contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Arthur

ONCE AND FUTURE WIZARD

I first encountered Merlin when I was nine years old, through T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. It includes a wonderful account of shape-shifting and indeed of education (as imaginative, experiential, self-reliant). As time went on I didn’t exactly get Arthur, the Wart’s, education. But I got enough to feed both memory and hope as enhancements of here-and-now experience rather than distractions from it. I didn’t forget, or if so, not completely. Thanks to Elen Sentier for reminding me in her recent book, which I plan to review soon.

“The thunder-clouds which usually go with hot weather were there, high columns of cumulus with glaring edges, but there was not going to be any thunder. It was too hot even for that. ‘If only’, thought the Wart, ‘I did not have to go into a stuffy classroom, but could take off my clothes and swim in the moat’.

“They crossed the courtyard, having almost to take deep breaths before they darted across it, as if they were going quickly through an oven. The shade of the gatehouse was cool, but the barbican, with its close walls, was hottest of all. In one last dash across the desert they had reached the drawbridge – could Merlyn have guessed what he was thinking? – and were staring down into the moat.

“It was the season of water-lilies. If Sir Ector had not kept one section free of them for the boys’ bathing, all the water would have been covered. As it was, about twenty yards on each side of the bridge were cut each year, and one could dive in from the bridge itself. The moat was deep. It was used as a stew, so that the inhabitants of the castle could have fish on Fridays, and for this reason the architects had been careful not to let the drains and sewers run into it. It was stocked with fish every year.

“’I wish I was a fish’, said the Wart

“’What sort of fish?’

It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.

“’I think I should like to be a perch,’ he said. ‘They are braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”

“Merlyn took off his hat, raised his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, ‘snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?’

“Immediately there was a loud blowing of sea-shells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with Mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown a hundred times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.

“’Oh, Merlyn,’ he cried, ‘please come too.’

“’For this once,’ said a large and solemn tench beside his ear, ‘I will come but in future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.’”

(1) T. H. White The sword in the stone Volume 1 of The once and future King London: Collins, 1958

(2) Elen Sentier Merlin once & future wizard Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2016 (Pagan Portals series)

 

BOOK REVIEW: THE BROKEN CAULDRON

14606507_342051356186231_2360625875228974566_nHighly recommended. Author Lorna Smithers describes The Broken Cauldron as “a fragmentary collection of essays, stories and poems”. Yet I experienced this book as a unity, a poet’s meditation even when presenting technical information about fracking and nuclear power. For it is built around a compelling core image, made visible in Tom Brown’s striking cover illustration.

At its fullest and most majestic, that image is “a cauldron full of stars”, the womb of Ceridwen, Old Mother Universe, and traditionally the source of inspiration, wisdom and rebirth. Yet here the cauldron lies shattered, the universe is fragmented, and the world is out of kilter. Smithers takes myth out of archetypal romance and into the wounded world of history, making it awkward, jarring – and dynamic. She confronts us with where we are and transmits a warning wake-up call from gods and storytellers.

In her introduction, Smithers explains how she was led into a quest to understand the significance of the broken cauldron in ancient British history. The myths she studied were penned in medieval Wales but are rooted in an older oral tradition. All tell the story of the cauldron. When it is broken or stolen, cataclysmic consequences are unleashed. Smithers was particularly drawn “to the violence of Arthur’s raid on Annwn (the Otherworld) and assault on its inhabitants. The moment Lleog thrusts his flashing sword into the cauldron came to symbolize the patriarchal world view … founded on oppression of the Other”. In her poem about this she writes:

“The sinking blade lit like lightening.

Reflected in it faces of a million million souls,

Eyes melting, disintegrating like shadows

Into pure white light.”

Lleminog, another of Arthur’s companions, carries the broken prize away:

“Lleminog scooped the cracked cauldron

Into his hand,

Escaped like a thief into the night

With moon, stars, sun, broken pieces

Of Old Mother Universe jangling in his pocket.”

Smithers works under the aegis of Gwyn ap Nudd, a god “who haunts the peripheries of the Bardic tradition”. His world is Annwn – an Otherworld described as ‘not-world’ and ‘the deep’. There he keeps a cauldron that is whole and filled with stars, “the infinite reflection of the womb of Old Mother Universe, Ceridwen”. Much of our inherited Bardic tradition is seen as problematic. In particular, “Taliesin epitomizes all that is questionable and dislikeable” about it. The poet of The Broken Cauldron.is an outsider “watching with horror as Gwion escapes with the Awen and Gwyddno’s horses perish in the poison” – paying the terrible price for three drops of inspiration. The Gwion who becomes Taliesin pays little attention to this and becomes a sycophantic court Bard as kingdoms fall.

Gwyn offers the possibility of fixing the broken cauldron by gathering the poison back into it from the land, and Lorna Smithers supports this work by telling the stories of “marginalized figures – the overshadowed, the oppressed and the slaughtered”. The Broken Cauldron is divided into five sections: The Broken Cauldron and The Flashing Sword, Ridiculous, Drowned Lands, Operation Cauldron and Uranium.  The urgency of myth trying to reconstruct itself for are times is conveyed in a number of ways. One is the striking language of set piece poems, as in Dumb Man:

You come mouthing words.

There are burnt out cities in your mouth.

The vocabulary of sign language

Cannot convey the stories

You need to tell.

There are the cumulative effects of the giant Diwrnach’s repeated death in slightly variant stories from different regions of Celtic Britain, as he defends a cauldron in a feasting hall and is slain by his own sword. Smithers describes this back-to-backing of versions as a ‘montage’. There is dark whimsical fantasy in The Day I Raised the Dead, which takes place in The Court of the Sons of the King of Suffering – a “joyless place”. There is a realistic account of a journey to find out about, and find, the drowned Porth Wyddno, once one of “the three chief ports of the island”, which Smithers places in Lancashire rather than at Borth in west Wales. There is a discussion of uranium and the nuclear power station at Sellafield aka Windscale aka Calder Hall, and its inclusion in the myth of the “cauldron which is filled with stars” and dangerously toxic when messed with.

Most poignant, for me, is the story of Morfran, which straddles time. His mother, “a scientific genius with a meticulous eye for detail” runs an award winning chemical plant. Growing up gawky and ugly as a cormorant, he has been nick-named Afagddhu (utter darkness) by a mother who is determined to fix him and make him presentable. Events occur, though not to him. At the end of his story, he muses “perhaps that’s where I’ll go, down into the deep where there is no ugliness and no perfection, surface with a fish for a clean breath or air before her child is born and the cycle begins again.”

There is much more. The Broken Cauldron is a wonderful example of the re-visioning of myth, fully immersed in the old traditions, yet bringing out new meanings and new possibilities for our time.

 

Lorna Smithers The Broken Cauldron King’s Lynn, Norfolk: Biddle’s Books, 2016 Cover art by Tom Brown.

POEM: ARTHUR

Behind storm-fretted bastions gray and bare

Flame-crested warriors of Cunedda’s line

Feast in a gold ring, – their targes shine

Along the wall and clang to gusts of air;

And in the shadow, torches blown aflare

Reveal a chief, half human, half divine,

With brooding head, starred by the Dragon Sign,

Hung motionless in some undreamed despair.

But when he starts, three torques of twisted gold

Writhe on his breast, for voices all men fear

Wail forth the battle-doom dead kings have borne;

And as the mead-hall fills with sudden cold,

Above the wind-tossed sea his heart can hear

The strange gods calling through their mystic horn.

Arthur is one of Six Celtic Sonnets written by Thomas Samuel Jones and included in From the Isles of Dream: Visionary Stories and Poems of the Celtic Renaissance, selected by John Matthews and with a foreword by Robin Williamson (Floris Books, 1993).

Thomas Samuel Jones (1882-1932) came from Welsh and Irish stock and was born in Oneida County, New York State, near the Adirondack Mountains. Each of the six sonnets reflects a facet of Celtic tradition. They were originally published in 1930 as part of the collection Aknahton and Other Sonnets. For those of us who resonate with Druid and Celtic spirituality, they are part of our modern cultural ancestry.

GWYN, GWYTHYR AND CREIDDYLAD: A STORY FROM THE OLD NORTH

This post reblogged from Peneverdant looks at the traditional stories of the northern British (especially in north west England and southern Scotland) and surviving material from these stories in later Welsh literature.

From Peneverdant

Cherry BlossomCulhwch and Olwen is one of the oldest and most fascinating repositories of ancient British mythology. It originates from two texts; a fragmented version in The White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and full version in The Red Book of Hergest (1400). The main narrative centres on Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen for which he enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue; a medley of historical and mythological characters.

Embedded within it we find fragments of other tales which may be of older origin and have stood alone. These include the hunt for the legendary boar Twrch Twryth and release of Mabon from imprisonment in Gloucester. Most significantly for me as someone who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd, we find the story of his rivalry with Gwythyr ap Greidol for the love of Creiddylad and their battle for her every May Day.

This story is central to understanding Gwyn’s mythology. Because…

View original post 2,230 more words

HANES TALIESIN (THE CAULDRON OF CERIDWEN)

The Sage Ceridwen was the wife

Of Tegid Voel, of Pemble Mere:

Two children blessed their wedded life,

Morvran and Creirwy, fair and dear;

Morvran, a son of peerless worth,

And Creirway, lovely nymph of earth:

But one more son Ceridwen bare,

As foul as they before were fair.

She strove to make Avagddu wise;

She knew he never could be fair:

And, studying magic mysteries,

She gathered plants of virtue rare:

She placed the gifted plants to steep

Within the magic cauldron deep,

Where they a year and day must boil,

‘Till three drops crown the matrons toil.

Nine damsels raised the mystic flame;

Gwion the Little near it stood:

The while for simples roved the dame

Through tangles dell and pathless wood.

And when the year and day had passed,

The dame within the cauldron cast

The consummating chaplet wild,

While Gwion held the hideous child.

But from the cauldron rose a smoke

That filled with darkness all the air:

When through its folds the torchlight broke,

Nor Gwion, nor the boy, was there.

The fire was dead, the cauldron cold,

And in it lay, in sleep uprolled,

Fair as the morning-star, a child,

That woke and stretched its arms and smiled.

What chanced her labours to destroy;

She never knew, and sought in vain

If ‘twere her own misshapen boy,

Or little Gwion, born again:

And vexed with doubt, the babe she rolled,

In cloth of purple and of gold,

And in a coracle consigned

Its fortunes to the sea and wind.

The summer night was still and bright,

The summer moon was large and clear,

The frail bark, on the springtide’s height,

Was floated into Elphin’s weir:

The baby in his arms he raised:

His lovely spouse stood by, and gazed,

And, blessing it with gentle vow,

Cried “TALIESIN!” “Radiant brow!”

And I am he, and well I know

Ceridwen’s power protects me still:

And hence o’er hill and vale I go,

And sing, unharmed, what’er I will.

She has for me Time’s veil withdrawn:

The images of things long gone,

The shadows of the coming days,

Are present to my visioned gaze.

And I have heard the words of power,

By Ceiron’s solitary lake,

That bid, at midnight’s thrilling hour,

Eyri’s hundred echoes wake.

I to Diganwy’s towers have sped,

And now Caer Lleon’s halls I tread,

Demanding justice, now as then,

From Maelgon, most unjust of men.

This poem comes from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829. It is (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin, in which the Bard Taliesin he has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales. Taliesin has to win a Bardic contest at the court of the High King, Arthur and thus be able to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the Taliesin’s winning entry and concerns his mysterious birth. It differs somewhat from the version presented 20 years later by Lady Charlotte Guest, whilst being a recognisable if variant presentation of the same tale. The audience “shouted with delight” at this song, which wins the contest for Taliesin and entitles him to a boon from Arthur.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy. Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, and also recommends the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog in Merionethshire for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.

POEM: AVALLENNAU MYRDDIN (MERLIN’S APPLE TREES)

Fair gift to Merlin given

Apple trees seven score and seven;

Equal all in age and size;

On a green hill-slope, that lies

Basking in the southern sun

Where bright waters murmuring run.

Just beneath the pure stream flows;

High above the forest grows;

Not again on earth is found

Such a slope of orchard ground:

Song of birds, and hum of bees,

Ever haunt the apple trees.

Lovely green their leaves in spring;

Lovely bright their blossoming:

Sweet the shelter and the shade

By their summer foliage made:

Sweet the fruit their ripe boughs hold,

Fruit delicious, tinged with gold.

Gloyad, nymph with tresses bright,

Teeth of pearl, and eyes of light,

Guards these gifts of Ceido’s son,

Gwendol, the lamented one,

Him, whose keen-edged, sword no more

Flashes ‘mid the battle’s roar.

War has raged on vale and hill:

That fair grove was peaceful still.

There have chiefs and princes sought

Solitude and tranquil thought:

There have kings, from courts and throngs,

Turned to Merlin’s wild-wood songs.

Now from echoing woods I hear

Hostile axes sounding near:

On the sunny slope reclined,

Feverish grief disturbs my mind,

Lest the wasting edge consume

My fair spot of fruit and bloom.

Lovely trees, that long alone

In the sylvan vale have grown,

Bare, your sacred plot around,

Grows the once wood-waving ground:

Fervent valour guards ye still;

Yet my soul presages ill.

Well I know, when years have flown,

Briars shall grow where ye have grown:

Them in turn shall power uproot;

Then again shall flowers and fruit

Flourish in the sunny breeze,

On my new-born apple trees.

This is my second poem drawn from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829 and based (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin. The Bard Taliesin has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales by winning a Bardic contest at the court of the High King, Arthur. Victory entitles him to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the work of Merlin, also a contestant. The audience response is described thus: “this song was heard with much pleasure, especially by those of the audience who could see, in the imagery of the apple trees, a mystical type of the doctrines and fortunes of Druidism, to which Merlin was suspected of being secretly attached, even under the very nose of St. David”. In a future post I will also present Taliesin’s winning entry.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy. Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, and also recommends the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog in Merionethshire for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.

POEM: GORWYNION GAUAV (THE BRILLIANCES OF WINTER)

Last of flowers, in tufts around

Shines the gorse’s golden bloom:

Milk white lichens clothe the ground

‘Mid the flowerless heath and broom:

Bright are holly-berries, seen

Red, through leaves of glossy green.

Brightly, as on rocks they leap,

Shine on sea-waves, white with spray:

Brightly in the dingles deep,

Gleams the river’s foaming way;

Brightly through the distance show

Mountain summits clothed with snow.

Brightly where the torrents bound,

Shines the frozen colonnade,

Which the black rocks, dripping round,

And the flying spray have made:

Bright the ice drops on the ash

Leaning o’er the cataract’s dash.

Bright the hearth, where feast and song

Crown the warrior’s hour of peace,

While the snow storm drives along,

Bidding the war’s worst tempest cease:

Bright the hearth flame, flashing clear

On the up-hung shield and spear.

Bright the torchlight of the hall

When the wintry night winds blow;

Brightness when its splendours fall

On the mead-cup’s sparkling flow:

While the maiden’s smile of light

Makes the brightness trebly bright.

Close the portals; pile the hearth;

Strike the harp; the feast pursue;

Brim the horns; fire, music, mirth,

Mead and love, are winter’s due.

Spring to purple conflict calls

Swords that shine on winter’s walls.

This poem comes from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829.  The story is (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin, in which the Bard Taliesin he has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales.  Taliesin has to win a Bardic contest at the court of the High King Arthur and thus be able to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the work of Prince Llywarch, one of the contestants. It is well received: “Llywarch’s song was applauded, as representing a series of images with which all present were familiar, and which were all of them agreeable”.  It treats winter as, among other things, a period of respite from warfare. In future posts I will also present the entries of Merlin and the winner Taliesin.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy.  Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, also recommending the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog, Merionethshire, for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.

MERLIN AND CONTEMPLATION

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1) draws on the legendary history of Wales, Cumbria and South West Scotland. The overall story, written in the middle of the twelfth century, is about wounding and healing in various forms at the level both of the individual and the collective.

My interest here is in the resolution. Four people, somewhat bruised by life and getting on in years, retire to the Caledonian woods. They vow to live a contemplative life – outside in the summer, and in an elaborate ‘observatory’ in the winter, dedicated to star lore. Their leader is Merlin himself, recovering from a period of (still masterful and charismatic) breakdown, precipitated by a war of neighbours between the old British peoples of Cumbria and Strathclyde. This was at a time when both of them had invaders from other language groups (English and Gaelic) to contend with.

The little community’s second member is Merlin’s sister Ganieda, now widowed, previously Queen of Strathclyde – a kingdom ruled from Dumbarton and extending south to the Solway Firth. The third member is the traumatised vagrant Maeldinus, disoriented and damaged by the juice of poisoned (i.e. magical) apples. Last but not least is the Bard Taliesin, often taken as the model for self-realization in British Celtic tradition. He is world weary after the passing of Arthur from the apparent world into The Isle of Apples – Avalon, a Celtic Otherworld – to be healed and cared for by a wholly benign Morgan and her sisters. In the deeper picture Arthur will never die. But it is still it is the end of an era and a time of lengthening shadows for the culture he defended.

Geoffrey of Monmouth became the first Bishop of St. Asaph in North East Wales, though he never visited the diocese.  But for literary purposes, he relies on the imagery and world views of both Roman and Celtic paganism. The forest contemplative group is dedicated to the Roman wisdom and owl goddess Minerva (often used as an equivalent to native British goddesses as in Sulis Minerva at Bath, and inscribed on a cliff overlooking the Dee at Chester, the city called Deva/Dea by the Romans). Indeed Ganieda, taking on the mantle of prophecy, in a sense becomes the Minerva of the little community. Describing his reason for joining forces with Merlin, Taliesin says “I have spent enough time living in vain, and now is the time to restore me to myself”, which seems to me to have a subtle tinge of divine self-recollection, thereby synthesising Pagan British and Neo-Platonist understandings of who he is. A recent verse translation (2) goes as far as say “I will have time to discover my true self”. I prefer the older translation, since Taliesin has already made that discovery, much earlier in life (3). What he needs is a place where he can fully connect again, after a life of service in the world. Either way, it’s an untypical view of contemplative spirituality for the place and time in which it was written.

The Vita Merlini is a poem written in Latin hexameters and presented as a literary game. It is an opportunity to display both classical and indigenous wisdom as understood in the twelfth century Renaissance (2). Yet in The Mystic Life of Merlin (4), R. J. Stewart shows how the work has greater potential depths for anyone open to them. His Merlin Tarot (5) images draw on two of Geoffrey’s books, the second being the better known History of the Kings of Britain (6), and on Stewart’s own seership. They are further explored in The Complete Merlin Tarot, (7), and The Miracle Tree (8) and ask for our contemplation as much as divination, having the power to open imaginal doors. Geoffrey’s books themselves introduced Merlin and Morgan to medieval European literature outside the Celtic language sphere and did much to establish Arthur. The imagery of the Vita Merlini evokes a sense of woodland renewal, of groves as healing places, and a restorative ‘Island of Apples’, presided over by a magical Otherworld sisterhood. It offers something to medieval people in Western Europe that was unavailable through the mainstream spirituality of the day. The world that Geoffrey made has been a potent resource ever since.

 

References

1: http://www.sacred-texts.com Geoffrey of Monmouth (ca. 1150) Vita Merlini Latin text with English translation by John J. Parry (1925). (Transcribed for Sacred Texts by Graham K. Tallboys.)

2: Walker, Mark (2011) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’: a new verse translation Chalford: Amberley Publishing

3: Hughes, Kristoffer (2012) From the cauldron born: exploring the magic of Welsh legend and lore Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications

4: Stewart, R. J. (1986) The mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana

5: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The Merlin Tarot London: Element (Illustrated by Miranda Gray. Boxed set with pack of cards, handbook and notebook for users. An earlier edition was published by the Aquarian Press in 1992)

6: Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966. (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

7: Stewart, R. J. (1992) The complete Merlin Tarot: images, insight and wisdom from the age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press (Not to be confused with the Merlin Tarot handbook which accompanies the pack, but is sometimes sold separately)

8: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

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