A Christian Sugar Coating

Landscape from Medieval Illuminated Manuscript

This is my first post since I promised to read several Arthurian manuscripts from the 11th and 12th centuries A.D. and report on my conclusions. The main conclusion is that we have been conditioned by later re-tellings of the legend to regard the tales as primarily Christian. That’s because the whole Matter of Britain including Arthur, the Holy Grail, Lancelot, and Camelot have been hijacked—first by Christian monks and then by Victorians such as Howard Pyle.

I am currently reading a work by the 12th century poet and troubadour Chrétien de Troyes entitled Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charette). It contains what might be the earliest mention of Lancelot of the Lake, whose name is not even mentioned until halfway through the work. (Since there are so many unnamed knights in the work, it is difficult at times to follow the action.)

Lancelot Having Sex with Guinevere or Some Unnamed Damsel

In no other early Christian work does one find such unabashed indulgence in sex as one does in some of the earlier Arthurian romances. This seems to me somewhat contrary to Christian mores of the time, though probably not in actual practice. In Chrétien’s telling, several damsels want to give themselves to Lancelot, but he holds back because of his desire to rescue Guinevere from King Bademagu and his nasty son Meleagant, who kidnapped her. After Lancelot’s fight with Maleagant, the married Guinevere readily gives herself to the French knight:

Now Lancelot possesses all he wants, when the Queen voluntarily seeks his company and love, and when he holds her in his arms, and she holds him in hers. Their sport is so agreeable and sweet, as they kiss and fondle each other, that in truth such a marvellous joy comes over them as was never heard or known. But their joy will not be revealed by me, for in a story it has no place.

Lancelot Slaying Enemy Knights

The adulterous love is only one element borrowed from earlier pagan myths. There is something rather suspicious about medieval knighthood. It seems to derive from Celtic and Germanic sources of powerful warriors, but glazed over with a Christian sugar-coating.

 

Arthurian Spring

Perceval Arrives at the Castle of the Fisher King

Although I have always liked the philosophical and historical insights of Joseph Campbell, I have suddenly struck a particularly rich vein while reading his Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth. It is not unusual for me to suddenly change directions based on my reading. In this case, I foresee an Arthurian Spring.

By that I mean not just the Christian interpretation of the so-called “Matter of Britain,” but the nexus between that and a semi-Druidical interpretation allied to primitive, Islamic, and East Asian influences. In my book collection are a number of volumes of the originals in translation which I have either never read or read strictly through the eyes of later monastic sources.

The stories of the Holy Grail, the Knights of the Round Table, the Fisher King, and the Waste Land (including T. S. Eliot’s interpretation as influenced by Jesse L. Weston‘s From Ritual to Romance) are a rich treasure trove with interesting links to global sources. Most of the original works were written during a hundred-year period comprising parts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries A.D.

The Holy Grail of Indiana Jones

When most of us think of Camelot and the Arthurian legends, we think of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur or—worse yet—Howard Pyle’s 1903 re-telling in The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, which was my first introduction. Both are thoroughly influenced by the monastic hijacking of the legend that took place beginning late in the twelfth century.

So I am on my way to an absorbing world that should see me through much of the remaining quarantine and the transition to the worldwide economic depression that will inevitably follow.

“A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion”

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Image of a Wild Man and His Family (ca. 1526)

Today Martine and I went to the Getty Center and spent an afternoon viewing the art. Above is one of those late Medieval paintings whose backgrounds are almost as interesting as their foregrounds. In the background of this particular painting is a mountainous rock with a castle perched on top. It seems as if the painting were divided vertically in two equal parts. In the darker half of the painting, the male faun sits on a rock with splayed toes beside the lion he has just killed. He wields a thick quarterstaff and has large pointed ears. He looks slightly haggard.

On the right hand side, we have his wife and two children—on the same side of the painting as the castle, lake,village, and mountains in the background. All three are gentle looking and seem to belong more to the world of civilization on the right hand side of the painting than to the husband and his prey.

I love paintings like this, because one could go on forever analyzing them and trying to understand their inner meaning.