into the sacred wood


If, as C. S. Lewis claimed, the old gods die to faith but rise as allegory, then old myths die to religion but rise as fantasy. Thanks to The Golden Bough and its sibling, Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, twentieth-century scholars had a field day with medieval romance, combing its enigmatic plots for remnants of pagan lore. These prove to be legion: along with the fairy challenge scenario, they include magic fountains, spinning castles, shape-shifting hags that turn into beautiful maidens, and beheading games that pit a mortal against a supernatural being, who has the unfair advantage of being able to saunter off with his head in his hands. Many of those avid source-hunters — unlike the reading public then or now — were all but immune to the appeal of romance itself. While they pined for lost archetypes, be they Irish, Welsh or Breton, they sneered at French storytellers who had the audacity just to tell stories, rather than painstakingly reassembling the shards of a lost religion. But that critical phase has had its day. Medievalists now prefer to explore the artistry of a Chrétien de Troyes or Marie de France, leaving the archaeology of their tales aside.

more from Barbara Newman at Berfrois here.