The stories of King Arthur and his knights have captivated people for a millennium. The meaning and the ultimate source of these legends remained obscure until the twentieth century. In 1927, Roger Sherman Loomis published “Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance”, which attempted to systematically trace the tales of Arthur back to their origins in Celtic mythology. Having read “Morte d’Arthur” and “The Mabinogion” before coming to it, I found Loomis’s book was the key that unlocked their meanings.
In chapter 1, Loomis discusses an sculpture found in a cathedral in Modena, Italy, and dated to the year 1100 AD, which records an early version the story of the abduction of Guinevere. In chapter 2, “The Rape of the Flower Maiden”, Loomis traces this story back to Celtic tales. Finally, in chapter 30, he compares them to the ancient Greek myth of the abduction of Persephone by Hades.
In the two best know stories of the abduction, Crestien’s “Knight of the Cart” and Mallory’s “Morte d’Arthur”, Lancelot is Guinevere’s rescuer. But in Heinrich von dem Turlin’s “The Crown”, Gawain rescues her, just as he is shown doing in the ancient sculpture. In “The Life of Arthur”, Gawain rescues her when she is abducted by Urien. In the version of Guinevere’s abduction found in “Durmart the Welshman”, Ydier, as he does in the sculpture, rides after her abductor unarmed.
In the “Vulgate Lancelot”, part of a massive cycle of legends, Carrado, who is shown on the sculpture defending Guinevere and her lover, is killed when the woman he abducted, the wife of Melians, gives Gawain her abductor’s own sword. In “The Life of Arthur”, Gawain’s lover Floree is the one who is married to Melians. Guinevere has been replaced by a maiden who name literally means “flower”.
Loomis compares the Guinevere abduction stories first with the Irish legend of the abduction of Cuchulinn’s love, Blathnat, by his rival, Curoi. He points out that the name Blathnat means “little flower”. In “The Tragic Death of Curoi mac Daire”, Blathnat betrays him, ties him up, and steals his sword. Cuchulinn then beheads him. In a variant, Curoi reveals to Blathnat that he can only be killed by his own sword.
Loomis goes on to point out that the name Carrado is derived from Curoi. The other guardian of the castle on the sculpture, Burmalt, is a ruffian bearing a pickaxe. In “Bricriu’s Feast”, Curoi enters the hall disguised as a herdsman, bearing a huge axe, and challenges Cuchulinn and the other heroes to exchange blows with it.
Finally, Loomis argues that the name of Guinevere’s lover on the sculpture, Mardoc, is derived from Mordred, the most famous of her abductors. In the alliterative “Morte d’Arthur”, Arthur is killed by his own sword which Guinevere has given to Mordred. In another Irish legend, Mider, who Loomis claims is a prototype of Mordred, abducts the maiden Etain.
In the Welsh story “Math, Son of Mathonwy”, the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, Gwydion and Math formed a bride for the hero Llew from flowers and brought her to life with magic. Bloddeuwedd (whose name means “flower face”) fell in love with a hunter, learned from Llew the secret of how he could be killed, and told the hunter, who wounded him mortally.
In “Arthur of Little Britain”, Arthur encounters the princess Florence, mistress of the castle of the black door. She was bequeathed her palace by Proserpine (the Roman Persephone) and is her reincarnation. In this tale, Proserpine, said to be the chief of the four queens of the Faerie, names Florence and makes her her twin in looks. Loomis surmises that the Faerie queen was originally one of the ancient Celtic goddesses, a goddess, like Blodeuwedd, of the flowers.
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