Today’s post is by Robert Ghrist.
Robert Ghrist is the Andrea Mitchell PIK Professor of Mathematics and Electrical & Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s a leading researcher in applied algebraic topology and an award-winning teacher, with a recent series of graphical texts and on-line courses on Calculus.
XII. LAMORACK AND THE QUEEN MORGAUSE OF ORKNEY
My understanding of the poems in CW’s arthuriad varies, much like the styles of the poems themselves. Some, I find myself understanding as a curious observer – external, unattached. Some, I experience from within, almost as a bystander in the court, with full engagement of emotion and intellect (these ones leave me exhausted upon reading). Others, I cannot comprehend at all, and look forward to the day when their locks are breached. This poem, nearly unique among all of the cycle, I engage with as a series of pictures, blending memory and image.
The literal setting of the poem is simple to summarize. Lamorack, knight of Arthur, is sent “at the king’s word” northward in summer, to “explore the coast of the kingdom towards the Pole”. There, at the “extreme theme” (a locus of utmost north), he has a life-changing confluence of events. First, he finds in these ancient domains prehistoric carvings of wild pagan god-monsters, “hewn in a cleft… hideous huge forms”. These shapes stretch all bounds of human imagination and Lamorack notes that among all “carved contingent shapes” these are those that “only the Emporer knew”, unless, some dark sorcery could “seek the image of that image within their heart”. It may be that such darkness can reside not only in the extremes of geography, but also in the extremes of personality as well, a fact Lamorack’s love will confirm.
Upon seeing these horrific shapes, an approaching storm strikes the coast and boat. The collision of seamews’ cries, cliff carvings, and storm shock sends Lamorack reeling to retreat, but not before a supernatural event occurs. The carved cliff sculptures split in the storm,
“and behind us flew in the air flew giant inhuman forms”
The contingent shapes emerge and take flight. These dark, prehistoric urges are released.
The Inklings fan who notes in the poem a stroke of familiarity will of course draw a connection to Tash, from the Chronicles of Narnia [Horse & His Boy, Last Battle]. Recall, Tash (Turkish from “stone” or “rock”) is the quasi-avian god whose invocation releases him from statue form (“ ‘I have seen it once before’ said Tirian, ‘but that time it was carved in stone…’ ”).
Lamorack returns to Logres, to find his king seated between two queens: one, Guinevere, his wife; the other, Morgause, his sister.
“I saw in her long eyes the humanized shapes of the cleft.”
There is some ancient, brooding shape of evil within her. This is true both psychologically and literally, for, as Merlin explains,
“Balin had Balan’s face, and Morgause her brother’s.
Did you not know the blow that darkened each from others’?”
CW [via Merlin] paints a dual Dolorous Blow. The first, born of rage, splits brother from brother; the second, born of lust, merges brother with sister: Arthur, “tossing loves” with an unknown woman, unknowingly impregnates his sister, who carries now an unborn Mordred, “the image of the split table and of surreptitious swords”. The poem ends with Lamorack, hearing all this, yet bound by disordered love of the queen, captive by her stone eyes.
The structure of the poem is powerfully nonlinear. It begins at the end, with Lamorack, entranced, seduced at first sight by the stone queen, musing on the fused image of Queen and Rock and Carving. The opening stanza is aurally and emotionally brutal:
“Hued from the livid everlasting stone
the queen’s hewn eyelids bruised my bone;
my eyes splintered, as our father Adam’s when the first
exorbitant flying nature round creation’s flank burst.”
The images that pair with this are the carved queen, stonedark and hard, and something primeval taking flight over Adam. I cannot but think of the accompanying illustration of Blake, for whom the Eagle was a symbol of Imagination and Sex. [Aside: the careful reader of CW’s poetry should note a more than passing connection to Blake, from the combustible orthodoxy to the sexualized world-body mapping to the obscure hyper-personalized mythbuilding.]
The later line echoes this:
“Over Camelot and Carbonek a whirling creature hovered
as over the Adam in Eden when they found themselves uncovered,
when they would know good as evil; thereon it was showed,
but then they must know God also after that mode.”
Sørina’s prior writings pointed out to me the connection to CW’s theology of the Fall (from He Came Down from Heaven). Much more could be said here: suffice to say, this poem is a study of the Fall, or, more specifically, a failing in love. In contradistinction to “Bors & Elayne: the Fish of Broceliande”, love in this poem is disordered, adulterous, binding, and crushingly manipulative.
The full story of Lamorack and Morgause in CW’s mind is not recorded in this poem. Sørina’s exposition of “Lamoracke’s Song to Morgause” in CW’s Heroes and Kings  details some of the “contingent shapes” of love residing in extremes best left unexplored. I don’t believe I fully understand the relationship of Lamorack and Morgause, and I don’t know that I want to. The reader who, like an inquiring sorcerer, seeks the image of that image, courts danger.
I do, however, like Lamorack, find the image of the stone queen compelling. Lamorack’s internal fusion of the dire storm, the treacherous crags, and the temptingly taken queen is inexorable:
“Her hand discharged catastrophe; I was thrown
before it; I saw the source of all stone,
the rigid tornado, the schism and first strife
of primeval rock with itself, Morgause, Lot’s wife.”