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Caitlin and JohnMatthews:
An Appreciation.

In this issue we review several books by Caitlin Matthews and by John Matthews. They are extremely prolific writers, producing between them around six books a year, in addition to editing. Their special interests are both in the Celtic aspects, though they also write about other parts of the Western Mystery Tradition. The books vary in style, some (such as their titles in the Elements of … series) being for beginners, and others being mostly for those who are already deeply involved in the Mysteries, but all are good. In addition to their books, they hold occasional weekend workshops, and give presentations at various pagan events. To manage all this, and to bring up a small child as well, requires a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. In fact, ‘enthusiasm’ probably applies in its literal sense, as it is hard to see how they could keep up this work without being possessed by the tutelary spirit of these islands. (added 2005 — see also Encyclopaedia of Celtic Myth and Grail review). John and Caitlin’s website, which includes details of their newest books and their courses is at http://www.hallowquest.org.uk)

Caitlin Matthews. Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain.
Arkana £6.99.

The Goddess of Sovereignty lies behind many of the female characters of Celtic myth and story. But she often goes unrecognised because her memory has been almost lost. Her attributes and stories have been transformed, and she now appears as a mortal or fairy woman. She is the one by whose decisions and goodwill all true kings reign, and she will transfer her support if the king fails to act for the benefit of the land. Starhawk's marvelous Truth or Dare is very critical of the notion of kingship; I was not entirely happy about her criticism, and on reading Arthur I realise that Starhawk is writing of the king without Sovereignty, and that she does not recognise the possibility of a king who is a champion of the land and its sovereignty.

Caitlin Matthews studies these transformations in the lesser stories of the Mabinogion, with frequent references to other tales, both from the Irish tradition and from related Arthurian stories. Her argument is complex, as she has to make frequent comparisons between different stories: She also has to indicate where an apparently simple story hides a deeper reality. This is not at all an easy book to read, but it contains treasures for the serious reader.

This book is in part a sequel to Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain. While it can be read independently, I would recommend readers to look at this book only after they have read and assimilated the discussion in Mabon.

John Matthews. Gawain: Knight of the Goddess.
Aquarian Press £12.99.

This is a much easier book to read than Arthur. This is largely because John is able to focus on one character, and the stories surrounding him, whereas Caitlin has to pick out related themes from many different stories.

By the time of Malory Gawain is presented mainly as a contrast to Lancelot, but in earlier stories he is the principal character, Arthur's heir and the best of Arthur's knights. He is essentially a pagan character, and this change is associated with the change from paganism to Christianity.

Of the various tales about Gawain, two are outstanding. They are Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnall (more familiar in its debased version as Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale). Both of these show Gawain in relation to the Goddess in two of her aspects. In The Green Knight these are Lady Bercilak, who tests him and gives him a magic girdle, and an ancient ugly woman who is later revealed as “Morgan the Goddess”, the instigator of the Green Knight's challenge of the Beheading Game. In Ragnall she is seen more directly as the Loathly Lady who later transforms, because of Gawain’s devotion to and respect for her, into a beautiful woman. As Caitlin points out in Arthur, this transformation is typical of the Goddess of Sovereignty. Gawain’s devotion to woman, which in later tales is presented as lechery, is in earlier ones a form of his devotion to the Goddess.

This is an important book, complex but readable. I feel that the stories of Gawain are a helpful strand in the development of modern men's mysteries. The concept of knighthood is one of the ways to reconsider male bonding and initiation. But male bonding (as can be seen both in reality and in some of the stories) can easily be oppressive, both to women and to other men. A clue to avoiding this can be found in the character of Gawain. As John points out, he is not just any knight, but is very clearly the Knight of the Goddess.

Rachel Pollock and Caitlin Matthews (eds.) Tarot Tales.
Legend Books £5.95.

This is a collection of stories in the creation of which Tarot cards were involved. Some of the stories use Tarot themes, but others used a layout of the cards to suggest a plot. Each story comes with its own Tarot layout illustrated, with different packs being used for different stories. Those readers who are keen on the Tarot will find it interesting to discover what aspect of a story has been suggested by a particular card. All readers will find in this book an enjoyable collection of fantasy stories, some with a deep resonance, by several well‑known fantasy writers.

Prudence Jones and Caitlin Matthews (eds.) Voices from the Circle. Aquarian Press £6.99.

The pieces in this book are a collection of accounts, by followers of different European and North American pagan traditions, of their experiences of these traditions. This makes a refreshing change from the many books which present a tradition as if it were the only one, and which do not give any indication of the feelings of the participants.

The approaches are quite varied. I was most taken by the article by Beth Neilsen and Imogen Cavanagh and by Felicity Wombwell, perhaps because they are friends of mine. I was surprised to find that some of the pieces, by well‑known and respected people, left me with a feeling that they were not talking about reality in any of its forms. As an example, an initiation is described in which someone takes the name Hermes, and is questioned in the words “You take the name of the Lord of Knowledge. Is it knowledge that you seek? You take the name of the Lord of Wisdom. Is it wisdom that you seek?” My reaction to this is to wonder what the Lord of Thieves and Commerce had to say about his name being taken.

Other readers may well resonate to totally different articles. The book, with its personal accounts from many traditions, is highly recommended.

Wood and Water 32, Summer 1990
© Daniel Cohen

 

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