Karmic Camelot: Understanding Arthurian Legend

It’s hard for me to sit beside a lake and not think about Arthurian legends.  I watched a duck turn purple from the sun.  A dead fish skimmed the banks of our stone steps.  Finally, I asked my boyfriend, “Who’s your favorite character from Arthurian legend?”

“Perceval or Galahad.”  He didn’t have to think.  I forgot we’d discussed this almost two years ago.  “Galahad is more…,” he searched for the word.

“Christ-like,” I offered.  Tom nodded.  Half a mile above us, I spotted two young men on the high bridge.   They leaned over the railing.  One wore white, his cap on backwards.  It was so quiet, we could hear parts of their conversation.  The occasional jogger passed by.  Moments later, a black lab approached us.  I stroked his jaw while the owners assured me he was friendly.  The dog passed, the owners passed, and up on the bridge, the guys passed.

Still on the same wavelength, my boyfriend pondered, “I wonder what Lancelot and Guinevere symbolized.”  I said there was something Adam and Eve-like about them and mentioned the Fall.

“After all,” I said, “it’s sort of the end of Camelot.  It’s, like, the catalyst, I guess.  That and Mordred.”  Mordred being Arthur’s bastard son with his aunt Morgause, conceived in ignorance.  According to Thomas Malory, a knight who wrote the first Arthurian novel pulled from older poems and myths about King Arthur, King Lot of Lothian, sent his wife Morgause to spy on Arthur.  I guess she didn’t resemble her sister, Arthur’s mother much,  “A lot of modern movies and TV shows focus on an alliance of Morgan le Fay and Mordred bringing about the end of Camelot.  They make it more about a good versus evil struggle.  But actually, it’s just Mordred, after Guinevere and Lancelot are found out.”

Tom brought up another good point, about Arthur originally forgiving Lancelot.  Forgiveness seems to be a theme in Sir Thomas Malory’s le Morte d’ Arthur.  “Speaking of which,” I said, and returned to Morgan le Fay, “Arthur makes peace with her, towards the end of the book, do you remember?”  We both read le Morte d’ Arthur years ago.  After the enchantress steals her half-brother’s sword Excalibur and flings the scabbard into a lake, she disappears from the novel for a while.  Then towards the end, Arthur and company are passing through some mountains and find her in a village or castle with her men.  “Arthur made peace with her,” that much I remembered.  She was even one of the Four Queens who took him to the isle of Avalon to be buried or healed after the Battle of Camlan.  So there again, forgiveness.

So aside from ruining his talismanic scabbard–which I guess does contribute to his death–we can take Morgan le Fay off the Who Destroyed Camelot Table.  Malory’s narrative points primarily at Mordred, poor, misguided, haunted Mordred with his crush on Guinevere.  Mordred, whose mother was decapitated by his own half-brother, had the biggest axe to grind with Camelot.  Early on in the novel, our famously noble King Arthur does something unforgivable.  Bringing Old Testament barbarey to mind, he rounds up all the newborn males from the season and sets them adrift on a raft.  Mordred of course survives.  Years later, Merlin’s prophecy comes true, and father and son destroy eachother.

Speaking of Merlin, good old Merlin, the wizard made a morbid prophecy for himself too.  During the same scene, he prophesied his destruction at the hands of a young woman named Nimue (Or Viven, depending on the edition or translation).  By the time he meets Nimue, she’s established as one of the damsels of the Lady of the Lake.  By ‘damsel’ we can assume Nimue was a priestess, and while she probably picked up some spells along the way, she would have been trained as a mystic more than a magician.  From Merlin, she wants to learn the magic arts.  After some traveling, she persuades Merlin to teach her the spell used to bring about his undoing.  Of course, Merlin already knew this was coming.  He consents, and Nimue seals him A) inside a tomb, B) beneath a rock, C) inside a crystal cave, or D) inside a tree, depending on the edition again.

Nimue goes on to replace Merlin at court as magician.  She’s also referenced as “Lady of the Lake,” once her predecessor dies.  So we can assume in addition to being a great sorceress, she succeeds the Lady’s office as High Priestess by the Lake of Avalon.

Why didn’t Merlin fight back?  I ask myself.  As a magician, I’m sure he knew the advantages magic gives you over fate.  The purpose of magic, speaking mythically from sources like the Egyptian post-creation myth, is to help the oppressed find loopholes when it comes to crushing blows of life and fate.  Perhaps Merlin, having the foresight to know what Arthur would build when he took him as a newborn from his mother Igraine and father Uther, felt guilty for his part in the destruction of Igraine’s first husband Gorlois, or his part in Arthur’s decision to set infants adrift.  Perhaps he saw in Nimue a worthy disciple and chose to pass on the reigns gracefully.  She does manage to use her gifts nobly.  When Morgan le Fay was still Arthur’s enemy, she came to the King’s defense twice.  She is never seen throughout the rest of the story to behave vindictively or cruelly.  That said, I feel like Nimue was Merlin’s karma, just as Mordred was Arthur’s karma when he canceled out Camelot’s dynasty by ending both their lives at Camlan.

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Did Sir Thomas Malory set out to write a spiritual book when he penned le Morte d’ Arthur?  I don’t know.  It’s impossible not to tap into that stream when you write something Arthurian.  The legend is based on a kindling of Christian and Pagan myths, poems and texts.  The Hermetic, Gnostic and mystical notes running through the epic aren’t possible to remove.  Either way, I’m glad Malory wrote it, while imprisoned, appropriately.

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