The ‘romance’ story traditions, poetry and literature of northern Europe between the 12th and 15th centuries represented a renaissance of interest in the mythology of the pagan era among the secular elites of the English, Normans, French and Germans. This itself seems to have paralleled the renaissance in classical literature and learning during the same period, propelled from the Islamic world, and perhaps by the formal schism of the eastern and western christian patriarchies in the 11th century.
Their heady imagery of bold beautiful knights, mysterious and equally beautiful otherworldly maidens, and complex coded allusions to what christianity disapproved of – sex, violence and paganism – made them a sure-fire hit among the courtly elites. In spite of their apparently un-christian themes, the weavers of these tales were acutely aware of when not to overstep the mark, lest they face accusations of the capital crime of heresy! By investing their main and supporting characters with strong christian values of love, piety, chastity and truth, they were able to send them deep into story realms with mysterious pagan themes underpinning the narrative. Christianity was always triumphant in the end, and moral virtue came out on top: It is important to realise that these authors were often writing for a world where paganism was not such a distant memory (the Normans, for example and their Scandinavian cousins) so reading a pagan rather than a christian bias into their tales would be ill-advised. After all, christianisation had already followed a syncretic path in much of Europe since the Theodosian edicts of the 5thC. That the heartland of this revival in poetry, prose and song tradition was the Aquitanian courts of the Languedoc in southern France (home of the Troubadours) is interesting, since these soon became the heart of a strange dualistic/duotheistic interpretation of christianity known as Catharism, later destroyed in the Albigensian Crusade.
So what are the themes and in which stories in particular are they found?
Meeting a fairy woman at a fountain:
The ‘Lai de Graelent’, the ‘Lai de Lanval‘ (Marie de France 12thC), ‘Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion’ (Chretien de Troyes 12thC), the Irish tale ‘Echtra mac nEchach Muigmedón (Yellow Book of Lecan – late 14thC) and the Fenian lay known as Toraíocht Sliabh Cuilinn or Laoi Na Seilge,as well as
Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca (Yellow Book of Lecan) and others all tackle this popular theme. In them, the hero follows a magical white stag or boar (part of the ‘fairy herd’) into a far-off place where he meets a mysterious and fatal woman at a spring, lake or river. She promises him the gifts of the otherworld but imposes a geas upon him which ties him ultimately to the otherworld.
The otherworld is explicitly reached through water in all of these, as is the Isle of Avalon in the seminal Arthurian works of Geoffrey of Monmouth who, with his literary companions-at-arms Jocelyn of Furness, Walter Map and Gerald of Wales, really got the ball rolling of the ‘second stage’ of trying to put ancient Atlantic legends into a christian ‘historical’ narrative – the first being the Irish and continental hagiographies of the 6th-10th centuries, whose traditions were badly damaged in the Viking raids of the 8th-9th centuries.
Perhaps the most mysterious otherworldly rulers of medieval story traditions are those we identify with the ‘wizard-king’ archetype. In Ireland, Manannan is the arch-example of this, but in the ‘Lancelot-Grail Cycle’ legends of Britain and France, the Fisher King (Perceval) and Merlin represent the same. Another aspect of the otherworld-lord is the ‘Old King’ of which Gradlon, Arthur, Geoffrey’s King Leir and even Fionn mac Cumhall (Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Grainne) function as examples – a projection of the otherworld wizard-king upon the decaying mundane existence. Geoffrey’s Merlin and Jocelyn’s Melinus (his version of Mannannan who Patrick supposedly defeats on the Isle of Man) both provide an attempt at ‘bookending’ the role of the otherworld master of pagan tradition in a (pseudo) historical context, much in the same way that the Arthurian legends’ handling of the Lady of the Lake and the ‘sorceress’ Morgane do.
Tales such as Yvain and Perceval, Ireland’s Tochmarc Étaíne, the Dagda’s magic cauldron in the story Cath Maige Tuired as well as the continental legends of the bath-loving Melusine, and the middle-Welsh tales of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the legend of Cerridwen and the Birth of Taliesin all feature a magical cauldron, dish or cup. This always seems to represent the powers of regeneration – a metaphor for the womb in many ways.
The vision of the bleeding lance from Perceval is the flipside of this ‘genital’ imagery, perhaps demoted in the Christian context due to its phallic nature, but of no lesser importance than the grail in the original telling by Chretien de Troyes. This represents the piercing aspect of new life, coming through from the otherworld – an allusion made concrete in the character of ‘Sir Bors’ whose name contains the Gaelic rootword for both ‘piercing’ things and springs of water.
All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.