This adventure was first told by the twelfth century French poet Chrétien de Troyes in the very long poem Lancelot (or the Knight of the Cart). It was later retold in prose in the fifteenth century by Sir Thomas Malory.
The basic story is that Guinevere was abducted in the springtime by a knight (Meleagant or Meliagraunce) who was passionately in love with her and was later rescued by Lancelot. The abduction involved a fight, either in the coutryside or in a forest, in which the Queen's champion (Sir Kay) or her defenders (a group of knights that included Kay) were defeated by the abductor and were taken into captivity with the queen. The place of Guinevere's captivity could only be reached by crossing water. The queen's freedom was not won by King Arthur but by Lancelot, who became Guinevere's lover before she was returned to Arthur.
Lancelot had agreed to be Guinevere's champion in a future fight with her abductor at Arthur's court, before she was returned to Arthur. However, Lancelot was treacherously imprisoned by Meleagant/Meligraunce to ensure that, in Lancelot's absence, a weaker knight would take up the challenge to fight for Guinevere. Lancelot was released from imprisonment by a woman. He arrives at Arthur's court just as the fight against Meleagant/Meliagraunce is about to start and relieved the volunteer (Gawain or Lavaine) of the duty of acting as the champion of Guinevere. Lancelot wins the fight and kills Meleagant/Meliagraunce: so removing the continuing threat that he posed to Guinevere.
The abduction story has been seen as having its origins in lore about the annual Northern European cycle of the four seasons. The tantalising suggestion being that Celtic myth had dramatised the cycle of seasonal changes as the amorous adventures of divine beings.
There are a number of telling features of the tales of the abduction of Guinevere that suggest the template for the story came from such a source. The abduction of Guinevere takes place in the springtime in Chrétien de Troyes and Malory. In Malory's version the Queen is captured while she in the countryside maying (celebrating the renewal of vegetation in the spring). This very precise timing suggests that the abduction was originally a seasonal myth and that the abductor was originally a pagan god. Guinevere being taken across water, after being abducted, is another indication that she had originally been kinapped by a pagan god and had taken from the world of men into his Otherworld kingdom
In both versions Guinevere and Lancelot became lovers after the queen's release has been agreed. Once more, something that happened in the springtime. The timing indicates that this amorous interlude had its origin in a pagan myth that saw the marriages of gods and goddesses as heralding the the end of the bleak days of winter and the much desired springtime return of fertility to the earth. A further tie in with the annual cycle of the seasons occurs in the Chrétien de Troyes version, where the complete adventure took a whole year. Of course the features of the abduction described above are merely suggestive of the pagan myth that lay behind the abduction of Guinevere. With the retreat of paganism under the pressure of Chritianity, the coherent story of the changing of seasons being related to the loves of Godswas forgotten. Only fragmentary traditions remained as disjointed tales and it was these that were taken and used by the troubadours of the Middle Ages as the basis of the story of the Abduction of Guinevere.
From experts come exciting ideas about the land where Guinevere was taken after her abduction. In the version that is found in Caradoc of Llanfarcan's life of Gildas, Melvas took Guinevere to Glastonbury, where he was besieged by Arthur. This account also says that the Welsh name of Glastonbury is 'Ynis Witrin'. This translates into English as 'Glass Island'.
To the modern mind, to call Glastonbury an island is strange. Yet in the time of Arthur and Gildas, it was an island. One that was surrounded by the marshes and meres of the low-lying lands that are now called the Somerset Levels. So it would have been a very apt to call Glastonbury with it's hill (Glastonbury Tor) an island. It seems peculiar to us, that Glastonbury was called 'Glass island', because we see glass as being transparent. How, then, could a green hill island rising above marshes be likened to a glass island? We have to take into account the limitation of the technology of the era, that could only produce 'clear glass' that had a greenish tinge. So that it would have been acceptable to call a green island that had otherwordly associations 'Glass Island': alluding not only to the island's colour, but to it existing at the boundary of the everyday world of mankind and of the Otherworld of divine beings.
On the surface there is no reason to connect Glastonbury (Ynis Witrin) with the Land of Gorre where Guinevere was taken in Chrétien de Troyes poem. Yet from Glastonbury having been known as 'Glass Island' connections can be made. The French translation of Glass Island is Ile de Voire. This was a name that Chrétien de Troyes was familiar with. Indeed one of his stories (Erec et Enide) contains a description of an 'Ile de Voirre' that portrayed it as an earthly paradise:-
....Maheolas, a great baron, lord of the Isle of Voirre. In this island no thunder is heard, no lightning strikes, nor tempests rage, nor do toads or serpents exist there, nor is it ever too hot or too cold.
Erec et Enide in Arthurian Romances, translated by W. W. Comfort, Dent 1975 (1915).
It is here that experts introduce another twist that bring Glastonbury and the Land of Gorre of Chrétien de Troyes much closer. They have noted that the letters "V" and "G" were frequently confused in translations and transcriptions. So they have proposed that Gorre was a confused version of Voirre. This meant that The Land of Gorre was a misunderstood form of the Land of Voirre. If the short step is now taken of calling the Land of Voirre the Isle of Voirre, we end up with the following equation that would equate the Land of Gorre with Glastonbury:-
Land of Gorre=Land of Voirre=Isle of Voirre=Isle of Glass=Ynis Witrin=Glastonbury
This V/G letter confusion has led to another inference that strengthens the connection between Glastonbury and the Land of Gorre. For it suggests the Welsh abductor's name (Melvas) might have changed over time to Meleagant: the name of Guinevere's abductor in French.
To return to the land ruled by Meleagant. Another description of this comes from a French story (Sone de Nansai). This described an island ruled by Meleagant as having features in common with both the Land of Gorre and with Glastonbury. The island also was also reminiscent of some of the otherwordly Celtic islands encountered by voyagers in Irish myths.
The island, which was not named, was approached by a causeway but could only be reached by crossing a 'sword bridge'. In addition to this bridge, which the island shared with the 'Land of Gorre', it had the grave of the heathen wife of Joseph of Aramathea upon it. This linked Meleagant's island directly with Glastonbury. Where tradition asserted that Joseph of Aramathea and his companions had settled after they had journeyed westwards to escape the tribulations they had suffered in the Holy Land. Finally, the Celtic influence can be seen in the island being both square in shape and by it being surrounded by a crystal wall that had palaces at each of it's four corners.
There are people who will be horrified by any attempt to identify a place with otherworldly characteristics (the Land of Gorre) with a specific locality (Glastonbury). Yet this connection obviously reflected a long-standing tradition. One that must have been widely acknowledged during those years of the mediaeval period when the core Arthurian texts that recorded the stories and traditions about King Arthur were being written.
Melvas/Meleagant was not the only king to be connected with Glastonbury, as Glastonbury Tor was also the portal through which the castle of Gwynn ap Nudd (Gwynn the son of Nudd) could be reached. In the story of the abduction of the maiden Creiddylat from Gwythyr, that is found in the Mabinogion, Gwynn was forced to undertake a fight for the possession of the maiden every May Day until the Day of Judgement. This annual conflict suggests that we have yet another story that had its origin in pagan myths about the yearly renewal of vegetation. This abduction tale also has a connection with Arthur. For Arthur had forced the resolution of the conflict over Creiddylat. This led to the release of the prisoners that Gwynn held, the return of Creiddylat to her father and to the annual May Day fights between Gwynn and Gwythyr.
Other lore of Gwynn ap Nudd relates that he was a malevolent entity associated with chaos and death. In the Mabinogion he was the being in whom God put the power of the devils of Annwn (chaos) to prevent them overwhelming the world. While in folk tradition he was the leader of the Wild Hunt: the horde of white hounds with red ears that pursued the souls of the dead across the skies to Glastonbury Tor.
The most marvellous thing about Gwynn is that his father (Nudd) has been connected with a divinity that was worshipped in Britain in Roman times. This was the god Nodons, who had an opulent cult centre at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire within the bounds on an Iron Age hill fort. Here was a sacred pool where supplicants bathed to obtain cures.
As an abductor Meleagant showed that he, like Gwynn ap Nudd, was both treacherous and cruel. Though his behaviour was never as barbarous as that shown by Gwynn ap Nudd. The latter made one of his prisoners eat the heart of his own father! Meleagant merely tried to undo the cure of Kay's wounds that his father (Bagdemagus) undertook and later treacherously imprisoned Lancelot to prevent that knight from attending a fight that had been arranged between them.
Meleagant may have conducted the souls of the dead to the Otherworld, like his counterpart Gwynn ap Nudd. In their quest to find and free Guinevere, Lancelot and Gawain saw her escorted by a tall knight (presumably Meleagant) in a funeral procession that accompanied the coffin of a dead knight (who we must assume was Kay). Though the two companions follow the procession, most of whose members are on foot, on their horses they are unable to catch up. This failure suggests that the funeral procession was not only composed of otherworldly beings, but served the same purpose as did the Wild Hunt led by Gwynn ap Nudd: the removal of the souls of the dead from the Earth to the Otherworld. Indeed Chrétien de Troyes does refer to the land of Gorre, where Guinevere had been taken by Meleagant, as a land from which none returns. A clear indication that it had it's origin in an Otherworld to which the souls of the dead were taken.
Meleagant's father, Bagdemagus, had some characteristics that resemble those of of Nodons, who has been interpreted as the source of Gwynn's father Nudd. Like Nodons, Bagdemagus was concerned with healing. As can be seen in his caring for the wounds Sir Kay after he had fought against Meleagant for the possession of Guinevere. Bagdemagus also had a connection with the city of Bath: whose hot springs were exploited in Roman times for their curative properties.
Wherever we look entrancing connections can been found between Arthur, Glastonbury and abductors from the Celtic Otherworld. With Melvas who can be related to Meleagant; a prince of an Otherworld. With the divine king Gwynn ap Nudd, who was connected with Glastonbury and every year fought, on May Day, a battle for the possession of a maiden. A battle that, like that to free Guinevere, had a connection with myths that told the story of the changing seasons in terms of the loves and struggles of Celtic gods.
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