from Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain
by Caitlin Matthews
The basis of the Grail’s existence in British tradition is, as we see, founded on the union of the king with Sovereignty: the emblems of this union are the Hallows, which include the Grail in its earliest form – the empowering cup or cauldron. Beneath this understanding is the ancient, tribal concept of the mingling of the royal seed with the holy blood of the land: the magical image is of king and Sovereignty’s representative or priestess joined in sexual union. This union is that same disenchanting kiss or ritual bedding with the Cailleach that results in the transformation of the hag into the sovereignty-bestowing maiden and of the wasteland into a fruitful garden. The archetypal symbols representing this union are the two dragons, the red and the white.
All texts speak of the dragons in a political not a mystical light, but the deeper symbolism emerges. The sleeping dragons, locked safely away, represent the dormant state of Britain’s sovereignty. They are chained during Lludd’s reign because their uncontrolled manifestation renders the kingdom chaotic. It is during the reign of Vortigern that they are uncovered at the prophetic behest of Merlin Emrys, who comes to rid Britain of a worthless ruler and re-establish the true union of the land with a new dynasty – the Pendragons.
The later reign of Arthur, according to all traditions, ends because the union of the king with his land is ruptured; the cause may be the incestuous begetting of Mordred upon Arthur’s half-sister, or it may be the loss of Guinevere to Lancelot, but the energies of the dragons run uncontrolled towards the conclusion of Arthur’s reign, bringing in the Saxon invaders, devastating the land and bringing the Round Table Fellowship to an end. It is also possible to see the end of Arthur’s reign from the point of view of the Queen Dragon herself- the transforming Goddess, who, having been Flower Bride and representative of Sovereignty chooses a new consort to rule her land; such is the career of Gwenhwyfar in the earliest traditions, as we shall see in the next chapter. It is significant that the Battle of Camlann is provoked by an adder, whose appearance causes one of Arthur’s men to strike out, thus breaking the truce between Arthur and Mordred in Malory. The serpent comes out of the ground just as the Cailleach of winter does.
The maintenance and wielding of the Hallows is the duty of the king, and if he once wavers, the kingdom soon tilts out of balance. The popular belief in the Sleeping Lord, who lies buried at certain sacred sites throughout Britain and who guards a golden cup or other treasure, is a deeply rooted remembrance of an ancestral mystery. There is a sense in which the Hallows are hidden within the land itself at the four quarters of the realm of Logres, the ‘inner’ Britain. These do not constitute ‘buried treasure’, which can be found with a metal-detector and dug up, but the guardianship by Sovereignty’s champion of the elemental, power-bestowing energies that hold the realm in balance.
It is this tradition that underlies the importance of the Grail in British consciousness. An apocryphal gnostic tradition speaks of the two cruets of Joseph of Arimathea, which constitute a Christianizing of the native Hallows; they are thought to be buried in France and Britain. These emblems are guarded by Joseph and by Mary Magdalene; in British tradition these figures can be viewed as the Guardian of the Hallows and the Dark Woman of Knowledge, or the Lord and Lady of the Wheel, for they are jointly responsible for the relics of the Dead Redeemer and the dissemination of his tradition. The cruets, containing the Blood and the Sweat, are the Christian analogues for the Blood and Seed.
Such is the power of this mystery that its symbolism has accordingly been made dense and obscure to human understanding, lest it be reduced to atavistic levels involving ritual sacrifice or into modern perversions of genetic manipulation. The mysteries of Sovereignty are those of life itself, of the exchange of energies between man and woman, king and Sovereignty, god and goddess.