Jon Snow: Arthur/Galahad, The Prince that was Promised/Azor Ahai Reborn

-Galahad, Arthur Rackham

In ASoIaF we are told about the Prince that was Promised, who may also equate with the eastern legend of Azor Ahai Reborn. The signs of the Prince’s coming are believed to be:

  • The birth of a prince from the line of the dragon (gender may not matter, per Maester Aemon)
  • Born amidst smoke and salt
  • A bleeding star
  • Return of dragons

Of Azor Ahai, we have this, from Melisandre:

“There will come a day after a long summer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him.”

and

“When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt…”

The bleeding star and smoke and salt are what connect the two prophecies. To indicate the Prince will also wield a sword, we have Rhaegar’s pronouncement:

“I will require a sword and armor. It seems I must be a warrior.”

In both cases, we seem to be dealing with a messianic figure.

In Arthurian legend, King Arthur himself stands in the role of Messiah, the King that was and will come again to save his people. In other words: the Prince that was promised to return. This messianic figure occurs frequently in European tradition. Finn Mac Cumhaill in Ireland, Arthur in Britain, Bran the Blessed of Wales, Ogier the Dane, Saint Wenceslas of Bohemia, Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, the mighty Charlemagne of France and a host of others are all reputed to be sleeping under a mountain or lost beyond a Wall or sea, waiting for the final need of their people to return for their salvation.

Galahad is the son of Elaine of Corbenic and Sir Lancelot. Elaine is the daughter of King Pelles and the two are closely associated with grail mythology and are often equated with the Fisher King and the Grail Maiden.  Pelles, according to Malory, had reason to believe that his daughter Elaine’s son Galahad would become the greatest knight the world has known and lead “a foreign country… out of danger,” something Jon Snow has already done for the Wildlings. (Bonus: In Welsh tradition Galahad is descended from Bron, one of the original followers of Joseph of Arimathea, whose name is a very close cognate to the name Bran, held by numerous illustrious Stark ancestors.) Galahad himself is closely analogous to Arthur, earning a mystical sword and wide repute as a knight at a young age.

Getting back to the parallels between the messianic figures of tPtwP/AAR and Arthur/Galahad we should first deal with the “bleeding star.” In both traditions in ASoIaF there is a bleeding star which many assume to be a red comet. Indeed, we see a red comet blazing across the Westerosi sky around the time of the birth of Daenerys’ dragons. While the comet has different names and significance in various regions, the most common associations seem to be fire and blood or, as Old Nan puts it “…dragons, boy” undeniably relating it to House Targaryen. Yet on several occasions it is also likened to a sword, including by Septon Chayle of Winterfell “…the sword that slays the seasons.” Meanwhile, in Arthurian legend there is a very important comet, also associated with blood and dragons. Legend has it that Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon took his name from a red, dragon-like comet seen in the sky over Britain as his brother and king lay dying. “Pendragon” literally means “chief dragon” or “war leader” but can also be interpreted as “hanging dragon.” This red comet alternately presaged the death of Aurelius Ambrosius, the rise of Uther and the birth of Arthur. In all instances, it is closely associated with the British version of “dragons.” Incidentally, there are some scientists who believe that a comet’s tail passing over northern Europe in the sixth century caused a bombardment of debris that led to a period of climate change and darkness where crops failed and disease killed people in the tens of thousands. In fact early chronicles are rife with descriptions of sixth century comets, which are most often associated with fire, blood and dragons. One can’t help but notice the similarity to the comet and the impending long winter in ASoIaF. These same scientific discoveries have led to theorists who postulate that the myths of Arthur’s sword, his many battles and his mysterious departure are really expressions of the passing of a large comet over Britain, which brings us to the parallel of the swords. The magical sword is another common theme in northern European legend, with swords made by the legendary Norse blacksmith Wayland Smith found in the possession of everyone from Sigurd and Roland to Ogier the Dane and King Arthur. Both Arthur and Galahad possess magical swords that they retrieved from a stone by a test of worthiness only they could pass. Compare to “Lightbringer”, the legendary sword of AAR and the renowned Stark greatsword “Ice” (the original, not Eddard Stark’s Valyrian steel model) While it is early to tell, it has been predicted that Jon Snow will find himself in possession of one of these swords.

Checking in with the list of PtwP and AAR portents and parallels, we have Jon Snow and Arthur as princes of the line of dragons, predicted to wield or wielding a magical sword, and dragons returning to the world (literally in Westeros, in the form of the descendants of Constantine II in ancient Britain.) We have a long summer ending and a red comet in the sky in both worlds, more or less, and “the cold breath of darkness” is certainly about to hit the world of Westeros like a ton of bricks, while according to chronicles the sixth century saw drought, unusual summer frosts and “failure of bread.” So what of salt and smoke? Those are actually the easiest signs to find as salt can be found in tears (plenty of those in Westeros and Arthurian legend, including Bowen Marsh’s) and smoke is also ever present (witness Jon’s wound “smoking” in his final ADwD chapter and the monk Gildas describing the smoking island of Britain in 540AD) On the other hand, it’s also been suggested that the salt and smoke represent an interpretation of snow and icy breath by someone who had never experienced a cold climate, which certainly prevails in northern Westeros and sixth century Britain. Finally, since R+L have been shown to parallel both Uther and Ygraine (traditional) and Elaine and Lancelot (upon closer inspection), from parentage to comets to swords either Arthur or Galahad works for Jon Snow. Of course, his story has yet to play out upon the page so there will be new depths to explore in the future.

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Lord Stark: The Fisher King

 

                                   I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
T.S.Eliot, The Wasteland

The Fisher King is sometimes known as the Wounded King and is nearly always presented with a leg or groin wound. Because the wound causes a loss of fertility, his kingdom becomes barren (as in “The Wasteland”) and he has little to do but fish in the river outside his palace. He is Keeper of the Grail, but must wait for the chosen one to heal him. Only when he is healed is the chosen one (alternately, Peredur, Percival or Galahad) allowed to “achieve” the Grail. The legend of the Fisher King is closely related to the story of Bran the Blessed and his magical cauldron from the Mabinogian, a mythical cycle thought by many to be closely related to the Stark family. Interestingly, the Mabinogian uses a severed head as the motif, rather than a lower body wound. Celtic scholars believe some Celts practiced a cult of head worship, as that is where they believed the soul resided. In fact, Diodorus Siculus, in his 1st century History, relates: “[Celts] cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses.” We have seen this motif with the story told about the Freys’ treatment of Robb Stark and Grey Wind.

In some versions of the story we are presented with a father and son pair, representing the wounded King and his fishing counterpart. I propose that Ned Stark, whose leg wound precedes his death which leaves his “kingdom” almost literally a wasteland, represents the wounded aspect of the Fisher King. Lord Rickard stands in as the patriarch of the clan in whose keeping the “sangreal” or cauldron has been left, only to be offered to one who has proven himself worthy. Of course, it is Lyanna herself who stands in for the cauldron, as in Celtic mythology the cauldron represents a womb. Robb Stark represents the severed head on the platter (the original “sangreal”), presented to the Welsh hero Peredur, who later recognizes it as his cousin. Jon Snow, as the son of Lyanna Stark and cousin of Robb, ties together the two versions of the Grail: the cauldron/womb and the vessel/platter.

Ashara Dayne: The Lady of Shallott

The Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse

Under tower and balcony,
By garden wall and gallery,
A pale, pale corpse she floated by,
Deadcold, between the houses high,
Dead into tower’d Camelot.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Lancelot is closely associated with three women named Elaine (one of many applications of triplism in the Arthurian cycle) As previously mentioned, Elaine of Corbenic becomes the mother of his son, Galahad. His mother is Elaine, the wife of King Ban of Benioc. When they are forced to flee their lands, Lancelot is taken by the Lady of the Lake and raised, as was Arthur, in ignorance of his identity. Elaine of Astolat (better known to many as the Lady of Shallott) falls in love with Lancelot at a tournament, is rejected by him and later when she dies of a broken heart, her body is floated downstream to Camelot, where the reason for her death becomes known to the court and all mourn the tragedy of her demise. While not completely analogous, this story has strong elements of the Ashara Dayne story as we know it: a noble young woman, a lover at a tourney, death from a broken heart and her body floating away. Of the possible candidates I would place Brandon Stark here in the role of Lancelot. A young man who fought in the tourney and was unhorsed by Rhaegar, as Lancelot was unhorsed by his cousin Bors at the Astolat Tourney. In the case of Elaine and Lancelot, she tended the wounds he sustained. This is a possible scenario for Ashara and Brandon, although never mentioned, and a situation parallel to that of Robb Stark and Jeyne Westerling may have arisen. Brandon, we have every reason to believe, did not possess the extreme sense of honor that his nephew, the son of the honorable Eddard, would later show. He would leave in the morning, pleading his commitment to Catelyn Stark and leave Ashara to cope with the consequences. Taking Ashara’s story and its parallels to Elaine of Astolat at face value doesn’t rule out other possibilities, such as a faked death or a baby swap. Rather, the analogy  enhances all possible scenarios.

Elia Martell: Gwenhwyfar Redux

The Accolade, Edmund Leighton

Earlier, the parallel of Arthur Dayne to Sir Lancelot was explored. Elia was posited in the role of Gwenhwyfar, with Lyanna Stark in the role of Elaine. In keeping with Elaine’s theme of disguise, Lyanna transforms into Gwenhwyfar to Rhaegar’s evolving Lancelot. The offspring of R+L, at once Arthur to their Uther and Ygrain, can thus also be viewed as the embodiment of Galahad, as we will see. Yet this scenario leaves discussions of Elia at unsatisfactory loose ends. Inspired by a thorough re-read of all references, we come back to themes of Gwenhwyfar in the character of Elia Martell.

Gwenhwyfar’s story has earth goddess themes, with links to the early Welsh triple goddess and strong parallels to Persephone. The name Gwenhwyfar can be translated to “White Fay (Spirit)” which supports her supernatural origin. Most of the earliest references to the character come from the Welsh triads where, as the three queens of Arthur indicate, we find a strong association with the triple goddess. In the story of Culhwch and Olwen she is referenced as one of Arthur’s “otherworld” weapons, while several other triads reference her involvement in the battle of Camlann and her “faithlessness” as a wife. Speculation surrounding some of these references is that Gwenhwyfar is representative of Arthur’s sovereignty, which is in keeping with divine origins.

Elia Martell is described by Barristan Selmy as:

a good woman … kind and clever, with a gentle heart and a sweet wit. (ADwD, chapter 23)

Her marriage with Rhaegar was marked by “fondness” rather than passion, most likely the union of a well schooled prince and princess who, while they didn’t choose each other, had no real complaints of each other. Aerys, in his paranoia, may have felt he needed the union with Dorne to keep them faithful, in much the same way a British king may have “needed” to wed a representative of the British earth goddess. The characterization of Gwenhwyfar as a faithless wife in the triads seems to come from nowhere, unless one considers the practice of the representative of sovereign goddess taking an annual mate. While on the one hand this furthers Gwenhwyfar’s association with a divine character, it also opens the door to later tales of Gwenhwyfar’s infidelity with Lancelot and therefore the hinted parallel of Elia and Arthur to Gwenhwyfar and Lancelot.

What makes this parallel fascinating, and even possible, is that there is very little agreement in the sources about the nature of Gwenhyfar and Lancelot’s infidelity (see the variation in ideas of courtly love, for instance) and not much consistency in portrayal of their characters. Gwenhwyfar is alternately strong, passive, assertive, insipid, judgmental, gentle, shrewish, maternal, treacherous and tragic. Similarly, there is a lot of confusion about the character of Elia Martell among the ASoIaF fandom.  Much of the characterization of Elia Martell is highly reminiscent of Gwenhwyfar: she is sweet, gentle, maternal (though of uncertain childbearing ability) and inspires great love and loyalty among those who knew her, but is also assumed to be weak or passive because of her husband’s actions. Some assume she drove Rhaegar away with her feebleness, others suggest she passively accepted being set aside. While on the one hand the parallel supports an earthy, maternal image for both, it also becomes very much about the lack of information and confusion about the motives and character of each woman.

After a thorough examination of the Arthurian source  material pertaining to Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, one is left with the distinct impression that there is much that remains untold, hidden in the mists of time. Similarly, we must reach the same conclusion about Rhaegar and Elia: we don’t have sufficient insight into their private lives to pass character judgments. Even what we know of the outcome remains shrouded in mystery. At the end of the day, there’s room to believe Elia had opinions and a strong identity of her own and to accept that there is much and more we don’t yet know about R+E and suspend judgment, as we indeed must for Arthur and Gwenhwyfar.

 

 

Rhaegar Targaryen: The Many Faced Abductor

In most versions of the Gwenhwyfar abduction story, the abductor is Melwas (or Meleagant) also known as the “Summer King”, whose name means “princely youth.” Melwas holds Gwenhwyfar captive in his tower for nearly a year. In later versions, the kidnapper is Arthur’s own nephew/son Mordred and the end comes with the Battle of Camlann, with Arthur killing Mordred and receiving in turn the grievous wound that leads to his departure for Avalon. But it is also important to recognize that in some versions of the Lancelot story, the kidnapper is Lancelot himself and is simultaneously a kidnapping and a rescue. In these versions of the story, Gwenhwyfar has been sentenced to be burned to death due to her betrayal of the king and Lancelot transports her to Joyous Gard for her own safety. This is too strong a parallel to ignore and I wonder again: what if Aerys knew of Lyanna’s deception? Would his son and Kingsguard stand by as he threatened to burn a highborn maiden for an imagined slight? We know from Ser Jaime that this was his preferred method of dealing with all who displeased him — the King’s “Justice” in those days was fire. We also know that he was paranoid and held a grudge. What if Aerys himself, a year following the tourney, sent men to seize Lyanna Stark as she travelled to Riverrun for her brother’s wedding, with the intent of bringing her to face the King’s “Justice”? Might Rhaegar and the KG closest to him not have staged a rescue? Can we find the logic in shifting the role of Lancelot to Rhaegar?

The Melwas version also has clear parallels to the Rhaegar-Lyanna story, if we once again shift analogies and treat Rhaegar (the reported abductor) as Melwas (the “princely youth”) The captivity and its length are direct parallels, as is the dramatic Battle of the Trident with the Battle of Camlann. Gwenhwyfar went to her deathbed filled with guilt for the lives lost in her name, as I have always imagined Lyanna Stark must have done. I think here is the justification for shifting the role of Lancelot to Rhaegar: the reverse path from Mordred/Rhaegar, who perished at Camlann/Trident, to Melwas/Rhaegar, the “princely youth” who held the queen in his tower for a year, to Lancelot, who rescued the queen from the fire, all playing the same role of abductor. Considering the parallels between Rhaegar and Lancelot adds a new dimension to the adulterous nature of R+L, as seen in Chretien de Troyes “Knight of the Cart.” 

 

Lyanna Stark: Elaine of Corbenic into Gwenhwyfar

Lancelot has a son called Galahad with a woman named Elaine of Corbenic. The father of Elaine of Corbenic is the Fisher King, sometimes called King Pelles, the guardian of the Holy Grail. Legend has it that he is descended from Bron who was a follower of Joseph of Arimathea, who brought the Grail to Britain. He is also thought to be derived in part from the character of Bran the Blessed in the Welsh Mabinogian. Bran possessed a magic cauldron that could resurrect the dead. This brings to mind the North, with the connection between the cauldron and the resurrected dead of the Land of Always Winter, the name Bran, and Welsh mythology in general. Given that, I would assume a Stark connection to the characters of Elaine and Pelles.

Malory describes Elaine as “passing fair and young.” Compare that to Eddard Stark’s memory of his sister “Lyanna had only been sixteen, a child woman of surpassing loveliness.” (AGoT, ch.4) After Lancelot rescues Elaine from a “scalding bath” she falls in love with him. Applying this to Lyanna, could she have been in trouble with a Targaryen? Did Aerys actually discover the truth behind tKotLT only to have someone save her from punishment at the tournament? Was Rhaegar’s crowning her QoLaB a symbolic message to his father that she was under his protection? In the story of Elaine of Corbenic and Lancelot, Elaine must ultimately resort to a magical disguise to trick him into lying with her and conceiving Galahad. I propose that, with typical Martinism, the analogy is now given a different twist.

Lancelot is closely connected with a traditional folk story that has three main elements: a child raised by a water sidhe, the reappearance of the (now grown) hero at a tournament on three consecutive days in three different disguises, and the rescue of a kidnapped queen.

If we assume the Lyanna Stark is tKotLT and also analogous to Elaine of Corbenic, we see that she is associated with disguises. The disguise Elaine assumes is of Gwenhwyfar. If we assign the role of sidhe child to the crannogman and agree that Lyanna’s disguise as tKotLT and defeat of three champions satisfies the second element we have two of the elements of the original topos present. This may be a hint that Lyanna is now moving into the third element or the role of Gwenhwyfar, the captive queen.

*A note on the etymology of Corbenic, which I believe ties Corbenic, Elaine and the Fisher King very closely to the Starks. There are a number of possible linguistic connections, among them the Brythonic Caer Bran (literally Fort of Bran, or Fort of the Raven) and the middle French corbin, also meaning Raven, thought by many to be an allusion to Bran the Blessed with whom the Fisher King is closely connected.

Arthur Dayne as Sir Lancelot

At first glance, who better to fulfill the role of First Knight than Arthur Dayne, Sword of the Morning, almost universally reckoned to be the finest knight who ever lived? Wikipedia cites this scholarly description of Lancelot:

According to Pamela Raabe, in Chretien de Troyes’ work Lancelot is portrayed as not only the bravest of knights, but one that everyone he meets is forced to describe as uniquely perfect. (Raabe, Pamela (1987) Chretien’s Lancelot and the Sublimity of Adultery. Toronto Quarterly. 57:259-270)

Compare with:

The finest knight I ever saw was Ser Arthur Dayne, who would have killed me but for Howland Reed. (Eddard Stark to Bran Stark, ACoK, ch.21)

I learned from Ser Arthur Dayne , the Sword of the Morning, who could have slain all five of you with his left hand while he was taking a piss with his right. (Jaime Lannister to Loras Tyrell, ASoS, Ch.67)

Another detail about Lancelot: His castle and the location of his final resting place? Joyous Gard. Formerly called Dolorous Gard, the name was changed to Joyous Gard after Arthur and Gwenhwyfar visit as his guests. If it were a tower, it might well be called… the Tower of Joy.

In Chretien de Troyes tale “The Knight of the Cart” which introduced the Lancelot-Gwenhyfar affair to the medieval world, Lancelot rescues Gwenhwyfar, who has been abducted by Melwas (Meleagant) His quest portrays the struggles to balance his role as King Arthur’s warrior within the framework of courtly love and his affair with Gwenhwyfar. In order to reach her to effect the rescue, he must travel in a cart which the audience understands to be a mode of transport usually reserved for criminals. This foreshadows the consummation of the affair, which occurs after the rescue. Essentially, Lancelot breaks his contract with his king and becomes a criminal or social outcast through his actions. Critically, his role as the King’s First Knight does not change, but has been sullied.

This parallel posits Rhaegar as Arthur married to Elia as Gwenhwyfar. By all accounts, R+E (like A+G) had a marriage of mutual respect and fondness, if not passion. Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning and “bravest of knights” is Lancelot, King Arthur’s First Knight who before he learned his true name was known only as “The White Knight.” Is there is a possible parallel here with Arthur Dayne and Elia Martell? How does Lyanna Stark fit in? As usual, with GRRM things are not so straightforward, as our next installments will show.