Monday, 6 February 2017

This Writer’s Perspective on the Legend of King Arthur

The Book of the Graal

The following tumble of thoughts was inspired by another post-Christmas read, The Book of the Graal by Josephus, originally written about the year 1200. translated in this 2016 version by E C Coleman who offers this partial narrative, ‘… what I take here to be all in good faith the original story of Perceval and the holy grail, whole and incorrupt as it left the hands of its first author.’

The straight narrative here is a deep pleasure for this writer, uncorrupted as it is by nineteenth century romanticism and the ongoing twentieth century Disneyfication of the egregiously plumped-out legend of King Arthur and the Round Table.

Our human condition hard-wires us physiologically and psychologically to search for story. Story is the way we make sense of our complex worlds. We inherit, build on and invent narratives that give form to the chaos that is human experience.

When I say story I don’t mean stories written down as text-to-be read out loud and handed down, I means told stories which, through millennia, build themselves into our so deeply into our DNA -  not just the brain but in the flesh. It sits there for us to dig into intuitively for an explanation, a rationalisation for the strongest and strangest of human experiences – love, hate, death, murder, revenge, lust, passion, poetic delight. We call on this intuitive understanding of story to find an appropriate explanation to the palimpsest of our own unique experience. This ‘hard wiring’ explains why some us experience flashes of past and future events, apparently shared, by others in the past and the future.

Reading the pages in Josephus’s book I found my own story-hard-wiring sparking up like a Catherine wheel. I was on familiar ground. Hadn’t I used this whole panoply of fourth century sources - images, objects, song and story when researching my Welsh/Celtic/Roman novel The Pathfinder? The time-context of my novel predates the time-context of Josephus’s narrative. In fact the historical Uther Pendragon – father of Arthur – has a walk-on part in The Pathfinder,

So here we go.

As translated here Josephus’s narrative has the distinctively singular tonality the flowing movement of the oral storyteller rather than the transformative poet or pedantic historian. In those times Celtic priests - sometimes called Druids; in my novel I call them Seers - were alarmed as the emerging custom of writing things down rather than remembering them. They feared  that their acolytes would lose the gift of intricate memory that could install a thousand years of memory in a single human brain. These were times when high culture was expressed in prodigious memory, intricate social organisation, beautiful artifacts and world-wide trade – and did not rely on the written form. This written form emerged with Roman invasion and occupation and is often used to support the   false 'fact' that the Romans were among primitive people who could only benefit from being conquered,

The people's own oral narrative tells a different story. However, even in this intriguing volume we only have half of the grand history. The first half, (which must be buried in some archive)  is missing.  In this narrative we have to take for granted what we have been brainwashed with: the grandiose Victorianised version of the kingdom of Arthur and his round table of perfect gentle knights.

Josephus’s fascinating original narrative takes up the story half way through, presenting the interweaving narratives of the knights Percival, Gawain, and Lancelot with the shadow of a broken Arthur behind them. Arthur really only emerges towards the end, revivified by the heroic exploits of his three top knights. 

 The picture this story paints is of a South Western Britain and Northern France covered with forests as closely as rabbit’s fur. Knights are depicted as emerging from,  and retreating into the forest on their horses. Forest clearings are the locations of encounters between enemies and knights and fair damsels. Robbers – not worthy of a gentleman’s death by the sword or the axe,  are taken into the forest to be hanged   

 Scattered across this sylvan territory are castles of various kinds and quality, inhabited by tribal kings who are seen by the storyteller as good or evil. The knights of each court battle against their opposite numbers. Good against evil. Evil against good. The situation is clearly very fluid. As the depressed King Arthur’s virtuous rule recedes in the country,  evil Kings gain a foothold. So Arthur  sends Percival, Gawain, and Lancelot on various challenging quests to restore the balance between good and evil. The central thread binding their quests together is to find the ‘holy graal’ (not grail), which is here represented   here as a platter rather than the more recently evolved cup 

Alongside the ubiquitous fine horses, the accoutrements of battle – swords, axes, shields - are central to this narrative. Knights are identified (sometimes mis-identified) by their shields. As the questing knights enter a castle they dis-arm themselves,  or are dis- armed by ‘fair damsels’ who go on to wash them and dress them in silken robes so they can be entertained at the feasting table in a civilised fashion, even by their enemy

As I thought about  this I got a quick flash of a 1960S Western where the heroes and the villains leave their guns on the bar. Then I got a flash of secondary school children leaving their phones on the teacher’s desk as they enter the classroom.

As well as disarming and dressing the knights the damsels carry precious symbols like a golden circlet and the graal,  They also have their own personal quests. In the case of one damsel this is to carry round the heads of slain nights to mark the victory in battle.

This cult of the head is everywhere – carried around to identify and sometimes honour the dead, displayed as an offering to a leader or stuck on posts at the gates of a castle to claim victory.  ( A Custom which lasted down to the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The weapons of execution are also highly symbolic. Central to one part of this narrative
Joseph  of Aramathea
is the sword that struck off the head of John the Baptist and brought to the British shore by Joseph of Aramathea. The story has it that this same sword was stuck in a stone column in a chapel  (not a rock) waiting to be pulled out by an honourable knight.

This cult of the head struck a chord of recognition with me. Although this volume was not part of my research for my novel The Pathfinder, in that novel the hall of a powerful northern chieftain (dreamed up by me) is lined by the skulls generations of defeated enemies and honoured ancestors. He too lives in dense forested land, as does the chieftain father of my heroine Helen, who lives deep in the forests of West Britain in the land we now call Wales.

My novel also marks the gradual change from Celtic pantheism to the worship
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(sometimes forced) of one God and the emergence of Christianity. This narrative is also threaded through with the historical imperative of the spread of the Christian church in the wake of the Roman occupationm

As the knights go hither and thither on their various quests they encounter hermits in chapels where they say mass when they return from, or set out on their journeys. Masses mark the passing of time for these itinerant knights.

As the story evolves King Arthur (sensibly wanting God on his side) confirms the importance of the masses and the hermits. And this , interestingly, is when he ordains that all chapels should have a big bell  to ring out their celebration of this new faith,

The female element in this legendary narrative is well established by the attendance of  comfort damsels, by their ritual deceased-head and symbol-bearing role mentioned earlier. The holy presence of the Virgin Mary as the female ideal underpins much of the narrative, This is sustained by the presence of the mother of Percival and the offstage presence of Guinevere who dies, also  offstage before the end. In this early narrative there is no mention of a dishonourable relationship between  Lancelot and Guinevere, merely his veneration and deep love being unrequited

So here is a perfect narrative surely handed down in the Celtic oral fashion and written down hundreds of years later  in 1200AD- praising the role of honour in society, knitting together various actual events, distilling the actions of symbolic heroes and villains inhabiting a world on the edge of chaos. It welds together the ancient spirituality  with the dawning dominance of  Christ worship, making some kind of order through claims and counterclaims, evolving rules  of courtesy and precedent, embodied in the person of the gentle perfect knight who is trusted because of his natural valour and virtue.

This is a much more graceful and charged account of those days, coming down as it does through oral accounts. It is so much purer  than the later romanticised, over-decorated Victorian  renderings such as Morte d’Arthur, which lean  on  it Victorian context rather than its true Celtic origins.

Interestingly, missing in this narrative are such familiar embellishments  as dragons. (There are real lions here,, not dragons. The only dragon is on the shield of a West Briton Knight).  And  missing also is betrayal of Arthur by  Lancelot’s and Guinevere. Also missing is the concrete existence of Camelot except by naming.  Then the castles here are not be-ribboned edifices; they have little resemblance to the Hollywood Camelots. I have the impression of  those great wooden stockades more familiar to us from the American Western.

I loved reading this book because its reflection of Celtic and post-Celtic culture has a ring of truth for me. And I loved reading it because it made me realise that in writing The Pathfinder I had quite intuitively rung the bell of my own narrative  truth, as clear as one of Arthur’s chapel bells.

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