Story, Legend and Mordred’s Lullaby

The power of story – and its importance in our lives and endeavours – is an abiding theme here on Bookish Nature. Myth and legend are at the beating heart of a deep human need; the storyteller by the fire an essential part of any culture.

The Arthurian legends linger in Britain’s mists like memories rising from the land. They are an essence of something felt, but not articulated directly – something that is released in language only in the form of poem, symbol and tale; darting through an alchemy of words, lithe as a fox.

Susan Cooper says of the fourth in her The Dark is Rising sequence of children’s novels, so steeped in ‘the mythic history of the land’ and the legends of King Arthur:

‘….Above all, I owe ‘The Grey King’ to the power that’s been singing for centuries out of the land itself; the ancient, haunted mountains and valleys of Cymru, Wales.’

Both timeless and mutable, myths are passed on and inherited; blended, shaped and reshaped by many tellings, many hands. Time past, present and future, they address our deepest concerns about human nature and contain the elemental moods of the land, the spirit of place; who we feel we are in relationship to it, and how it shapes us…

My daughter and I stumbled upon Heather Dale’s music on the internet, and instantly felt we had found something wonderful. Many of Heather’s songs are inspired by myth and folklore, and are infused with storytelling and explorations of Arthurian legend.

In her album The Trial of Lancelot, Heather Dale crafts her telling of the tale through various voices. This song, Mordred’s Lullaby, is from the first person perspective of Morgan le Fay. Haunting and dark, it tangles its fingers in the themes of betrayal, hatred and corruption, the toxic nature of vengeance, the turning from the light – and keeps sight of the complexities inherent to the ways in which light and darkness glimmer…

13 thoughts on “Story, Legend and Mordred’s Lullaby

  1. I grew up with the splendid retellings of various myths and legends by Roger Lancelyn Green, and his volume retelling the King Arthur stories is among the best of the series. (I still have a copy. Are these Lancelyn Green books still available, I wonder? ) In the preface, Green discusses his sources, and describes the last section of Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur” as one of the great tragic masterpieces of world literature – or words to that effect. Apparently, Malory himself was a compiler of existing material rather than an author (there is some scholarly debate on this); but even if he was merely acompiler, it is likely that he may have well written the passages linking together the various fragments he had taken from other sources. Whatever Malory’s role, “Le Morte d’Arthur” really is a book I should put on my reading list.

    I’ll listen to the track you posted when I am back home tonight. (I am in the office at my desk right now, having a lunchtime sandwich!)

    • Himadri – I love to hear accounts, like yours here, of childhood reading. Such a magical time – when all that was most amazing and adventurous in the stories we were told, seemed like real possibilities and promises for our unfolding days! It’s wonderful to be able to trace our growing up through books we loved – all that opening up of the imagination to set us in good stead; creating such wonderful inner landscapes for us to revisit, and in which to find magic again. It looks like the Roger Lancelyn Green retellings are still available – in current Puffin editions. I was really interested to see that David Almond has written the introduction to Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur stories – David Almond is one of my favourite authors; one of the most wonderful and profound explorers of the imagination writing for children (and for adults who love his magic) today…

      You know, I don’t remember ever having read the King Arthur stories in any kind of sit down and read/ hear them through kind of way (though a couple of years ago, I did read Simon Armitage’s translation into modern English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was superb). I didn’t grow up with the Lancelyn Green retellings like you – and I’ve never read Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Maybe I heard extracts here and there over the years. I don’t know. Nothing coalesces in my mind for certain. And that’s what I love about these myths – the way they just enter your consciousness by osmosis through the culture; through film, TV, through books in which they are sewn as part of the fabric (like Susan Cooper’s wonderful The Dark is Rising sequence), in art – and most importantly of all, through oral tellings, winding their way mysteriously into our perception and cultural references.

      I remember getting very confused over the years after having had images of Arthur and his knights planted in my mind (mostly through old films; the likes of Richard Harris et al!) in which they were dressed in late medieval armour and spent time jousting etc – and yet were vaguely placed in the period of time soon after the Romans left Britain! All to do with that reshaping of myths to fit the mores of times in which they were told and retold!

      I gather that Malory’s main source was likely to have been Geoffrey of Monmouth – and, looking around the internet at sites like Dr Thomas Green’s Arthuriana, scholars debate all sorts of likely origins on which Geoffrey of Monmouth could, in turn, have drawn upon (very early Welsh texts and various lost sources etc) – but (and I know this isn’t academic at all, because I have no evidence!) instinctively, on the basis of just how these things tend to take shape and work, I feel that these myths go way, way back – deep into oral, pre written text culture.

      The Arthuriana site explores all the possibilities; that the stories could be historical in origin – but could also be from the realms of mythical figures and/ or ancient Celtic deities – similar to the historicisation of Hengest and Horsa by later writers. The academic arguments are complex, but the stories have always been sewn so deep and so widespread in the land – with Camelot claimed to be in Yorkshire, Cornwall etc – plus with all the Welsh links to the legend, and also the links to Brittany, Scotland etc – this element of origins in ancient belief seems, on instinct, so very likely to me.

      I love that the stories are so shrouded in mystery and can’t be pinned down; that they retain that magical, malleable elusiveness that comes out of the very essence of what myth is. I love Susan Cooper’s words when talking (in an interview transcribed online) of her use of myth in her novels: “The mythic elements are intended to be slightly out of focus, like an impressionist painting, and if you try to sharpen the focus you will lose something. You will lose the magic. The writer must tread carefully.”

      Sorry for the very long waffle – got carried away. 🙂 I find all this so fascinating!

    • Hello Sonya – yes, I think it was when I was exploring Heather Dale’s music on Youtube that I came across some of Loreena McKennit’s songs too! They share that beautiful Celtic tradition and connection – and are both from Canada too! Many thanks for the tip about Grooveshark. What a great website! I’ve really enjoyed discovering more of Loreena’s music there.

      Here’s the link to her Grooveshark page, if anyone else would like to follow it up…

  2. Haunting indeed, and sickening in the most sweetly soothing, seemingly loving and so gently comforting way possible. What a lullaby! Thanks for me introducing me to Heather’s music.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Amanda! That sense of subversion, and the discord between the comforting purpose of a lullaby and the purpose of the character’s words, makes Morgan le Fay’s intention all the more chilling, doesn’t it… All the more powerful in how we imagine it having a beguiling, distorting effect on the innocent child, guiding him towards what cannot nurture him. It’s such an hypnotic, enchanting melody isn’t it – especially so when conveyed through Heather’s beautiful voice.

      Traditionally, there is often something strangely discomforting about lullaby lyrics, taking on an even stranger effect alongside the sweetness of the melody… “Rock-a-bye baby on the tree tops” comes to mind – I remember, as a child, wondering why a cradle and baby being blown out of a tree, and crash landing to the ground, was supposed to be a soothing thought to fall asleep to!

  3. I too grew up with Roger Lancelyn Green’s stories – a Puffin paperback with amazing haunting papercut illustrations – otherworldly and sparse. I was obsessed with King Arthur (and Robin Hood) as a child. Arthur stemmed from a bookcase wedged into a 70s fitted wardrobe in my bedroom, and in the bottom of it were pages from old magazines and those Britannica Encyclopedias (and the free introductory copies of those series they sold in the 60s and 70s – histories of Britain and so on).

    Anyway, in there I found images of Burne Jones’s tapestries of the Holy Grail which fired my imagination. They were so oddly spiritual (like a Holman Hunt ‘Light of the World’ bookmark I also found) but of course I wouldn’t have thought that in those days! They just drew me in with that silent dawn/twilight atmosphere. I remember too the TV series ‘Arthur of the Britons’ with Oliver Tobias – very earthy and real compared to the Victorian reimaginings.

    I must get The Dark is Rising out ready for Christmas – this year after your recommend I’m going to really look forward to it (it got abandoned last year!). And Simon Armitage’s Green Knight – I picked up a beautiful huge Folio edition recently. (I notice they have issued all the Susan Cooper books too.)

    • Oooh – I loved that TV series ‘Arthur of the Britons’ with Oliver Tobias! Its earthiness was really appealing to my young imagination, and made much more sense than the medieval courtly-knight-in-shining-armour image of Arthur… I can remember each episode being a highlight of the week at the time…

      You and Himadri have inspired me to investigate the Lancelyn Green retellings further! I love your story of Arthur (and all those wonderful surrounding treasures that lit up your imagination) emerging from the bookcase in the 1970s wardrobe! There’s a kind of Susan Cooper-ish inspiration in that image; the interlocking of magic, myth and the ordinary and everyday – giving the magical an even greater sense of potential and possibility in the mind of a curious child. I can well imagine that extra-powerful childhood exploration of those rich and potent Burne Jones images – and of Holman Hunt’s ‘Light of the World’; that wonderful image of the luminous figure knocking at the dark and overgrown door. So much food for wonder. I can remember similar treasure-troves in 1970s rooms; stuff accumulated in bookcases, drawers and old biscuit tins – and me sitting on the floor, sifting through their contents, drawn into discovery in that very immediate, childhood way.

      I love Susan Cooper’s work – it’s very special to me. But I do feel quite nervous about you following my recommendation, seeing as you weren’t very keen on The Dark is Rising last time you attempted it! Its opening is perfect for the lead up to Christmas though – with all that mystery and snow, farmhouse firesides, Will and his large family preparing gifts and trimming the tree with very significant decorations; and ancient forces at work in the darkness beyond the evergreens adorning the doors and windows… It’s well worth checking out the link to The Lost Land of Susan Cooper website in the post above. There’s some fascinating stuff on there. She’s so interesting on mythology and on writing for children and the power of the imagination.

      And, of course, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also makes for perfect fireside Christmas reading. I’ve got that huge Folio edition too (made for green giants I think!) I’d already got the lovely pocket-sized Faber and Faber hardback of Simon Armitage’s translation, but succumbed to one of the Folio Society’s all too tempting membership renewal offers, of which that edition was a part! I’ve succumbed yet again this year – and, amongst other gorgeous volumes, have now got the first two of the Folio Society Susan Cooper editions (they’re beautiful!) I requested them as ‘books I’d like to see published by the FS’ on their members’ questionnaire more than once I think. So I got my wish! But I am feeling really guilty about the expense right now (especially as we’ve just been landed with a huge bill for our car). I’m trying to view them as heirlooms to pass on to my daughter… and have told my husband to treat them as my Christmas pressies!

  4. Pingback: Selkies and ‘the eternal present of song-time’ | Bookish Nature

  5. Couldn’t this song also mean that the father was such a sob that the Son was going to suffer for his father’s sins so therefore the mother was going to take the child’s life? So maybe none of her other children would have to suffer? I don’t know this is what I get from it I might be trippin

        • Hi Jason – so sorry your comment has been unanswered for so long! Have just come back to the blog, after a very busy time away. I love how listening to music reaches into intuition and feel – and how imagination can build on that. Great to travel through those moments and range about in them whilst we listen, I think…

          With my interpretation of the song, I was just kind of going by the details I know about Mordred’s story – that, in the King Arthur legends, he is a traitorous character who fights and kills Arthur; and that, in some versions, he is known as the illegitimate son of Arthur and his half-sister (in some versions the half-sister is the character Morgause – in others, like this song, she is Morgan le Fay – and she is out for revenge against her half-brother, Arthur, because she feels he has stolen the throne from her and her son. I’m definitely no expert on all this, so may have it wrong. The great thing about the Arthur myths is that there are so many different versions, and all the details are so hazy and changeable, they kind of swirl around in the mists and in our imaginations. Hope you enjoyed your re-listen to Heather Dale’s great song.

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