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. Few have heard of the tales of the Mabinogion or the poems of Taliesin (see Further Reading). In truth, if you read these today, you will find some rather puzzling tales that don't quite make sense and meet heroes that 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 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. 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, 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, the story has moved on for a new generation, a new audience. Yet the core, the heart, is the same.

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 that these stories have been passed down to us.
The audience for these tales, initially the Court 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.

In the early versions of these tales, Sir Lancelot was the best loved and renowned. His love for his Queen would have reflected this fashionable courtly love. Doubtless, it would have gone on in its unrequited state for a long time before it was sullied in a magical moment of passion. (I can't help thinking that this may have been at the behest of the audience who were boring of this unconsummated love and in need of a bit of spice!)
And so it was that a new hero was needed. One so pure as to be untouched by earthly passion in his unswerving love for his God. Enter the Christianised knight, Gawain. It is his total allegiance to Christ that allows him to be the one to find the grail and in so doing he ascends to the spiritual realms. It is not hard to find a moral here!

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. Namely, Perceval. The story of Perceval is long and convoluted and, most interesting of all, it is bang up to date. He starts out from lowly 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 what the consequences of his actions have been. He sets out to make amends and, in the end, saves the day.

Perceval is everyman. He is you, he is me. 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 is not listed in the earliest histories as one of the Kings of England (²) but this can be explained in that the land was divided into smaller kingdoms and not all kings may have been listed. I submit 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 eradicated―at the end of Excalibur if need be.

We look to the past because, in this linear world science has created for us, 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 dominated by linear time. This means we can go back and heal the past, even after our ancestors are long since 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, when 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.

So, 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 Druidry, as your experience of the spirit world becomes a daily occurrence, 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.