Archives for category: tolde by the weye on holiday

christmas in camelot

Ever since our matchless maiden mother Mary delivered our Christ in the most modest of accommodations in Bethlehem, wondrous things have always occurred during Christmastide. That was the selling point that won the Saxons to Christianity during the 6th century – or at least it should have been – and it’s the same thing that mesmerizes us today when we are in presence of life-size inflatable snow globes and the like.

So, as we gather with our neighbors on Christmas Day, we will almost certainly find ourselves surrounded by poor souls who do not share our same ideas of The Holiday. These heathens do not know, for example, the importance of Christmas to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Wondrous things occurred in Camelot during Yuletide, yet somehow we tell stories of other things said to have occurred on this special day.

Let us not forget the miracle of the sword of the stone – for it was during Christmas that Merlin advised the Archbishop of Canterbury to summon all of the barons in the realm to London for a very special Christmas celebration:

Thenne Merlyn wente to the archebisshop of Caunterbury / and counceilled hym for to sende for
alle the lordes of the reame /
and alle the gentilmen of armes that they shold to london come by Cristmas vpon payne of cursynge[1]

Let’s let the King of mankind show us, on this auspicious day, who should be the king of our realm:

And for this cause that Jesus that was borne on that nyghte
that he wold of his grete mercy shewe some myracle
as he was come to the kynge of mankynde for to shewe somme myracle who be
rightwys kynge of this reame[2]

The barons and their knights arrived to a miraculous sight – and it wasn’t what was inside the church either. The visitors were so marveled by the sword in the stone exhibit that Merlin installed, that the Archbishop nearly lost his audience to it:

Thenne the peple merueilled & told it to the Archebisshop I commande said tharchebisshop
that ye kepe yow within your chirche /
and pray vnto god still that no man touche the swerd tyll the hyghe masse be all done[3]

It’s amusing to picture the Archbishop getting ready for his big appearance at mass, only to realize that everyone was outside looking at something else – on one of the biggest church days of the year no less!

Today many men spend mass with their eyes glossed over in a fantasy football game. Not much has changed because in the medieval world, these same men passed their mass thinking about the jousting tournament that would take place after the service. For, it was really the promise of feasting and swordplay that brought these men to London and not the Archbishop’s wise words. After mass, the men gathered around the sword:

So whan all masses were done all the lordes wente to beholde the stone and the swerd /
And whan they sawe the scripture / som assayed suche as wold haue ben kyng /
But none myght stere the swerd nor meue hit He is not here said the Archebisshop that shall
encheue the swerd but doubte not god will make hym knowen[4]

The knights stuck around London for a few more days of revelry. In medieval Britain, Christmas, or “Christmastide” was a festival that typically lasted twelve days and New Year’s Day was part of the Christmas celebration. There was a great tournament in London that year on New Year’s Day and it was on that same day that Kay was in such a hurry to get to church on time for morning mass that he left his sword back at the house. He asked his foster brother Arthur to fetch it for him – and we all know what happened next…

arthur draws the sword from the stone

Arthur (played by Nigel Terry) draws the sword from the stone in John Boorman’s Excalibur (image: copyright 1981 Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers)

In medieval Britain, presents were typically exchanged on New Year’s Day and not Christmas Day as is done in America today. Though “Christmastide” typically lasted twelve days, we see in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that King Arthur didn’t follow the status quo – Camelot partied for a full fifteen days!

This kyng lay at Camylot upon KrystmasseWith mony luflych lorde, ledez of the best,Rekenly on the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,With rich revel oryght and rechles merthes.Ther tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,

Justed ful joilé thise gentyle knightes,

Sythen kayred to the court caroles to make.

For ther the fest watz ilyche ful fiften dayes,

With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse… (Fitt 1, v. 37-45)[5]

The king spent that Christmas at CamelotWith many gracious lords, men of great worth,Noble brothers-in-arms worthy of the Round Table,With rich revelry and carefree amusement, as was right.There knights fought in tournament again and again,

Jousting most gallantly, these valiant men,

Then rode to the court for dancing and song.

For there the festival lasted the whole fifteen days

With all the feasting and merry-making that could be devised… (Part 1, v. 37-45)[6]

Well, since Arthur pulled the sword from the stone on New Year’s Day and everything, he expected no less of his subjects on that holiday. He was notorious for refusing to eat at holiday dinners until he had either heard some wondrous tale or had at least seen someone jump “over men and horses hoops and garters lastly through a hog’s head of real fire”[7]:

…he wolde never eatUpon such a dere day er hym devised wereOf sum aventurus thing an couthe tale,Of sum mayn mervayle, that he might trawe,Of alders, of armes, of other aventurus,Other sum segg hym bisoght of sum siker knyght

To joyne with hym in justyng, in jopardé to lay

Lede, lif for lyf, leve uchon other,

As fortune wolde fulsun hom, the fayrer to have. (Part 1, v. 91-99)[8]

…he would never eatOn such a special day until he had been toldA curious tale about some perilous thing,Of some great wonder that he could believe,Of princes, of battles, or other marvels;Or some knight begged him for a trusty foe

To oppose him in jousting, in hazard to set

His life against his opponent’s, each letting the other,

As luck would assist him, gain the upper hand. (Part 1, v. 91-99)[9]

So, be sure to tell a tale of wonder during your Christmas holiday and challenge a mate to a sword fight or a wrestling match or something – it will make our trewe kinge happy.


[1] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English from Middle English Compendium (leaf 20v) available online: http://name.umdl.umich.edu/MaloryWks2

[2] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[3] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[4] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Middle English Text with facing Translation, Ed., Trans. James Winny (Peterborough, 1992), 4.

[6] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 5.

[7] The Beatles, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone, 1967).

[8] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 6.

[9] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 7.

Sequitur pars quarta.

People celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today in Philadelphia (image: instagram.com)

Since today is Saint Patrick’s today, I was reminded of the Celtic Tale The Children of Lir.[1] I thought of this story because the enchantment that turned Lir’s four children into swans ended soon after Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. Thinking of this story then turned my attention (I’ll explain how later) to Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale – which, of course, reminded me that I have really neglected tolde by the weye in recent months… So, remember we left Constance in a newly Christian Northumbria? King Alla took her as his queen. It seemed like happily ever didn’t it? But it was not – at least not yet. Everyone in King Alla’s land was overjoyed that Constance was their new queen and they were having a grand old time at the wedding feast. Well, everyone, that is, except one person – King Alla’s mother Donegild:

But who was woful, if I shal nat lye,

Of this weddyng but Donegild, and namo,

The kynges mooder, ful of tirannye? (II 694-96)

Queen Grimhilde, stepmother of Snow White from Walt Disney’s Snow White (image: pentopaper.wordpress.com, copyright 1937 Walt Disney Pictures)

King Alla’s mother was not happy about her son’s marriage to Constance. This was no ordinary case of the mother who needed a little time to warm up to her new daughter-in-law. Her despiteful disapproval of their union is strikingly similar to the Sultan’s mother’s hatred of Constance earlier in the tale. In the way the Sultan’s mother knew that Constance was the reason the Sultan was giving up Islam to take her as his bride, King Alla’s mother saw Constance as a foreign threat to their way of life as well:

Hir thought a despit that he sholde take

So strange a creature unto his make (II 699-700)

She bided her time, though, waiting for the perfect moment to take her vengeance upon Constance. Time passed and a war started with the Scots. King Alla entrusted Constance in the care of the Constable and a bishop and he left to fight the Scots. Constance soon gave birth to their little prince. The infant was christened Maurice and the Constable wrote a letter to the King announcing the birth. He chose a messenger and sent him off to deliver the joyous news. The messenger first passed by the Queen mother Donegild’s house to share the exciting news with her. She suggested to the messenger that he rest for the night at her house and deliver the letter to the King the next day. The messenger, knowing there would be fine food and drink at Donegild’s house, stayed for the evening. He drunk himself silly with ale and wine and soon passed out. As he slept like a swine Donegild exchanged his letter for a forged one.

(image: montalcino-tuscany.com)

The messenger left the next morning to deliver the letter to the King. The counterfeit letter told of a horrible demon child born out of the depths of hell. It also informed the king that Constance was really an elf and that the only reason why everyone loved her in the first place is because she was an evil sorceress who had everyone under her spell. Now that everyone in the castle knows the truth about the wicked Constance, they shun her and her savage spawn.

King Alla was terribly grieved by the letter but replied requesting that everyone show Christian charity to Constance and the child. He made it clear that no action should be taken against them until his return to the castle. As he sealed the letter tears burst from his eyes. He returned to battle and those Scots really took a beating that day.

The messenger sped off for the castle but instead of delivering the letter directly to the Constable, he went first again to the Queen Mother’s court. Just where does this messenger’s allegiance lie – in his King or the drink? She again entertained him with food and wine and exchanged his letter once more for a forged one.

When the Constable received the letter he was horrified by its contents. It told him that under penalty of death by hanging he must not let Constance and the demon child stay in the castle. He was ordered to put her and the infant back in the very boat from which Constance washed ashore and push them out to tide. The Constable couldn’t believe that God could let such horrible things happen in the world to pious people, but he followed the King’s orders.

The Irish folktale The Children of Lir shares a few elements with Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. The protagonists are loved by everyone except an evil mother figure who is bent on their destruction, these same protagonists must face dangerous waters on their own, and, finally, the events of the tale occur at the time the country is converting to Christianity. There are plenty more similarities but this post is too long already and I need to make it to market and back by sunset.

Children of Lir is set at the Hill of the White field, which today the Irish call County Armagh. There once were four kings, Bov the Red, Midir the Proud, Angus of the Bird, and Lir, father of the sea-god Manannan. They were all descendents of the goddess Dana. One day everyone in the land decided that among these great kings, one must be chosen to rule over everyone. Bov the Red was chosen. Lir was not pleased with this decision because he felt that he should be the king. Bov the Red allowed Lir to rule his own land and there was no ill will between them. One day, Lir’s wife died. Bov sent Lir his condolences and words of friendship. He also offered him the choice of his three foster daughters for a new wife. Lir accepted Bov’s offer and went to his hall to choose his new bride. The names of Bov’s foster daughters were Aev, Eva, and Alva. They were all beautiful and Lir decided upon Aev who, being the eldest, he thought would be the most wise.

Lir and Aev lived happily together and had twins, a girl named Finola and a boy named Aed. A couple of years passed and Aev once again gave birth to twins – this time to two boys, Fiachra and Conn. Each year the children visited King Bov’s Hall. Everyone at both King Bov’s Hall and King Lir’s Hall loved the four children and wherever they were, everyone was joyous.

One day, Queen Aev passed away. King Lir was devasted. King Bov heard of the tragedy and offered his foster-daughter Eva as King Lir’s new wife. King Lir accepted Eva as his new wife. Eva was initially happy in King Lir’s hall, however, after about a year she grew very jealous of the children. It seemed to her that everyone, including her own husband, loved them much more dearly than they did her. She feigned a terrible sickness and stayed in her chamber for several weeks. She thought the solitude would help, but the time spent alone obsessing over the problem only worsened her jealousy of the children of Lir. One day, she found a solution to the problem. She emerged from the her room and suggested to King Lir that she take the children to visit King Bov.

Along the way she stopped by Lake Darva. She ordered her servants to murder the four children and though this order came from the Queen they could not obey it.  Queen Eva took matters into her own hands and made to kill the children herself, but she could not bring herself to murder them either. The Queen, instead, gathered the children and brought them down to the lake. She bade them remove their clothes and bathe in the lake. As they swam in the lake she pulled a wooden wand from her robe. The wand was inscribed with runes she had carved into it while she was going mad in her room. She muttered an incantation and suddenly the four children were magically transformed into white swans.

She left the children as swans in the lake and made for King Bov’s hall. King Bov was happy to see that his daughter and glad to see she had recovered from his illness but he was surprised to see her arrive without the children. Queen Eva told King Bov that King Lir no longer trusted him and that he could never see the children again. King Bov was upset by this news and sent King Lir a letter requesting an explanation. King Lir, upon receiving the message and, learning that the children did not make it to Lough Derg to visit King Bov, he feared for their lives.

King Lir discovers the fate of his children at Lake Darva (image: wikipedia)

He immediately made his way to Lough Derg and as he passed by Lake Darva the four swans called out to him. Though they were swans, they could still be heard and understood by the people of Dana. He discovered the fate of his children. Now, I’m not going to talk of the chaff or stalk that makes tales so long as corn, but the children remained in swan form until someone from the North married someone from the South – which in itself could be another Irish fairy tale! But I can tell you this: before they changed back into their human forms, they spent three hundred years in Lake Darva, another three hundred years in the dangerous and stormy sea of Moyle, and yet another three hundred years on the Isle of Glora. Now, while they were on the Isle of Glora, Saint Patrick came and brought the Christian faith to Ireland. Well, since the Children of Lir survived as swans for three hundred years on the stormy sea of Moyle, something tells me that Constance and Maurice will not be swallowed up by the sea…

Explicit quarta pars.


[1] My telling of The Children of Lir is adapted and embellished from Barbara Leonie Picard’s version which can be found in Celtic Tales (New York: Criterion, 1964).

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