Sources on Arthur in the sky

Completed 13 June 2004.
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© Text Copyright 2004 Michael Wild

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extracts from Beyond the Blue Septentrions by Fiona Macleod

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word 'septentrion' refers to the constellation of the Great Bear and occasionally to that of the Little Bear, or it may be used more generally to refer to the northern regions of the sky. Fiona Macleod refers specifically to the Pole Star as 'the Star Septentrion', yet uses the term 'Blue Septentrions' describe a collection of several constellations of the northern sky. The term 'Blue Septentrions' was coined by Lord Lytton in his poem 'The Wanderer.'

As to Fiona Macleod, she did not exist! She was a persona invented by the Victorian writer William Sharpe that allowed him freedom to express his inspired visions of Celtic consciouness. What the following owes to genuine tradition, and what it owes to Sharpe's imagination, is for the reader to decide.

Beyond the Blue Septentrions

by Fiona Macleod

The Star Septentrion is, for the peoples of the North and above all for the shepherd, the seaman and the wayfarer, the star of stars. A hundred legends embody its mystery, its steadfast incalculable service, its unswerving isolation over the Pole. Polaris, the North Star, the Pole Star, the Lodestar, the Seaman's Star, the Star of the Sea, the Gate of Heaven, Phoenice, Cynosure, how many names, in all languages, at all times. The Mongolian nomad called it the Imperial Ruler of Heaven: the Himalayan shepherd, Grahadara, the Pivot of the Planets: the Arab knows it as the Torch of Prayer, burning for ever at the portal of the heavenly Mecca. It shines through all literature, since (and indeed long before) Euripides wrote his superb verse of how the two great Northern constellations which encircle Polaris, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the two 'swift-wandering' Bears, 'guard the Atlantean Pole', till a poet of our own time wrote the less majestic but no less lovely line relating to these constellations which gives the title to this paper. In all ages, too, the dreaming mind of man has imagined here the Throne of the Gods, the Seat of the Mighty, the last Portal of the Unknown. It is the Flatheansas of our Gaelic ancestors, the ultimate goal of the heroic spirit: the Himinbiorg, or Hill of Heaven, of the Norsemen of old, and the abode of Heimdallr, the guardian of the bridge Bifröst (the Rainbow) which unites Asgard the Everlasting with that brief whirling phantom, the Earth. It is Albordy, 'the dazzling mountain on which was held the Assembly of the Gods' of the ancient Teutonic people: the mysterious Mount Meru, the seat of the gods, of the Aryan dreamers of old, and the Hindu sages of later time: 'the holy mountain of God' alluded to in Ezekiel__so, at least, it has been surmised.
'The Blue Septentrions'. . . Boötes with Arcturus, the Great Bear, the Lesser Bear, the Pointers or the Northern Hounds, the North Star. . . what legend, what poetry, what romance, what wonder belongs to these stars and constellations which guard the marches of the Artic North. To the mass of of what is already extant, what need to add further matter? And yet there is ever new justification in that continual need of the soul to hear over and over again, and in ever-varying ways, even the most fragmentary runes or sagas of this unfathomably mysterious stellar universe which encloses us with Silence, Beauty and Wonder, the three veils of God__as the Hebridean isleman, the Irish Gael of dreaming west, and the Arab of the Desert alike have it.
I have elswhere spoken of the legendary association of Arthur (the Celtic-British King and the earlier mythical Arthur, semi-divine, and at last remote and celestial) with Arcturus, that lovely Lamp of the North, the glory of Boötes.

* * * * * * *

. . .as I have heard this fragment of our lost mythology related in a way I have not seen in any book. I will give it here altered but slightly if at all from one of the countless legends told to me in my childhood.

At sunset the young son of the great King Pendragon came over the brow of a hill that stepped forward from a dark company of mountains and leaned over the shoreless sea which fills the west and drowns the north. All day he had been wandering alone, his mind heavy with wonder over many things. He had heard strange tales of late, tales about his heroic father and the royal clan, and how they were not as other men, but half divine. They were not gods, he knew, for they could be slain in battle or could die with the crowding upon them of many years: but they were more terrible in battle than were the greatest of men, and they had vision and knowledge beyond the vision and knowledge of the druids, and were lordly beyond all men in mien and the beauty of courtesy, and lived beyond the common span of years, and had secret communion with the noble and invisible company. He had heard, too, of his destiny: that he. too, was to be a great king, as much greater than Pendragon, than Pendragon was above all the kings of the world. What was Destiny, he wondered. Then, again, he turned over and over in his mind all the names he could think of that he might choose for his own: for the time was come for him to put away the name of his childhood and to take on that by which he should be known among men.
He came over the brow of the hill, and out of the way of the mountain-wind, and, being tired, lay down among the heather and stared across the grey wilderness of the sea. The sun set, and the invisible throwers of the nets trailed darkness across the waves and up the wild shores and over the faces of the cliffs. Stars climbed out of the shadowy abysses, and the great chariots of the constellations rode from the west to the east and from the north to the south. His eyes closed, but when he opened them again to see if a star quivering on the verge of the horizon had in that brief moment sprung like a deer above the drowning wave or had sunk kile a white seabird passing out of sight, he saw a great and kingly figure standing beside him. So great in stature, so splendid in kingly beauty was the mysterious one who had so silently joined him, that he thought this must be one of the gods.
'Do you know me, my son?' said the kingly stranger.
The boy looked at him in awe and wonder, but unrecognizingly.
'Do you not know me, my son?' he heard again. . . 'for I am your father Pendragon. But my home is yonder, and there I go before long, and that is why I have come to you as a vision in a dream. . .' and, as he spoke, he pointed to the constellation of the Arth, or Bear, which nightly prowls through the vast abysses of the polar sky.
When the boy turned his gaze from the great constellation which hung in the dark wilderness overhead, he saw that he was alone again. While he yet wondered in great awe at what he had seen and heard, he felt himself float like a mist and become like a cloud, and, as a cloud, rise beyond the brows of the hills, and ascend the invisible stairways of the sky.
When for minutes that were as hours he had moved thus mysteriously into the pathless and unvisited realms of the air, he saw that he had left the highest clouds like dust on a valley-road after one has climbed to the summit of a mountain; nor could he see the earth save as a blind and obscure thing that moved between the twilights of night and dawn
It seemed to him thereafter that a swoon came over him, in which he passed beyond the far-off blazing fires of strange stars. At last, suddenly, he stood on the verge of Arth, or Arth Uthyr, the Great Bear. There he saw, with the vision of immortal not of mortal eyes, a company of most noble and majestic figures seated at what he thought a circular abyss but which had the semblance of a vast table. Each of these seven great knights or lordly kings had a star upon his forehead, and these were the stars of the mighty constellation of the Bear which the boy had seen night after night from his home among the moutains by the sea.
It was with a burning throb at his heart that he recognized in the King of all these kings no other than himself.
While he looked, in amazement so great that he could hear the pulse of his heart, as in the silence of a wood one hears the tapping of a wood-pecker, he saw this mighty phantom-self rise till he stood towering over all there, and heard a voice as though an ocena rose and fell through the eternal silences.
'Comrades in God,' it said, 'the time is come when that which is great shall become small,'
And when the voice was ended, the mighty figure faded into the blue darkness, and only a great star shone where the uplifted dragonhelm had brushed the roof of heaven. One by one the white lords of the sky followed in his mysterious way, till once more were to be seen only the stars of the Bear.
The boy-king dreamed that he fell as a falling meteor, and then that he floated over land and sea as a cloud, and then that he sank as mist upon the hills of his own land.
A noise of wind stirred in his ears, and he felt the chill creep over his hands like the stealthy cold lip of the tide. He rose stumblingly, and stood staring around him. He was on the same spot, under the brow of the hill that looked over the dim shoreless seas, now obscure with the dusk. He glanced upward and saw the stars of the Great Bear in their slow majestic march round the Pole. Then he remembered.
He went slowly down the hillside, his mind heavy with thought. When he was come to the place of the King his father, Io, Pendragon and all his fierce chivalry came out to meet him, for the archdruid had foretold that the great King to be had received his mystic initiation among the holy silences of the hills.
'I am no more Snowbird the child,' the boy said, looking at them fearlessly, and as though already King. 'Henceforth I am Arth-Uthyr1. For my place is in the great Bear which we see yonder in the north.,
So all there acclaimed him as Arthur, the wondrous one of the stars, the Great Bear.
'I am old,' ssid Pendragon, 'and soon you shall be King Arthur, my son. So ask now a great boon of me and it shall be granted to you.'
Then Arthur remembered his dream.
'Father and King,' he said, 'when I am King after you I shall make a new order of knights, who shall be strong and pure as the Immortal Ones and be as tender as women, and simple as little children. But first I ask of you seven flawless virgin knights to be of my chosen company. To-morrow let the woodwrights make for me a round daïs or table such as that where we eat our roasted meats and drink from the ale-horns, but round and of a size whereat I and my chosen knights may sit at ease.'
The King listened, and all there.
'So be it,' said the King.
Then Arthur chose the seven flawless virgin knights, and called them to him.
'Ye are now Children of the Great Bear,' he said, ' and comrades and liegemen to me Arthur, who shall be King of the West. And ye shall be known as the Knights of the Round Table. But no man shall make a mock of that name and live: and in the end that name shall be so great in the mouths and minds of men that they shall consider no glory of the world to be so great as to be the youngest and frailest of that knight hood.'

And that is how Arthur, the son of Pendragon, who three years later became King of the West, read the Rune of the Stars that are called the Great Bear and took their name upon him, and from the strongest and purest and noblest of the land made Knighthood, such as the world had not seen, such as the world since has not known.

1Pronounced Arth-Uir or Arth-Ur. In ancient British Arth means Bear, and Utyr great, wondrous.

from 'Beyond the Blue Septentrions' by Fiona Macleod, in Matthews, J., ed., An Arthurian Reader, the Aquarian Press: Wellingborough, 1988, pp. 342-3 & 344-8.

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