Bill Moyer and the Power of Myth
When speaking of the significance that folklore and mythology plays in the understanding of the origins of man, Bill Moyer states that, “Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and to understand our story. We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passages from birth to life and then to death. We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are” (Campbell & Moyers, 1991). This idea that folklore and mythology reveal the intrinsic nature of humanity and allow historians to glean a greater understanding about the culture is especially important when looking at societies that relied predominately on oration to pass along rule of law, cultural normalities, and religious practice. It is through the observation and analysis of the tales of gods, monsters, and the men who fight them that historians are enabled to see what was most important to cultures and understand how those beliefs shaped neighboring cultures. This social permeation is most evident when looking at the Arthurian Romances produced in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages as many of the narrative elements directly parallel the myths and legends produced by the Celtic people in Ireland.
Celtic literature comprised of several regions all with their own unique legends, folklore, and mythologies. However, the most well preserved among them is that of the people of Ireland. The preservation of the Irish Celtic literary cannon can be attributed to the Christian missionaries’ methods of conversion as they melded the Christian parables with the local mythology to better integrate Christianity into the local culture. This fusion undoubtedly altered concepts within the popular narratives, meaning when tales were transcribed, key details were changed to represent the new Christian beliefs. Still, the Celtic symbols, beliefs, and narrative structure remain. The categorization is a prime example of the lasting Irish-Celtic narrative cycle. This categorization is also reflective of the culture, for Legends and Myths are broadly categorized on cycles of invasion; each invasion adding a core ideal to the society that survived the regime change. The cycle that is most indictive of the cultural beliefs is the Ulster cycle, as the tales from these invasions demonstrate the drastic shift between the pre-Christian druidic ideals and the shift over into Christian beliefs. The societal ideals of the Irish Celts are exemplified in three particular works; the first of these is The Feast of Bricriu and Táin bó Cuailnge of the Ulster Cycle. It is through these tales that historians are enabled to witness the basis of Irish-Celtic religious worship and the ideals that extended into contemporary literature, particularly the Arthurian Romances of the Middle Ages.
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The sect of literature that was most directly influenced by the melding of Christian and native Druidic culture is the Arthurian Legends and Romances of Northern Europe. The Arthurian Legend itself was created around 1136, where Geoffery of Monmouth introduced a semi-historical account of the founding of the British nation, starting with the Trojan occupation and continuing to include the reclamation of the country by the mythic figure King Arthur. These tales of a prophesied king who would unite the British Isle was integral to the establishment of early Britain’s national identity as King Arthur is seen as an epic hero on par with Odysseus from Greco-Roman antiquity. The realization that Geoffery of Monmouth’s history was a farce actually propelled the Legend of King Arthur to new heights of popularity as direct references to King Arthur and his court can be seen in classical literature like the Wife of Bath’s section in Geoffery Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Medieval Romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Marie de France’s Lanval and even in modern media with programs like Merlin or The Kid Who Would be King. The most interesting development in the Arthurian literary cannon are the romances of Europe during the Medieval period as they are not facing overwhelming odds, rather, they are tales of courtly love and deeds done by the lesser members of Arthur’s court. Instead, these tales show not a young fresh-faced leader, but a petulant man consumed by paranoia; depictions that are reflections of the society for which they were written. It is clear and undoubtedly obvious that the influence of King Arthur’s legend has uniquely altered the cultural and literary landscape for eternity. However, it is clear that all Arthurian romances can trace their roots to Irish folklore.
A common practice for authors in the Middle Ages was to take a recognizable story and reorganize it in order to appeal to their audience and culture of the time. Similarly, both Marie de France and the anonymous Sir Gawain poet do not create original works, rather they retread ground laid forth by their predecessors. This revelation led scholars like Roger S. Loomis to theorize that all Arthurian Romances trace their origins back to Irish myth. In his book Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, Loomis theorizes that a bard took the themes of the Temptation and “The Champions’ Bargain” from local myths and brought them to medieval Europe, most likely originating with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but, ultimately expanding outward to affect the genre as a whole. The two major plot points that these stories are predicated on originate from the grouping of Irish heroic myths known as the Ulster Cycle, that largely track the life and exploits of Cuchulainn. The culmination of all these tales is the Tain Bo Cuailnge or the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The consensus amongst scholars is that the stories found within the Ulster Cycle predate the Irish Celts’ use of written language and only received translation at the hands of monastic scribes who imbued the local tales with touches of the Catholic cannon, which was the predominant religion of the time period and locale. The adaptation of tales from a Gaelic oral tradition to English undoubtedly altered the status of certain cast members, most likely moving pagan gods to royalty in order to better fit the new Christian narrative. When looking at the characters of Lanval, Gawain, Arthur, Bercilak’s lady, Lanval’s Beauty, and Guinevere we can see connections to their Celtic counterparts that are traced back to the tales of the Ulster Cycle. Further, the plot points across Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Feast of Bricriu, & The Wooing of Emer are nearly identical; it is because of this that historians and literary scholars are able to observe the Arthurian romances of the Medieval period and witness the most important aspects of the Celtic culture preserved.
One of the first instances of “The Champions Bargain” in Celtic literature can be seen in the Ulster Cycle story, The Feast of Bricriu, where the titular Bricriu the Poison Tongue seeks to sow the seeds of dissent amongst Cu Chulainn, Laegaire, and Conall –the three most prominent fighters of the Ulster– by asking which deserved the champion’s portion at the feast. This simple question forced these three warriors to confront one of the most important aspects of Celtic society, which questioned who held the title of the best warrior among them. This was accomplished by having the warriors seek out Curoi mac Daire, where they performed a series of tests proving that Cu Chulainn was the strongest among them. The three warriors returned to the feast where a giant, named Uath, with an equally giant axe awaits them with a challenge. “I have an axe, and the man into whose hands it shall be put is to cut off my head to-day, I to cut off his tomorrow” (Henderson, 1999). Whomever should strike the giant and remove his head would truly be deserving of the champion’s portion and if they fail to remove his head, he would have his turn to swing the axe on the three. One by one, each took their turn and only Cu Chulainn succeeded in the beheading, but much to the surprise of the court, Uath survives and demands that he get his chance. Among the three, only Cu Chulainn returns to fulfill his promise, and as the giant takes his swing it crashes next to Cu Chulainn’s head. The men of the court look expecting to see Uath, but find the magician Curoi mac Daire, who notes that Cu Chulainn is the one worthy of the champion’s portion as he was the only true warrior. Revealing that honor, above all, is the most important quality within the Ulster society, this compared to the events that unfold within the first act of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Again, the narrative device of the “Champions Bargain” can be seen in the opening act of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Moreover, the scene in Camelot plays out in the same fashion as in The Feast of Bricriu. In this Arthurian romance we see a hulking green man clad in armor, reminiscent of today’s pop culture pseudo hero The Hulk, offer the knights in Arthur’s court an opportunity to remove his head with the swing of an axe. Similarly, it falls to Arthur’s nephew Gawain, to take up the task of beheading the interloper and the blow does remove the Green Knight’s head; however, this is just a minor inconvenience as the Knight grabs his head, mounts his horse, and reiterates that in one year he would have his turn. Time passes and Gawain begins his journey to an unknown land in search of the Green Knights chapel where he finds asylum in Bercliak’s castle. There he unknowingly undergoes three tests by Bercilak’s wife. After, on the agreed upon date Gawain, he enters the Green Chapel and receives the strike that he is owed, drawing blood but not fatally. The Green Knight reveals himself to be Bercliak and deems that Gawain is a worthy knight, ushering him to return to Arthur’s court. The similarities between the two stories is no mere coincidence, rather upon further examination, the series of events and the imagery provided shows evidence that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a continuation of the Celtic literary tradition.
The second narrative element that was adopted by the Medieval authors was that of the temptation story. The first instance of this in Celtic literature is difficult to pinpoint, as some scholars maintain that parts of The Feast of Bricriu were omitted for content by the monastic scribes but, other tales within the Book of Dun Cow, namely The Wooing of Emer contain examples of the temptation narrative. This tale sees Cu Chulainn searching for a wife as the Ulstermen fear their wives will abandon their fidelity, so the Ulstermen bring Cu Chulainn numerous women but, he has no interest in the maidens brought before him. All seemed lost until he heard of a woman who possessed all of the qualities he desired “beauty, voice, sweet speech, needlework, wisdom and chastity.” (Meyer, n.d.) named Emer, daughter of Forgall the Wily. Cu Chulainn immediately sets out to find Emer and upon reaching Forgall’s land he finds her sitting in a field embroidering, surrounded by her court of maidens. The two begin to speak trading riddles almost as if they are in verbally sparring, matching one another word for word until they fall in love. Emer knows that Forgall will be opposed to her suitor so, she devises a plan that will allow them to wed. Forgall catches wind of this news and disguises himself as a trader from Gaul and suggest to King Connor that his warriors would benefit from training with the greatest woman warrior in all of the land, Scathach. Cu Chulainn is sent away to train and Emer is set by Forgall to be married before his return. Emer, knowing that Cu Chulainn’s love as pure and true tells her father that when Cu Chulainn returns he will come for her and that he will be on the floor dead. Indeed, Cu Chulainn returns, besting Forgall’s knights, bypassing his defenses, and killing The temptation within this story is that of an ill-conceived marriage as Forgall was not involved in making the decision, breaking the social convention of an unmarried woman being under the authority of her father.
This episode is mirrored in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when we look at Act 3 where we see Gawain arrive at the Bercliak’s castle seeking asylum from the harsh elements to be greeted with open arms and a warm bed. Bercliak challenges Gawian to a hunt, he will pursue game outside the walls and Gawain will pursue game inside the walls and at the end of the day they shall give each other what they have won. The entire act follows this idea laid forth by The Wooing of Emer, as we see Gawain approach Lady Bercliak. The story juxtaposes the scenes of brutal violence and hunting with the playful banter, entendre, and sexual advances all while the king of the castle is absent from the castle. However, Gawain proving himself to be the embodiment of chivalry does not give into Lady Bercliak’s advances except for one kiss, which he gives to the king on his final night in the castle. Unbeknownst to Gawain this temptation to stray away from the chivalric code was a test from Bercliak himself as he was assessing the man before they met at the green chapel the following day. Admittedly, the through line between the two stories is not as clear as that of “The Champions Bargain” but, the structure of a warrior consulting a woman of nobility without the presence of her King in such a flirtatious manner is a breach in etiquette. The structural element of both the “Champion’s Bargain” and the Temptation are interesting parallels between the time periods as this allows us to see the shared structures between the two time periods, further strengthen the idea that the unknown Gawain poet was familiar with the Celtic stories of old. These parallels are demonstrative of a knowledge of the Celtic source material but, the evidence that is more compelling are the similarities between the characters as well as the symbols that are present throughout the Celtic tales and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.
In looking at the similarities between the structural elements of the Celtic stories and the Arthurian romance we also get to see the parallels between the main cast of characters in each story. It would be easy to dismiss the similarities between Cu Chulainn and Gawain as a convenience of genre as every story needs a hero, however, the heroic traits paired with the similarities in narrative structure and overall plotting extend beyond coincidence. The surface level similarities between the two are that they are nephews of their realms king and they are seen as the pinnacle in their society’s warrior culture. The easiest similarity to draw would be between King Conchobar of Ulster and King Arthur as they are kings of renown whose courts draw the strongest champions to them. Similarly, both Conchobar and Arthur were kings of prophecy, Conchobar was foretold by his Father Cathbad and Arthurs druid-like mentor Merlin revealed that he was destined to unite the realm. Conchobar’s path to the throne lacks the flourish of Arthur’s however it does show an interconnectedness between the stories.
The similarities between Cu Chulainn and Gawain are just as strong as Arthur and Conchobar. In their stories both men act with the nobility of a warrior by accepting the challenge of the courts interloper as letting the challenge go untested would result in embarrassment of their kings. Further, we see both men demonstrate that they are courteous and concise of speech, this is obvious in Gawain’s interaction with Lady Bercilak for every advance she makes he fights against the temptation with chivalric words. Cu Chulainn demonstrates the same deftness with words in his ability to exchange riddles with Emer and woo her in an afternoon. The final similarity between the two is the wisdom that they possess and demonstrate throughout their stories. Gawain demonstrates this when the Green Knight confronts him about the magic lace bonnet gifted to him by Lady Bercilak, instead of lying he admits the indiscretion and accepts the punishment for his failing. Similarly, Cu Chulainn’s defense of Ulster during the events of the Cattle Raid of Cooley demonstrates wisdom when he faces his foster brother in single combat, initially, Cu Chulainn was conflicted about killing the man he grew up alongside but, ultimately decided that the wisest decision was to end his life for if he let him live it would undoubtably damage his reputation and standing within the Ulster tribe.