinated or herbal! For caffeine, a black tea– Earl Grey, in particular– works splendidly well for this. If you’re looking for a caffeine-free, relaxing cup, you can do it without. Either way is super easy!
1 tsp peppermint leaves
1 tsp fresh lavender
Optional: Earl Grey tea
Boil water. Prepare a pot and loose leaf tea strainer.
Steep your Earl Grey, peppermint and lavender in the teapot. Steep until desired. (I do about 5 minutes.)
Pour your tea; sweeten with honey if desired. Enjoy!
And there you have your feast! I hope you enjoy this super fun activity as much as I always do! Even if you’re just making it for yourself, it’s a fun way to engage in and honor the legend, and end the night with a full belly and a smile. Light some candles, put on some Celtic music and enjoy! And if you’ve made any medieval-style feasts before, or have any Arthurian/Celtic/British-themed recipes of your own, please feel free to share in the comments! I’d love to read them!
Here’s to ringing in the New Year with hope, even in dark times. Just like Arthur would have. ❤ Cheers.
There are so many great Arthurian books series in the world. Some heavily based in Celtic mythology, some based on chivalric romance. Some dark and epic, some flowery and poetic. But I want to take a moment to talk about The Squire’s Tales series by Gerald Morris. A lot of people haven’t heard of it and it makes me sad. We’re gonna change that right now. 🙂 (Also, I swear I’m not sponsored in any way to promote this work. I literally just love it to pieces.)
The Squire’s Tales is a book series essentially covering the majority of Arthurian legend in one series…all told from a different character in each book! (And very few of them already well-known characters!) Gerald Morris creates a new, original character to be the lead for almost each tale, and centers that tale around famous ones that we all know. It’s a brilliant way of retelling the legend from a new perspective. And of course, all the OGs are there, too. Gawain, Lancelot, Guinevere, Percival (Parsifal), Galahad, Mordred, Morgan, Kay (Kai), obviously Arthur– everyone but Merlin is wrapped up in the series in a beautifully crafted way. And while each of the books has a new (or newly developed) protagonist, they all truly center around Gawain’s squire, Terence.
Terence is an original character that I wish was part of the older legend. He’s highly intelligent, sweet, sassy when he needs to be, a skillful archer, and much more than he appears. His character arc is lovely; from a rather clumsy, awkward, twelve-year-old servant boy to a refined, bold-hearted young man, he stays true to himself the whole way through. So does his master and friend, Gawain, who also has a great arc. First an arrogant, hot-headed Scot, he becomes a humbler, gentler, kinder (still wild af in battles) middle aged knight. He is everything that I’ve ever wished Gawain could be, from his flaws to his greatest qualities. And one of those qualities is his love for his friend and squire, Terence.
An aside: These books were written before BBC’s Merlin and I wouldn’t be surprised if BBC got much of their inspiration from Morris’s Gawain and Terence. Terence is the squire/servant that has “magic” or supernatural abilities because (MAJOR spoiler!!!!) he is, in fact, the Duke of Avalon. (Just don’t let anyone in Camelot know.) And Gawain is the noble that pretends only to barely tolerate his servant, though he relies on him constantly. Terence and Gawain’s relationship with one another comes before all others, even when both men find love interests. (It’s basically the happy ending to BBC’s Merlin that we never got to have, where Arthur learns of Merlin’s magic and has fun with it for years. ❤ ) But aside from this iconic bromance, there are other AMAZING aspects of this series that should make it an Arthurian requirement for all fans.
This series is filled with tons of strong, smart women. Period. Well, okay, semi-colon. The men are strong and brave, too. (Most of them.) This is not to say that there aren’t any damsels in need of saving here and there. Morris doesn’t shy away from the fact that there were, in fact, several ladies in our legend who fainted at the slightest bit of distress. Yes, there were maidens who floated around castle towers until rescued and noblewomen who were marvelously indecisive in the least convenient of times. But for each book, there is (at the least) one brilliant, gleaming image of a formidable female character. Whether she’s a little girl or an older woman, the power she holds is always an inspiration. Terence’s quippy love interest, Eileen, comes pretty close to winning the cake. But Guinevere certainly displays her quiet strength and wisdom. And several young girls in the series– human or fae– are blazing heroines in their own right. Everyone has flaws, of course. They’re all beautifully realistic. But that’s what makes them incredible. They are ladies that anyone of any age can look up to.
Storylines, as well as historical events, are explored through a unique perspective in each book. Morris takes a lot of his inspiration from Chretién de Troyes and the French Arthurian romances. Lancelot’s story of rescuing Guinevere from a tower is in there, which includes the famous Sword Bridge and his not-so-secret affair with the Queen. But the kicker is that this story is told from the point of view of a young girl whose family was recently murdered by knights.
This girl, Sarah, ends up tagging along on the road with Lancelot and others, including Gawain and Terence. Reading the story from her point of view actually made me feel like a little girl again. Perhaps I can’t quite relate to being a street-smart orphan, or desiring revenge, or witnessing the murder of innocent Jews by Christian knights. (Yeah, we go there. Beware, Templar fans.) But reading the story from her perspective made me remember the curious qualities of a twelve-year-old girl. It felt as if I was right there in her shoes; as if I rode on Lancelot’s back across the Sword Bridge right along with her. It’s simply magical.Lancelot’s once scandalous and scary tower tale becomes a heartwarming story with a brave little girl at its core. I chose to mention this story because it’s one of my all-time favorites BUT Morris does this exact same thing with every single book. 🙂
In some books, we read from Terence’s perspective. In some, we see through the eyes of Lynet. (Another fierce young lady who’s not afraid of a sword.) In others, through the eyes of Parsifal’s page, Piers. And in a few cases, we get to read from the perspective of Sir Dinadan– a knight who only longs to be a minstrel.
The tales from older literature, where Dinadan gets wrapped up in Tristan and Isolde’s world, are spun beautifully and tragically in this series. It’s amazing how in one book told from Arthur’s or Gawain’s point of view, love is such a beautiful, fragile thing worth protecting. Even if it hurts. And in a book from Dinadan’s POV, love is stupid and tragic, and it sucks. Playing the lute and storytelling is better, with far richer reward. Another brilliant original character– the witty bard, Rhience– gives a hilarious but eye-opening perspective on life, itself.
Morris’s Camelot is so beautifully, immaculately clear and even thought-provoking, thanks to his change in perspectives. He allows us to see these iconic Arthurian stories for what they truly are to the people in those stories. Sounds redundant but it’s surprising how detached we can get from some texts, where the characters are often paintings of perfection instead of real people. This series breathes new life into all of our favorite characters.
No one wants to read a book where the moral of the story is slapped in the readers’ face over and over again. Morris, instead, brings up topics that might have been controversial back then– some that may even be controversial now– and sprinkles bits of that topic throughout the book. It’s so subtle but so powerful, and beautifully worded by the characters that approach these topics every single time. A woman in a place of power, for instance. A person of color in Camelot. A knight who only longs to be a minstrel. Dinadan’s tale sounds like a comedy and certainly has room for laughs– but it also brings about the idea of loving a woman as a friend, without wishing to marry her. (Because he may or may not have stronger feelings for Sir Palomides.) While never specifically addressed in that way, The Ballad of Sir Dinadan is a very special book for Squire’s Tales fans in the LGBT+ community, myself included.
LGBT+ representation, quite subtle though it may be, can also be found towards the end of Beaufils’ story, The Quest of the Fair Unknown, between two women. Why does the fairest, most beautiful maiden in all the land have to end up with a charming, handsome knight? Why can’t she end up in the arms of an injured woman that she vows to heal and care for and love, for as long as she’s able? ❤
Religion is another one; addressed in manageable doses but much more directly. (As it should be; Arthurian legend can be said to revolve entirely around religion, given the adaptation.) But it’s addressed with a very open mind (especially given that Morris is a pastor at the First United Methodist Church in his Wisconsin town!) For someone who was raised Baptist the way that he was, it blows my mind how well Morris seems to be able to understand the ancient Celtic way of thinking, including Druidic/pagan beliefs. His non-Christian characters are so well-developed in that regard. Gawain, Morgan, the Orkney family, even mysterious older enchantresses from older traditions… (I’m talking Hecate-level, y’all.) Seeing Britain’s values through their eyes makes me appreciate and understand their beliefs more than I already thought I did. Morris also makes it easier to understand the Christian way of thinking, through the eyes of Beaufils, Parsifal and Lancelot, among others. There are, of course, characters who give their religion a negative connotation; Morgause and Mordred on the pagan side, for instance, and sadly, Galahad on the Christian side. But these discussions feel healthy and needed in such a fun-spirited series and are sprinkled deliciously throughout. Without being overbearing, it gives us a very distinct taste of the religious climate in Arthur’s Britain.
And you can’t have a bit of controversy without race. Morris doesn’t shy away from the fact that Sir Palomides is, in fact, a man of color. Certainly the only black Knight of the Round Table. It may be a tad subtle but it’s ever present– and not easily forgotten by Arthurian fans of color. Neither are the other POC characters that come from Greece, the Middle East and Northern Africa. Morris makes sure the reader knows how important equality is at the heart of Camelot. In all regards. And that makes Arthur, himself, all the more wise and honorable.
Speaking of which…you can’t go wrong with the classics. And they’re all there; some with excellent upgrades.
Kai isn’t inherently awful, for instance. He’s a by-the-book kind of guy and loyal to Arthur, almost to a fault. We know this. But he’s not a jerk. Stiff and kinda cocky? Yes. Rude and pompous, as he is in older texts? No. A lovely redemption for him. 🙂
Morgan’s not (entirely) evil, though she’s never fully trustworthy. I know many people want Morgan to be good and are sick of seeing her painted as a villain. But I personally LOVE Morgan as a villain, especially here, and only ever wish to see her portrayed as such. (Except in Mists of Avalon, of course. Marion Zimmer Bradley makes her an angel and I just want to hug the poor thing and give her tea.) Morris’s Morgan, though, has a delightful amount of layers and depth, as well she should. She is elegant, classy, humorous and charming…while also maintaining that secret dark streak underneath it all, that could rise once and for all, at any time. And if you wanna talk truly evil, Morgause wins by a landslide. Definitely got the “one-witch-to-rule-them-all” vibe. And it’s delicious.
Speaking of Morgause, her sons (AKA Gawain’s brothers) get spotlight, too! We don’t get to know the Orkney boys’ personalities all that well in older literature. But for the first time, Morris sheds a light not only on Gawain but on Gareth, Gaheris, Agravaine and Mordred. It’s a joy to see them with such distinct personalities! And it helps us get to know Gawain a whole lot better. (Don’t judge me, but the Orkney boys sort of remind me of Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Duey and Louie! No one could tell those boys apart until Disney released a reboot of the cartoon, “Duck Tales”. This series is the Orkney Bros’ reboot. It’s everything.)
Then of course, there’s Arthur. As Arthur-ey as Arthur can get. Kind, gentle, firm, fierce when he needs to be, incomparably brave, flawed, self-conscious in his love life. He is caring, fatherly and endlessly determined to lead his people to peace. It’s impossible not to want to follow him into battle. And to want to feast with him afterwards.
But most importantly, The Squire’s Tales is pure fun. It makes the reader feel warm and fuzzy inside. The series is clearly written for a younger audience. But it is, without a doubt, for all ages. It’s hilarious, it’s enchanting, dark and sad at times, yet still indescribably fun and absolutely riveting. And it’s simply magical. If you couldn’t tell from the entirety of this post, it’s one of my favorite versions of the Arthurian world. There are so many great ones; so many versions of Arthur’s Britain that are dark and beautiful, and mystical and iconic. But this one is my go-to happy place. ❤ I hope you come to love it as much as I do, too. Cheers to Gerald Morris for creating such a thrilling, magical, inclusive world for our beloved legend.
One of the hardships of this pandemic is the lack of ability to travel. (Especially for those of us in the USA, thanks to those who refuse to wear masks. ) But in the meantime, until it’s safe to travel again, dreaming tends to give us hope! I know I, at least, always feel better after reading travel posts. And what better place for us Arthurianists to visit than a place connected to our favorite legend? ❤ Goldmines of Arthuriana are spread not just throughout England, but almost the entirety of the UK, and even a few other European countries! For now, let’s talk about a few in England, so that the next time we go adventuring (after the world is safe again, of course), we can add a few of these to our list! A little dreaming never hurt anyone…
The obvious first choice of destinations spots. England is steeped in the legend. Especially areas near western coasts. That’s why one of the top Arthurian stops is Cornwall. Arthur was born in Cornwall, specifically in the castle of Tintagel, along with his step-sister, Morgan. Therefore, being the birthplace of our famous hero, the area around Tintagel is filled with Arthurian-themed destinations.
DESTINATIONS IN CORNWALL
~ TINTAGEL CASTLE
Tintagel Castle is officially open for visitors for the first time in centuries! Now known as one of the top tourists spots in England, Tintagel is said to have a truly magical energy throughout its premises. The front door overlooks the sea and Cornish hilltops– but that’s not all Tintagel has to offer. (I know I sound like a YouTube ad but it’s true!) Merlin’s Cave is also just below the castle, and is said to be where Merlin carried newborn Arthur away to safety on the night of his birth– as well as the location where Merlin once lived. It’s said to be gorgeous inside, especially when the light comes in, and one side of the cave even has a carving of Merlin’s face!
Just be sure to plan for natural interruptions– you’ll want to go during the summer and when the tide is out!
~ DOZMARY POOL
Another hotspot in Cornwall is Dozmary Pool, on Bodmin Moor. It’s said to be the Lake of Avalon; or more specifically, the place where the Lady of the Lake granted the sword, Excalibur, to Arthur. Once thought to be bottomless, Dozmary Pool is now only a few feet deep and sometimes even dries up completely. But its mystical history will never run dry. Local legends even say that the Lady of the Lake is still present on days when the Pool is full and alive with critters. 🙂
OTHER DESTINATIONS IN ENGLAND
~ GLASTONBURY TOR
Glastonbury Tor and Abbey is a maaaajor staple of the Arthurian legend. The Tor sits on a hilltop and is thought to be the entryway into the Isle of Avalon. If not Dozmary Pool, Glastonbury Tor could certainly be considered where Avalon may have stood . Though all below the hilltop is now the artsy, new age town of Glastonbury, it is thought to have once been a giant body of water! And thus, Arthur was thought to have been brought here in his last hours to take his last few breaths in peace. This is why Glastonbury Abbey– the enormous, beautiful ruins downhill– is also said to be Arthur and Guinevere’s burial place! Supposedly, their bodies were found there in the 12th century by Gerald of Wales, and are now officially buried side by side. Gerald wrote, “buried deep in the earth in a hollow oak and indicated by wonderful, almost miraculous, signs, and it was brought into the church with honour and deposited becomingly in a marble tomb. Here too a leaden cross, placed under a stone, not above it as is the custom in our days, but rather fixed below, which I have seen, for I have touched these letters carved there, not raised or projecting but turned inwards towards the stone, contained: ‘Here lies buried the glorious king Arthur and Guinevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.’”
Whether this is true or not, Glastonbury Tor is now a pilgrimage site for travelers of all kinds. The abbey is considered the birthplace of Christianity in England. It’s also considered a pre-Christian site that was a Mecca for those of pre-Christian tradition, even back then. And so it will always remain a destination for all walks of people…especially fans of Arthurian legend. ❤
~ CADBURY HILL
One of the closest places we have to a “real” Camelot is Cadbury Hill. This hill was once the location of an Iron Age hill fort. And while there is nothing left of it today, many claim that after the excavation there, it would only make sense that a Romano-British warlord would have held his men there given the sturdy structure the hill would have provided. It’s level of elevation also looks over Somerset and would have served well in spotting enemies from afar. During the excavation, they even found a space for a “great hall” (66 by 33 feet; bigger than any hall that had been built in Britain in the post-Roman era.) This brings many Arthurianists to claim this hill as the original inspiration for Camelot….especially since its original name was “Camalet”! It’s on the destination list for many fans of the legend, and it certainly is on mine!
~ WINCHESTER CASTLE
While not much of the legend states anything about Winchester Castle, some of the older texts mention the area of Winchester and its possible hospitality towards the Knights of the Round Table. Therefore, Winchester Castle has become an honorary Arthurian site. The castle’s Great Hall is said by some to have been where the Round Table was first created. So in its honor, a replica of the Round Table’s tabletop was placed on the wall there and even decorated by King Henry VIII. Whether or not Winchester Castle actually had anything to do with the legend, it certainly pays homage to it and is a treasured spot for Arthurianists.
~ LUD’S CHURCH
Last but not least…Gawain fans, I’ve got good news. The Green Chapel is available for tours! Lud’s Church is a moss-covered chasm that penetrates the Millstone Grit in the Roaches of Staffordshire. Located in Peak District National Park, Lud’s Church was once used by people of the pre-Christian tradition, and therefore has a reputation among Druids and followers of ancient Celtic tradition. This place is also known as the “Green Chapel”, where Sir Gawain met the Green Knight and mustered the courage to lower his head before the Green Knight’s axe.
It makes for an excellent tour, according to hiking experts, filled with mystique and deep history that feels rooted in the earth, itself. Just remember to bring your wellies or hiking boots– the road can get muddy!
These sites are so rich in history. They’re filled with beauty, mystique, magic…and I plan to visit each one in the future. ❤ There are a dozen more sites connected to Arthurian legend in England, and certainly throughout the UK. So the next time we talk adventure, we’ll cover even more!
In the meantime, there are plenty of Instagram photography accounts that cover these places and delve even further into their history. Follow my account @ofswordsandmagic.podcast for more exquisite works by some of Europe’s greatest photographers. Give ’em a search and a follow! It’ll satisfy your travel dreaming until the world is safe once more.
The Knights of the Round Table are all known to be perfectly English. For some reason.
The first thought that usually comes to mind upon hearing the words, “King Arthur”, is Medieval England. And it should be. It has become an English legend, after all. But Medieval England held much more cultural diversity within itself than many people know! The Round Table knights aren’t all syrupy, fluffy guys with pretty armor and poetic tongues. Some are. Don’t get me wrong. But not nearly as many as most think. (And the ones that are have good reason for it!) The birthplace of each of our main characters– a topic not often talked about– tells us so much more about them and their characteristic behaviors.
First, we have to remember that legend’s origins trace back to the 6th century. A time when Britain was definitely not all one kingdom. Therefore, we must bear in mind everyone’s perception of the different areas of Britain at the time.
Let’s start with our main crazy family. Uther was king of Camelot. Or Carlisle, or Cadbury, or whatever area of Britain you believe to have been the “real Camelot”. Either way, it was usually thought to be somewhere in western England. So Uther was English. (Romano-English but it still counts.)
Igraine, Gorlois and their daughters, Morgan and Morgause, were from Cornwall. Which is also in England. Same country, same culture, right?
Not quite. That would be like saying backcountry Texas and Manhattan, New York are the same because they’re both in the US.
6th century Cornwall was hardly considered part of Wessex– where Camelot is thought to have been– or the rest of England, for that matter. It was its own kingdom called Dumnonia (or Cornweal, by the Anglo-Saxons, later “Cornwall”), ruled until the 5th century by the Celtic tribe known as the Dumnoni. Between the 5th and 6th centuries, different tribal leaders ruled over Cornwall. In our legend, Gorlois rules from Cornwall’s castle of Tintagel. There, he marries Igraine, whereupon they have their two daughters (three, if you count Elaine). And eventually, by Uther’s hand, little Arthur is born in Tintagel, too.
The kicker here is that by this time, Christianity was beginning to spread throughout Britain. But a few Celtic lands still clung to their pagan traditions.
Cornwall was one of them. As time went on, much of Cornwall grew a reputation for sorcery and witchcraft– “magic” that could not be explained by the Christian eye. Thus, Morgan le Fay, Morgause and the Arthurian women of Cornwall are commonly portrayed as witches or enchantresses. (Also, that huge divide between Cornwall and Wessex adds another juicy layer to Gorlois and Uther’s rivalry. I don’t know about you but I’m HERE for that drama.)
The point is, Arthur and most of his family– even Guinevere, in many versions– were all Cornish. That was a big deal for someone who was to be king of a Christian kingdom. So it makes it all the sweeter when Arthur unites both Christianity and the Old Religion under his rule, in Camelot. Way to hold on to your roots, bud!
Another Celtic country still “behind” in the Christian conversion was Wales. A land of pagan tradition, said to be full of magic and mystical realms. In fact, Wales was where the Arthurian legend truly began. Some of the first Welsh Arthurian authors were the first to write of the great Merlin, or “Meryddin Emrys”, claiming him to have been a native of Wales. There’s even a place in Snowdonia named after him called Dinas Emrys. Merlin is a prime example of a character with amazing magic and great otherworldly power, partially thanks to the mystical land he was raised in.
On the subject of Wales, Sir Percival is another example of the “otherworldly”. A native not only of Wales but of the Welsh forests, Percival is portrayed as the Pure of Heart amongst the Round Table; the one with power enough to obtain the Holy Grail. (Until this role is replaced with the very English Sir Galahad.) Similarly to Merlin, Percival is often portrayed with an almost supernatural ability to connect with the natural world– sometimes even faery realms– thanks to his upbringing in Welsh wilderness.
Welsh culture was also heavily steeped in oral tradition, as opposed to writing, as it still is today. So Percy’s poetic words (once accustomed to society, that is!) makes perfect sense, considering the traditionally Welsh upbringing his mother provided him.
Moving away from the Celtic lands, we look to France. A place that was proudly Christian by the time many of our French characters were written. Sir Lancelot, the one and only, is the son of King Ban of Benoic; Benoic being a mythical kingdom in France.
I’ve casually mentioned his upbringing in conversation to some friends, and I’ll never understand why they act so surprised. His name is Lancelot du Lac, for heaven’s sake. And the way he so dramatically expresses his love for Guinevere? The literal definition of extra. Of course he’s French. And it’s what makes him the Lancelot we all know and love! He’s a fierce fighter and intensely passionate. The ideal example of chivalry. He is kind and loving to all; he sings and recites poetry. He’s well-versed in many languages, including the language of loooove. And he’s Christian. (Even though his mother is the Lady of the Lake, a pagan goddess, but shhhh, we don’t talk about that.)
The first authors who wrote of Lancelot were, of course, French (Chrétien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and Walter Map) and wrote these tales in the 12th and 13th centuries. By then, France and England had been through quite a few fights: the Anglo-Norman War, the Anglo-French War, and let’s not forget the OG: the Norman Conquest. So it’s no surprise that the French would ensure their characters were much more civilized and sophisticated than those primitive English. And let’s not even mention the Scottish!
Scotland and France have always had very strong, um…differences since about forever. (I just really love that Lancelot is French and Gawain is Scottish. And that Lance and Gawain neeeever quite got along. Very representative of their home countries. Just gonna throw that in there.) Anyway, Lancelot was the first to get the “French Arthurian treatment”. No wonder he became the star of Arthuriana as we know it.
It was also a very French ideal of the court for true love to be forbidden. The more the lovers ached for one another, the more romantic and “true” it was. Therefore, the French deemed that there was no better love story than that of Lancelot and Guinevere’s secret affair.
Another Frenchman was Sir Yvain. Son of King Urien of Gorre (a region in west-central France), Yvain was also known for his deep passion. Whether to Lady Laudine, (*cough* or even to Sir Gawain), Yvain expresses his love like a “wildfire does to an open night sky.” Bold, raw and lion-hearted. A very French characteristic.
And if you’re going to have characters from France, England, Cornwall and Wales, you might as well add the last (but not least) of the UK in there, too. Scotland was considered a wild land by its neighboring countries. Most of it was still primarily pagan, ruled by Celtic tribes. One of the most popular were the Picts– a ruthless warrior tribe. King Lot was their leader, hailing from south Lothian. From there, he moved to the Orkney Isles– the furthermost northeast region of Scotland. There, he marries Morgause and has five sons. One of which was our pal, Gawain.
Now, Orkney seems to be tricky territory for some Arthurian authors to really understand. Orkney is technically Scottish, yes. But at the time that written stories of Gawain were beginning to develop (the 12th century), Orkney was hardly even considered part of Scotland. It’s right across the water from Denmark, Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. (All Viking countries that were currently working hard to invade Britain.) Many of the Saxons came from these and Germanic lands, settling first into the Orkney Isles. So Orkney quickly became rather Scandinavian in culture by the 12th century. Gawain and all his brothers would have undoubtedly been raised to be warriors from a very young age. Their people, the Picts, were still Celtic and would have fought hard to retain their culture in the ever-growing flood of Nordic tradition.
This is why I find Gawain’s behavior in The Green Knight so funny. He’s so naïve and meek and polite, and “the weakest of Arthur’s knights”, as he calls himself. Oh, and Christian. A fluffy young Englishman, who makes sure to pray to the Virgin Mary every day and night. Every movie adaptation does the same thing. I appreciate and admire the Christian Arthurian tradition… It’s beautiful and a major part of what makes the legend as powerful as it is. Butcome on. Is it too much to ask for Gawain to be portrayed as the wild, Pictish-Orcadian warrior prince that he was, in tales told around Celtic hearths? At least in Chrétien’s tales, he has a bit more grit to him while still remaining the kind man that he is. This is my favorite soapbox lecture, if you couldn’t tell.
Nonetheless, no matter how he’s portrayed, Scotland adds yet another color to the Round Table. But if you want some actual color, perhaps we should mention the real VIP.
Sir Palomides, ladies and gentlemen. Enter the prince of Babylon.
Palomides, or Ferifez in some versions, is the son of a Moorish king (a king with dark skin), who ruled over Babylon (modern-day Iraq) and a few countries besides. These countries included Arabian lands and parts of northern Africa. Later, Palomides becomes known as the “Knight of the Questing Beast”, who aids Arthur’s knights in several quests. One was the most famous of all; the quest for the Holy Grail. Arthur is so impressed by his fierce combative skills, his gracious manner and his unmatched strength that he makes him a knight of Camelot.
YES, folks, this is not a drill. There IS, in fact, a Knight of the Round Table who is black. And I’m sure you’ve never heard of him. (As a half-black woman, myself, I squealed when I first discovered him. Gerald Morris portrays him wonderfully in his Squire’s Tales book series!)
Though his background is hardly ever mentioned in earlier stories, some later versions go into further detail, especially in the tales where he and Percival go in search of the Grail together. I always wondered if perhaps that’s why he and Percival got along so well; both were treated in some versions as outcasts because of their upbringing and background.
Oh, and in case Babylon wasn’t enough for you…to finish us off, Chrétien throws in Greece, as well. Alexander the Great, hero of Greece, has a son named Cligés. Later, Cligés escapes the duties of princehood by becoming a knight of Arthur’s, helping to fight his battles.
Arthurian legend is absolutely notorious for this. If you get nothing else from this article, at least you can walk away knowing that Lancelot, Gawain, Yvain, Palomides and even Cligés– most of Arthur’s best knights– were all princes who literally gave up their duties of the throne to serve him. In case we ever had a doubt of how great of a king Arthur was.
There are several other characters from different parts of the world, too– Queen Isolde of Ireland, being one of them. But there are far too many to mention.
All this to say that the Knights of the Round Table, and all the characters that make up the legend, hail from a variety of cultures and traditions. The Round Table is comprised of men from all over the world, with a multitude of different personalities, different religions, different views of the world, different training, accents, languages, minds.
Yet they are all united by one common goal. To serve King Arthur.
So films and TV shows can make everyone stereotypically English all they like. But knowing how diverse the Round Table truly is, at least for me, just makes the legend all that much more beautiful.
In honor of International Women’s Day, (I’m late but it still counts!) I wanted to discuss the role of the woman in Arthurian legend. It’s changed drastically since the 1180’s, when women started to play a more central part in the tales. From submissive maidens floating around towers to warrior women dominating and bending societal standards to their will…the woman plays an ever-important role in our legend that stars a bunch of guys. But is that role, no matter how independent, still relevant with today’s expectations of women?
Let’s start with a gal we all know. Guinevere was the ideal woman. French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, was the first to pen the story of Lancelot and Guinevere in The Knight of the Cart. Guinevere was everything a woman was expected to be. She was inhumanly beautiful, elegant, graceful, well-spoken… um…that’s about it. That’s all that was allowed. (Aside from obedience, which we all know she was not, at least not in her love life.)
Lady Enide was the same, in Chrétien’s Erec and Enide. “More beautiful than ever a lady has been described before or since”, as Chrétien says; elegant, graceful…un-spoken. Even better. Enide is married off to Sir Erec by her father, as a prize for Erec’s win in a tournament. She had no say in the matter. Oh, except for when Erec told her she needed a new dress if she was going to be his wife, and asked if she wanted one, and she said yes because she didn’t want to be punished. On the way back to Camelot, he made sure she was riding her horse behind his– never in front, or even on the side– and that she was only speaking when spoken to. Normal, right? I mean, how dare she speak up on the road to warn him of thieves and brigands up ahead. Twice, at that. Luckily, Erec sort of sees the error of his ways by the end of the story. Kind of. Regardless, this behavior was expected of all women that were not of nobility. Are you Queen Guinevere? No? Then shut your yipper.
Lady Blanchefleur is another perfect example, in The Story of the Grail. Once again, inhumanly beautiful, elegant, graceful…ooh, and a damsel in distress. Bonus points! The weaker and more desperate a woman was, especially if she was crying, the more desirable she was. (Sir Yvain even finds the weeping Lady Laudine insanely attractive the more she cries.) This was the case from Chrétien’s work all the way up until T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, where the role of women was allowed a bit more bravery and independence. Back to Blanchefleur– she literally enters Sir Perceval’s room in the middle of the night, weeping her eyes out because she’s afraid he won’t fight her enemy the next day. (Which he never once said he wouldn’t do. Also, might I clarify that her enemy is a man who has vowed daily to take her from her home and marry her against her will, though she’s never said a single word to defy him, or even beg otherwise, even though she’s the lady of the house.) She staggers over to Perceval’s bed– because she’s too weak from sobbing to walk like a normal person– crawls on top of him and cries each tear onto his eyes, so that he’ll wake up. Cause, y’know, gently nudging his shoulder would have been far too nonchalant for a damsel.
But to her defense, this is how you won a man over. With beautiful, twinkling tears and sighing breaths and fainting atop his chest. I call these girls the “damsels”.
Lady Laudine was a “damsel”. Her husband was killed and now she has to run a manor and a town all by herself. How inappropriate for a woman! What in the name of Camelot was a woman to do with that kind of power? What a terrible dilemma. Isolde was another “damsel”. Fenice and Soreadamors from the Greek romance, Cligés…both damsels. The Lady of Shalott? The epitome of the word. And don’t even get me started on poor Igraine, mother of Arthur, himself. Like. Girl. Hear me out: a creepy-ass king disguises himself as the man you love, makes love to you, begets you a child and upon revealing himself, you give him no punishment? Oh, and then Merlin comes to take away your newborn baby because he made a sketchy deal with that king and you’re never to see your baby again. And the creepy king gets to kill the man you love and marry you now. Oh, and your first-born daughter is heir to the throne, not you, so you don’t even get to be queen. AND your daughter thinks you’ll get in the way, even though you’ve been nothing but a kind, sweet mother this entire time, so she sends you to a convent. And you go with no fight. THAT, ladies and gentleman, is a damsel.
But the thing is…women agreed with this. This was what men desired. And so it was honestly what you desired. It was simply what was done; to only speak when asked, to ride behind your husband, to provide his every will. You were simply to be a beautiful prize for young, lusty knights to snatch away on any given day, and bear him beautiful children. Or you were nothing.
Perhaps that’s why the “nothing” girls are the most exciting ones.
Lunete is one. Featured as Laudine’s maid in The Knight with the Lion, Lunete is a plain, unremarkably-faced servant who behaves as it pleases her. And that doesn’t get her very far in society. When she goes to Camelot to ask for help, not only do they turn up their noses and refuse, but they laugh. She is not “beautiful”. She is not elegant and graceful; she is clumsy and has a deep voice and laughs heartily. So society casts her out with every other woman of the lower class. But it is because of her sharp mind and her witty tongue and her bold manner– all qualities fit for a man– that she convinces Lady Laudine to ever marry the gallant Sir Yvain at all. It’s a wonder anything gets done in that manor without her.
As the 12th century left and the 15th century rolled in, the role of the woman began to adjust. There had been a few fiery, lion-hearted queens in Europe by now. The writers of the new Arthurian tradition were inspired. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell features Ragnell, the Loathly Lady. It is the ugliest description of a person one has ever put to paper. Every detail from her teeth, to the snot in her nose, to the stuff in her hair that I don’t want to think about, to her body odor… a disgrace to the human eye, thanks to a curse laid on her by a witch. Yet she, the highest possible level of a “nothing” girl, was the one singular person in all of Britain who could save King Arthur’s life. Because she knew what women want most in the world.
In a nutshell, she tells him that we simply want “the freedom to make our own decisions”.
She also, in an obviously unconventional way for a woman, forces Arthur to make Gawain marry her, in exchange for telling him this sacred knowledge. Which he does. Of course, it’s also a nice detail that this knowledge provokes Gawain to ask the very question that breaks Ragnell’s curse. A decision about her beauty, or lack thereof, that he could have easily made for himself, as man of the relationship. But he let it fall to her. Thus, because woman got to choose her own fate, the curse was broken and she was made beautiful again. And not just on the outside.
Women became bolder after this. On the topic of my boy, Gawain, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features the lady in a green belt that we all know. Sir Bertilak’s wife does a superb job of taking the great and mighty Sir Gawain and trapping him helplessly in his bed, like a deer in headlights, simply with some whispered words and a kiss. The role of Guinevere even thickened a little. Then there’s Morgan. Morgan le Fay, everyone’s favorite badass, becomes a much stronger character throughout the years. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur turns her into a dark and powerful sorceress. Though she doooes become one of the staple Arthurian villains of all time, one has to admit that she doesn’t lie victim to her problems. She does not take her tragedies and become a “damsel” but instead, finds something higher, stronger, to master and use against her enemies, doing what she thinks is right.
Then we enter modern day. Women’s rights and equality boomed after the 1920s– at least more than it did in the 14th century! And it only kept growing. The role of the woman changed in society; so it had to change in Arthurian legend. Newer retellings gave women much more power. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, for example. Mary Stuart’s The Crystal Cave and the rest of her Arthurian Saga, Vivian Vande Velde’s The Book of Mordred, or Lisa Ann Sandell’s Song of the Sparrow. Even television and film retellings improved the voice of the Arthurian woman. BBC’s Merlin series is a favorite of many, where Guinevere is portrayed with elegant strength, wisdom, power, kindness, unconditional love (for the right man this time), and even diversity. The film, King Arthur, stars Kiera Knightly as a fierce, pagan warrior version of Guinevere. The film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, features a powerful and mystical sorceress who helps Arthur along the way in his journey to bring peace to Britain. Even Gerald Morris’s children’s series, The Squire’s Tales, is filled to the brim with several stories of strong, courageous young girls and women who look danger in the face and chase their goals with a sparkling ferocity. It makes me wish I could befriend them all.
And still, even with this rise in women’s equality throughout the centuries, the ancient tradition of Arthurian women is still somewhat relatable. Granted, not as relatable as it might have been a few hundred years ago. We wear pants now, for heaven’s sake. But we, as women, all still relate to wanting to be loved, just as they did then. We relate to seeking equality. Most of us relate to wanting to be beautiful, many of us relate to seeking adventure and destiny. Sadly, some of us, in some parts of the world, still relate to longing to be more than a man’s plaything; longing for vocality, for freedom, for liberation. And we all still desire what Dame Ragnell said best: the ability to make our own decisions. We always will. Thank goodness most of us do.
So, yes, the Arthurian woman may often have issues that seem distant to us. But there will always be a small flame of something in them that we have within us, too. Whether hearing the tale of a delicate damsel, or a quirky servant, or a warrior queen…women are women. There is beautiful strength lodged within us, if we only look. And as long as new storytellers keep writing of that strength and beautiful depth, no matter the century…the picture of the Arthurian woman will only continue to grow more complete.