Historical Origins of the Grail Quest Knights and Morgan la Fay

Greetings, readers! This is your Knights of Caerleon lore keeper, Jesikah Sundin. This final book was an interesting tale to undertake as it was more about our twist on Celtic mythology and less about historical notations. But, as we’ve discussed in the previous Historical Notes, Arthurian Lore is a blend of Roman/Celtic history and Celtic mythology that is assimilated by and regurgitated into something new with each generation. Think of it like perpetually making new meals out of leftovers. That is the collection of Arthurian Cycle stories. Speaking of, if you’ve missed the Historical Notes for the first two books, you can read up on all the juicy details here:

1) Who Was Arthur Pendragon?

2) Who is the Real Gwenevere in Arthurian Lore?

And now onto the fun and somewhat controversial origins of Lancelot, Galahad, Percival, Morgana, and Donal O’Lynn. I’m leaving Merlin out of this line-up as his history is just waaaaay too long and complicated and dates to when the Milesians came to Ireland (later known as the Túatha dé Danann).

LANCELOT

Arthur Pendragon had existed for centuries before “the greatest swordsmen in the world” arrived on the scene and stole the entire show. And, yes, this is what Lancelot was known as, because obviously only the best knights come from France *sticks French tongue out at the rest of the uncivilized world* We can thank the French poet Chrétien de Troyes for this hunky knight, who created Lancelot in Le Chevalier de la Charrette, a collection of poems between 1180 – 1240 A.D., which was finished by Godefroy de Lagny after Troyes died. The sole purpose of Lancelot was at the behest of the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, to illustrate the pros and cons of “courtly love.” Lancelot’s famous adulterous affair with Queen Guinevere being the ultimate offense and why kingdoms obviously fall *French evil eye to young noblewomen checking out all the hot knights* J’accuse! In the French courts, Lancelot took center stage and forced Arthur to become a side-character. As in our story, Lancelot is the natural born son of King Ban of Benoic (Benwick) but raised by Vivien, Lady of the Lake, hence his romantic name: Lancelot du Lac.

GALAHAD

The bastard-born son of Lancelot du Lac and Elaine of Corbenic (Caer Benic . . . yeah, Percival’s origins. There’s a reason for this. I’ll explain in a bit). As with many medieval stories (especially French ones), the woman tricks the man to sleep with them *side-eyes trickster Eve archetypes* and then arrives sometime later with the news, “Surprise! You have a son and he’s destined for great things.” *side-eyes Christ archetypes, to redeem the fall of man because of Eve archetypes* And poor Lancelot is no stranger to the trickery of fair maids, as many a young Frenchmen experienced back then. Apparently. And, thus, “Galahad the Chaste” was born. Yeah, “The Chaste.” His holy virgin status allowed him to finish the Grail Quest, where his father had failed because Lancelot shagged the queen. Plus, the stories of “Sir Percival”— who had no relation to their beloved Lancelot, whatsoever—was boring the French courts, and so they wanted a new Grail hero.

Claire and I decided to make Galahad a Welsh-born Norseman from the Danish seaport village of Swansea, as you know. And definitely not chaste! But we did give a nod to his origins in book 2 when Lancelot says that if he ever has a son, he’ll name him Galahad in his sword-brother’s honor.

PERCIVAL

AKA “the original Galahad” that entertained the courtly-love thirsty French of the 12th and 13th centuries before Galahad was born. The earliest “Percival” mention is also by Chrétien de Troyes in his unfinished Percival, the Story of the Grail (around 1190 A.D.). Known as “Percival the Chaste,” son of Elaine of Corbenic (Caer Benic) and sometimes the oldest son of King Pellinore, he eventually finds the Holy Grail and becomes the Fisher King. Some stories have him dying a virgin after claiming the Grail, sadly. Poor, pigeon . . . Eventually, Percival was kicked to the curb for “Galahad the Chaste,” son of Lancelot du Lac. But scholars believe Troyes was inspired by Peredur of sub-Roman Celtic Mythology. Peredur is also found in Arthurian “histories” by 11th century Welsh author, Geoffrey of Monmouth and, later, in the old orated Welsh tales that were written down in the Mabinogion, including the famous “Peredur the Son of Efrawc,” which we leaned on heavily for Grail Quest adventures in The Third Curse.

AND since our series revolves around so much Grail lore, we decided to go with the original Grail Quest characters: Arthur, Lancelot, Percival, and Galahad . . . but refashioned by our clever fairy tale re-telling brains, if I do say so myself *high-fives Claire*

MORGAN LA FEY

Her origins are as misty as the Otherworld, especially as her name is linked to the Celtic Morrígu (aka The Morrígan), the goddess of war and death, and one of the three sisters in the triple goddess head, The Morrígana. In Irish mythology, she would shape-shift into a crow, shriek over the battle field, and collect the heads of fallen soldiers as trophies. Um . . . that’s some creepy shit. The Celts were dark, though. And not afraid to die, or apparently have their heads collected by a shape-shifting sídhe. But, I digress . . . The name Morgan (male) / Morgain (female) means “water nymph” in Breton (Celtic Cornish / Welsh)—which makes sense, since most Celtic deities were water born. But Morgan being a strictly male Celtic name was lost in translation with the French and, thus, they crowned The Morrígan, Morgan la Fey. Despite her circling carrion crow form, she wasn’t a feared goddess. Rather, The Morrígan was also revered as the patron goddess of art and beauty, because that totally makes sense given her decorating tastes.

Interestingly enough, in most Arthurian tales, she’s not evil. That’s more of a neo-pagan / modern fairy tale view of her. In the original Arthurian Cycle stories, she had two older sisters (Morgause and Elaine *points to The Morrígana explanation*), and she loved her half-brother and even brought Arthur to Avalon for healing when he was mortally wounded in the Battle of Camlann. Still, Claire and I went with the more modern take on Morgana. Because evil is fun. And she was such a fun, sexy villainess to write.

DONAL O’LYNN

Clann O’Lynn are a real, historic clan from Ulster, y’all. And, they are possible descendants of Colla Uias, the famed 4th century High King of Ireland. The Irish Gaelic version of their name is Ó Fhloinn (which I think is pretty) and they were part of the Tuírtri area of Northern Ireland (now incorporated into Antrim), and originally hailed from Lough Insholin in Londonderry, which means “Lake of the O’Lynn Island.” Savvy? Cool. So, eventually they conquered and inhabited most of County Antrim sometime in the 12th century—even Fionna’s area in the Glens of Antrim. And they ruled this region until the 15th century when the MacDonnells swept in. See what I did there? Donal O’Lynn . . . MacDonnells defeated the O’Lynn . . . he was his own worst enemy. #HistoryGeekGirlHumor. Now, I’ll be honest . . . the 12th century is a hazy date. O’Lynn was a prominent clan in the area and their expansion/settlement into Antrim might be earlier, like when we set our story: the mid-1000’s. If you’re an O’Lynn of Antrim, let me know! And, we hope you didn’t mind us making a fictional descendant a villain. Your ancestry tied so well into our Ulster Cycle-inspired Fionnabhair. Bad guys are cool, right?

THE FOUR ANCIENT ARTIFACTS OF IRELAND

Also called “The Four Magical Treasures of the Túatha dé Danann.” The more you dive into Celtic and Irish mythology, the more items in British Isles fairy tales and folklore begin to make sense. Especially in Arthurian Legend tales. Here’s a quick overview without getting too detailed with the mythological stories behind each artifact (and I’m presenting them out of order, sorry Irish scholars):

  • The Sword of Light “Shining Sword” (Sword of King Nuada of the Túatha dé Danann) was a weapon that symbolized and “illuminated” truth, justice, law, and punishment to Ireland’s enemies during conflict.

Arthurian Treasure: Excalibur

  • Lia Fáil“Stone of Destiny,” also known as the Stone of Scone and the “Talking Stone,” was originally on the Hill of Tara and where the ancient Kings of Ireland were coronated. But only after the stone roared, which it would only do if the rightful king stood upon it. The Lia Fáil was eventually brought over to England by Edward the 1st in 1297 and is now the Coronation Stone in Westminster Abbey.

Arthurian Treasure: The Stone, as in The Sword in The Stone.

  • Sword of Lugh “Invincible Spear” or the “Spear of Victory” belonged to the Celtic sun god, Lugh of the Long Arms. The longer the spear was held, the hotter it would become. And, its perfect targeting powers also thirsted for blood. So much so, it wept blood. This spear is later used in Grail stories and connected to the spear that pierced the side of Jesus of Nazareth during his crucifixion (the son of god vs the sun god).

Arthurian Treasure: The spear that wept blood during the Grail Maiden’s odd and fantastical Grail procession, and the spear that maimed the Fisher King.

  • The Cauldron of the Dagda is a magical vessel that could heal through food and drink to whomever deserved such blessings. And raise the dead too, just for kicks and giggles. The food and drink never ended, either . . . as the cauldron was bottomless. Hence the saying, “bottomless pit” to describe those who are always hungry and pack in their meals.

Arthurian Treasure: The Holy Grail. A grail (graal / sangrael) a small, common household bowl (aka cauldron), which later became synonymous with the bowl used by Jesus during the Last Supper (Cup of Christ) and the vessel Joseph of Arimathea used to catch the blood that spilled from Christ’s pierced side. If you drank from the Grail, you would be healed of all your ailments and injuries and, perhaps, even gain immortality (think communal wine and bread).

And, for fun (yeah, this is fun to me), I want to address a few misconceptions about hygiene in the Middle Ages as well as homosexuality within Celtic cultures, especially among warriors. As a refresher: Celtic culture in this context are the people of Ireland, Scotland, and Briton (Cornwall, Wales, and parts of western Scotland). The Norse are the Vikings, from the Nordic/Scandinavian lands as well as those who settled in the British Isles.

DID PEOPLE BATHE REGULARLY IN THE MEDIEVAL ERA?

Yes! Big, emphatic YES. In fact, in Celtic, Norse, and Mediterranean cultures, good hygiene was part of daily life. The movies consistently paint dirty, grimy peasants with blackening teeth and shiny-faced nobles with perfect smiles (remnants of Victorian classist culture). According to the Medievalist, there are extensive medical texts waxing poetic the benefits of bathing—for the common and noble man alike. They even understood that washing your hands and face before meals was essential for better health. By the medieval era, bathing culture across the Isles was a thing, hence all the funny tapestries and art depicting people in tubs.

And this well-known poem, dating back to the 1300’s:

Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.

“Three men in a tub” who “were out to sea” was a change made in the late-1700’s to be “safe for children.” Which begs the question: what was this poem really about? You’re gonna love this. *clears throat* Men of industry who were going to the village fair to see a peep show of naked, young maidens bathing each other in a tub. Sexy times!

DID CELTIC CULTURES ACCEPT HOMOSEXUALITY?

They didn’t even bat an eye at two men as lovers, or two women for that matter. Sexuality wasn’t a complex issue to the Celts. Partly because marriage in Celtic cultures was for childbearing only. Brehon Law (ancient Irish law that existed through the 17th century and that bled into other Gaelic lands) permitted married couples to have lovers outside of their handfasting vows. And why this allowance? The Celts saw marriage as a necessity for politics and clan building, but lovers were for the soul. And so, many had lovers, including same-sex partners. But homosexuality was observed most among the warriors. It was so common, Warrior Lovers became a well-noted thing, even causing the non-homophobic Greeks to raise an eyebrow. This changed in the late-Middle Ages with Christianization, however. Now, open sexuality was ONLY among the Celts. The Norse didn’t practice homosexuality as a culture. Like today, the Nordic land’s equivalent to “gay” was an insult to a man’s masculinity.

WAS MEDICAL KNOWLEDGE ONLY RESTRICTED TO HERBAL LORE?

Uh, no. Some of the best artifacts from the Middle Ages are all the fantastic medical texts. So. Many. Medical. Texts. Their illustrations are wonderfully entertaining too. Medieval people practiced all manner of surgeries, even cesarean births. And the believed cures for various ailments or concerns (like wrinkling skin) are sometimes hysterical. They even washed their hands before medical procedures. Modern scientists are now looking back at the texts and folklore from the Middle Ages as they’re finding interesting leads to medical discoveries, such as the “healing soil” in Ireland once used by druids, which was recently documented as effective treatment for four of the six world’s superbugs.

Whew! We did it. We covered all the major Celtic culture and Arthurian Lore tie-ins.

But as this is fiction, and fantasy fiction no less, there are some historical inaccuracies. J’accuse! Heh. The biggest one? At no time, that we know of, did a war camp from Clan O’Lynn travel to southern Wales. We bent history for our plot. Sorry-not-sorry. As mentioned above, Galahad was the son of Lancelot du Lac and Percival was “The Chaste” before Lancelot and his son stole the Grail Quest show. The small, nameless villages mentioned outside of Caerleon are from the fictional realm inside my and Claire’s heads. The village Inn is also a fast-forward into history, as medieval inns didn’t appear until the 14th century. The UK does not have chipmunks (I feel sorry for you, UK friends. They’re sooooo cute!). Still, we used this nickname for Galahad because it just felt perfect. If you can suspend belief for faerie magic, then pretending adorable, chubby-cheeked chipmunks roam the UK shouldn’t be too hard a task. And I’m sure there are other historical inaccuracies too, though I tried to keep proper details intact for the most part.

All errors that may exist while trying to represent Celtic and Welsh culture, mythology, geography, and Arthurian Legend elements are entirely mine. I am a storyteller, weaving together information that builds and forms worlds in our imaginations. In the famous words of Nennius, a 9th century Celtic monk, “I have made a heap of all that I could find.”

Your Knights of Caerleon lore keeper,

Jesikah Sundin

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