Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Orkney clan

There is one corpus of myth surrounding Orkney that most inhabitants of the county are generally ignorant of.
But this lore, although having Orkney at its centre, is not found in any shape or form within the culture or traditions of the islands.
It surprises many to learn of the major role played by Orkney in the legends and literature of King Arthur, the legendary British king who is supposed to have held back the Saxon advances in the 6th century AD.
At the core of the Arthurian mythos is a group of characters known as the Orkney Clan - King Lot of Orkney and his sons,Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine. Arthur's sister Morgause was married to King Lot.
Before we look at the origin of this material, we should recap the tale of King Arthur - a story of magic, chivalry and betrayal.
The main Arthurian tale is well known - how the boy Arthur draws the sword from the stone to become king; how he sets up the fabled Round Table in Camelot and receives the magical sword, Excalibur. Arthur's downfall is ultimately brought about by his son, Mordred, a child he fathered on his own sister, Morgause of Orkney.
Around this central theme are woven a number of sub-plots and stories involving the other members of the Orkney clan, in particular Gawain, one of the best-known knights of the Round Table, and Agravaine.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

But although the Orkney clan feature heavily in the best-known legends of King Arthur, these stories were actually written around 1470.
Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur is a piece of medieval fiction, although it could be argued that the story does contain heavily-veiled historical and cultural references.
Writing in the 15th century, Malory was the latest in a long list of author's who had adapted and expanded the Arthurian Legends to fit their own ideas. It is within Malory that the Orkney clan first appear and the islands have any sort of prominence within the Matter of Britain.
The development of the Arthurian Legends, from the first pseudo-historical sources to the tales of high chivalry of the Middle Ages is beyond the scope of this short article, but the reader can select from the links on the right for further information.
Suffice to say Le Morte Darthur was just one in a long line of retellings and adaptation of the Arthurian mythology. Prior to Malory, there was no Orkney clan and the Arthurian literature had only a few vague mentions of Orkney, which had no major part in the story.
It would be quite safe to say Malory's Orkney connection was a literary creations from the Middle Ages.
The Orkney connections
So is there any real historical link between the Arthurian legends and Orkney?
In short, no - although we should remember that any traditions surrounding a Dark Ages king, or warrior, in Orkney could have been obliterated after the Norse takeover.
Over the years a number of hypothesis have been proposed as to the historical figure behind the Arthur of legend. A number of these theories have tantalising links to the islands, but these are generally refer to vague historical accounts of conquests or battles.
So, if there was any fabled connection between Orkney and a historical prototype on which the later Arthurian legends are based, it is now lost.

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