A fishy tale

Zodiac Window (c.1220): Pisces

Avril Plaisantin The Salmon of Wisdom
March Hare Publications 2014

A few years ago I was crossing a car park with an acquaintance of mine. It was late evening; we’d just been at a convivial meeting discussing matters Arthurian and were in good spirits; and we just happened to glance to the north when we were virtually struck speechless, rooted to the spot. What we saw in the night sky was an inexplicably regular array of lights, moving extremely slowly west to east. They were equidistant from each other – about three fingers apart when I held my hand up – forming a network, a reticulation of about twenty-four points of light, not winking like stars but shining steadily like bright planets. We watched for about five minutes, saying little but the obvious, comparing notes, and then set off on our journey. We never spoke of it again. Well, would you?

I was reminded of this again when thinking about The Salmon of Wisdom, a strange little publication with some Arthurian detail which I recently came across. Confusingly written – it jumps around from point to point, as these self-published booklet often do – it contained a number of ideas, many of which I’d previously come across, plus a number of assertions, which frankly I would find argument with.

The author starts with a discussion of the Four-and-Twenty Knights at the Court of King Arthur, Pedwar marchog ar Hugain Llys Arthur as the original 15th-century Welsh has it, who each had “an innate peculiarity of achievement beyond other people”. She also cites older Welsh Triads which list Three Enchanter Knights and Three Skilful Bards, the latter of which include the poet Taliesin. She then embarks on a long discourse about the 16th-century Hanes Taliesin, translated into English by Lady Guest in the middle years of the 19th century. Here King Maelgwn asks Taliesin what he is and whence he came, and Taliesin tells him: “My original country is the region of the summer stars … I have been in the firmament with Mary Magdalene.” And so on and on, a boastful curriculum vitae similar to those which other bards, equally inspired, bigged themselves up. So far, so good.

Then the author sets sail on her main thesis, which is that Arthur and his contemporaries came, not from Wales or Northern Britain, but from “the region of the summer stars”. In other words they are extra-terrestrials. From the constellation Pisces.

What evidence does she adduce? Taliesin intones “I shall be until the day of doom on the face of the earth. | And it is not known whether my body is flesh or fish.” The author then brings in the many stories from Celtic myth about the wise salmon, the creature which swims from salt to fresh water to spawn, leaping cataracts and inhabiting pools fed by the hazelnuts of wisdom dropping into the waters. She especially mentions the story of Gwion Bach, an earlier incarnation of Taliesin, who, inspired by drops which have come from the cauldron of the witch Ceridwen, comes to know the past, present and future. He is chased by the furious Ceridwen, transforming himself into a hare, a salmon and a bird until as a grain of wheat he is swallowed by the witch in the form of a hen, after which he is reborn as Taliesin. Consigned to a river, Moses-like  in a basket, he gets rescued from a weir, fished up out of the water.

The author quotes other traditional tales from different cultures, such as the tale of Eros and Aphrodite who later transformed into the Pisces constellation. In particular she cites the common folktale about a magical wish-granting fish who indulges a fisherman’s greedy wife until the wife goes too far and the couple are returned to the penury from which they started. All the lore is marshalled to persuade the reader that aliens from the region of the region of Pisces came to Dark Age Britain to enlighten the natives. Two final pieces are designed to clinch the argument.

First is the well-known couplet from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain:
“A dozen times shall the sun sail across the sky
After the Fishes; then shall all be revealed.”
— Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Prophecies of Merlin
This she interprets as twelve days, not of Christmas, but following the end of the period ruled by Pisces: from February 19th to March 20th, the spring equinox.

This is followed by an edited archaeological report, which she commissioned, following the excavation of an artefact near the recently identified site of Llyn Llyw, on the Welsh side of the River Severn. On land owned by the author a Pictish-looking stone was unearthed with a salmon carved onto one face. On the other was the broken inscription TAL … SIN (though from the photograph the first few letters, to cut a long story short, look to me like TALL). The dried-up lake is where the oldest animal in the world, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, was to be found, the only creature to know where the god Mabon son of Modron was imprisioned and who could carry two of Arthur’s knights on his back to rescue him.

I said there were a lot of ideas and assertions in this short publication. What then are we to make of the quote from Daniel Defoe which appears as an envoi to The Salmon of Wisdom? Does this make us think twice about what has been presented?

Everything contained herein is true; save that the facts – bar one – have been changed. — Daniel Defoe

Originally published by Éditions Rigolo as Le Poisson Sagace, I can only presume the admirable translation has been done by the author herself.

13 thoughts on “A fishy tale

  1. OK, Chris, now you have to read Mapp & Lucia, especially Vol 5: The Worshipful Lucia, in which our heroine believes she’s discovered Roman ruins under her house in Rye.

    The quote from Defoe reminds me of Mary McCarthy’s comment on Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including *and* and *the*.”

    NB: I don’t know how I missed this last spring. I’m reading it now because of your recent (2015) comment to Colonialist. Will there be a sequel?


        1. Maybe it works because of time differences around the world? In NZ April 1st must be nearly over (and of course it’s the prankster who’s the fool if they try the prank after midday where they are…)

          Liked by 1 person

  2. To answer your last query first: definitely maybe. Will it become an annual feature? That’s probably possible. And will there be many readers who don’t spot the poisson d’avril? Perhaps that’s certain…


  3. Postscriptum: You will hunt in vain for the Defoe quotation, the Galfridian prophecy and Mlle Plaisantin’s book — I have the only remaining copy of her work from a limited edition. Except it seems to have got mislaid in the recent move. Ho hum.


    1. I used to be sent a fair few of these indigestible publications for review when I edited an Arthurian magazine, Lynn, so verisimilitude wasn’t hard to maintain! All the details are rooted in some aspects of Arthurian lore but twisted the way so many conspiracy theories are.

      Incidentally, the only absolutely true anecdote is the first one, a happening which I witnessed in 2009 at the very last AGM of the Pendragon Society near Newport, Gwent.


        1. I haven’t the faintest idea how to ‘explain’ it, Lynn, only to say that I probably fully experienced what true awe then — it went on for at least ten minutes before we turned away. In retrospect all I can compare it to is that visionary experience towards the end of ‘2001, a Space Odyssey’ except without the music by Ligeti.


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