1 Introduction

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Barbora Orlická

Magic in the Arthurian Legends

Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: prof. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A.

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Author’s signature


I would like to thank my supervisor, prof. Franková, for her guidance, advice and encouragement. I would also like to express my gratitude to my friends who have supported me and without whom I would not have been able to finish my work.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents 5

1 Introduction 6

2 The Concept of Magic 8

3 Arthurian Romance 14

3.1 Natural Magic 20

3.2 Merlin and the Role of Destiny 24

3.3 Sorcery and Enchantment 37

3.3.1 Nimue 38

3.3.2 Morgan le Fay 42

3.3.3 Other Characters 49

3.4 The Grail Quest 54

4 Conclusion 59

Works Cited 63

Primary Sources 63

Secondary Sources 63

Resumé 66

Résumé 67

1 Introduction

Magic has had its place in culture and in literature for thousands of years. It has been studied, practised and otherwise exploited from the dawn of the human civilization. The whole spectrum of emotions from divine fascination to numbing fear has accompanied the presence of magic throughout history. Its role in society and culture has been discussed and described by many anthropologists and historians. People have always been interested in mystery, marvels and miracles. Their perception and judgement of such events on the other hand has always fluctuated and has never been united. What some people see as divine intervention others see as coincidence; what one sees as God’s miracle, others can see as magic. Therefore there has always been a dispute over the role, significance, effect and essence of magic.

This thesis proposes an analysis of the element of magic as it is portrayed in medieval romances, with primary focus on Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory. Malory’s extensive treatment of the Arthurian legends is in many respects a unique work of this author as it is a text crystallizing from works of many others. The aim of the thesis is to describe the character and the role of magic in medieval romances, and to probe the motivation of the practitioners in order to analyze the ambivalent perceptions of the practice of magic by the medieval authorities and society. The thesis will try to argue the point that the ambiguous perception of magic in Arthurian romances represent the long-term dispute between Christian and pagan traditional beliefs, and that this dispute in fact results in formation of an illusory differentiation of magic and in its pitting against religion, whereas the crucial (and sometimes the only) difference lies in the intention of the practitioner.

The first chapter will deal with the origins of magic and its cultural significance from ancient times to the Middle Ages, and with a basic assessment of the theme.

The second chapter will direct its focus toward Arthurian romances and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and will be concerned with a deeper discussion on the matter of magic in the Middle Ages and on the relationship between magic and religion. The thesis will examine various extracts from the text to argue its implications. Individual sub-chapters will be dedicated to the character of Merlin, the characters of various female enchantresses such as Nimue or Morgan le Fay, and to various other magical instances in the narrative in order to closely analyze the significance and essence of them all. The story of the Grail Quest will be analyzed independently in order to compare and contrast the treatment of the supernatural with the previous sub-chapters. The aim will be to illustrate the major differences in perception and the implications arising from the contrasting traditions.

The thesis does not propose arguments or proofs of any kind for the question of real existence of magic or the supernatural of any kind. It is not the purpose of this work to provide evidence of the existence or non-existence of God or any other deity.

2 The Concept of Magic

The origins of magic as a cultural phenomenon obviously stretch way beyond its first literary treatment. Its position in human societies suggests that it “is a deeply ingrained human response to the world, and the cultural significance, mainly among primitive tribes, was a special focus in the development of the discipline of anthropology.”1 This places magic among the oldest fields of human interest. Feared or worshiped, magic is a concept of great significance in the development of human culture and society.

The medieval understanding and treatment of magic was a result of continuous development of ideas and theories originating centuries ago in the minds of their ancient predecessors. Classical, Germanic and Celtic cultural legacies interconnected in later minds and created a nebulous cloud full of beliefs, supernatural creatures and magical practices.

“The idea of occult powers and processes within the natural order was firmly established and variously developed in philosophical and scientific writings from antiquity through the early modern era.”2 The extensive amount of literary material from ancient Greece and Rome ensured a transmission of beliefs and ideas from the classical period onwards. The Germanic and Celtic literary sources are rather scarce but their message was conveyed through folk tradition, so the pagan ritual survived in memories and practices of common people. Later on all of these sources intervened with the Christian tradition and ritual creating a specific and complex combination typical of the Middle Ages.

The classical period seems to be the era most open to ambivalence and diverse interpretations of enigmatic occurrences taking place in the world. Therefore the classical texts conveyed in them a message of diversity of magic and the supernatural, of benevolent as well as malevolent sides of things, and of the crucial importance of the intention. The structure of the Graeco-Roman pantheon of gods itself suggests a complex structure of beliefs and rituals. These deities are surrounded by various spirits, demigods and daimons whose presence proposes perplexities in creation of any rules, but at the same time it demonstrates the variability and the potential freedom of beliefs. “The daimons are not inherently demonic: the term may refer to a good or malevolent spirit, a god, or the soul, and it figures prominently in the philosophical discussions of divinity.”3 This shows the ambivalence in the perception and the approach towards the supernatural world that differs from the one of the later periods of human history, where the educated class calls for more strict distinction between good and evil and the creation of categories for the various instances of it. Although the small folk would always remain more ‘open-minded’, even in times of the sharpest discord between religious authorities and pagan traditions.

With the rise of Christianity, the Bible became one of the most important sources of widespread beliefs. It contains a whole spectrum of supernatural beings and marvellous events, presenting the reader with the deeds of the saints and with all the miracles facilitated by God. There is a strong presence of magic, but the Bible has a strict attitude towards it and places magic on the opposite pole of the moral scheme, denouncing it as evil and contrasting it with God’s will. What might have been viewed as ambivalent in the classical period is explicitly evil in the Bible. Many supernatural instances are polarised in the Christian view. The divination gains a stamp of inappropriate probing of God’s intentions and stands in opposition towards miraculous revelation usually mediated by God’s servants. But the disapproval of magical practice by the authority did not discourage the wide public from seeking forbidden wisdom and power. Corinne Saunders is referencing in her book Bronislaw Malinowski’s essay where “he argues that, like religion, magic enjoys explanatory power and offers to fulfil desire. At the same time, like science, magic includes a set of theoretical principles and rules concerning rituals.”4 Therefore magic can be viewed as a mean of wish-fulfilment, the attempt to attain an unprecedented power, which was always one of the strongest human desires, and it supposedly abides by a certain kind of rules that can be learned and thus open the door to exploitation.

Therefore once the course of time reached the Middle Ages people possessed a complex and combined view of the supernatural. The notion of power was diffused between divine and magical, people recognized the natural, healing and protective magic as well as the malevolent and dangerous variety of it. They were limited by the Church in many respects on one side and they had the freedom and power of their own desires on the other.

The question of rationality of the belief in the existence of magic is not possible to discuss here in depth, and it is not in the competence of the author to draw any conclusions about the existence or non-existence of any such thing as magic; but it is important to note that the medieval mind was for one equipped with different knowledge than today’s mind is, and their conceptions and thinking differed in many respects. It is obvious that what, especially in medicine, was once believed to posses supernatural power is today viewed through the scientific scope and its supposedly miraculous powers can be explained in scientific terms. Also other events and instances can be explained and proved to be lacking any supernatural essence in the same manner. Nevertheless the importance of magic for the ancient societies as well as for the people in the Middle Ages is demonstrated in the many laws and sophisticated descriptions of magical practices found in official records, chronicles, and important books of authoritative value. From the 9th century on the law books described various practices connected with magic that were not allowed and were punishable by the law, for example by the Trial of Ordeal.5 The existence of handbooks, manuals, guidelines, and other sources describing various rituals, lists of ingredients for remedies, and other seemingly magical procedures suggest perpetual interest in this field. One can trace such “literature” throughout the history of humankind. Ancient Egyptians as well as medieval herb-women were interested in the power of nature and cosmos and especially in tapping this kind of source. The universality of the belief in supernatural power of any origin shows undisputable importance of this phenomenon. There is no point in asking whether the magic truly exists or existed at any point in history. The important fact is that all the evidence gathered by historians and anthropologists points to the fact that people believed (and some of them still believe today) in the existence of something beyond the veil, something that is not of human origin, something mysterious and supernatural; and it is of crucial importance to bear this in mind when analyzing and discussing the topic.

“Wearing a gem or an herb to ward off evil influences might seem futile to some observers, but those who credited the gem or herb with occult powers were ascribing rationality to the practice.”6

Despite the evident link between the term ‘magic’ and the cultural practices, literary descriptions and other externalizations of things beyond natural reality, the actual use of the term is rather limited and this concept is being expressed in different terms as well. More frequent than ‘magic’ are the terms ‘enchantment’, ‘sorcery’, ‘witchcraft’ or ‘nigromancy’. “Native vernacular terms such as sorcellerie and wiccecraeft, had meanings that overlapped yet differed from that of magia.7 In every conception there is something similar, but often the words chosen reflected the purpose and the character of described action.

The meaning of the word “magic” is also inconsistent and there has never been a uniform understanding of it. It is essential to point out that because most of the definitions and debate in the Middle Ages stems from literary material it inherently comes from more or less educated or clerical level of society which puts into question the perception of this phenomenon by the commons. Richard Kieckhefer cites Aron Gurevich on this matter:

To the majority of the population the difference between amulets,

which were strictly forbidden by the clergy, and holy relics was not too clear...; the border dividing Christian magic from what was condemned as maleficium was indefinite and surely unclear to the parishioners,

and concludes that: “It could be argued that ‘magic’ must simply be recognized as chiefly a term of literate discourse.”8 Nevertheless the actual level of difference of both conceptions is obscure. It can be argued that there was a sufficient diffusion of cultural awareness that ensured at least some level of common understanding of such a phenomenon, even if the illiterate did not have to dispose of specific terms, they could at least have the cognitive understanding of “magic”. Kieckhefer also argues that the question is not whether the widespread knowledge differed from those of social elites, but to what extent “the articulated understanding of magic found in educated circles rests on an understanding of magic that was ‘common’, or widely shared.”9

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