The legend of Melusine has long fascinated people, although it is less well-known today than in the past. For centuries royal and noble houses tried to claim lineage from the fairy Melusine, although their reasoning for why has never been exactly clear. More interesting to Arthurian scholars and enthusiasts is how Melusine has been linked to the Arthurian legend.
For those who don’t know Melusine’s story, here is a summary of the legend as it appears on Wikipedia:
Elynas, the King of Albany (an old name for Albania), went hunting one day and came across a beautiful lady in the forest. She was Pressyne, mother of Melusine. He persuaded her to marry him but she agreed, only on the promise — for there is often a hard and fatal condition attached to any pairing of fay and mortal — that he must not enter her chamber when she birthed or bathed her children. She gave birth to triplets. When he violated this taboo, Pressyne left the kingdom, together with her three daughters, and traveled to the lost Isle of Avalon.
The three girls — Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne — grew up in Avalon. On their fifteenth birthday, Melusine, the eldest, asked why they had been taken to Avalon. Upon hearing of their father’s broken promise, Melusine sought revenge. She and her sisters captured Elynas and locked him, with his riches, in a mountain. Pressyne became enraged when she learned what the girls had done, and punished them for their disrespect to their father. Melusine was condemned to take the form of a serpent from the waist down every Saturday. In other stories, she takes on the form of a mermaid.
Raymond of Poitou came across Melusine in a forest in France, and proposed marriage. Just as her mother had done, she laid a condition, that he must never enter her chamber on a Saturday. He broke the promise and saw her in the form of a part-woman part-serpent. She forgave him. When during a disagreement, he called her a “serpent” in front of his court, she assumed the form of a dragon, provided him with two magic rings, and flew off, never to return.
What fascinates me about the legend is two-fold: the fact that Melusine is a fairy who grows up in Avalon (did she know Morgan le Fay and King Arthur?) and how royal lines, including the House of Lusignan, and their descendants, the royal family of England, claim descent from her–why want to be descended from a cursed fairy?
Recently, I discovered Manuel Mujica Lainez’s novel The Wandering Unicorn (1965). More than just a retelling of the Melusine legend, Lainez tells the story in first person from Melusine’s viewpoint but quickly sums up the known story in the first few pages. Rather than a retelling of the story, Lainez continues Melusine’s tale. Tired of hanging around the castle of Lusignan and being invisible, Melusine decides to accompany her strikingly gorgeous descendant Aiol (a fictional character to the best of my knowledge), on his quest to find the lance that pierced Christ, reputedly hidden somewhere in the Holy Land. The novel takes place during the time of the Crusades, and for those familiar with the movie, Kingdom of Heaven(2005), it basically recounts the same events surrounding the reign of the Leper King, Baldwin IV, his death, and the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin.
Today, the novel is a bit hard to find but used copies can be bought online. Some reviewers at Amazon have complained that it’s slow. I admit it isn’t an action-adventure novel or even one fully rich on character development, other than Melusine’s character. It reads less like a novel than an old-fashioned French romance or chronicle, with a touch of magical realism. In most of the narrative, Melusine describes what she sees since she is invisible and cannot interact with the other characters. Later, she is granted her request by her mother to be made human–only to be tricked by being transformed into a man so she cannot possess Aiol, whom she is crazy in love with. But Lainez’s prose is musical and magical, and his research into Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the 12th century must have been extensive for Lainez knows the gossip and autobiographical details (some of which I’m sure he makes up) for many of the key and minor players in the politics of the Holy Land during the Crusades.
I found The Wandering Unicorn a fascinating novel, and I can’t say how thrilled I was to discover it because as many of my readers know, my book King Arthur’s Children was written as a form of research into the legend and background for the series of novels I am currently writing about King Arthur, in which I plan to carry King Arthur’s descendants up to modern times, and I have long planned to have both Melusine and the Crusades play a role in those books, so it was fascinating to me that nearly half a century ago, someone else had the same idea. And why not? If Melusine grew up in Avalon and did know King Arthur and Morgan le Fay, how could she not be a significant character in the aftermath of events that happened following Camlann? If Morgan le Fay can show up in the Charlemagne legends, why not Melusine? Even one of my other favorite literary characters, the Wandering Jew, makes a cameo appearance in The Wandering Unicorn. What’s not to like?
It may be years before I finish writing my own novels and creating a new story for Melusine, but she leaves much room for imaginative possibilities; she has definitely become one of my muses, and as one of her descendants (through my descent from the Plantagenets), who can say that she is not guiding me to retell her story? I hope to post more about her in the future. Meanwhile, I encourage people to read Coudrette’s late medieval work The Romans of Partenay or of Lusignen: Otherwise known as the Tale of Melusine and Lainez’s fascinating The Wandering Unicorn. As Melusine herself says in The Wandering Unicorn:
“My name is Melusine, which should tell you all you need to know. But alas, at present it may not be enough. Indeed, what is enough these days, when students have to absorb so much abstruse and futile information that they have no time left for the fundamentals?”
Melusine’s legend is definitely one of the fundamental great legends of Western literature. Explore it.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com