Myth and Legend

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A brief explanation of the ancient stories of our islands.

Most of us will be aware of the stories of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table. Fewer will have heard of the tales of the Mabinogion or the poems of Taliesin (see Further Reading). In truth, if you read these today, you might find them rather puzzling, and hard to understand, some of the heroes are not particularly likeable. But take the time to go deeper into these myths, and we discover that they are about a world very different from our own. This was a world where the spiritual realms were part of everyday experience and the lessons that needed to be learned were about finding a personal truth, about using our incarnation here to deepen our spiritual understanding.

As society developed, our social mores were dominated by Christian values and with this came the desire to fight "evil" and replace it with "good" (¹). Stories of personal truths, were no longer appropriate. So the tales had to evolve to come into line with this new way of thinking. A story is, after all, a living thing.

Think about story telling today. If you hear a bawdy yarn in the pub, you will probably take it to work the next day. You are unlikely to repeat it word for word, you may even adapt one of the characters to poke fun at the boss. If you then tell it to, say, your mother, you may feel the need to clean it up a bit. But at its heart it is the same story, you have merely adapted it for your target audience.

This was understood by our ancestors. The well-educated and the illiterate alike did not write down stories, they held them in their hearts and minds and brought them out to teach or please.

Arthur and his Knights caught the imagination of the thirteenth century European court. They liked to hear tales of brave heroes and of kings winning battles. As Christianity became more prevalent, the tales were adapted; and so the powerful cauldron of rebirth became the grail cup of Christ.

These tales have a similar counterpart today in the form of James Bond and Q. Bond riding off to mete out justice, save the girl, and kill the bad guy with the assistance of some magic potion brewed in the technical cauldron of Q. Now compare George Lazenby's Casino Royal to that of Daniel Craig's, the story has moved on for a new generation, a new audience. Yet the nub of the tale is similar: James falls in love but loses the girl.

The Knights of the Round Table

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There are some strong archetypes that sit around Arthur's table. Tales of their brave deeds were carried across The Channel by word of mouth and reached the ears of a French Court story teller, Chrétien de Troyes. It is largely thanks to him, and Robert de Boron, Wace and others that these stories have been passed down to us.

The audience for these tales, initially the Courts of France, was undergoing a transformation at the time. The concept of "courtly love" had become fashionable. Women were no longer regarded as chattels, dowry, and general possessions to be done with as pleased by their husband. Instead, they were objects of beauty to be wooed and protected.

In the early versions of these tales, it was Sir Gawain who caught everyone's heart with his daring do. He was known as "The Knight of the Goddess". But Christianisation translated him into a womaniser which was not appropriate for the new image if the chaste knight, so Sir Lancelot took the ascendancy. His love for his Queen was acceptable as it was unrequited reflected the new fashion of courtly love. Every knight should adore his lady in this manner. However, this high minded state was eventually sullied. Duped by magic into thinking Elaine of Corbinec was Guenivere, he allowed his passion free reign. It is also possible that Lancelot, who was raised by the Lady of the Lake, was seen as being too close to the old religion to be an appropriate hero.

In Christian eyes, the now unchaste Lancelot could no longer take front stage so a new one was needed. Enter Galahad who was the product of Lancelot and Elaine's passion. And, conveniently, he looked just like the dashing youthful Lancelot.

Galahad made up for his father's shortcomings by being so pure as to be untouched by earthly passion in his unswerving love for God. It is his total allegiance to Christ that permits him to be the one to find the grail and in so doing he ascends to the spiritual realms.

The stories would have gained a wider audience as they filtered out of the Court and into the larger world, so it is not surprising that another hero arrives at the Court of King Arthur. His name was Perceval. The story of Perceval is long and convoluted and, most interesting of all, it is bang up to date. He starts out from apparently humble beginnings thinking only of himself. He learns lessons along the way but adopts a creed that makes him blind to his spiritual truth even when it is offered on a plate. It is only after much searching that the penny finally drops and he is able to understand the consequences of his actions. He sets out to make amends and, in doing so, discovers his true identity and saves the day.

Perceval is everyman. He is you, he is me. None of us truly knows who we are and all of us are seeking something, trying to find some clarity of purpose. It is only when we open ourselves to something beyond our own limits and embrace the spirit of all things that we can discover we are part of something much bigger. Only then can we find our true selves and our true purpose.

A study of this story can help us in our own search for personal truth.

The Once and Future King

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There has been much talk about the veracity of the Arthurian legend. Did he exist? Arthur appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’ as the King who saved Britain from the Saxons after the Roman’s left (²). However, he is not listed in the earliest records as one of the Kings of England. This could be explained in that the land was divided into smaller kingdoms and not all kings may have been listed. I suggest that the desire to find the real Arthur is really a desire to find a time when we all lived in harmony, when we respected and valued each other for the truths we upheld, where the land was well governed by a fair king and where injustice would be corrected―at the end of Excalibur if need be.

We look to the past because, in this linear world, we see little hope of achieving this in the future. Thank the Gods for quantum theory! For now science is beginning to see that time may not be linear after all, that there are many possible outcomes to a single action, that something happening in one place can affect its counterpart in another. These are things the shaman has known and worked with since the dawn of mankind. The shaman will heal a person today by visiting their past and making changes. How can this be? Simples! The spirit world is not handcuffed to linear time. This means we can go back and heal the past, even after our ancestors are long dead. The more we work with the spirit world to heal ourselves the more we heal those around us. And in doing so, we bring about the time of Arthur. Indeed, legend has it that Arthur is not dead, but sleeps in the land waiting for the time when he is needed again.

Many stories of our isles begin: "There once was a king..." and go on to relate his brave deeds or devious misdeeds, whether he is loved or hated, whether he rules with justice or greed. He marries a Queen and if he treats her well the people are happy and fed, but if he mistreats her, the people go hungry and war erupts. These are not imaginary tales about fictitious kings and queens made up in the minds of a storyteller. These tales are allegory. The King is you and your Queen is our planet. The stories are about people finding their own truth. They teach us that our behaviour will have a reckoning: if we get too greedy and mistreat the land we will go hungry (³).

These stories were written for people who had an understanding of the spirit world, Otherworld. They knew that if they upset the spirits of place there would be consequences. The spirits have not gone away, it is us that stopped listening and we are suffering the consequences.

It is highly unlikely that Arthur ever existed as anything more than a conceptual, ideal king. It is far more likely that he exists as a king in the future. As you walk deeper into your commitment to our planet, as you become aware that every encounter has a spiritual significance, so you will get closer to the throne and find Arthur sitting at your heart waiting to be resurrected in you.

1. The terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are subjective. There is no ‘ultimate truth’ to which these terms can be applied. Social mores change with every couple of generations and what is acceptable today was once considered outrageous.

2. The Historia Regum Britanniae (English: The History of the Kings of Britain) is a pseudohistorical account of British history, written c. 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

3. It is not hard to translate this into the way we live today. Too many chemicals on the land are making it infertile and, at the time of writing, the consequences of fracking for oil are yet to be confirmed.