The Many Faces of Morgan le Fay

I’ve done a similar post before, but it’s been awhile, and I think it’s appropriate to reprise this subject again. Here are some images from my collection of pictures of Morgan le Fay.

ON THE SCREEN (LARGE AND SMALL)

– Eva Green in Camelot. Does it for me. Looks most like Sir Kay’s Morgan.

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Religion In Dark Age Britain

Christianity plays a huge part in the traditional Arthurian legend, which high Middle Age writers magically teleported into their own time. But when you move the story back into the background where it would have taken place if it is has historical roots, late 5th and early 6th centuries, the religious picture becomes much murkier. Particularly since we have very limited sources (written, archeological, etc) that contribute to our knowledge of the period.

When developing your own legend, it’s always good to start with what you know. Fiction isn’t bound by any of this, of course.  But if it gets too far afield it becomes Alternative History or Fantasy. None of that is really my intent.

 THE HISTORICAL FACTS AS WE KNOW THEM

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Rusty’s World of King Arthur: When?

I talked a little bit on Tuesday about “where” Rusty’s realm of King Arthur is located (more about that later). An equally important factor is “when.”

The French Romance writers, notably including the 12th century Chrétien de Troyes, place Arthur and his knights in contemporary times. Thomas Malory, writing in the 15th century, follows that practice. Of course, we know for a fact that if King Arthur really did live, it couldn’t have been during these times. The history of the Middle Ages is too well known. We know every king of England and surrounding territories during that period, and Arthur is not one of them.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) places Arthur in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. That tradition is much more popular with modern Arthurian writers, although using literary license to move it around a century or two is not uncommon. Geoffrey traces the legend back to a British king named Vortigern; there is reasonable historical evidence that Vortigern was a real person. According to Geoffrey, Vortigern invited the Saxon brothers Hengest and his brother Horsa to Britain and gave them land in exchange for their sister is marriage and fighting to defend his kingdom–an early historical case of hiring the fox to guard the hen house. Vortigern’s rule is thought to have begun around 455.

Vortigern also instigated the murder of one of King Constantine’s three sons, Constans (Constantine was apparently a rival for the position of high king, which didn’t really exist at the time). The other two sons, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Uther Pendragon, escaped to Brittany. They later returned to take vengeance on Vortigern. Ambrosius ruled as high king until his death, and was then succeeded by his brother Uther. And as we all know by know from my Arthurian quizzes, Uther was the father of Arthur.

So here, then, are some key dates from Rusty’s Arthurian Timeline.

457AD: Vortigern is killed, beginning the reign of Ambrosius and then Uther 9 years later (Uther would have been 28 when he became high king).

459: Igrane married Gorlois. In the next 3 years they have three daughters: Elaine, Morgause, and Morgan le Fay.

467: Sir Kay is born (there were no stars in the east to mark the event).

469: Arthur conceived; Uther marries Igrane 13 days later. 9 months after that, Arthur is secretly taken away by Merlin and left with Sir Kay’s father, Sir Ector, to foster.

475: Elaine and Morgause are married off because of Uther’s inability to keep his prick in his pants around his step daughters. Morgan is sent to a nunnery. 4 years later, she escapes and ends up in Fairie for 17 years (as told in Strange Bedfellows).

480: Merlin returns from the Middle East and begins the education of Arthur in the art of kingsmanship, and Sir Kay in mathematics (as told in The Adventures of Sir Kay). He is also carrying with him the Holy Grail (as told in Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail).

485: Uther dies; chaos reigns until . . .

487: Arthur draws the sword from the stone and begins his reign. It takes him 3 years to finally put down the warring kings who refuse to accept him and assume the role as well as the title of High King.

491: Arthur begins the Saxon Wars. This lasts until the Battle of Mount Baden in 498. The battle may have been a real battle; if so, the date 498 is accepted by some scholars as the best estimate of when it took place.

496: Morgan finally escapes Fairie and comes to live with the Lady of the Lake. 4 years later she finally makes it to Camelot. Within a year, a jealous Guinevere has engineered for her to be married to the brutal King Uriens (story told in Strange Bedfellows).

504: Nimue uses her necromancy skills to place the dying Merlin in suspended animation. George Foster sees the pregnant Nimue for the first time.

505: Monsignor Dagrezia, along with Fathers Gascon and Ignatius, introduce Christianity to the Court of Arthur. NOTE: this is very ahistorical–the Christianization of Britain didn’t begin until the 7th century. But religion plays a huge part in the Arthurian legend, so I applied some of that literary license.

508: The first Grail Quest begins, but is unsuccessful.

509: George successfully makes the permanent transition to Avalon and becomes Nimue’s mate.

512: The Adventures of Sir Kay begins.

516: JD is left on Avalon as a potential sacrifice for the following year.

516??: The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur is critically wounded and Mordred is killed. But maybe not? Perhaps the sacrifice of JD puts this off for a while. Not likely, but I haven’t made the final decision yet.

A notable and commonplace activity of the Knights of the Round Table in all of the stories stories from Chrétien de Troyes to Malory is jousting. Jousting was a sport that began around the 11th century and flourished through the 16th century. But it could NOT have been a sport during Rusty’s Arthurian timeline. Why, you ask? Because the armor of the times simply wasn’t good enough. People would die regularly if you jousted in chain mail. Plate mail, followed by full plate armor, was still several centuries away. To keep the fun, I have invented an early forerunner of jousting for our knights. You should be reading about it a couple of weeks from now.

knight in plate armorKnights in plate armor–as well as their horses–were well protected against harm in the joust.

 

The Keys to Avalon

In my Arthurian Quiz II post on Friday, I included a picture of the castle ruins at Tintagel. That picture brought about this comment exchange:

STELLA: Question: Have you been to that castle? If not, do you plan to go? How much/many of the things you weave into your story (on the historical side, not the contemporary) have you visited/seen?

RUSTY: While it seems like a simple question, the answer is long and convoluted. So I think I’ll post on that very thing on Tuesday.

STELLA: Oh! I can’t wait to see it!

OK, Stella (and those who are also waiting on pins and needles but didn’t comment)–your wait is over.

Back in 2008 (I think), I went to our chemical plant in Wales on a business trip. It was summer–weather was nice, timing was right–so I invited Kate to meet up with me on Friday and spend a long weekend sightseeing. A week in London 14 years had been our only trip to the UK before that.

Three days to sightsee in SW England or Wales! What did I want to see? Arthur sights, of course. Glastonbury, for certain. Tintagel. Caerleon. Months before the trip, I began researching in earnest about how best to use the limited time.

About that time, my friend Heather (same Heather who comments here occasionally) gave me a book called The Keys to Avalon. It is deep and scholarly, but Arthurphile that I am, I couldn’t put it down.

There were two basic premises for the book. The work that “launched” Arthur as Britain’s foremost myth was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin c. 1136. In the introduction, Geoffrey stated that Walter the Archdeacon presented him with “a certain very ancient book written in the British language,” and that he translated that book into Latin. This has long been considered a literary device to give credibility to the book rather than a true statement.

A handful of Welsh translations of the History exist from the period shortly after 1136. But here is the strange thing: all of the Welsh manuscripts contain material that is not in the Latin version. Hmm, the authors thought. What if the Welsh version was the original, and that is the ‘ancient’ book that Geoffrey used?

History of the Kings of Britain locates a number of events in relation to “the wall.” It has long been assumed that this refers to Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman fortification that runs from sea to sea between England and Scotland to keep the Picts at bay. That makes Arthur’s realm the whole of England. Unfortunately, it would have been impossible to maintain a kingdom over that large an area in the 5th and early 6th centuries. That lends evidence that the entire account is fictional.

But the History refers to “east of the wall” and “west of the wall.” Since Hadrian’s Wall runs east-west, those references don’t make sense. The second premise of The Keys to Avalon is: suppose “the wall” doesn’t refer to Hadrian’s wall but rather the Wall of Severus?

The Wall of Severus is more commonly known as “Offa’s Dyke,” an earthen ditch and rampart that runs along the border between England and Wales. It has long been attributed to Offa, an 8th century king of Mercia. But it is highly unlikely that either the technology or the social structure existed in Britain during the 8th century to accomplish that task. So historians also consider that the wall may have been built by the Romans during the reign of Severus, 193-211.

united_kingdom_map2Map showing the locations of Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke

Offas-DykeRemnants of Offa’s Dyke as it exist today (I have been there)

When you put these two premises together, it shifts the landscape of Arthur 90º from the whole of England to Wales. Then the story matches the capabilities of the time, and the reference in Geoffrey’s work begin to make sense.  The authors worked to verify their premises by locating and translating old Welsh poems that existing in single copies in various churches and abbeys in Wales.

By the time I had finished The Keys to Avalon, I was totally convinced that the historical Arthur was a Welsh king or war leader, not  English at all. That made Tintagel a tourist trap rather than a must-see pilgrimage for the true Arthurphile.

Kate and I ended up spending our days in the UK exploring Neolithic ruins instead. Tombs and cairns and standing stones dot the Welsh landscape as well as much of southwest England. We ended in Avebury, which is featured prominently in Return from Avalon (and Points West).

And that’s why I’ve not been to  Tintagel.

Rusty’s Arthurian landscape expands Arthur’s realm out of Wales to take in SW England, including Bath, Glastonbury, and other parts of Sommerset. But that is acceptable artistic license, don’t you think?

PembrokeshireThe stunning Welsh Neolithic Cairn Pembrokeshire

The World of Arthur: Rusty’s Partial Who’s Who

One of the features of contemporary Arthurian fiction is that it almost always has some twist to the “standard” story.  At this point, the canon is so broad that it’s almost impossible to say what the standard story is.  But the mainstream saga that runs through Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Chretien de Troyes’ romances, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King we’ll call the main branch.  In very brief summary:

Arthur is the son of Uther, taken away by Merlin at birth, raised by Sir Ector.  Arthur claims his birthright by pulling the sword from the stone, becomes the “high king of England,” establishes the company of the round table and a kingdom based on “right makes might” rather than the other way around.  His wife Guinevere has an affair with his greatest knight and best friend Lancelot.  Arthur has an illegitimate son, Mordred, with his half sister Morgause, through magic and/or deception (before he is married).  The young knights, led by Mordred, eventually expose the affair, split Lancelot off from the company of the round table, and fight the battle of Camlan.  Everyone dies or is grievously wounded.  Arthur is taken away by the Lady of the Lake to the isle of Avalon, to “rest and heal until the world once more has need of heroes.”

So how does Rusty’s World of Arthur compare?  That answer would comprise a dozen very long posts.  But here we’ll at least identify the characters that are SIGNIFICANTLY DIFFERENT than the standard version.

Guinevere: always a complex character.  Why does she have an affair with Lancelot?  A lot of ink has been spent on the mind and motivations of Guinevere.  She is complex in Rusty’s world too, but a lot more petty than usual.  She is irrationally jealous of Morgan and intentionally does her harm twice: getting her married off to the cruel Uriens, and insisting that Arthur appoint a regent to rule Gore in her stead while her son comes of age.  You’ve seen a lot of this story in Strange Bedfellows; more will come in Kay’s Saga.

Morgan le Fay:  Morgan was a healer in the original Welsh versions of the story, but by Malory she’d become thoroughly evil.  In our world, however, she is far more balanced.  She was one of the main characters, and I would without qualification use the word “hero,” of Strange Bedfellows.  A sympathetic character, although some have said that the possession of others, including Amy, is an inherently evil act.

Nimue:  In the standard version, Nimue seduces Merlin and/or causes him to fall in love with her, learns or steals his magic, and imprisons him for all eternity.  In Avalon, S.C., we learn much more of the true story.  Nimue is heroic, not evil.

Kay:  the butt of many jokes, misadventures, and failed quests in the standard version–with the “soul of an accountant,” as the Steinbeck tales puts it.  My Kay is heroic if geeky.

Gawain:  a great knight if headstrong, fiery-tempered, hopelessly addicted to women–he remains true to that in my world.  Every story needs a Gawain.

Lancelot:  Lancelot hasn’t really appeared in any of my stories so far.  In Kay’s Saga he is indeed having an extended affair with the queen, but nothing has been revealed about motivation, angst, etc.  Not sure it will be before the end–not really important to the story, I don’t think.

George:  Well, he’s in the world now.  Not mentioned in any of the medieval romances; not sure how they missed him.  Perhaps because he didn’t play a significant part in any adventure.  But then, there’s always something that needs fixing.

JD:  Might he still save Arthur’s kingdom?  Unlikely–surely some chronicler would have mentioned him before now if he had.  But again, who knows?

More to come on characters.  Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I’ll also talk in some depth about the time period when Arthur lives in the various accounts.

sword in the stone