John Matthews on Arthurian legend and the quest for the Grail

John Matthews

If you’ve ever  scanned the shelves of an occultnik bookseller, the odds are very good that you’ve run into something by John Matthews. John and Caitlin Matthews have produced over 150 titles between them, including The Western Way: A Practical Guide the the Western Mystery Tradition

John writes broadly, but it would be fair to describe him as having a lifelong obsession with Arthurian and grail myths, and is arguably on of the most prolific writers on the topic. John’s Arthurian titles to date include The Grail: Quest for the EternalKing Arthur: From Dark Age Warrior to Mythic Hero; The Arthurian Tarot ((See also Corinna Underwood’s review of The Complete Arthurian Tarot.)) and King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld: The Oldest Grail Quest (both with Caitlin Matthews); The Grail Seeker’s Companion (with Marian Green) and The Camelot Oracle (with Will Worthington). He’s most recently written the script for a graphic novel treatment of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, and has a book on Arthurian magick coming out in 2017.

Le Morte D’Arthur, originally published in 1485, is Thomas Malory’s bringing together of Arthurian myths and legends into one volume. As was usually the way of mediaeval folk, he imagined it set in his own time — hence all the armour, castles, and mediaeval feudalism. A historical King Arthur would have lived a lot earlier, but we see him and his men as knights on horseback due to mediaeval re-imaginings. The tales of King Arthur come from all over the UK and France, and overlap with Welsh mythology. Malory tried to make a single continuing narrative out of all the fragments, with varying degrees of success, and I didn’t find it very readable.

I first met John Matthews at a steampunk gathering in Lincoln some years ago. He and my other half, artist Tom Brown, took to each other rapidly, and plans were made to “do something.” At the start of 2016, that do something turned into a project to adapt Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur into a series of four graphic novels. Tom Brown is the artist on the project, and I’ve been the colourist. John has a new book on Arthurian magick coming out, so it seemed a good time to pick his brains about the magical things we can learn from Arthurian myths.

Le Mort D'Arthur, detail from an image by Tom Brown

Nimue Brown: Magical swords and prophecies do not tend to lead to good outcomes in Le Morte D’Arthur. Why is that?

John Matthews: I think that’s probably just human nature! Arthur, Merlin, all the great knights, have good intentions, But something seems to get in the way all the time. Lancelot falls for Queen Guinevere, Tristan falls for Queen Iseult, and the long prophesied quest for the Grail, really ends up more or less breaking the Fellowship of the Round Table — mostly because the knights just aren’t quite good enough.

We have two ladies of the lake in volume one of the graphic novel Morte D’Arthur. How many are there? And who are these women?

There seem to be quite a few ladies of the lake scattered across the vast landscape of the Arthurian legends. We can be fairly sure that these were originally faery women, or priestesses if you like, of an older tradition. Geoffrey of Monmouth lists nine of them, lead by the infamous Morgan le Fey, who is Arthur’s half sister in the stories, but at one time what is known as a goddess. In the medieval poem of Gawain and the Green Knight she’s even called “Morgan the goddess.” So you can see them as wise women, priestesses, faery, and they have a lot of power.

Is Merlin a Druid?

John MatthewsNot at all.  Merlin is a prophet, a seer, and also a poet. If you go back a bit further in time the mediaeval stories you run into a kind of inspired mad man, who lives in the woods, talks to a pet wolf and a pet pig, and sings poems about apple trees. He doesn’t really start turning into the familiar Merlin figure until the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth, —  that’s the 12th century — who wrote The Life of Merlin which presented him as a magical character who was able to see into the future. Some of the things that Merlin does can be seen as similar to the ideas we have of what a Druid might be , but since we don’t really know very much about Druids historically, it’s difficult to say. But Merlin is really very different.

The Arthurian Nimue can be characterised as a woman who seduces Merlin, steals his magick and traps him in a cave. She’s also sometimes Ninain, and Tennyson has her called Vivienne. Like many powerful women in myths, she doesn’t come over that well. However, looking at how Nimue acts in the Malory, compared to what Merlin does with his magick, I’m inclined to think that Merlin’s magick is amoral whereas Nimue seems to use it more as a force for justice (yes, I’m biased).

How do you see them? Is Nimue doing the world a favour by stopping Merlin, or is she the villain of the piece?

Though I appreciate where you’re coming from I can’t say I agree. Merlin has a plan. He wants to create the perfect earthly kingdom, with Arthur at its head. The Round Table is really his idea. And helps Arthur to defeat his enemies and become a stronger king — so I don’t see anything amoral in that.

In the later stories, like Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Nimue is presented as a bit of a femme fatale, who seduces poor old Merlin into sharing his magic with her, then uses it to shut him up in a cave. But again if you look back to a slightly earlier time, you get very different picture. There Nimue is the daughter of a Vavasseur — that’s someone who looks after Woodlands — who is himself a devotee of the goddess Diana. So ,his daughter is what now we would call a priestess, and if you look at it from that point of view then the story has a different skew.

Are the fantastical beasts in the Arthurian myths just there to add drama, or do they have a deeper significance?

Well the main fantastical beast of course it is the Questing Beast, also known as Glatisant. And it does have a purpose, which is basically to lead knights on quest away from their path. King Pellinore spent his whole life in search of this fantastic creature, and after his death the Saracen knight Palomides takes over.

The sword from the stone — is that just about Merlin getting the king he wants, or is there a deeper magick involved?

I suppose in the mediaeval versions of the story, that’s pretty much it, but if you go back in time bit you find lots of other stories in other traditions which feature heroes who prosper either by pulling a sword out of the ground or out of a tree or out of a stone. I’m thinking of people like Theseus in the Greek tradition and Siegfried in the German epics. So yes, Merlin does arrange the sword from the stone to enable Arthur to be recognised, but there’s much more to it than that. And don’t forget the sword from the stone soon breaks and he has to get another one, which is the famous Excalibur. A lot of people think the sword in stone was Excalibur, but it’s not.

Does the portrayal of magick vary much across Arthurian myths?

Not really. Right from the start there’s a tremendous mix of magical adventures, beginning with Merlin releasing the two dragons from Dinas Emrys, through Arthur getting Excalibur from the lady of the lake, to encounters with giants, phantom knights, and several characters who are killed but then come back to life again. It’s more about the world in which they live, which is absolutely magical and full of references to ancient myth and fairy lore.

Can a modern Pagan learn anything from Arthurian magick?

John MatthewsI would say yes. Magical groups as far back as the 19th century Golden Dawn have been basing rituals and magical work on the Arthurian legends. When I started out working in Gareth Knight’s esoteric group back in the 1980s most of it was based around the legends of the Ladies of the Lake and the quest for the Grail. I know several modern groups who are working with the symbolism of the stories.

In fact I have just finished work on a huge book, probably the longest book I’ve ever written, which is called Arthurian Magic. It’s a kind of compendium of rituals, visualizations, and background lore to what one can only call the esoteric side of the Arthurian legends. It’s got things like meditating on the power of the shields carried by the knights, how to set up an altar dedicated to the Arthurian mysteries and so on. I really wrote it as a kind of workbook for those who wanted to go deeper into the meaning behind the myths.

The quest for the Grail, is it purely Christian, or tapping in to something older?

Oh, definitely much older.

Right now I’m working on new line of Grail research which is taking me back from the Middle Ages to the time of Christ.  This is of course essentially Christian, but more Judeo Christian in nature.

My wife Caitlin and I have also just finished work on a book called The Lost Book of the Grail, which dips into the faery traditions as they relate to this. My own personal belief is that the Grail is simply the latest in a long line of magical vessels, dating back thousands of years. In the end it probably doesn’t matter what shape the Grail takes — cup, stone, book, and so on — it’s more to do with what it contains or what it does, the way it transforms people who come in contact with it, and which is part of our spiritual heritage from the earliest times.

The wounded Fisher King in his barren landscape suggests that the magick of kingship and land being one that lingers from Celtic thinking, and is still part of Arthur’s world. Does Arthur have a magical connection to his land?

The Complete King Arthur, by John and Caitlin MatthewsVery much so. Arthur is the guardian of the land, both inner and outer. John Boorman in his wonderful film Excalibur has this phrase, “the King and the Land are one.” This theme goes all the way through the legends.

I believe very strongly that at one time Arthur himself was seen as the wounded King — I’ve even recently found a text that says this very clearly. Of course what we’re talking about here is sacred kingship, and in Celtic tradition you have to remember the relationship between the king and the land was very deep, which is why Celtic kings had to be perfect, in both body and spirit.

Magick and water seem associated to me: springs, streams, fountains, lakes.

Yes. Magical lakes, fountains, springs, wells — these are everywhere in the stories, usually at points where some kind of very deeply magical adventure will begin. Wells and shorelines were seen as liminal spaces, overlapping between this world and the other. And of course the Ladies of the Lake were there — as Monty Python wonderfully puts it: “Watery tarts hanging about in ponds handing out swords!”

What is most important in Arthurian magick?

I think it has to do with recognising the element of wonder, of magical reality that surrounds us everywhere in life but which we mostly don’t notice. Even just reading the Arthurian legends takes you into a magical place. The Morte D’Arthur of Thomas Malory especially is to me full of magick on every page. It may have some dull patches, what T.H. White called the “batting averages” of the knights, but if you skip those parts you have a wonderful pageant of magical events, dreamlike journeys, fantastic battles, and wonderful esoteric explorations. It’s a world of its own.

Note: John Matthews’ preferred spelling is “magic.”

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