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  • Jo-Anne Blanco

Folklore Thursday Igraine Part III

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Igraine and Gorlois by W. Benda

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century Parzival and Heinrich von dem Türlim’s Diu Krône (‘The Crown’) both tell similar stories and with the same interesting addition: in these versions, Igraine is married to a wizard (Clinschor, who is also a prince of Sicily, in Parzival; Gansguoter in Diu Krône) and has retired to his castle, known as Salie or the Castle of Marvels, with her unmarried daughters. In Parzival, von Eschenbach places the Castle of Marvels in the fictional country of Terre Marveile (‘Land of Marvels’) rather than Galloway. Either way, whether as a powerful independent ruler in her own right or in a loving marriage with a magical wizard/prince, Igraine, unlike the vast majority of Arthurian characters, succeeds in building a happy ending for herself.

It is worth taking an in-depth look at how Igraine was portrayed by one of the first major women authors to include her as a character. In Mary Stewart’s magnificent Merlin trilogy, Igraine (spelled Ygraine in the books) first appears in Book V of the first novel, The Crystal Cave. As in tradition, Ygraine is the Duchess of Cornwall, wife of Gorlois, a man who is much older than her. Uther Pendragon, on the verge of being crowned High King of Britain, is consumed with his love for her and asks Merlin for his help, telling him that Gorlois has her so well guarded that he cannot get near her even to speak to her. Afterwards, Merlin meets with Gorlois, who asks him to “talk some sense” into the king, and also requests that Merlin pay a visit to Ygraine, who he says is sick. When Merlin visits Ygraine, it is to ascertain what she wants, as opposed to what the men who desire her want, and, instead of the meek and silent young wife he has been told about by others, he finds Ygraine to be a fierce, proud and passionate young woman, who is not sick but has voluntarily isolated herself because of the situation. The Crystal Cave is told in the first person with Merlin as the narrator, and he describes Ygraine thus:

“Standing, she was tall for a woman, with a form that might have moved a sterner man than Uther. Her neck was long and slender, the head poised gracefully. The dark hair streamed unbound down her back. Her eyes were blue, not the fierce blue of Uther’s, but the deep, dark blue of the Celt. Her mouth was proud. She was very lovely, and no man’s toy. If Uther wanted her, I thought, he would have to make her Queen.”

Proud of her lineage, Ygraine tells Merlin that she is the daughter of a king and comes from a long line of kings, but at the same time is acutely aware of the injustices and lack of freedom she is forced to endure as a woman. She states with feeling that she was married off to Gorlois when she was sixteen, and was half-content to live and die in Cornwall, but that Gorlois brought her to London and, now that she had met Uther, she knows what she must have. She is shown to be a determined woman of integrity and self-respect who wishes to make her own choices and follow her heart, but at the same time does not want to cause pain to individuals or bring war and strife to her country. Ygraine reveals to Merlin that she has remained secluded and stayed silent for her own and her husband’s honour, but also for the safety of the kingdom for which Ambrosius, Uther’s older brother, died and which Uther has finally secured:

“I am no trashy Helen for men to fight over, die over, burn down kingdoms for. I don’t wait on the walls as a prize for some brawny victor. I cannot so dishonour both Gorlois and the King in the eyes of men. And I cannot go to him secretly and dishonour myself in my own eyes. I am a lovesick woman, yes. But I am also Ygraine of Cornwall.”

Having confirmed that Ygraine shares Uther’s feelings, Merlin hatches a plan, which will involve Ygraine telling Gorlois she is pregnant so that he will send her back to Tintagel. Ygraine rejects this plan at first, concerned that Uther’s fury at her leaving will bring war and Merlin acknowledges to himself, “Yes, she would be a queen. She was on fire for Uther as much as he was for her, but she could still think. She was cleverer than Uther, clear-headed, and, I thought, stronger too.” The sorcerer assures her that he will tell Uther of the plan so that he can feign rage and swear that he will avenge the insult by riding after her to Cornwall. Ygraine eventually agrees to the plan but warns Merlin that if he brings bloodshed to Cornwall or death to her husband, “I shall spend the rest of my life praying to any gods there are that you, too, Merlin, shall die betrayed by a woman.”

After attending Uther’s coronation, Ygraine returns to the castle of Tintagel and Gorlois rides out to his fortress at Dimilioc to face Uther and his soldiers. But Uther is with Merlin, who has disguised him – interestingly, without magic – as Gorlois, so that he will at least pass as Gorlois in the dark, together with a ring of her husband’s that Ygraine has sent to aid his disguise. Alongside Merlin, who is also disguised, Uther is able to enter Tintagel as Gorlois and is welcomed by Ygraine, who knows very well that he is Uther. There is no question of Ygraine being tricked or ignorant of Uther’s identity here: their love is mutual and their tryst consensual. However, in an unexpected turn of events, Gorlois attacks Uther’s camp outside of his fortress and is killed by Uther’s soldiers. The Crystal Cave ends with a furious Uther fearful that he will be blamed and his reign undermined. The king renounces Merlin, declares he will refuse to recognise as legitimate any child conceived with Ygraine on that night, and exiles the sorcerer back to Wales. But, despite his grief and remorse over the deaths of Gorlois and his loyal friend and servant Cadal in the night’s events, Merlin assures Cadal, as the latter lies dying, that Ygraine will bear a son, and that, because of the tragedy that occurred on the night of his conception, she will send him away, out of Uther’s sight, into Merlin’s care. Ygraine’s son will be, Merlin says, “the sum of all our lives.”

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