Goirre, Gor, Gorre, Gors, Gourre
From the Vulgate we learn that this important though apparently small kingdom, the strongest of its size in Great Britain, borders on Sugales and is surrounded by water, the Tembre (Dark River) being its boundary toward Logres. It’s bordering Scotland from which it was separated by the River Tember. By the dictionairy, a gore can be a triangular peice of land, a promontory, or a wedge-shaped portion of a field.
We are almost certainly safe in assuming Sugales to be South Wales. In southwest Wales is a peninsula, the one including the city of Pembroke, which as a city named Tenby near where it connects with the mainland. I would make this peninsula the kingdom of Gore, or Gore could be the whole southwestern tip, comprising more or less the present-day county of Pembroke, with the city of Pembroke as Gaihom.
The above were Phyllis Ann Karr’s thoughts in 1982. Chrétien de Troyes, however, describes it as a wild northern kingdom, first featured in Lancelot. He clearly names Bath as one of King Bademagu’s court cities. This would place his land of Gore in the Bristol area, south of the Cotswolds, on the southern shore of the Bristol Channel, which would be the “arm of the sea” mentioned in the Lancelot. In the tales, it borders on North Wales or Scotland, and is surrounded by water.
Chrétien actually calls Gore “the kingdom from which no stranger returns”. Its bridges – the Water Bridge and the Sword Bridge – resemble the bridges to the Christian afterlife as described in such medieval eschatological romances as the widespread accounts of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory.
Chrétien’s translator D.D.R. Owen cites an explanation of the name “Gorre” as a corruption of Old French voirre (“glass”, suggesting an identification of Gore with Glastonbury – which is also commonly recognized as Avalon, where Arthur was taken after his last battle.
If one of Arthur’s knights entered it, only Lancelot could rescue him. How so many strangers managed to stray into a land accessible only by the Water Bridge and the Sword Bridge – the first has as much water over as under it, and no man before Lancelot ever crossed the latter and lived – remains unexplained, although we find many prisoners living in the marches of Gore, on the Logres (England) side of the perilous bridges. (Do the marches of Gore equate with Purgatory?) It also remains a mystery to me how the natives of Gore can exercise their right to come and go freely: by which bridge, for instance, does Meliagrant cross fully armed, on horseback, and later bring Guenevere and Kay, the latter on a litter, back to his father’s castle on the far side of the bridges? Lancelot’s success made Gore open for anyone, including the former prisoners, to come and go freely – again, how and by what (new?) bridges? Although it has otherwordly features, it may preserve a memory of the Celtic kingdom of Rheged.
Christopher W. Bruce writes in his ‘Arthurian Name Dictionary’:
In the tales, it borders on North Wales or Scotland, and is surrounded by water. It could only be entered by two perilous bridges: the Sword Bridge and the Underwater Bridge. Its inaccesibility lends it an otherwordly aura. Chrétien’s geography suggest an identification with Anglesey or the Isle of Man.
. . .
Attempts have been made to identify Gorre with the peninsula of Gower in Wales. It is more likely a corruption of “Glass”, either through the Welsh ‘gutr’ or the French ‘voire’. The Island of Glass is the realm of King Melwas, Meleagant’s counterpart in Welsh legend.
All in all, Lancelot’s rescue of Guenevere and the other prisoners looks very much like a secularized pastiche of Christ’s ‘Harrowing of Hell’. This is no way precludes the strong likelihood that it also derives from Pagan views of the Otherworld. This could help explain the strange atmosphere pervading Chrétien’s recounting of the episode, which may be a late version of a Pagan myth, but at the same time provides our first known account with Lancelot as hero and thus may well have been the springboard for later Arthurian retellings.
The Vulgate Lancelot gives a further rationalized and secularized history of Gore. Uther Pendragon warred against Gore’s first king, Uriens, hoping to subjugate the land, captured him, and threatened to hang him. Uriens’ nephew Baudemagus (or Bagdemagus) surrendered the land in order to save Uriens’ life. Uriens later reconquered Gore and gave it to Bagdemagus as a reward for his loyalty. After Bagdemagus’ coronation, Uriens retired into a hermitage. (Possibly that explains his wife Morgan’s independent castles and various lovers. Malory, however, has Uriens becoming a knight of the Round Table.)
Bagdemagus, in order to repopulate his war-wasted kingdom, established the custom of two bridges, the “pont desouz ewe” (bridge under water) of one beam, and the “pont despee” (sword bridge) of a single plank of steel. Each bridge had a knight guardian; everyone – knights, ladies, and others – who crossed either bridge was made to swear to stay in Gore until a strong champion arrived who could deliver them. Escades, the guardian of the pont despee, was succeeded by Bagdemagus’ son Meliagrant, a pround and evil-disposed knight who thought himself as good as Lancelot. Almost needless to say, Lancelot was the champion who eventually delivered the prisoners.
Elsewhere in the Vulgate, it appears that these prisoners were not confined in the territory on the Gore side of the bridge, but also resided in a largish area called the Terre Foraine (Foreign Land) before the bridges were reached (in Chrétien’s account, we find “foreign” prisoners living on both sides of the bridges). Except that they could not move away until freed by their champion, and that they wore a distinctive type of dress, the prisoners seemed to live comfortably and under no restraint save their parole. The Terre Foraine of Gore would be its marches, or borders.
I cannot imagine Chrétien’s King Bademagu ever becoming a knight or even a subordinate ally king of Arthur’s. Too much of the otherworld deity seems still to cling about Bademagu. The Vulgate’s Bagdemagus, however, despite the seemingly unfriendly custom of holding strangers prisoner, was later to become a companion of the Round Table and one of Arthur’s staunchest and most likable allies, which role we still find him playing in Malory.