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A HISTORIOGRAPHY OF Essay, Research Paper
A HISTORIOGRAPHY OF
ROGER SHERMAN LOOMIS
The tales of the Arthurian legend are some of the most popular from medieval times, and the reason for this is primarily due to their fabulous nature. In them are the exploits of heroes and the machinations of villains, the workings of sorcerers and the existence of magical objects. They embody the noble themes of chivalry and sacrifice, as well as those of revenge and evil. Action, violence, and sex are all included, and as shall be seen, there are many religious connotations as well. There are probably few people who are not familiar with the Quest for the Holy Grail, even if it is from exposure to the movie by Monty Python. The tales as most people know them, however, are the end result of centuries of change, both by the wandering minstrels and the serious authors of the medieval period. There exist numerous versions of each tale, and these versions are often contradictory.
Roger Sherman Loomis was a noted medieval scholar, and a large part of the body of his work is an attempt to trace these tales to their origin. In going back to the roots of these tales, it is possible to see how and where variations took place. In Arthurian research, there are two main schools of thought. The first asserts that these tales have as their basis actual figures who lived in the towns and castles described in the tales and took part in the actions described, though obviously with some embellishment. The second school posits that these tales represent the evolution of even more ancient legends, the towns and castles (which are often factual) being inserted into the tales to lend them credibility. Loomis is a member of the latter.
This historiography examines several of the works of Roger Sherman Loomis, which span the years from 1926 to 1964. In doing so, the nature of the origination of these tales will become evident, at least according to Loomis. First, however, some biographical information is in order.
It may strike the reader as odd to learn that Loomis was Japanese, until it is known that he was born in Japan to missionary parents, Henry and Jane (Greene) Loomis, thus ascribing to him Japanese citizenship. He first attended Hotchkiss School and from there went on to Williams College, where he received a BA in 1909. He received his MA from Harvard in 1910. He then went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar where he received a B Litt. in 1913.
He first married Gertrude Schoerpperle on August 27, 1919. His second marriage was to Laura Hibbard, an English professor at Wellesley College, on June 6, 1925 until her death in 1960. His third marriage was to Dorothy Bethurum.
His first position was as instructor at the University of Illinois, Urbana from 1913-18. From there he went to Columbia University where he became a member of the English faculty from 1919-58, and professor emeritus from 1958-66. He was also Eastman Professor at Oxford from 1955-56. During World War I, he was the editor of the Army publication Attenshun 21.
He was a member of numerous scholarly societies including the International Arthurian Society, of which he was president from 1948-63. He belonged to the Modern Language Association, the Medieaval Academy of America, where he was a fellow and also the second vice-president from 1961-64, the Modern Humanities Research Association, and the American Humanist Association.
Loomis was also the recipient of a variety of awards and honors. As mentioned, he was a Rhodes Scholar at the New College at Oxford. He was awarded the Haskins Medal of Medieval Academy in 1951 for Arthurian Tradition and Chretien de Troyes. In addition, he received a D. Litt. from the University of Wales in 1952, from Columbia University in 1957, and from Williams College in 1957. Finally, he received a Doct. hon. causa. From the University of Rennes in 1952.
Loomis, who died on 12 October 1966, is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Loomis has written a sizable volume of work, but the three that are the subject of this paper are Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, 1926, Wales and the Arthurian Legend, 1956, and The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, 1963. These three volumes alone represent a great deal of research, and as such, this paper will focus on the less obscure tales included in these works.
Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance is one of Loomis’ earliest works, and it is obvious at this point that his opinions on the subject are not fully formed, as he asks the reader to make logical leaps that are not readily apparent, a fact that he addresses in later works. As such, the book is difficult to read. Loomis also assumes the reader has an intimate knowledge of the legends he examines, which is not out of place, but the footnotes do not serve to clarify lack of knowledge, further exacerbating the problem. The subject matter is nonetheless very interesting.
He begins by addressing the medieval romance, which originated in Europe sometime in the twelfth century. Through traveling storytellers they became known in Spain, Sicily, Iceland, and Jerusalem, to name just a few regions. It is important to note that these storytellers were building on much earlier legends as they developed the stories, perhaps even unconsciously.
Loomis criticizes the medieval scholar Sir John Rhys for encouraging scholars to abandon attempts to trace the British tales back to earlier legends, instead emphasizing them as the product of French authors in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Loomis believed that the figures of Arthurian legend are reincarnations of earlier figures that were gods in previous legends. For example, he states that Gawain represents the common ancient notion of the solar hero whose strength depended on the sun, that the legend of the Grail is based on the ritual of initiation into a fertility cult, and that Mabon represented Apollo Mapenos, who was worshipped in Gaul.
He offers a possibility for the origin of the tale in which Guinevere is abducted and then rescued by Gawain. There is an Irish legend that relates the kidnapping of Blathnat by Curoi and her rescue Cuchulinn known as the “Tragic Death of Curoi mac Daire” from the tenth century. In this legend, Blathine (Blathnat) is captured by Curoi. From him she learns the secret that he can only be killed by destroying his external soul with his own sword. What is meant by external soul is that his soul resides in an external object rather than within him. Blathnat alerts Cuchulinn to this fact and he carries out the deed and rescues her. There are two themes here that have their source in pre-Christian Irish legends: that of the existence of an external soul, and that of a wife (Blathnat) betraying her husband (Curoi), which Loomis refers to as the Samson and Delilah pattern. Loomis sees pre-Christian Ireland as the source of most of these themes.
There lies the chief fountainhead of all these streams. There, of course, is the source of the modern Irish and Gaelic folktales, which until the present century were related by professional shanachies and the peasantry themselves. In ancient Irish tradition, too, is the source of the mythical tales which combined with the Romano-British tradition in Wales, Cornwall, and Devon to form the Arthurian legends. These legends passed from the Welsh and Domnonian bards to the Breton contuers, who could easily understand Welsh and at the same time speak French. Thus perfectly equipped to become intermediaries between the Celtic-speaking and the French-speaking worlds, the Bretons adapted their stories to contemporary courtly taste, and soon won a public both in France and England.
The abduction of Blathnat comes from a body of Irish legends that predate the fifth century. From this time also, the Irish shared with the Welsh many deities such as “Govannon and Goibniu, Don and Dana, Manawyddan and Manannan.”
The bards that recounted these legends were acting in the traditions of the Druidic schools, which were pagan. Once Christianity had begun to flourish, they were pressed to infuse them with Christian themes. However, pagan and Christian themes did not mix well. The veneer of Christianity on the tales was thin, and the bards were able to continue to transmit the underlying pagan mythologies. After all, the bards and the public did not want to give up their ancient traditions. “One should not forget that such stories as the abduction of Guinevere go back to stories learned and recited in the schools of the druids.”
Hundreds of years ago, the processes of nature and the elements were not understood in any scientific sense, and these forces thus became the basis for gods in mythologies around the world. The existence of a sun-god was one of the most prevalent beliefs worldwide. Even after the advent of Christianity, laws had to be passed that prohibited worship of the sun and other natural phenomena. This was especially true in Ireland. Due to the influx of Christianity, it became necessary for the contuers to disguise the mythological aspects of the ancient tales.
Many peoples at this time had the conception that the sun-god was directly related to the god of lightning and thunder. Loomis offers evidence that Cuchulinn was the representation of a sun/thunder-god. “On the Cattle-Raid of Cualagne the intense heat generated by his body melted the snow round him for thirty feet.” At one point in a tale, he undergoes a convulsive transformation in which he becomes a being that can hurl thunderbolts. While many have interpreted this as possible epileptic convulsions suffered by the hero, Loomis feels that this is evidence of his god-like nature. “Is it not far more plausible to see in the transformation of the sun-god into the fire-shooting thunder cloud?”
Loomis also finds evidence for the solar nature of Curoi mac Daire (Curoi) in the ancient Irish tale of Bricrui’s Feast. When Curoi returns from a voyage, it is morning. Later, he takes his stand as the light-bearer of a house, saying that the whole household shall have light, yet it won’t be burned. His main weapon is the ax, which represents thunder and lightning.
In Arthurian legend, Gawain appears to have a solar nature as well. “Again and again in the romances it is said that his strength increases until noon and then decreases.” And in Chrestien de Troyes’ Ivain it is explicitly said Gawain is the sun. Due to this fact, Loomis contends that Gawain is a reincarnation of Cuchulinn.20
He admits that this evidence is not obvious, but he reassures the reader that if it were obvious, there would be no reason for investigation into the matter. “Accordingly, if the organic connection between Irish and Arthurian legend, which has been maintained by such admirable scholars as Kittredge, Nutt, Brown, Cross, and Miss Schoepperle, exists at all, we must be prepared to find the evidence often indirect and confused.”21
The theme of battle between a father and a son who do not recognize each other is commonplace in Celtic legend, and in several legends, the combat ends when the combatants recognize each other for who they are. In the Arthurian legends, this occurs several times as well. There is an encounter between Guglain and his father Gawain, as well as between Galaad and Lancelot (Galaad’s father). “The names here are significant, for Guglain = Cuchulinn, Gawain = Curoi?”22
Loomis points out that old Irish literature is filled with stories in which the heroes face a test or series of tests in order to prove their “sovereignty,” which he states can be substituted with the term “god-head.” He then points out that this is a theme that is also true of the Arthurian legend. In fact, the legend of the Grail is another in which knights are put to the test.
The fact that tests of one kind or another are of frequent occurrence both in human life and in tales of the folk does not compel us to believe that the ordeals and perils of Arthurian romance possess no meaning save such human meaning as appears on the surface. If we can identify the actors with gods, if we can discover that their acts have results that resemble the operations of Nature, then we can be sure that, no matter how clear the folklore patterns, they are but moulds for myths.23
Here he asks the reader to find in the tales implications that are difficult to discern. While his reasoning makes sense, he does not make clear why it is necessary to do so when there are already obvious connotations. This is a practice he uses quite often, often making the reader wonder why dual meanings should be sought.
In Arthurian legend, there are several versions of a tale that has beheading as its subject. In it, Lancelot in his travels comes to a barren city where he meets a knight who insists that Lancelot cut off his head, with the promise that in a year, Lancelot will return to suffer the same fate. He returns a year later to the city to honor his vow, and finds there the brother of the knight he had slain. Lancelot positions himself, but the knight misses on the first strike. Before he can swing again, Guinevere appears and begs for his life. Lancelot then learns that he is the only one of a succession of knights who has kept the oath. The city comes to life and there is much rejoicing. This echoes quite clearly the ancient myth in which “year after year a golden chapleted god is slain, and thereby his successor renews the fertility of the land and the welfare of the folk.”24
In Irish legend, Curoi often had the ability to transform himself into other figures, such as a giant herdsman or a Man of the Wood. These are referred to as Curoi’s arts. This is true also of a figure in Arthurian legend, the sorcerer Merlin. “?the earliest accounts of Merlin show him in the same guises.”25 In fact Merlin, as himself, appears in Welsh legend before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History, in which he is ascribed supernatural powers. Merlin may have as his basis an actual person, a bard of the sixth century. Over time in the legends, he acquired the powers which he is said to have had. Loomis also contends that the opposite may be true. He may also have been a god whose powers were lessened over time, until he became a man with supernatural powers.26 Regardless, Loomis concludes that Merlin’s appearance as the giant herdsman and the Man of the Wood was not arbitrary on Geoffrey’s part, but was a continuance of existing legend. “And accordingly it seems that when the legends of Curoi swept over Wales and certain story-tellers were passing them on as stories of Gwri, Gwrnach, Gwrvan, Gware, and so forth, other-story tellers, recognizing the similarity of Curoi to their own Myrddin, attached some of these stories to him.” He likens this to the process in which the Romans took for themselves the Greek gods, in which Hera became Minerva, Hermes became Mercury, and so forth.27
The legend of the Grail is the most famous of the Arthurian legends. What the word “Grail” actually means has posed a mystery that has resulted in several interpretations, “though now the best scholarly judgment accepts the derivation from Latin cratalis, meaning a bowl.” There are three likely possibilities for what the Grail represented that are supported by evidence: “The Grail as Celtic talisman, as fertility symbol, as Christian relic?”28
Despite this, the actual of the Grail and the quest for it has been one of the primary attractions in these legends.
The Christian interpretation is that the Grail was originally the cup used at the Last Supper, with which Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood of Christ on the cross. However, Loomis says this is only one of the aspects. In one story of the Grail, Chrestien de Troyes’ Conte del Graal, there is no Christian symbolism associated with the Grail. In other parts of this cycle, the Grail can be seen to represent aspects of “seasonal myth, phallic ritual Celtic vessels of plenty, [and] divine weapons.”29
Loomis goes on to show that the heroes associated with the Grail, i.e. Gawain, Lancelot, Boors, Perceval, and Galaad, through etymological derivation, may have their roots as sun-gods in Celtic mythology.30
Loomis then turns his attention to the castle in which the Grail was said to have been kept. In Conte del Graal, Perceval enters the castle and finds the Fisher king lying on a couch in front of a hearth with a fire in it. In another version, there are a hundred other couches beside that of the Fisher king, as well as three fires in the hall. “Now Nitze has shown that the numerous couches, the central fireplace, with the couch of the chief before it, are regular features in the arrangements of the Irish palace hall, but totally unlike those of a twelfth century French castle.”31
In one of the legends, the Castle of the Grail has a bridge that is guarded by a figure by the name of Brumaut, a derivation of Curoi in his guise as a churl. Thus the Castle of the Grail is actually the Otherworld palace of Curoi.32
According to the Arthurian legends, Loomis goes on, the Grail has three powers. One, it can heal. Two, it can fill up with food indefinitely. Three, it will refuse its service if it is not knelt before. These are derived from a legend in which Gawain encounters all three of these aspects. Loomis goes on to show how this fact is related to ancient Celtic vessels. He links the cauldron of Bran, which has healing properties and is from Irish legend, to the Grail in a series of steps that are difficult to follow. The second property, by which it continuously fills with food, is mirrored in Celtic culture, as well as many others. The third property, which Loomis refers to as “denial of food to the unworthy,” he sees also as a test of virtue. In Welsh legend, there is the Cauldron of Tyrnog, which is said will cook meat in itself for a brave man, yet will not cook the meat for a coward.33
Loomis sees in Arthur the remnants of Celtic mythology as well. In one particular story about Arthur, he has received wounds that reopen every year. In this way, Arthur represents a god who is wounded or killed every year and is then revived. “There can be no doubt that the immediate derivation of this conception of Arthur as an embodiment of the vital forces of Nature, particularly the sun, is Celtic.”34
Toward the end of the book, Loomis takes a look at the History of Geoffrey of Monmouth, “?the work which supplied Arthur with a pedigree going back to Aeneas and made him victorious over the legions of Rome itself.” He states that “There is nothing new in maintaining that Geoffrey drew for his Arthurian material on Breton sources or that he introduced figures from Welsh mythology.”35 It would appear then that Loomis and others are already aware that much of the Arthurian legend is drawn from Celtic mythology. Loomis’ aim must be then to draw parallels between specifics in both the Arthurian legends and in Celtic mythology, as there are those who feel that the Arthurian legends were completely fabricated. He concludes: “At least, the burden of proof is upon those who maintain that Geoffrey excavated his materials largely from his own brain.”36
As can be seen from the preceding, Loomis asks the reader to make leaps of logic to be able to see some of the connections between Arthurian legend and Celtic mythology. While some of these connections are obvious, some are rather dubious. Loomis does present many good theories, but some seem to be a stretch. Fortunately, Loomis makes these connections more obvious in later works.
In a review by Gordon Hall Gerould, the reviewer came to similar conclusions. He feels that Loomis has asked us to accept too much based on too little evidence. While he commends Loomis for his scholarship, he criticizes his methods. “Learning, and enthusiasm, and an agreeable style have not saved the author of this volume from writing what is rather a work of imagination than of scholarship. Mr. Loomis can believe, one fears, anything he wishes to believe. He lacks the power of seeing things in the dry clear light of commonsense, and he is therefore a peculiarly dangerous guide.”37
In Wales and the Arthurian Legend, Loomis examines the various roles that Wales played in the origin and transmission of the Arthurian legend. This book is much easier to read, mainly because Loomis breaks the material up into digestible parts, and he does not ask the reader to make spurious connections. He lays the evidence in front of the reader and the conclusions follow logically.
Loomis begins by examining how the ruins of Rome served as a basis for some of the Arthurian legend. “?it is not generally recognized how much of medieval legend and romance was twined about those awe-inspiring but crumbling walls which survived for centuries the fall of the imperial city.”38
In the 800s, a priest by the name of Nennius in South Wales wrote about the history of the Britons and the Roman occupation, in which he lists 28 Roman settlements or forts. Three of these are located in Wales: “Cair Segeint, Cair Legeion guar Uisc, Cair Guent, i.e. the old Segontium, Caerlon on Usk, and Caerwent.” In fact, Nennius is the author of the first legend concerning these sights.39 According to Loomis, Cair Segeint came to be known as Snauedon, and it was this name that the conteurs, bard-like poets, of Breton used in their story telling. It was later incorporated into the romances of the French and Anglo-Normans.40
Around 1200, Renaud de Beaujeu wrote Le Bel Inconnu in which Snaudon plays a part. Despite the fact that he lived in France, he knew the conditions of the distant town, thus lending evidence that people of the time had been there. In 1283, Edward I built a castle on the shore below Snaudon, by the name of Caer yn Arvon, which came to be known as Caernarvon. The materials in the old fort were used for the construction of the new castle, and nothing remains there.41
Loomis takes a look at the Grail legend as it was originated by the Irish and built upon by the Welsh.42 He begins by emphasizing that the Irish would have had no knowledge of the various aspects of the Arthurian legend of the Grail, thus supporting the Irish origin theory. “Yet no other theory explains so much of the Grail legend as that of Irish origin and Welsh development; no other theory accords so well with antecedent probability regarding the Arthurian cycle of romance.”43
Arthur himself was of Celtic origin, Loomis asserts, and one of the most famous of the Arthurian legends, Gawain and the Green Knight, originated as the Irish telling of the head-cutting story which dates back to the ninth century. In fact, “It is not only possible but also probable that any authentic tradition of the Round Table should be derived from Wales and should contain Irish elements.”44
When the agents of Christianity swept over Ireland, they only half succeeded in converting the populace, as the old pagan religion survived mostly intact, remnants of which survive today. “It explains the survival into the late Middle Ages of many Irish sagas in which old gods figure; it explains how the Irish stories, passing into Wales, amalgamating with similar Welsh stories, and attaching themselves to the story of Arthur, were in large measure remnants of Irish mythology which had survived the victory of the Cross.”45
It is interesting that when people think of the legend of the Grail, it is usually thought of in relationship to Christianity. However, Loomis writes, one of the main reasons the church has failed to view the Grail legends as authentic is the pagan nature of their origin. In one early version of the Grail story, the hero spends a good deal of time with a lady in the tale, participating in activities that would have no place in a Christian interpretation. Additionally, the Grail is a jewel-encrusted platter that is carried around by a beautiful maiden. “Certainly this first author to introduce us to the Grail either had no conception of the proprieties of Christian ethics and ritual, or he did not conceive of the Grail as a Christian object.”46
In this book, Loomis admits that many of the connections between the Grail and earlier myth must be approached with some skepticism, casting doubt on the assertions of some authors’ interpretations, including his own. My own Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, I confess, contained chapters on the grail which I would now withdraw and others that were confused and confusing.”47 He maintains, however, that its properties are mirrored by objects in Celtic myth, as he previously asserted. He goes on to say that many of the contradictions that arise in this pursuit are not necessarily the fault of those involved in the study, but instead are built in to the legend itself. “The real reason for all this tantalizing sense of confusion is precisely this: the Grail legend is a composite of scores of Celtic tales and motifs, often quite independent of each other, and woven into a lovely and mysterious, but quite inharmonious tapestry.”48
Further, Loomis asserts that while the stories arose in Ireland, they were transmitted to Wales where they were further developed. “The nomenclature of the Grail cycle is, so far as we can detect, Welsh.”49 He goes on to trace the story of Gawain and the Green Knight to a much earlier legend.
One of the main pieces of evidence that link the tale Gawain and the Green Knight to Bricrius’ Feast of the eighth century is the similarity of the Beheading Test. Additionally, there are several elements in the English version of Gawain and the Green Knight that do not appear to have similarities in Irish legend. Instead, Loomis finds antecedents in several tales in Welsh mythology, particularly that of Pwyll.50
In the last chapter, Loomis provides the supposition for which all of his research has been accumulated to refute. He quotes J.S.P. Tatlock, a noted Arthurian scholar: “‘The plain fact is that, with no possibility of disproving that it existed, there is no evidence for a largely developed Arthur-saga anywhere whatever before Geoffrey.’” While giving due credit to Tatlock for his scholarly achievements, he argues that there exist a good number of contrary views on the subject, espoused by both him and a number of other scholars. “The final appeal, as always, must be not to authority but to facts and logic.”51 Of which Loomis has provided a good deal. He then presents eleven arguments that are substantiated by historical fact.52 Through these he shows that “The plain fact is, then, that ample evidence exists for a widespread, elaborate, fascinating legend of Arthur before the publication of the Historia, and that there is no antecedent probability against such a view.”53
Loomis ends the book by challenging those who feel that the Arthurian legend originated primarily in the mind of Geoffrey of Monmouth. He goes so far as to say that the belief that Geoffrey created these legends is completely implausible, given the evidence. “It does not fit the facts as does the theory of Welsh traditional development and Breton transmission to the Continent before the year 1100.”54
Finally, in The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, Loomis narrows his focus. In the preface of the book, he reiterates the fact that several of the ideas he set forth in Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance were mistaken, though many are still valid. He sets down his intention to show how the Grail started as an object of Celtic myth and over time became a symbol for Christianity. “That is what one would expect to happen to a Celtic vessel of plenty: at first, a thing of mere magic, it would become in time possessed of miraculous and sacred powers, and emerge at last a Christian symbol.”55
The legend of the Grail has inspired many scholars due to the nature of the Grail as well as the quest for it. The stories are filled with fanciful and supernatural aspects that are part of its lure. The myriads of scholars who have studied the legend have arrived at varied and often contradictory conclusions. The location of the Grail has been a matter of much speculation. As examples, Loomis offers “?the Punjab in India, to the palace of Atreus at Mycenae and the temple of Zeus at Dodona, to the monastery of Montserrat in Spain, to the palace of Chosroes in Persia, and the Christian shrines of Constantinople.” The possible origins of the Grail, too, are as numerous. “?the object itself was derived from the cauldron of the Irish god Dagda, from the eye of the Egyptian god Thoth, from a symbol of the female organ of generation, from a pearl of the Zoroastrian cult named Gohar, from a talisman of the heretical Albigensians, once adored in a cavern of the Pyrennes, or from a ‘Great Sapphire’, formerly preserved in the sacristy of Glastonbury Abbey.” What the Grail actually is has been heatedly debated as well. “The Grail may be described as the dish from which Christ ate the Passover lamb at the Last Supper; or as the chalice of the first sacrament, in which the Saviour’s blood was caught as it flowed from His wounded body; or as a stone with miraculous feeding and youth preserving virtues; or as a salver containing a man’s head, swimming in blood.”56
Loomis divides the texts which are concerned primarily with the grail into two groups: those that relate the adventures of the Knights of Arthur and their arriving at the castle in which the Grail is kept, either by chance or intention, and those that detail the history of the Grail and its transference to Britain from the Holy land. Loomis lists ten of these tales, all of which were written within a fifty-year span.57
The author states that the best way to begin investigation of the Grail
Evory, Ann, and Linda Metzger, eds. Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 8. Michigan: Gale Research Co., 1983.
Gerould, Gordon Hall. “Ritual and Myth.” Times (London) Literary Supplement. 14 November, 1963.
Loomis, Roger Sherman. Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1926.
________. The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.
________. Wales and the Arthurian Legend. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1956. Reprint, Pennsylvania: The Folcroft Press, Inc., 1969.
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