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MythBlast | The Magic of Timeless Tales

BY Bradley Olson August 31, 2018

The Romance of Tristan and Iseult - Artist's representation of a 14th Century TapestryThe Romance of Tristan and Iseult – Artist’s representation of a 14th Century Tapestry

The theme for the month of September at the Joseph Campbell Foundation is “Timeless Tales,” and what tales are more timeless than those of the Matter of Britain, the thematic cycle containing the legends and tales relating to King Arthur? In September, the Joseph Campbell Foundation in association with Amazon’s Kindle eBooks is releasing Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth, edited by Evans Lansing Smith. For Campbell, the Grail Legend, and particularly Wolfram’s Parzival, “…is the great mythos of the modern European world” (Romance of the Grail, 23).  But the Arthurian cycle was not the only recognized “cycle” of the middle ages; in fact, two other commonly recognized cycles of the medieval age were called, the Matter of Rome, stories that centered on the life and adventures—adventures that were conflated with the Trojan War—of Alexander the Great, and the Matter of France, which contains the stories of the adventures of Charlemagne and his paladins.  In addition, there were a number of other, non-cyclical romances written by medieval authors such as Robert the Devil, a personal favorite which is a story about a Norman knight (of whom legend says was the father of William the Conqueror) who discovers that he is the son of Satan.

One of the things that made Joseph Campbell a remarkable scholar and storyteller was his ability to contextualize and frame his expositions in such a way that the reader (or the listener) is rewarded with deeper and deeper insights. For example, in the first chapter of Romance of the Grail, he notes how Europe formed itself into something entirely new as the result of powerful forces brought to bear upon it from the East: “An Oriental religion swept into Europe with real force at the end of the fourth century—namely, Christianity…” (5). That simple statement delivers the plangent reminder that at one time, Christianity was something strangely alien to a European sensibility, and perhaps it remains unconsciously strange to modern ears (hence its enduring power to fascinate) because, as Campbell goes on to write, “A century or so later [after the establishment of Christianity as the State Religion of the Roman Empire] the European portion of the Roman Empire collapsed and what we called Rome from then on is really Constantinople, which is Byzantium, which is Asia again.”

Looking at even the most common of themes in the Arthurian tales — love — forces us to re-contextualize and rethink the stories in this way. In the traditionally Christian European world, until roughly the 12th century and the appearance of troubadours and romance legends like Parzival, essentially two types of love existed: Agapē, which was spiritual love, impersonal and meant for everyone equally, and Eros, also impersonal in the sense that it is largely rooted in biological and instinctual yearning, largely absent of personal, volitional choice. Till that point, love was merely a calcified act of duty: social, political, financial, and legal. Marriage was less an act of love, than an act of reinforcing the status quo: “…when you think of the Provençal and the Latin word for love, amor, and spell it backward, you get Roma. Rome was regarded as representing the exact opposite principle to love—and love was held to be the higher principle” (Ibid, 28).

Troubadours and the author-poets of the Arthurian Romances saw love not as an impersonal, social duty to be performed, but as a personal revelation, a revelation of the self in service to something higher, something greater; love reached the level of an ideal, an aesthetic, a calling. No longer could it remain an empty, social convention but instead as the result of a personal quest, a revelation facilitated by an individual heart. Romantic love was something more, too; a dangerous and risky something, a transgression. If marriage was, as Campbell noted, a violation of love then romantic love must be a violation of the conventions of marriage; a trespassing that surpassed all impediments to the marriage of true minds and true hearts.

In these timeless tales, therefore, love becomes something both familiar and strange, a curse and a revelation. To be truly human means to test limitations even though the cost of doing so may be very high. Iseult’s nurse said to Tristan, “…in that cup you have drunk not love alone, but love and death together.” Understanding that life can never be one thing or the other, Tristan was simple and resolute: “Well then, come Death” (The Romance of Tristan and Iseult). Tristan’s response conveyed understanding and acceptance as well as another, nearly simultaneous, opportunity to transcend limits, even the limits of death! Amfortas, the suffering Grail King, used the cry, “Amor!” prior to incurring the grievous wound from which he suffered. And in part, he suffered because he was young, callow, and unprepared for the demands, trials, and pain inherent in the revolutionary new force of romantic love. Amfortas imagined Amor within the conventions of Roma. He may have fared better if he, like Tristan, knew and accepted the dangers of love and had quietly, resolutely uttered the cri de coeur, “Well then, come Death.”

The Romance of Tristan and Iseult - Artist's representation of a 14th Century Tapestry

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