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Playing Dice With The Universe

The Church of Arthur

by Bill Kte'pi
Oct 07,2004


Playing Dice With The Universe

The Church of Arthur

I'm writing this column instead of working on my novel about the Wandering Jew, which just shows that I pretty much write about religion constantly.

This time around, I'm going to lay out an alternate history -- which is not, strictly speaking, a religious matter, but in this case the inciting incident of divergence is, as are its consequences. So, in the style of the comics I loved to death when I was a kid and seemed the pinnacle, somehow, of the Marvel Universe's appeal (excelsior! and so on):

What if... King Arthur had become the central figure of British religion?

Christianity had reached the British Isles as early as the mid-second century, but it was centuries before it became a widespread faith (and under Roman rule, Christians, druids, and Jews alike faced persecution until Constantine's conversion in the fourth century); the British Church remained minor enough that it sent no representatives to the Council of Nicea which formalized the Catholic Church, and in later generations, Pelagianism -- the belief, condemned by the Church on the Continent and by Augustine of Hippo, that institutions like states and churches had no power or authority to intercede between man and God -- became and remained popular. Christianity gradually increased in popularity and acceptance as the Roman Empire favored it, but it wasn't until 597, when (a different) Augustine arrived as a missionary, that the British Church's ties to the Catholic Church truly cemented.

That's about where we're going to tinker.

Now, mind you: there is, essentially, no "historical King Arthur," particularly not one at all similar to the King Arthur we think of today. There are historical figures who might have been incorporated into the corpus of Arthuriana, but there is no single historical figure around whom the legends were told. You could post below and respond with any of a hundred books or TV specials about the search for Arthur's identity (or the summer movie's claims to pre-legendary historicity), but that's only because so many people will set out in search of one before determining if there IS one or not (the History Channel is notorious for this). (See Thomas Green's bibliographic essay for a good discussion of all this.) In any case, the Arthurian stories are more important to our discussion than the Arthurian archaeology.

There are times when the origins of things are murky; when, in retrospect, you know next to nothing of a certain period in time, such that even if you can prove wrong (or very unlikely) the traditional explanation, you can't necessarily prove an alternative. For instance: the origin of Israel. Although the migration of Hebrews from Egypt to Canaan, a city which they invaded and reshaped, was long held as the explanation for Israel's beginnings, archaeologists have found no evidence to support such a migration; any significant number of people making that journey (even without spending forty years in the desert) would leave behind potsherds and other detritus the way we now leave cigarette butts and soda cans in our wake. Lacking such evidence, it seems more likely that the early Israelites were in fact Canaanites: Canaanites who had won a cultural and religious revolution, and founded a new nation from within.

But that hasn't been proven; it's a theory based largely on the uncontestable fact that ancient Israel did exist, and the strong suggestion that the traditional explanation is false. There could be another explanation altogether, and it's not outright impossible that the Exodus theory is correct after all.

In this alternate history, the origins of Arthur are just such a case of fuzzy specifics. We're going to jump ahead a few hundred years from the early Christian arrivals in Britain to their expulsion.

Sometime in that murky jerky period of this alternate history of ours, a folk religion -- a religion practiced in the home, and often the focus of small villages' festivals, but without organized churches or scriptures -- began in reverence to the Risen King, a warrior who was transformed by the gods who loved him so that he could better serve the people he loved, and serve them even from beyond the harrow of death. Although early Christians -- missionaries and converts alike -- claimed the Risen King was simply a corruption of their own Christ, the King of Kings who rose from death and ascended to Heaven, his followers were nevertheless resistant to conversion or syncretism (a historical and theological process which in this case would have proclaimed the King an "aspect" of Christ or one of the saints, permitting many of the rituals and celebrations to remain the same while redefining the religion's members as Christian). Eventually, a Christian Bishop himself converted to the faith of the Risen King, and brought his church with him.

The faith spread -- not like wildfire or contagion, but like a slow, steady rain. When Constantine converted to Christianity, it became known as the Roman religion, and when the missionaries came in force, they found themselves unwelcome. By the eighth and ninth centuries, when Christianity had become the default religion, the religion of statehood and power, in Europe and Asia Minor, soldiers arrived in Britain with the next wave of missionaries -- and they were repelled in what history has since labeled the First Defense, or sometimes the Defense Ordinary.

The reverence of the Risen King had taken hold, and he had a name now: Arthur.

The magic of a name.

Rather usefully for our purposes, the etymology of the name "Arthur" is not at all clear -- baby name books and similar resources will generally tie it simply into the legendary king, or one of the several theoretical etymologies thereof, with no further explanation or note of the mystery. But in Arthurian studies, the origins of the name are actually quite important, because they can point us to the origins of at least a substantive aspect of the myth, if perhaps not the myth itself.

Consider, after all, if the first mention of Jesus occurred in the third or fourth century, and it wasn't clear from context that he was a Jew; tracing his name back to its Semitic origins, especially if combined with mentions of Roman rulers, would reveal an extraordinary amount of information about his life and world.

The name does not appear until the fifth century, and in the real world, as in our alternate history, there's no certain answer to where it came from. A popular theory in our world -- because it can be used to tie Arthur to Ambrosius Aurelianus -- gives Arthur as a corruption of Artorius, a rare Latin name (and one of the three names of a second-century Roman soldier who put down a British rebellion). Another, more recent, theory gives "Art-gur" as a Celtic name meaning "bear-man," suggesting that "Arthur" could be a title or nickname bestowed because of great battle success. It could also be related to words for "stone" or "eagle."

These are all potentially theological points for dwellers of our alternate history, in addition to being the subject of study for its modern-day skeptic-historians. How does a religion change, if it is based on an eagle instead of a bear?

Early development.

The Church of Arthur becomes organized across the British Isles around the time of the First Defense -- it's difficult to say, in later generations, whether it was a reaction to the Christian attack, or the thing that gave Britain the strength to resist. Likewise, the specifics of belief are difficult to be one hundred percent certain of, because there are not yet written Scriptures. Practice is somewhat easier: the bulk of it consists of weekly church services, which often include singing or epic recitals as well as a community meal (donated by church members and redistributed equally, making church services popular among the poor, and reinforcing the need for the participation of the not-so-poor). Arthurian clergy absorb the Christian structure which had begun, dividing their number into priests (overseeing a parish), bishops (overseeing the priests, while often attending to a parish of their own as well), and monks, who are largely left to tend to themselves. Bishops are often also civil figures, responsible for secular government functions; this is less frequently true of "mere" priests.

There are at least three, and as many as eighteen, festivals in the Arthurian year, depending on where in the British Isles one is. The two universal festivals, as characteristic and defining as Christmas and Easter, are Saturnalia and Lailokenfist (the pronunciation of which eventually becomes "lie LOCK in fist," or sometimes "lie LOCK in fitz").

Saturnalia -- related, clearly, to the Roman festival of the same name -- takes place during the last four days of the old year and the first day of the new, and is a time of "great energy, furious ecstatic activity, and exhausted contemplation." A casual observer might compare it to Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Rio, because during many times, in many areas, the celebration involves five days of nigh superhuman drinking, dancing, feasting, and sex -- but the point of it is not the gluttony which prefaces fasting, as in those Catholic celebrations, but rather to exhaust the body by any means available. Bear-baiting, wrestling, and races are common features of Saturnalia, in addition to the more decadent practices. The belief is that if the body is exhausted, purely and completely exhausted, with sweat having leeched out all the toxins of the world, then on the fifth (and maybe even as early as the fourth) night, one will see the world with a pure, undistracted mind: all the better to begin the new year. In later years especially, it becomes traditional to attend church on the second day of the year, the morning after Saturnalia.

It's often claimed that Saturnalia began as a practice independent of the Arthurian Church, and the name alone suggests this is probably true: nevertheless, it swiftly becomes a vital part of Arthurian practice, enough so that in modern times, its importance to British (and American and other; we'll get to that) culture affects drinking laws (in some places, the drinking age remains low; in others, it lowers for the five days of Saturnalia or for its final night; in still others, there are separate drinking ages depending on the alcohol content of the beverage, an old practice especially common in Scotland, where a 21 year old -- who has been legally permitted beer and ale for seven years -- gains "his whisky teeth.")

Lailokenfist, the Festival of Lailoken, is named for Lailoken (naturally enough), the first Merlin known by name. Lailoken was a soldier in Scotland -- sometime around the 6th century, it seems -- who was driven mad by battle and fled to the Caledonian Forest, where legend declares that "the dragons ivory and crimson came upon him, and he did cry out until they stilled his voice with their gifts of prophecy" (King James translation, chapter eleven, verse sixteen, of "The Prophets," in The Book of Arthur). The earliest orally transmitted poems about Arthur the Risen King are attributed to Lailoken, and modern scholars agree that this is likely the case with many of them, given the small amount of writing he left behind in the form of his memoirs (titled "A History of Caledonia," and included in The Book of Arthur). It is possible -- and the cult of Lailoken, who revere him as "Namer of the King, Father of Acknowledgement," certainly holds -- that Lailoken is the first to use the name Arthur to refer to the Risen King.

(A note about the word "cult": although in recent decades it has gained an additional negative meaning -- with the implication that a "cult" is not a religion, nor a part of a religion, but an unequivocally bad practice, usually of the brainwashing variety -- the word is traditionally value-neutral. Catholicism includes the cult of saints, which refers to the reverence -- not worship -- of saints, and the cult of Mary goes back for centuries as well. Neither of these is an independent, freestanding religion; they are both traditions and practices within Catholicism, fully an accepted and mainstream part of it.)

Lailokenfist is celebrated differently in different areas, but in most places it's celebrated on a summer Saturday (the day of rest and worship in the Arthurian Church) with church service, family or community meals, and perhaps a parade or battle reenactment. (Lailokenfist puppet shows provide fond childhood memories in many parts of Arthuriandom.)

Lailokenfist and Saturnalia are the only truly universal festivals of the Arthurian Church. On the British Isles, Arthurian communities also celebrate festivals commemorating battles Arthur fought in their proximity, or the lives of important figures in Arthurian history. Once Arthurianity is no longer confined to the British Isles, these festivals are abandoned in the more remote regions, or abstracted, so that the Festival of Galahad is important not because of Galahad himself but because of Galahad as a symbol.

The Merlins and the Malories

"Merlin," at first, is a title given to the occasional prophet -- usually a wild man who lives like a hermit in the woods, making pronouncements to pilgrims or during his own infrequent journeys to civilization -- whose prophecies seem to bear on the Arthurian corpus and on the circumstances of the return of the Risen King. It's the oral tradition begun and fed by these Merlins that codifies, solidifies, identifies, the core Arthurian story, as follows:

There once was born a boy to a kingdom, and there once arose a kingdom for a boy. The boy was remarkable from early childhood, and as a young man led his kith and kin in battle against all who stood against the kingdom: the barbarians, the outlaws, the would-be rebels. He loved three women, who gave him three gifts: a kingdom, a son, and a resurrection. He died in battle with his son, but because of the intervention of the Merlin and one of his lovers, he'll return to bring Britain to everlasting glory.

Aspects of the broader body of Arthuriana seem like they must be inspired by other traditions: a tale of young Arthur's battle with a giant seems a transparent transplant of the Biblical story of David and Goliath, and infancy stories bear a good many similarities to those of the infant Jesus in the noncanonical gospels.

The Merlin referred to in the stories has no name left to history; he was a prophet who foresaw Arthur's rise to power and return from death, the bastard son of an unknown king (some Arthurian sects, those most strongly influenced by Britain's early contact with Christianity, say that this first Merlin is the son of Christ), and the father or lover of the Lady of the Lake, Arthur's unconsummated lover who brought him beneath the waters when he died, where he rests until it is time for the Return. The other two women are, in most traditions (especially after the early period): Guinevere, whose marriage to Arthur unified the British Isles under one ruler; and Morgana, the mistress who gave him his only heir, his son Mordred who slew him in battle during the civil war which divided the kingdom once more.

Morgana has an uncertain place in the faith: some name her Arthur's true love, a pure woman cursed by an evil witch that her offspring might turn against his father; others a seductress who conspired to bear Arthur's child and usurp the throne; others Arthur's sister or half-sister, the emblem of his lust and fatal weakness which death has wrung from him.

Since shortly after the first millennium (the Christian calendar, dating events from the birth of Christ, remains intact in Britain until the 1500s, when a reform movement adopts a calendar 213 years behind the Christian one, based on a divinely revealed date marking the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere and thus the unification of the British Isles under divine rule: a day marked on calendars as the Pax Artoricus, but rarely celebrated), the title "Merlin" has been given to the leader of the Church of Arthur, a prophet with no clerical or parish-service duties but who acts as the voice of the Divine.

In most instances, the Merlin provides no guidance, because the world and the Divine do not speak to him; his authority is delegated to the Bishops in such cases. (Of course, there have been a number of Merlins who have abused their technical authority.) In times of great crisis -- the Second Defense, when the Normans invaded and the reigning Merlin proclaimed that they must be welcomed, that they could bring the word of Arthur the Risen King home with them; the Defense Extraordinary (more rarely called the Third Defense), when the British Isles came under the attack of a zealous Pope who had lost a Crusade and needed to prove the might of his Church; and so on -- the Merlin's pronouncements are legally and divinely binding, although the modern-day legal system has provided some strictures on the sorts of matters on which the Merlin can issue a legal opinion.

Merlins are considered "supernatural bastards," in the sense that the process of becoming the Merlin -- even in modern times, becoming Merlin requires a period of time spent in the Caledonian woods in isolation -- a man sheds any essence, any remnant physical or emotional, not only of his father but of the father of his mother. He is "a man made not from man," a man with a hollow into which the divine can breathe its voice.

The Risen King is the closest figure to a personal, personalized divinity in the Arthurian faith, although many sects revere -- and worship, their rivals sometimes accuse -- one or more of the deceased Merlins. The divine itself -- the god or gods, the creator of the universe and source of life and soul -- is considered indistinct and unknowable, and Arthurians have developed a strong distaste for religions which ascribe personalities, motivations, and desires to divine figures. Arthur is not an incarnation of the divine; he is not equivalent to, or offspring of, the divine; he is simply loved, adored, treasured by the divine.

Around the time that the position of Merlin becomes formalized -- and over the next few centuries -- the arts come to Arthurianity. While plays based on Arthur's famous battles and love affairs have been popular all along, now is the time when what will become the basis for Scripture -- The Book of Arthur -- is written. Geoffrey of Monmouth assembles a chronicle of all of Arthur's battles and the history of his kingdom, making a good many mistakes modern scholars eventually discover, but nevertheless providing a backbone to British identity for the next thousand years. Thomas Malory, whose patron is the Merlin, writes an epic poem focusing not only on the life of Arthur but on his loyal knights, repopularizing the cults of Galahad, Gawain, Bedivere, and others: Lancelot becomes especially revered among the Arthurians who have spread to France as the Merlin proclaimed they would.

This is a time of active self-definition for the Arthurian Church, as Christianity has become so powerful and expansionist that it's a constant threat, and the necessity of trading with the Continent -- particularly during the terrible famine, during which Basque salt cod quite literally saves millions of lives -- provides frequent contact with Continental/Christian culture. The writings of Malory, Geoffrey, and others are widely circulated, read aloud in church services, adapted and expanded into other stories (the various knight cycles enjoy regional popularity), and eventually -- under the Commission of King James I, who assumes reign over Scotland as well as England and sees himself as an Arthurian successor, uniting Arthuriandom once more -- collated into The Book of Arthur along with the early Merlin writings and other material (including the Biblical "Song of Solomon," supposedly whispered by Guinevere and Arthur one to the other on their wedding night, and portions of Beowulf).

Spreading the word of the king.

Possessing a text -- portable, translatable, something an interested party can study on their own without the necessity of a priest -- has several enormous, long-lasting effects on the Church.

1) As literacy grows -- first among the noble classes, but eventually among the middle and lower classes as well -- people begin to question the necessity of the priesthood. Most still admit to the need of the Merlin, but priests go through phases of unpopularity here and there. Reforms result in many places (this is the time when the calendar is redefined, as discussed above), generally aimed at limiting the ability of a priest to abuse his powers.

2) Scholastic, rigid study of points of Arthurian faith begins -- Malory himself, who spent time in prison with a former monk, is one of the early popularizers of such scholasticism, but the movement gains its real momentum when nobles begin sending their sons to France for education in Catholic-run schools (something made possible by a recent peace, favorable trade conditions, and the growing acceptance of the Arthurian faith in France).

3) When Arthurians encounter Muslims, they find themselves accepted after an insightful priest decides to proclaim that the first Merlin lived during the time of Christ: the Arthurians, therefore, have both a book and a prophet the Muslims can accept the validity of. Because they have no economic conflicts, and their borders are so far from one another, Arthurian-Muslim relations become so friendly that the British actually send the Moors aid when the Spanish expel them from the Iberian peninsula, and many Moorish scholars, bereft of patrons, relocate to the colder climes of the British Isles.

Over time, Arthurianity becomes more and more popular in non-British nations -- small pockets in southern Spain, larger ones along the coast of France, and for reasons no one's ever quite able to track down, a devoted and self-running sect in Finland.

Naturally, when exploration of the New World begins, Arthurianity travels there as well, although since there is no Puritan movement, British emigration is slightly more sluggish than in our world. By the time the Americans fight their Revolutionary War, there are only six British colonies in lower North America, and Canada has already been given to the French in its entirety; the Continental European nations control South and Central America and the western part of North America, as in our world.

Americans retain their Arthurian culture, and identify strongly with Arthur's efforts against Roman conquerors while fighting the British; because of their quick absorption of Dutch and French colonies in the north and Spanish colonies in the west, the United States is forced to identify itself as a secular nation, but amidst great controversy they nevertheless elect a Merlin of their own. Over the next few centuries and into the modern age, conflicts between the two Churches of Arthur -- the original with a state behind it, and the younger with a greater number of followers -- are occasionally serious, although the threat of violence (most recently in this world's analogue to the Cuban Missile Crisis) has outweighed its actuality.


The spread of the British, and the spread of Arthurianity, helps to assist in the sectarian development of the faith: the division, that is, of one faith into many compatible faiths, as with Judaism (with its three or four main approaches) or Christianity (which had at least a dozen sects long before Luther came along and birthed Protestantism). Some of these are separate Churches, although only the main Church of Arthur and the Church of Arthur of the Americas (the official title of what most people simply call "the American Church") have their own Merlins, and most others admit the authority of one or the other. Some of them are simply schools of thought. A sampling:

Theological nationalism proposes that because Arthur's prophesied Return will "bring Britain to glory," the divine clearly favors Britain above other nations, and imperialism, expansionism, and other forms of conquering are the right and proper thing to do. Not all theological nationalists are warmongers: Arthur won the loyalty of many a minor lord without ever raising a finger against him, so many TNs see the special challenge of Britain as the necessity of bringing the world under British rule without using force.

The Church of Arthur of the Americas tends to read The Book of Arthur more figuratively, since for cultural and political reasons it was for a long time impractical to consider Britain the most important place in the world. Stories of battles are either parables or dry history; stories about Arthur are as often as not example-stories about leadership, whether at the national level or the much smaller scale of being the head of a household. In the mid twentieth century, Arthurian television shows and movies aimed at children, with a simple "this is how you apply the logic of this story to your own life" moral explained at the end when the characters talked to the audience, were exceptionally popular -- and the stuff of ironic kitsch in later generations.

The Mordredians are another New World sect, popular in areas where the British had brief or truncated contact -- long enough to spread the word, not long enough to stick around and maintain a constant interpretation of it. Among Mordredians, most of The Book of Arthur is only preface: the real hero is Mordred, a divine trickster figure who through confusing circumstances was so sneaky he arranged for his own birth from the seed of the cruel king. They reject the authority of both Merlins, but see the Churches as misguided, not evil (mostly).

The Penitents are a Christian-influenced church who believe Arthur died because the world was imperfect and he couldn't withstand its imperfection; that he was seduced by Morgana, who with the aid of the Lady of the Lake appeared to him as his one wife Guinevere; that the Lady of the Lake conspired with Mordred to bind Arthur's body at the bottom of the sea, to keep him from returning; and that only when the world is perfected will he be allowed to return.

Women and Arthurianity. Women have a number of role models in the Arthurian faith, and for the most part the systematic oppression of women is less severe in Britain than on the Continent. Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, and Morgana go through different phases of popularity according to time and place. Modern-day feminist theology often focuses on the importance of the Lady of the Lake, whose relationship to the first Merlin is so strangely vague, and who, like him, lacks a name, going only by her title; it's increasingly popular to consider that the Lady of the Lake may in fact be the first Merlin.

There were female priests among some of the early Arthurian communities, and although this was frowned upon once the Church of Arthur became organized -- and in later years, some municipalities would refuse to acknowledge the validity of a marriage performed by a female priest -- there was no law against it. Female Bishops, however, have been exceptionally rare -- little more than rumor, in fact, until the eighteenth century when Titian became Bishop of Leeds on her deathbed, serving in that capacity for all of two and a half days, most of it unconscious. It was two hundred years before another female Bishop was appointed, and that was in the New World; although there are a handful in the American Church and the C of A's New World dioceses (Jamaica, Australia, et alia), Titian remains the only female Bishop to serve on the British Isles.

Theologically, the defense of sex-based Bishop appointments claims that an Arthurian Bishop should, in theory, be prepared to lead his diocese into battle when Arthur returns to lead Britain to glory. A woman, such traditionalists will claim, is less capable of such a thing. While this may in fact be true when speaking of medians and averages across the sexes, feminists and liberals point out that fewer than half of these traditionalists protest the appointment of the elderly or infirm to bishoprics (although some do, and some go so far as to propose a test of physical ability as prerequisite to assuming the mantle of Bishop). Some feminist historians and reconstructionists raise the question of whether perhaps there is precedent for female Arthurian warriors: with so many conflicting stories about Morgana, might she not have been a Knight of the Round Table herself? And if the Lady of the Lake was also the first Merlin, it's well known that she was a more than capable soldier in her youth, and a captain under one of Arthur's predecessors.

Now, as far as, you know, roleplaying games: none of the above dictates any particular campaign or campaign style. It assumes that the world of this alternate history is comparable to our own, and so as written it wouldn't adapt easily to a high fantasy campaign with dark elves and stone dwarves and plush dragon familiars. But certainly a low- or no-magic fantasy campaign (with no nonhuman races, or very few, all of them secretive and hidden) could work very well at several points along the history, perhaps focusing on a sectarian dispute, on the first contact with Muslims, or on the presence of Arthurians in the New World. My first inclination would be to use D20 for this, if only because I haven't read the new edition of GURPS yet. (But really, whatever system you like is the best system for what you want to do.)

A modern-day campaign might seem to lack some Arthurian flavor, but when you consider the popularity of Dan Brown's books, there may be room for a suspense/thriller campaign involving the discovery of some secret the Church has kept -- or, for that matter, a cloak-and-dagger conflict between the Catholic and Arthurian Churches, since one of the questions I don't fully address here (it would be a chain of maybes) is what the modern world would look like if Christianity had to share space in the western world with another territorial church.

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