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  • Jo-Anne Blanco

Folklore Thursday - Igraine part II


Uther persuades the wizard Merlin to cast a spell to make him look like Gorlois. He enters Tintagel magically disguised as the Duke and is welcomed by Igraine, who believes him to be her husband. They sleep together and Arthur is conceived, while Gorlois, having been lured away by Uther’s soldiers, is killed on the same night. Once Gorlois is dead, Uther marries Igraine, making her the High Queen of Britain. Geoffrey does not tell us whether Igraine ever discovers the truth about her rape by Uther, though given that he states that after their marriage “from that day on, they lived together as equals, united by their great love for each other,” it seems unlikely.

Despite this, in a number of versions of the legend, Igraine and Uther are depicted as a great, forbidden love which is ultimately triumphant – such as Warwick Deeping’s Uther and Igraine (1903) and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1982). However, it is interesting that Uther’s crimes – his rape of Igraine and murder of Gorlois – come back to haunt both him and his son, and also punish Merlin, their facilitator. Uther is never to know Arthur (who is taken away by Merlin as soon as he is born to be fostered in secret), and dies within two years of his marriage to Igraine. Merlin is finally vanquished by a sorceress – Nimue, Vivian or Morgan herself, depending on which version you read – and ends up trapped forever under a rock, in a tree or in a cave. As for Arthur, the product of rape by magical deceit, the issue of his illegitimacy is eventually his downfall. Since Uther and Igraine were not married when he was conceived, he is regarded by many, particularly in Scotland where his legitimate sister Anna (or Morgause) is the Queen of Orkney, as a usurper king. In John of Fordun’s 14th century Chronica Gentis Scotorum, Arthur is declared illegitimate, and the sons of Anna and her husband King Lot are the rightful heirs to the throne. Thus, the rebellion of Mordred, Anna and Lot’s son, is deemed fully justified and, of course, as we all know, Arthur meets his end at Mordred’s hands at the Battle of Camlann. The sin of the father, however unjustly (since Arthur is hardly at fault), is ultimately visited upon the son.

The one person who escapes destiny’s retribution for the crime(s) which result in Arthur’s birth is, rightly, its blameless victim, Igraine herself. It is the lesser-known part of her story which should be more famous, for it is fascinating, empowering, and gives Igraine a whole new life and purpose in her own right. In the First Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, the Story of the Grail, the author tells us that Igraine travels to Galloway in southwest Scotland after Uther’s death. She takes all of her treasure as an independently wealthy woman and builds a castle on Canguin Rock, where all the inhabitants are women. Igraine lives in her castle, called the Castle of Wonders, for many years in secret as its ruler, while her son Arthur and the whole of Britain believe her to be dead (which is almost certainly what she intended; at least there she was left alone). She is discovered many years later by Gawain on one of his adventures. By then, also living with her in the castle are her daughter Morgause (Gawain’s long-lost mother) and granddaughter Clarissant (a sister Gawain never knew he had.) It is revealed that Igraine took in the pregnant Morgause after the death of King Lot and the two women raised Clarissant together. Gawain sends for Arthur and Igraine is finally reunited with her son; the two are overjoyed to see each other again.

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