Tolkien has rightly described the world of story, and especially the mysterious world of fairy tale, myth and legend, as being like a great branching tree: deeply rooted in the past, rooted in the very origins of language and the earliest mysteries of our creation as human beings, but branching out from the past into the present as each new generation absorbs the sap of the old tales and puts out branches, unfolds leaves—which are themselves new creations, new developments and yet rising out of the earliest stories, organically related to the whole, not so much inventing novelties as teasing out and opening up seeds of potentiality hidden in the earlier telling.
Every storyteller is part of a long lineage of storytelling adding to something which is still unfolding, still becoming a great, many-voiced marvel. Nowhere is this more true than of the great body of stories that has grown up around the figures of Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, Gawain, Perivale, and of course Galahad, known collectively as “the Matter of Britain.”
The first reference to Arthur by name goes back to a 7th century chronicler called Nennius, who tells us in the Annales Cambriae that “in 518 occurred The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur Carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for three days and three knights on his shoulders and the Britons were victorious.” So from the outset, Arthur was a Christian figure, recalled here in a battle between Christian “Britons” (Celts, probably Welsh) against the then pagan Anglo-Saxons. It is only by the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 11th-12th centuries, in his Historia Regum Britanniae, History of the Kings of Britain, that Arthur is mentioned as a King, that we meet the mysterious figure of Merlin and hear the story of the sword in the stone. After that there is a great flowering of stories and romances about Arthur and his knights of the round table, across Europe. And it is in the twelfth century, just as the church was beginning to reflect more deeply and attempt to divine the great sacramental mystery of holy communion, that the deepest motif of the matter of Britain, the legends of the holy Grail come to the fore. Writers like Chretienne de Troyes and Robert de Boron give us the marvelous backstory of the Holy Grail, the sacred vessel itself: how it was the vessel that held the wine at the last supper; how it also held Christ’s blood from the cross; how it was given by the risen Christ to Joseph of Arimathea, who had given Christ his own tomb; how, driven out by the first persecution of Christians, he came with the sacred vessel and with the spear of Longinus, the spear that had pierced Christ’s heart, to Britain, to these strange islands at the very edge of the known world; how these sacred relics were kept hallowed and apart by Joseph’s kin, the keepers of the grail, until a Christian King should arise, how that King was Arthur.
And even as this tale grew and deepened in all its meanings and implications, reaching its roots into both the Christian Mysteries and the pre-Christian myths and legends of these islands, so many other tales began to gather around Arthur and his knights: tales of magical adventure, of love, enchantment, and transformation. And soon, as in all true storytelling, these stories began to explore great themes of our exiled humanity, bereft of Eden, yet full of hope. That story of loss and recovery began to find expression in the joyous attempt in Camelot to found a true Edenic community; how the tragic flaw, the crack in the lute manifest in the doomed love of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the power-lust of Mordred, began to unravel that fellowship; and how in and through it all Christ stayed present in the grail, how the spear which wounded him became in the end a means of healing, how the numinous and mysterious figure of Galahad, himself the son of Lancelot, was able, in the achievement of the grail, to bring healing and grace even to the sins of his father.
And so we too can come to the tree of tales, climb out on one of its branches, and begin to unfold some new leaves.Malcolm Guite
Many storytellers, named and anonymous, contributed to the gradual exfoliation of this legendarium. In the course of that telling, many of the beautiful and suggestive myths and legends of pre-Christian Britain—the magical woods, the ladies of the lake, the wizards and dragons and shapeshifters—were all brought into the story, and ultimately into the light of Christ to find their transfiguration and fulfillment. In the fifteenth century the great storyteller and compiler, Sir Thomas Malory, bequeathed a gift to every English speaker and reader by drawing these disparate strands of story together from French, Anglo-Saxon, and Latin, translating them and weaving them into a single astonishing narrative: a many-voiced Romance published by Caxton in 1485 called The Morte d’Arthur. This became the great, prime source for subsequent writers, but still the tale unfolded, still the new branches and leaves kept growing. In the nineteenth century poets like Swinburne and Tennyson took up the tale, in the twentieth century writers as diverse as T. H. White, Charles Williams, David Jones and even in his own strange way T. S. Eliot all touched on, drew from, or retold the Matter of Britain. Not only Charles Williams, but the other Inklings like Lewis and Tolkien all drew from, reflected on, and retold the story. Indeed, the best and most beautifully written account of how the story grew and developed and how it might develop further is to be found in The Arthurian Torso, a book written by both Lewis and Williams which Lewis published after Williams’s death, containing Williams manuscript for “The Figure of Arthur,” the book he was writing about the Matter of Britain and never lived to complete, followed by Lewis’s own commentary on Williams’ two volumes of Arthurian poems.
And so this central tale, this great Christian romance, this mysterious baptising of the imagination of Christian and pre-Christian Britain continues to unfold today.
I was delighted to hear that the Rabbit Room would be publishing The Lost Tales of Sir Galahad and honored to be asked to contribute to it. Indeed, the invitation extended to me by the Rabbit Room really comes from Malory himself, for he goes out of his way to invite new stories: he tells us that “Galahad had many further adventures in the wild wood which have not been told.”
And so we too can come to the tree of tales, climb out on one of its branches, and begin to unfold some new leaves. Indeed, for me personally, the invitation to contribute to The Lost Tales of Sir Galahad has a special significance. I had for many years been contemplating taking up the tales of the Matter of Britain myself, but I was not sure how to begin or what form to use. Writing my ballad of Galahad and the Naiad for the Lost Tales suddenly gave me the key—the ballad form would be perfect for my project, and since writing that piece I have embarked on the bigger project and am well into a full retelling of Galahad and the Holy Grail.
There is, I thank God, no “authorized version” of the tales of Arthur, no definitive text from which no one can depart. There is instead a myriad of stories, a myriad of approaches, tones, styles, and possibilities, and the Matter of Britain remains for every writer what it always was for every knight: an open invitation to Adventure!
Featured image by Ned Bustard
Malcolm Guite is the Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge and author of various books on contemporary spirituality. In addition to this, he is a poet and singer-songwriter and fronts the Cambridge-based band Mystery Train. Visit www.malcolmguite.com where you can read Malcolm's blog, some of his poetry, or find out more about his music and media appearances.