Celtic myth, Chretien de Troyes, Conversation between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, Ginover, Guinevere, Gwenhwyfar, Holy Grail, King Arthur, kingship, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Meleagant, Perceval, Sir Thomas Malory, Vita Gildae
In Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Meleagant goes into Arthur’s court and abducts Ginover (Guinevere). It is a plot with parallels in Dialogue between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar and the second Vitae Gildae and on the continent with Iwein and the Continuations of Chrétien de Troyes and later the Vulgate and the works of Robert de Boron. It’s most famous version is to be found in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
What is less well known is that the Irish myths and legends are filled with stories of abductions. The stories are a reflection of Celtic culture; there was a powerful political motivation for them. We know now that the coronation of a king involved his marriage to the land he would rule. The land was personified by his queen. As the symbol of his kingship, she also represented his power and authority. Any king unable to win an abducted queen back was, by definition, unfit to rule the kingdom she represented.
The ceremony was actually more intricate than even that. the land and, by extension the queen, had the right to reject a king at any time. Queens were often referred to in the literature as a sort of “mead maiden”. This was because her acceptance of a potential king involved the giving of a cup “of kingship”, from her to him. Understanding this aspect of Celtic culture, one can see this mysterious cup of kingship in other Arthurian stories. In the grail legend, Perceval’s initial arrival at Arthur’s court is in every case preceded by the arrival of a knight who spills wine from a cup onto the queen in the act of stealing the cup. It is not explained exactly how, ever, but somehow this becomes a source of great humiliation. When Perceval defeats the knight he mysteriously wins back Arthur’s honor and earns the undying gratitude of Arthur. The cup is the symbol of kingship and the theft was an attempt to usurp him.
The great Professor Loomis many times suggested that the grail ceremony Perceval took part in was a corrupted form of the very same ritual. However, it has already been shown conclusively elsewhere that the Perceval story was a witch hunt at its core, with many Celtic elements added in during its time in an oral environment. Kingship, a theme pervasive in almost every Celtic tale, was simply one of those additional features.