Medieval Romance and the Pagan Imaginary


J.M.W. Turner, The Golden Bough, 1834

by Barbara Newman

Near the end of Susanna Clarke’s magical history, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, comes a peculiarly chilling scene. A magician named Childermass, riding through a wood festooned with corpses, arrives at the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart. Before the castle stands a champion who defends its lady by killing all who would insult her and hanging their bodies on the thorn-trees. Childermass has the wisdom to flee, but a more reckless colleague, Lascelles, scorns his cowardice and returns to challenge the knight. The champion deliberately fires wide, so Lascelles kills him and hangs his corpse on the nearest tree. Before long the next challenger arrives — whereupon Lascelles spins around and begins: “I am the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart …”

Any classicist will feel a jolt of recognition — for this, mutatis mutandis, is the same scenario that inspired Sir James Frazer’s mythic quest in The Golden Bough. In the sacred grove of Diana at Lake Nemi, the priest-king of the wood obtained that post by killing the incumbent — and kept it until he himself met the same death. Hence Macaulay’s celebrated lines:

Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign,
The priest who slew the slayer
And shall himself be slain.

The same scenario is endemic to medieval romance. As the knight-errant rides in quest of adventure, he is bound to come upon such a champion. Perhaps it will be a Black Knight defending a forest glade, like Frazer’s King of the Wood, but it could just as well be a ford or a ruined chapel. The site may look innocent enough, or it may be fenced with the heads of defeated challengers. Nearby will be a spring, shaded by a spreading tree, and beneath it waits a Lady. She is lovely but dangerous — Diana’s heir, for whose sake the whole scheme exists — and like Clarke’s Lady of the Plucked Eye and Heart, she is really a fairy. The challenger thus finds himself in a double bind. He must fight to win her and if he loses, he dies; but if he succeeds, he is trapped. Though he may not suffer a fate as grim as the unfortunate Lascelles, mobility is the essence of romance heroism, so an immobilized hero — even with a gorgeous wife — is no hero at all. Such ladies may appear as meek damsels in distress or as malign enchantresses. But escaping their allure drives much of the romance plot. Knightly combat fills the foreground but, in the background, the seemingly passive Lady holds all the cards. Though demoted from goddess to fairy or enchanted princess, she exerts a charm far beyond mere beauty.

If, as C. S. Lewis claimed, the old gods die to faith but rise as allegory, then old myths die to religion but rise as fantasy. Thanks to The Golden Bough and its sibling, Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, twentieth-century scholars had a field day with medieval romance, combing its enigmatic plots for remnants of pagan lore. These prove to be legion: along with the fairy challenge scenario, they include magic fountains, spinning castles, shape-shifting hags that turn into beautiful maidens, and beheading games that pit a mortal against a supernatural being, who has the unfair advantage of being able to saunter off with his head in his hands. Many of those avid source-hunters — unlike the reading public then or now — were all but immune to the appeal of romance itself. While they pined for lost archetypes, be they Irish, Welsh or Breton, they sneered at French storytellers who had the audacity just to tell stories, rather than painstakingly reassembling the shards of a lost religion. But that critical phase has had its day. Medievalists now prefer to explore the artistry of a Chrétien de Troyes or Marie de France, leaving the archaeology of their tales aside.

Apparition of the Grail, from a manuscript of the French Lancelot-Grail Cycle, 1470

The question remains, however: what did the romancers themselves, who were after all Christians, think of this “pagan imaginary”? Did they feel its allure as we do, drawn by antiquarian imagination and the pull of the exotic? Did they yearn to Christianize the detritus of forgotten myths? Or were they indifferent to the source of their material, simply enjoying its cascade of wonders as supernatural escapism? The answer, in different degrees, to each of these questions is “yes”. Take the Holy Grail, which once flowed with sacred blood, but in these latter days, spouts streams of ink. Did it first enter the world as Christian chalice or pagan cornucopia? Vessel of the Last Supper or cauldron of the goddess Ceridwen? Like so many ambiguities in medieval texts, this one cannot be resolved because the answer is not “either/or,” but “both/and.” The Grail owes yet more of its mystery to the untimely death of Chrétien de Troyes, who never completed his Perceval — the romance in which it first appears. His “Graal” is a richly jewelled serving dish, carried in a candlelit procession every night to feed the aged, mysteriously wounded Fisher King. Only later do we learn of its contents — a single eucharistic host — but never of its origin, or that of the bleeding lance that accompanies it.

Two of the Perceval’smany sequels, both anonymous, present intriguingly different solutions to its puzzle. Better known is The Quest of the Holy Grail, written in France around 1225, but gifted to the British public by Sir Thomas Malory — and, in a rather different form, by Monty Python. The Grail of the Quest is emphatically Christian. Jesus and his disciples drank from it at the Last Supper, which was also the first Mass, and afterwards, Joseph of Arimathea used the vessel to capture Christ’s blood when he was taken down from the Cross, and his heirs brought it to England to be preserved as a sacred relic. It resides at Corbenic, the “Castle Adventurous,” whose French etymology (cor benoît) can mean, fittingly enough, either “blessed horn” (of plenty) or “blessed body” (of Christ). (Welsh and Breton etymologies have also been proposed.) Sir Galahad, though born in the castle, must nonetheless “achieve” the Grail through his sanctity and heroic feats. He is a conspicuous virgin whose purity of heart gives him the strength of ten, and his companions, Perceval and Bors, are likewise celibate. In this way the author, probably a cleric, uses the conventions of chivalric romance to subvert that genre’s most cherished values — courtly love and the zest for glory. Here the only successful knights are those who wear hair shirts, shun women, abstain from meat, confess their sins frequently, and fight only when they must (but then they are invincible). They are, in effect, the monks-in-armor that the Templars claimed to be, but were not. Ubiquitous hermits expound the knights’ adventures, instructing the reader in Catholic doctrine. Much space is devoted to chastising Galahad’s father, Sir Lancelot, for his sinful love of the queen. Even after confession and penance, Lancelot is made to suffer one crushing humiliation after another.

Nevertheless, this most didactic of romances retains an air of mystery. Despite its monkish misogyny, women play surprising roles. The marvelous Grail ship, which sails of its own accord, is designed by wise King Solomon’s wiser wife, and there is even a female Christ figure, whose sacrificial blood proves as efficacious as the Grail itself. The goal of Galahad’s quest is to heal the Maimed King, wounded through both thighs, who rules over a waste land. Although he can be allegorized as the Old Adam, behind him lies the yet older pagan myth of a land whose fruitfulness depends on the potency of its king. The same myth, or so Frazer argued, explains why the priest-king at Nemi had to be slain in his prime: if he should ever grow feeble with age, the fertility of the land would fail. For many readers, the Quest weaves its spell as a translucent ideological palimpsest: beneath its overt Christian preaching, the pagan mythos remains legible. Even Malory, who translated the tale in his Morte Darthur as “one of the truest and the holiest that is in this world,” quietly excised about two-thirds of the hermits’ discourse.

Apparition of the Grail, stained glass window, Church of Ste. Onenne, 1940s; Trehorenteuc, Brittany

The Quest author may have penned his work as a corrective to the earlier Perlesvaus, also called The High Book of the Grail. That romance, ably translated by Nigel Bryant, is at once more grotesquely violent in its paganism and more bloodthirsty in its militant Christianity. Unlike the Quest it was composed by a layman, perhaps a battle-scarred veteran, for it is redolent of the Crusades with all their tarnished glory. Though written in the French of England, its patron was the Flemish lord Jean “Blondel” de Nesle, a warrior-poet famed for his long blond hair, his love songs, and his involvement in the Fourth Crusade. That expedition went disastrously wrong in 1204, when its Venetian leaders diverted the knights from their route to the Holy Land and persuaded them to sack Constantinople instead. The rich spoils of the Byzantine capital fueled an already thriving trade in relics: prelates, kings, and monasteries alike were prepared to lay out astonishing sums for a splinter of the True Cross or a fragment of the Crown of Thorns. Louis IX would eventually purchase the whole crown for a price of 135,000 livres — estimated at forty million British pounds in today’s money, or more than twice the cost of the Sainte-Chapelle that he built to house it. The craze for Passion relics explains the fanatical lengths to which romance knights go to obtain such treasures. In Perlesvaus, the Crown of Thorns belongs to a queen who, though pagan, styles herself the Queen of the Circle of Gold in its honor. When Perceval converts her, she crowns his own head with the priceless relic. Other knights acquire such prizes as the shield of Joseph of Arimathea, itself a reliquary housing Christ’s own blood.

Perceval and his comrades, Lancelot and Gawain, are ready at a moment’s notice either to baptize hundreds of infidels or to slaughter them — it seems not to matter which. But pagan strangeness is everywhere. A Bald Damsel traverses the waste forest on a mule, accompanied by two maidens and a cart drawn by three white stags, laden with 150 severed heads. Though allegorized as Fortune, she is in fact the pagan death-goddess, with her otherworld beasts and her macabre cart, attested in Breton folklore through the twentieth century. The writer’s beheading fetish colors every page: more severed heads appear tied to the necks of horses and nailed above the doors of houses, uncannily recalling the pagan Celtic folkways described by Diodorus of Sicily in the first century B.C. Then there is the Haughty Maiden whose chapel, apparently Christian, is furnished with four empty tombs and three niches filled with relics and candles. As she explains to Sir Gawain, each niche is booby-trapped with a guillotine, for her plan is to lure the three finest knights of the world to her chapel, invite them to venerate her relics, and loose the blades as soon as they stretch their necks to worship. The splendid tombs are meant to enshrine their bodies, enabling her to enjoy a lifetime of necrophilia, until she too dies and takes possession of the fourth tomb. A similar fetish undoes Arthur’s legitimate son (for this is the only romance in which he has one). The lad has a penchant for sleeping on the body of every man he kills, and he has happily swooned over the corpse of a dead giant when Sir Kay comes along and beheads him. As for Lancelot, he has a brush with sacrificial kingship that seems, once again, to come straight out of The Golden Bough. Arriving at a city ablaze with fire, he is joyfully welcomed by its citizens, who acclaim the handsome stranger as their king. The crown loses its luster, though, when they explain that the city has been burning since the death of its previous king. Only when his successor has reigned for one year, then thrown himself into the flames, will they be quenched. Luckily for Lancelot, a dwarf appears out of nowhere and presents himself for crowning.

For all his enthusiasm for relics and crusades, the Perlesvaus author seems bent less on converting pagans than paganizing Christianity. Consider King Gurgaran, who has asked Sir Gawain to rescue his son from a giant. The knight fails, for, while he succeeds in slaying the giant, he inadvertently kills the boy as well. Taking this misfortune in stride, Gurgaran hangs the giant’s head above his gates as a trophy and boils the body of his son, cutting the meat into tiny pieces so that all his people can partake. After celebrating this cannibal eucharist, he announces his desire for baptism and gives Gawain his promised reward — the sword that beheaded John the Baptist, which ever since has magically bled every day at noon. Perhaps a bit queasy from this parade of marvels, readers may find the appearance of the Grail itself an anticlimax.

To return to our question: what did such writers think they were doing, in the end? Perhaps the author of Perlesvaus consciously wrote to please his patron, glorify the crusaders, and inspire new ones to take the field. With the example of Arthurian Britain, he could have meant to show that, even if Christendom’s warriors could not retain the Holy Land, they could at least secure its priceless treasures for Christian Europe. If so, however, the medium outweighs the message. The pagan myths behind this romance noir, in all their unadorned power, get the better of its Christian triumphalism. Then again, the author may have written, like many a war novelist since, to exorcise the memory of atrocities witnessed and, it may be, performed.

Unlike Perlesvaus, The Quest of the Holy Grail is part of a much larger work — the vast Lancelot-Grail or “Vulgate” cycle, which fills nine volumes in its modern edition. Within that cycle, it sounds a discordant note, insistently holding the knights’ values up to an austere and holy standard that even the finest, Lancelot, cannot meet. Once the sacred has invaded the secular Arthurian world, nothing can ever be the same: like iron filings drawn or repelled by a magnet, the knights regroup. In the end, it is the Grail quest that precipitates the fall of the Round Table. No one knows whether the Vulgate Cycle was written by a single author (would one lifetime suffice?) or by many — and if many, whether they improvised or worked to a master plan. The Quest, in particular, has puzzled scholars because it swerves the plot onto such an unexpected course.

Archbishop of Sens displaying the crown of thorns. Stained glass window, Tours, ca. 1245-48; now in the Cloisters, New York City

No theory is ever likely to hold the field, so I may as well propose my own, which is this: I think the Quest author had read Perlesvaus with fascination and horror — and decided to do the job right, devising a Grail quest in which the Christian story would confidently overwrite the pagan, leaving no more than an alluring trace instead of a garish mural. Many features of the Quest can be traced back to Perlesvaus, including its chaste hero with his sobriquet, the Good Knight. Unlike the sanguinary Perceval, though, the newly created Galahad is as non-violent as a knight in armor can be. Similarly, Perlesvaus was the first to introduce hermits as expositors — but there, they wear hair shirts made from the beards of murdered knights. The hermits in the Quest, on the other hand, are unfailingly upright and orthodox (although one does conjure a demon — but his motives are only the best). A holy man in Perlesvaus tries in vain to make Lancelot repent his guilty love; a legion of hermits in the Quest succeed. And so forth.

Medieval England had not one but at least three pagan pasts, two of which we know well. The Old English poets, Christian to a man, took their cues from Germanic paganism; the imaginations of Chaucer and Gower were fired by classical myth. But the author of Perlesvaus had sources we no longer possess. Wherever he found them, the dark tales of Celtic Britain overwhelmed even his militant faith. In the romance world, meanings evolve but stories abide. There are many ways into — and out of — the sacred wood.

Cover image from Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1894

About the Author:

Barbara Newman is Professor of English, Religion and Classics, and John Evans Professor of Latin at Northwestern University. best known for her work on medieval religious culture, allegorical poetry and women’s spirituality, she the author of Medieval Crossover:  Reading the Secular against the Sacred (Notre Dame, 2013).