TTL 24: “Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass.” — by David Russell Mosley

ttl rssHere is Post #24 in the Series on Taliessin through Logres –the last post!! The series is now complete-except for the important addition of YOUR comments on any or all of the posts. Please visit the INTRODUCTION to this series and the INDEX to the other posts in the series.

This closing  post is by David Russell Mosley.

IMG_4423 (1)David Russell Mosley blogs at Letters from the Edge of Elfland. He has a PhD in theology from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, and currently teaches theology part-time for Johnson University. Mosley is the author of the forthcoming books, On the Edge of Elfland, a faërie romance that will be published by Wipf and Stock publishers sometime this year, and Being Deified: Poetry and Fantasy on the Path to God which will be published by Fortress Press sometime this year.

Here is Dr. Mosley reading “Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass”:

We come now to the final poem in Williams’ Taliessin through Logres. In this poem, Lancelot, for reasons left unexplained, has decided to hold a Mass. Throughout this Mass, strange and unusual things begin to take place until at last Taliessin himself is no longer himself, but rises, almost as incense, and is spread through Wales while there is a kind of call and prayer for the discovery of skill (in poetry? in statecraft? for the renewal of Logres?) in those who are now dispersed, as Taliessin himself is.

We are greeted at the start of this poem with something quite unusual: Lancelot, presumably before he has taken orders in a monastery, is performing a Mass. Taliessin is quite clear: “he was not sworn of the priesthood.” The Anglican Church, to which Williams belonged, requires priestly presidence over the Eucharist (even in the most Evangelical churches is this still technically required). What is more, the Britain, or more precisely the Logres, that Williams depicts is an evidently Catholic one, so Lancelot’s actions would seem sinful. Indeed, it is as if Lancelot is adding sin to sin since it was his adultery with the King’s wife that played a key role in the downfall of Logres. And yet, this is not how Lancelot’s Mass is presented. Lancelot’s mass seems particularly blessed.

We can see this blessedness because something miraculous happens as Lancelot begins the mass:

In the ritual before the altar Lancelot began to pass;
all the dead lords of the Table were drawn from their graves to the Mass;
they stood, inward turned, as shields on a white rushing deck,
between Nimue of Broceliande and Helayne of Carbonek.

All the Knights of the Round Table who have fallen come forward at this Mass. Arthur too, we learn, is among them. This is a great blessing indeed, and yet we must wonder. Why is Lancelot, one who has committed a mortal sin (adultery), now performing the Mass without, it would seem, episcopal commission, being given a seal of approval? We cannot, just yet, I think, answer this question. We must dig deeper, first into this poem and then into the story itself.

l and g

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Arthur’s Tomb: The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere”

Another point of interest that we cannot pass by is, of course, the role the dead Knights play in this mass. Taliessin describes them as “shields on a white rushing deck between Nimue and Helayne.” I find this interesting, for while Nimue is associated with Broceliande and Helayne with Carbonek, we cannot forget that Carbonek is in Broceliande. In the previous poem, “The Last Voyage,” we are told that Logres itself is withdrawn to Carbonek. So why do the Knights stand as shields between these two women? Perhaps we get something of an answer in a later stanza which ought to take us back to “The Departure of Merlin.”

In the tenth stanza of “Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass,” we are told that, seemingly in the Epiclesis (wherein the priest, here Lancelot, calls on the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and wine, and thereby transform them):

We exposed, We exalted the Unity; prismed shone
web, paths, points; as it was done
the antipodean zones were retrieved round a white rushing deck,
and the Acts of the Emperor took zenith from Caucasia to Carbonek.

If we remember back to “The Departure of Merlin,” we will recall that this antipodean zone, P’o-Lu has been overcome by Broceliande, or is being overcome by it. Now, this is pure speculation, but I cannot help but wonder if perhaps the Knights stand guard between what is left of Logres and Broceliande precisely because of the antipodean zone, that is, because evil is putting up a fight against Broceliande and so the Knights stand guard between Helayne and Nimue despite both women in a way being related to Mary, who is mentioned in the ninth stanza. Helayne is the mother of Galahad, this decidedly human, but almost deified, Christlike-one. Nimue is herself the Lady of the Lake, a title which Mary also claims in some churches and universities (the full name Notre Dame in Indiana is Notre Dame du Lac, or Our Lady of the Lake; there is also a twelfth century church by the same name in Le Thor, France).

This, however, brings me to what I believe the answer to be to the question: why is

galahad

“Sir Galahad” by George Frederic Watts

Lancelot’s Mass blessed? The answer, I believe, is Galahad. I said in my essay that Taliessin through Logres seems to me to be precisely about Galahad and Lancelot and it is this poem above all else that makes me think so. I have said that Galahad is deified, I must explain myself. I do not mean that Galahad has actually become a God. I mean what the Eastern Orthodox Church means by theosis and what many Western churches call deification. Galahad has been so united to Christ, in part through the finding of the Grail, although that was really confirmation of his deification and not, necessarily a cause (although this is debatable), that he has been made as divine as humanly possible. Now, I believe that Williams wants us to view Galahad’s relationship to his biological father (as well as, perhaps, to one of his foster-fathers, namely Arthur) in a similar manner to how the understanding of the Immaculate Conception sees Christ’s relationship to Mary.

Allow me to explain. In the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Mary is kept from original sin by the grace of Christ, before his birth (the Christ-event, or Incarnation, is often seen in Christian theology as being capable of having effects both in the past as well as in the future). While Lancelot is certainly not kept from sin, he is nevertheless made holy by the accomplishments of his son. The sins he committed, including adultery with Guinevere and fornicating with Helayne, are washed clean by the grace of Christ given to his son Galahad.

For more possible evidence of this, we must simply look at other exchanges that have taken place, specifically with the parents (foster or otherwise) of Galahad. Blanchefleur is exchanged for Guinevere. Guinevere is actually in Blanchefleur’s cell, and both women are foster-mothers to Galahad. In Guinevere, “the mystical milk” rises and we are reminded that she is “the mother of Logres’ child,” namely Galahad. Arthur, one of Galahad’s foster-fathers, is exchanged for King Pelles, the wounded King. Even in this poem, Arthur and Lancelot weave:

the web; the sky
opened on moon and sun; between them, light-traced on high,
the unseen knight of terror stood as a friend;
invisible things and visible waited the end.

Logres has been bound up in Galahad as he has made all things right. Through him, and his healing of King Pelles with the Grail, is the unseen knight, Garlon, King Pelles’ brother, now a friend. These pairs and exchanges have one thing in common, they are made possible, ultimately, by Galahad, or more precisely by Christ through Galahad and the Grail.

As the Mass comes to a close, it is again Galahad in whom our hopes are meant to rest. The Table ascends and those present may reach the “porphyry stair” through Galahad, “the ruddy pillar of the Infant.” Taliessin now rises in the Cross, the rood, and we discover that the altar, which itself seems made of Logres––”Carbonek’s arch, Camelot’s wall, frame of Bors’ bones”––is actually in Galahad’s house (which should come as no surprise since this Mass is clearly taking place in the last refuge of Logres, Carbonek). Galahad is “manacled by the web” woven by Arthur and Lancelot, namely the web of Logres, and yet “in the web made free.” Galahad is bound to Logres, but like the Christian’s submission to Christ, this is a submission that gives true freedom, freedom to chose and will the Good. This fate to which Galahad is bound gives Taliessin joy, a joy which cannot be sung, a joy which participates in that true Joy (denoted by the capital J) which comes from God and allows the Christian to, “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4.4).

Lancelot dismisses the assembly with the closing words, “Ite, missa est.” And yet we can see this dismissal is not the end, despite its being the end of the mass. It might have been interesting and fitting had Williams ended the poem and book here. For then I could have drawn more directly the parallel between the reading of this book and what happens at the end of the Mass. You see, when once the Mass is over the Christian’s work is only just beginning. The Christian is sent out with Christ and the Holy Spirit residing in them, not to be lazy, but to bring about the Kingdom of God. Similarly here are we being sent out, not to forget what we’ve read or be left wit nostalgia or longing, but to do something, to bring about the return of Logres. The final stanza of the poem tells us this, despite it not ending with Ite, missa est. Taliessin is scattered as so much incense over Wales, and a remnant from the sack of Constantinople (for so I read the line concerning “salvaged sails” from Byzantium) That-Hideous-Strengthgo out into the world to spread the Kingdom. Those of us in our dispersed homes who are the remnants of Logres, are to pray for the skill, whether it be of work or will, are called to pray for it. I am reminded, in part because I just finished reading it, of Lewis’ That Hideous Strength which borrowed its Arthurian themes from Williams. In that story, Logres has a victory over Britain, but that is all it is, a victory. We the readers are meant to remain vigilant, to pray, to seek after the skill that will allow us, like Galahad to renew Logres. That is call with which Williams leaves us, to be Galahads, to overcome darkness with light, to overcome Britain with Logres, to overcome the world with the Kingdom of Heaven.

Ite, missa est.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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One Response to TTL 24: “Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass.” — by David Russell Mosley

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you – I thoroughly enjoyed this! (I keep trying to hang fire a bit and not be too Hermione Grangerish always and everywhere, but I expect I will soon give way more and be attempting substantive comments all over the place.)

    Like

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