TTL 12: “Lamorack & the Queen Morgause of Orkney.” — by Robert Ghrist

ttl rssHere is Post #12 in the Series on Taliessin through Logres! Please visit the INTRODUCTION to this series first, and here is the INDEX to the other posts in the series.

Today’s post is by Robert Ghrist.

headshot 2011Robert 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.


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.

TashThe 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.

BLakeThe 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 [1930] 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.


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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9 Responses to TTL 12: “Lamorack & the Queen Morgause of Orkney.” — by Robert Ghrist

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Trying to find out more about that very interestingly juxtaposed Blake eagle picture, I keep running into Chesterton’s William Blake (1910, reprinted 1920), which reproduces it, apparently without discussing it! (Can you tell us more about the picture?) You’d think, as G.K.C. and Blake reader, Williams might know it. (I don’t – I probably should read it!)

    I’m not sure what to make of it, but there seems to be a contrast between the change of Palomides’ experience of Iseult (and coming of the Beast) in the previous poem, and Lamoracke’s consistently rather monstrous experience of Morgause, here. (Did he have, briefly, a different, ‘positive’ (though perhaps dangerous) experience of Morgause in ‘The Crowning of Arthur’, before the Dolorous Blow section, there?)

    And, Lamoracke and Percivale and Blanchefleur as three siblings give us things to think about. As do Gawaine (among others) and Gareth as sons of Lot and Morgause.


    • david,

      so many interesting comments & questions here…

      1) personal note: i own a copy of the hard-to-find book by GKC on blake. it is an uncharacteristically awful piece of work. as you note, the figures have nothing to do with the text, and the text has little to do with blake’s poetry. it’s mostly a fanciful gloss on his life and work as a springboard to talk about what GK is interested in. i love GK’s best works, but he was phoning this one in.

      2) the illustration of the eagle is from blake’s great epic, “milton”. my annotated copy is in my office at work, but, if i recall correctly, it’s hopeless: that text in this location is well past the point that i comprehend. (CW is comparatively simple to grasp compared to blake…)

      according to the commentaries i have at home, the eagle is hovering over a post-coital pair, archetypally, albion [england] and jerusalem. i always thought of them as adam & eve.

      of the other uses of the eagle that i know in blake’s work, there is the bird of theotormon in “visions: the daughters of albion” [plate 3] and “america: a prophecy” [plate 13]. in both plates, an eagle/vulture tears at the liver of oothoon, as with prometheus. some of my commentaries indicate that this bird is “an eagle of genius corrupted to a vulture”. i’m struck at the (coincidental?) image of the eagle corrupted to preying vulture [CW, place of the lion]. sometimes, i suspect that CW intentionally did not talk about blake more in his works so as to obscure one source of his images.


  2. Jenn says:

    Thank you, Robert, for this and your previous post. I very much enjoy your clarity of thought and expression as you sort through some of the more difficult (at least to me!) poems from Taliessin. The stone imagery surrounding Morgause keeps taking me back to Blanchefleur…. I wonder what a comparison of Taliessin/Blanchefleur to Lamorack/Morgause would look like?


    • that is an *excellent* question. we really must beg our hostess to open up one big discussion forum for the cross-poem architectural questions after the individual poems are covered.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      In the even later late poetry, there is more simply positive stone imagery related to the ‘land of the Trinity’, where (in this book) the body of Blanchefleur is being borne with the Grail knights. And as Grevel and Robert have variously noted, there is the more consistently (if complexly) positive porphyry (stair) imagery.

      Stepping outside the poetry, there is the Stone in Many Dimensions, and Chloe’s relation to it.

      And – how may all this stone imagery relate to the alchemical imagery (again, something Grevel has touched on)? Galahad/Percivale/Blancehfleur/Bors and the Philosopher’s Stone – ?!


      • that’s worth contemplating. pre-grevel, i completely missed the alchemical imagery. it’s worth giving it all another read with that in mind.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I had an article in the Williams Society Quarterly about Williams and the Santo Caliz in Valencia – which is an interesting ‘claimant’ to being the actual Holy Grail (the chalice of the Last Supper) – and which is made of stone (with which I indulged in some ranging around on stone imagery – though I did not properly pursue the Philosopher’s Stone).

          Unfortunately, it appeared later than the back issues posted on the Williams Society site (or, the site has not yet caught up with the later back issues).

          If you are interested,I could send a copy to one or another of your University addresses.


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