King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land
The Divine Feminine in the Mabinogion
Arthur and the Matter of Britain
If his forehead is radiant like the smooth hill in the lateral light, it is corrugated like the defense of the hill, because of his care for the land and for the men of the land.
David Jones, The Roman Quarry
And Sovereignty said to Niall: “And as you saw me ugly at first but at last beautiful, even so is royal rule. The land cannot be won without battles, but in the end everyone finds that sovereignty is both beautiful and glorious.”
“Echtra Mac Echach Muigmedoin”
The Fame of Arthur, Undying King
Arthur lives in the imagination and soul of the people. He is the focus and burning glass for many aspirations, combining the heroic endeavors of the pagan world with the spiritual chivalry of Christian Europe. Arthur’s grave, as the early Welsh poems Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas on the Graves) tell us, is an unthinkable sepulchre; he has not died but dwells in Avalon--he will come again. The legends in which he figures have currency among both the very simple and the very wise because of the Arthurian world’s immediacy in human terms and because its stories operate on many levels.
The Matter of Britain, as the stories of Arthur are called, is a very subtle blend of stories, history, traditions, and beliefs; its followers are likewise various—literary critics, medievalists, and folklorists mingle with those who like the stories for their own sake. There are others for whom Arthur has become a cult figure. He is hero and god,120 a being whose identity is worthy of assuming within the confines of a war game or role-playing scenario,147 a model which psychologists can apply to patients’ unconscious functions, and an inspiration to mythographers and metaphyscians.47, 86 Arthur is the stuff of epic film, novel, and enduring mythic heroism.
This Arthurian mystique has been copiously studied and extrapolated. Despite the protestations of rationalists that evidence for the historical Arthur is thin on the ground, the argument that he did exist will not go away. Reverence for Arthur has at various times assumed a semi-mystical fervor which scholars have found distasteful, for to them it surpasses the respect properly due to someone whom they regard as a literary invention and it teeters on the verge of the downright heretical. How has this come about?
The medieval literary corpus of Arthurian stories that most of us know is only one stratum of the excavation in question. If we look deeper, the literary evidence becomes thinner, but what does exist reveals quite a different picture of Arthur. One existing source is the Mabinogion, which, though first written down between 1100 and 1250 C.E., was the product of a rich oral tradition and preserves a portrait of Arthur and features of his career that might baffle someone familiar with the great king only through late-medieval sources.
For a start, Arthur was not a noble king based on the Norman or Plantagenet model; he was a warlord surrounded by his war band which was not above a little cattle-raiding or pig-reiving, according to the Welsh Triads.38 In texts like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain,10 Arthur performs his own deeds rather than sending one of his knights to carry them out on his behalf. We are continually struck, however, by the way in which Arthur seems to move effortlessly between the earthly realms and the Otherworld, for he seems at home in both.
And here, perhaps, we are at the root of the mystery, for Arthur blends skillfully into a mythological hinterland which is even now only just being comprehended. His power to excite reverence or mystical fervor is due in no small part to his connection with and relationship to deeply rooted mythological archetypes arising from the land of Britain. While it was “almost a miracle if he could extract a tear at a pious reading or discourse,” St. Ailred of Rievaulx wrote of an unnamed novice in 1141 C.E., it is no wonder that this novice “had frequently been moved to tears by fables which were invented and dissembled concerning an unknown Arthur”92--for the consciousness of that time more easily swarmed with native and familiar archetypes than with those propounded by St. Ailred and his fellow clerics.
In the same way in which saints stepped into the shoes of native deities, so the medieval King Arthur replaced the earlier proto-Celtic Arthur, who was in turn a resonance of a mythic archetype of ancestral memory. Mythic identities, like suits of clothes, are changed or appropriated easily. In Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain111 I attempted to show how one mythic motif percolated through British tradition to take in figures as diverse as Arthur, Bran the Blessed, and Mabon himself. In this volume my intentions are to show another kind of mythic archetype, that of Sovereignty, the Goddess of the Land, for it is through her that Arthur earns much of the supernatural reverence surrounding him. His association with her and her representatives will be detailed in chapter 10.
Arthur’s reputation seems, from medieval accounts, to be based solely on his Round Table knights and their exploits and on his notable birth and passing into Avalon. In fact, Arthur’s is a submerged reputation based on deeds and exploits whose traces can be discovered in extant early literary sources. In these episodes, such as the “Preiddeu Annwfn” (The Spoils of Annwfn--Mabon, chapter 6), in which we see him traveling in his ship, Prydwen, to steal the empowering symbols known as the hallows, he is dressed in his mythic guise, fulfilling an ancient, redemptive action in order to return balance to the land of Britain. In doing so, Arthur is the earliest Grail winner, establishing a pattern that is followed by Perceval, Bors, and Galahad in the later texts.