Last Month a friend passed on a request from a Swedish radio programme asking for someone to talk to them about King Arthur on location at Glastonbury and Tintagel. Nice work if you can get it (which I did and it was), but it wasn’t without difficulty. The problem with the Arthurian cycle is that there is so much of it. The initial tale carried sufficient weight and gravity that it began to pull other stories to it, some remain distinct, merely orbiting the Arthuriad, like Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight. Others, like the pre-Christian celtic hunt for the magic cauldron of rebirth, are pulled through the atmosphere and spread over the surface in a highly altered form as the quest for the Holy Grail.
Tectonic forces bend and fold the accreted layers of legend so that Morgan Le Fey, who is originally the Lady of the Lake and on Arthur’s side, becomes twisted in to his most vociferous opponent; the romance of Tristan and Isuelt slides over and is impressed upon the characters of Lancelot and Guinevere; the victorious but truncated campaign against Rome is buried so deeply that all that remains is a trip to France.
Somehow the underlying myth survives. The tyrannical King Uther Pendragon uses Merlin’s art to commit adultery with the beautiful Igraine, wife of Gorlois and mother of Morgause, whilst Gorlois is simultaneously killed in battle by Uther’s men. Uther marries Igraine and as payment for his help Merlin takes the offspring of this union and heir to the throne, Arthur, placing him in fosterage with Sir Ector. Merlin sets a challenge to any would be kings that they have to pull a sword from a stone. Arthur grows up as a poor person of no consequence until he accidentally achieves the test and is proclaimed king. War ensues because he is not of noble birth. He meets and adulterously sleeps with his half sister, Morgause, while he is unaware of the family connection. Merlin tells everyone that Arthur is Uther and Igraine’s son, thus putting an end to the conflict but making Morgause and Arthur somewhat uncomfortable. Arthur, having been brought up without privilege, sets up the Round Table, instituting an ideal of equality and promoting the code of chivalry to put an end to the abuses of power previously enjoyed by knights and kings. So far, so much in line with Merlin’s plan and a Golden Age ensues. This is the point at which knights go on quests and the various tales set “in the time of King Arthur” happen. Unfortunately Morgause had a son as a result of her fling with Arthur and she tells the boy, Mordred, that he should be King in his turn. Embarrassed by the incestuous circumstances, Arthur does not recognise Mordred as his son but treats him as his nephew. When Arthur takes his army out of the country on campaign, Mordred is left in charge but takes things too far by claiming that Arthur has died and he is now King. Arthur returns to reclaim his throne and both armies are destroyed while father and son kill each other.
The apparently inevitable tragic ending can leave one feeling the whole thing is rather pointless, but Merlin’s plan to raise an empathic and caring monarch actually works! Where he goes wrong is that Morgause never forgives Merlin or Uther for the rather callous way they use her mother and dispose of her father. This resentment is extended to Arthur and transferred to Mordred. Merlin’s second mistake is in not telling Arthur about his parentage soon enough to prevent his fateful dalliance with Morgause. Arthur then has a chance to diffuse the impending doom by acknowledging and nurturing Mordred… which he fails to do.
So, this myth’s lessons are:
1. Deception carries a cost even when used to “do good” if anyone gets hurt, the good gets cancelled out; secrets are like explosives, the longer they are kept the less predictable the results.
2. (and most importantly), our deepest regrets, fears or sins, our inner darkness, must be acknowledged, loved, integrated… or it will destroy us.