By Wilson da Silva
SYDNEY – The entrancing mediaeval tales of King Arthur of Britain and his Knights of the Round Table, which have cast their spell over children down the centuries, may contain another story as yet untold, according to an Australian researcher.
Mediaeval scholar Joan Helm of the University of Queensland says she has discovered secret numerical messages interwoven throughout the tales which are easily seen once decoded.
“It hasn’t been discovered in 800 years,” said Helm via telephone from Brisbane, capital of the north-eastern state. “It’s going to take some time to rewrite the whole thing. But it isn’t hard once you see it.”
Helm first suspected patterns in the text when researching the Arthurian tales for a postgraduate thesis a decade ago. She is now two years into a government-funded project to unravel more of the hidden codes.
King Arthur and his knights appear in a series of fictional mediaeval romances loosely based on a British warrior chieftain of the fifth century.
In the most popular of the legends, Arthur became king by wresting the fabled sword Excalibur from a rock. Guided by the Celtic magician Merlin, he defeats rebellious princes and weds noble Guinevere.
With his knights, Arthur leaves Camelot castle and sets off on a quest for the Holy Grail, the goblet which legend says was used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper before his crucifixion.
It was after a battle with his nephew Mordred that Arthur, mortally wounded, passed to the island of Avalon. Legend says that he did not die but would return when needed.
The French author Chretien de Troyes who wrote the first Arthurian stories in the 12th century, derided those who retold the tales without understanding their deeper meaning, Helm said.
She found mathematical relationships throughout the legends -- relationships between line counts in the illuminated manuscripts and the ornate capital letters beginning sections, or mathematical geometric patterns in the designs described on shields.
The hidden numerical ratios, showing the existence of mathematical patterns in the workings of the world, challenged the views of the all-powerful church in the 12th century and so were communicated clandestinely among scholars in fiction, Helm said.
But the geometric sequences were lost as the stories were popularised and retold through the centuries. Many cannot be discerned without referring to the original manuscripts and the spatial relationships between the text and the ornate layout.
Helm described her research as breaking new ground in Arthurian studies, and said she is discovering new things all the time. “One geometric pattern, which had puzzled me, I recently found in Islamic architecture of the time.”
She said her research suggests hidden numerical meanings may have been widespread in literature of the time. “I don’t think it’s the mysterious isolated thing it was thought to be. I think it’s quite common.”
Helm has studied microfilms of the 12th century manuscripts kept in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris. She will now conduct more studies in Britain, France and the United States.
Helm, funded over three years by the Australian Research Council, recently gave a lecture on her work which impressed scholars at a conference on mediaeval numerical analysis in Canada, said another Queensland University mediaevalist, Keith Atkinson.
“It’s a new way of looking at the text of the legends, of looking at the manuscripts themselves,” Atkinson said. “It doesn’t change the way we look at the stories (themselves). There are just other levels of significance.”
“There is perennial interest in the Arthurian legends ... and people have found all sorts of things in many manuscripts of the period,” said Professor Ralph Elliott of the Australian National University.
“Numerology and number symbolism have always played some part in ancient texts. Look at the Bible and the importance placed on numbers there.”