Notes from Limmud 2007
King Arthur and King David: Literary Parallels
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. I personally thought Dr Fredrick was on shakier ground here than with her other talks. I thought I should say this before I get mobbed by a horde of infuriated Celtic readers. :o)]
Arthur may be a composite figure of seven sixth-century Celtic chieftains who were all called Arthur, plus one Pictish chieftain from a century later. [More detail would have been nice here.] It may also be a collective social fantasy: Camelot, the kingdom where war had been eradicated. Arthur is a tremendously important theme in world literature. There are three elements of British literature who have gone global: Shakespeare, Robin Hood, and the Arthurian cycle. This is something which attracts people's attention. There are tonnes of Arthurian stories in Spain; in Amadis de Gaulla Arthurian characters keep walking in and out.
Arthur, of course, was a Welsh king who fought the Saxons; so it's amusing that the English later appropriated him. It's such a powerful myth that mediaeval Jews add their myths to the story. We'll see this in the French additions. (Sir Launcelot only appeared in the French additions.)
The literature starts in the sixth century mentioning a Prince Arthur: the Mabinogion (C6), and Y Goddodin (C7). The characters are Celtic gods, who have been euhemerised—turned into human characters to appease the Church. Guenevere = [something I missed because the speaker was speaking too fast, Wikipedia suggests "White fay"]. Arthur = little bear: a bear god. Gawain = Gawin, the ancient Celtic sun-god. All of the legends stipulate that he had blond hair. His strength reached a zenith at midday, and declined thereafter, like the sun-god.
By the eighth century, we had the Venerable Bede writing a chronicle in which [lacuna] not the mystical Arthur of the gods' court of the Mabinogion. This is a chieftain who fought the Saxon king Vortigern. (In this period it's impossible to separate history from legend.)
There is a more extensive reference in the C9 Historia Brittonum of Nennius. There's nothing in it that sounds supernatural. [*ahem*] By this time Arthur was becoming appropriated as a folk hero. He must have been a powerful hero to have been appropriated by his enemies. (In the eleventh century there were stories in which Arthur saves the Saxons from the Normans!)
Then Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the reign of Henry II, decided to translate from a venerable and ancient book (which conveniently got lost so nobody can check it), which was supposedly used in a combination of Latin and Ogham script. Or, he wrote a book justifying the Divine Right of Kings connecting the English king to the Israelite kingdom and the Kingdom of G-d and the Davidic Line.
But in the mid-twelfth century, Jews were not very much in favour. If you're writing a royal chronicle, you have problems. So Geoffrey invented a story such that Hebrew-speaking Trojans come to Albion. In the nineteenth century a group of fundamentalist Christian protestants tried to connect that to Hebrew לָבָן, lavan. (It's not inconceivable Geoffrey would have known Hebrew.) Albion, like לבן, means "white". Geoffrey said that Brutus of Troy [*ahem*, Brutus was the descendant of Aeneas of Troy] led a band of defeated Trojans to Albion, where he established the English royal line.
So, whilst Geoffrey did not actually say that the kings of England are Jewish, he did make some kind of connection. Because Brutus married a Celtic woman, Geoffrey makes Arthur of this descent. And because this was the patrilineal line, it meant that the English kings weren't Jewish themselves.
The person who was responsible for connecting the Jews to the English was Queen Elizabeth's astrologer and third cousin, John Dee. He had connections to a lot of Jews in the Low Countries, and was interested in getting Jews into English commerce. It was he who first posited the Judah-Israelite Divide. This was that the British and the Jews were both descended from the House of Abraham, the Jews being descended from the House of Judah, the English from the House of Jacob. (Consider also that the Stone of Scone is supposed to be the stone that Jacob lay his head on.) This idea could now be reworked in the figure of Arthur. Elizabeth liked Arthur because the Tudors claimed to trace their ancestry back to Arthur.
John Dee set this hysterically into motion. In Jewish communities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a wealth of Jewish Arthurian literature. Throughout Europe Jewish communities took this up in a big way. (Indeed, the three most well-known Arthurian writers of the twentieth century were all Jewish, including Marion Zimmer Bradley and T.H. White (whose mother was Jewish; he was raised Christian, but reconverted to Judaism at age forty-two).)
By the time we have the characters of Arthur and David, through the twelfth and thirteen centuries, Arthur has taken on a number of Davidic qualities, which distinguish him from all other English kings. One of these was an advisor with the same ambivalent relationship to his king as Nathan, i.e. Merlin, who was based on the Welsh god Myrddin, the elderly man who lives backwards and gets younger every year. There is no other English literature where the king's advisor dares to say the things that Merlin says (or yells) to Arthur. The only possible parallel, as English literary critics pointed out in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was David and Nathan. Merlin pushes Arthur, he scolds Arthur; he gets particularly angry when Arthur sets up the Round Table of Knights, because he's doing it wrong. Around Merlin, Arthur remains to an extent a little boy, like David does around Nathan; and Saul does around Samuel. When Nathan tells David off about Bathsheba, David weeps, rather than sticking Nathan's head on a pike.
Recall that Arthur has an illegitimate son. Arthur has a long-running obsession with his nasty sorcerous half-sister Morgana le Fay. In the earliest legends, Arthur, knowing she is her half-sister, has sex with her in the festival of the horned harvest-god Seridwen—which led to the conception of Mordred.
Just like Arthur's mother Ygrania didn't want to bring him up; Arthur does not want to bring up Mordred. He puts him in a basket of reeds and asks Myrddin to watch it as it goes through the bulrushes. The basket is followed; and as we known from Chretien de Troyes, Mordred does not drown and is brought up by the witches of Avalon. (Chretien de Troyes, by the way, though non-Jewish, had connections with the school of Rashi, and never hid it.)
Arthur then changes his mind and tries to get Merlin to bring him back—but calls him his nephew. In the mediaeval legends, their relationship then deteriorates. In Mallory's Morte d'Arthur—drawing on all of these sources, Chretien de Troyes included—Mordred is comparable to the Biblical character of Absalom. In his book, Arthur loves Mordred, and Mordred, like Absalom, is spoiled. In Tenyson's retelling of the Arthurian stories, he collects a tradition that said Mordred has red hair, which is interesting because so did David and Absalom. (Though plenty of Celts had red hair, so possibly it means nothing.)
Mordred, who is the child of sin (in Mallory's conception), is going to be his father's undoing, rising up against him, like Absalom. In Mallory's book, it's not the romance with Launcelot that is ont the kingdom's undoing—Arthur forgives Guenevere, because he's not been so good himself.
Arthur, like David, does not want Mordred killed. Even though Mordred is destroying Camelot, which is already weakened because of the Launcelot and Guenevere affair, he doesn't want to hurt him. Now Arthur gets a head-wound and dies.
Does David really die? He does, but mentally we don't want to think of the Davidic line as dead; so we regard it as continuing through the Messiah. There is a parallel with the tradition that Arthur isn't really dead; and gets taken off by the witches of Avalon (including Morgana le Fay) to be healed of his wounds, and will return to become the once and future king. [Er, well, having been rex olim, he will return to be rex futurusque...] Welsh folklore names over a hundred sites which are associated with spots King Arthur might reappear at.
Doesn't this connect more to Jesus than to David? Yes, apart from the fact Fowler thinks that the idea of Arthur coming back predates the Christianisation of the story. There were no Jews in Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries; when the great pagan Liter [lacuna] Queen Medb [lacuna; anyone have any idea what she was about here?] The Irish say they are descended from Levites and Cohens, who after leaving Egypt did not go to the Promised Land, but were led to Ireland by the goddess Danaan. [They do?]
Robert Gordis gives another interesting Davidic parallel, though not so much with King Arthur as with King Saul. If you look at Arthur's relationship with Morgana le Fay, Arthur is supposed to have forbidden the practice of black witchcraft. She is a black witch. But at the same time, he maintains a connection with her and uses her when he needs her. There is a parallel here with King Saul, who outlaws witchcraft, but knows exactly where to go to find one when he really needs one.
There is a woman called Leonors, who appears in the early stories—the Mabinogion and the Y Goddodin, and later the Song of Taliesin. Her prophecy read:
You will love the king but never be wedShe was associated with the lost kingdom of Lyonesse. Leonors is supposed to be Arthur's first adulterous affair. In the French-influenced stories, Arthur is faithful; but in the earlier stories, this was not the case. The image of Leonors to the speaker is similar to the portrayal of David's wife Michal. We know when David comes leaping into Jerusalem, and Michal tells him off for flashing in his dancing, David says "well, those will never again be yours." In the Welsh tradition, something similar happens. Leonors like any mistress gets tired of being a mistress. She says everyone sees you and knows you and loves you, but I don't know you. And Arthur says well now you never will.
You will be honoured but your name will be unknown
The interesting thing is the way the Arthurian [story] ties together the Celtic [legend] and the Davidic Christianised legend, with the addition of the Solomonic peace. The only time Jerusalem came under peace was during the reign of Solomon. Solomon had the image of someone who draws together and makes peace and builds the Temple. This became the image of Camelot. If you look at images of Arthur in English, French and Welsh art from the fourteenth century onwards, it became a fusion of English and Celtic and Biblical motifs.
What about Excalibur? The Lady of the Lake, identified as Vivian, or Nimue (one of the Welsh sea-nymphs), sometimes identified with Morgana le Fay, may have a parallel with Lilith. Lilith lives under the sea and rises up from it whenever she wants to claim a victim. Like her, the Lady of the Lake is not a nice character. She's forbidding at best.
One further image, which is tied in by John Dee, is the Holy Grail. When does this come into the story? It has a Celtic, pre-Christian origin. In the Mabinogion, Arthur and his men went into the other-world to steal the cauldron of the gods and bring it back to the Earth, where it would give them inspirations. This gets grafted onto the Christian concept of the Holy Grail, the kiddush cup Jesus used at the Last Supper. (The Seder of today did not exist yet at the time of Jesus, but there would have been some form of kiddush ritual nevertheless.)
Joseph of Arimathaea was a Celtic invention. He was supposed to have been a Jew who stood by Jesus's side when his side was pierced by the lance, and collected the blood in the same cup he had used for Kiddush. The Spanish say the cup ended up in Spain, and is located in the Cathedral of Valencia (a thirteenth-century forgery, with mediaeval Hebrew lettering on it). According to the Celtic stories, Joseph followed the same route as Brutus, and fled up to Albion, and buried the cup near the New Jerusalem, which is supposed to be close to Primrose Hill. [Aside: I was always intrigued by this name Arimathaea. Where was it? It sounds... mythological. It was quite disappointing to discover it was a Greek garbling of רַמָתַיִם צוֹפיִם, Ramāthayim Ṣophim (the Twin Heights of the Scouts), the birthplace of the prophet Samuel.]
The Grail legend got grafted onto the Arthur story between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Arthur does not go in search of the Grail himself; he has enough problems already. Launcelot tries, but fails because he's not virtuous enough. Galahad is pure, he wins the Grail. (Wagner took that into the story of Parsifal, which was a complete invention.)
John Dee said: Look, we have a Jew coming from Jerusalem bearing the cup that Jesus drank from, burying it in Primrose Hill. All of this helped to cement the connection which in the nineteenth century the British Israelites take up; q.v. Sceptre of Judah, Heritage of Joseph, by J.H. Allen. Allen now took everything Dee did, and added a fundamentalist Christian view. He said this gave the British the right to conquer the Promised Land. This then was quoted by General Allenby when he marched into Jerusalem in 1917! The entire political British campaign in the Middle East was influenced by the Israelite wing of the Anglican Church (who believed the British should rule the Holy Land in perpetuum).
- The Bible in Early English Literature, David Fowler (1976)
- מלך ארתוס (King Artus) (1279), trans. Curt Leviant. (2003, Syracuse University Press).
- In Search of Arthur and Camelot, Geoffrey Ashe.