In which The Author displays his romantic side
A couple of months ago I wrote about my appreciation of the books of Peter Ackroyd (see Limehouse Blues and Twos
). I mentioned that it was partly sparked by my discovery in Aberdare Library of Geoffrey Ashe’s book Camelot and the Vision of Albion
, back in the late 1980s. That led me to the poetry of William Blake, and thence to Mr Ackroyd’s biography of Blake, and thence to his fiction.
Needless to say, the particular book which fired my interest has long since been deaccessioned. However, a quick search of the library catalogue turned up another of Mr Ashe’s books, the revised edition of The Discovery of King Arthur. It wasn’t held at Aberdare, but I requested it anyway and a couple of days later it was ready for me to collect.
I won’t attempt to summarise the main thrust of the argument here. Suffice it to say that Mr Ashe is a leading authority on the Arthurian Tradition in literature and folklore. In his long career, he has done a phenomenal amount of research in assembling the evidence for his case. In two hundred pages of densely-argued ideas, he argues that a historically-attested Romano-British ‘high king’ named Riothamus may have been the real person around whom the stories of King Arthur developed.
As a child I was fascinated by these tales of magic, chivalry, bravery and sacrifice which have been handed down through countless generations. I’m fairly sure I must have had a Ladybird book about him when I was very young, and my imagination was sparked then. I acquired some other books which featured Arthurian stories when I was a bit older, including a Puffin paperback called Welsh Legends and Folk Tales. I remember buying that one in Graham Ewington’s old shop in Aberdare; it was a re-telling by Gwyn Jones of The Mabinogion, with some other stories after the main narrative. In school we’d all learnt the story of Gelert, the faithful hound who was accidentally killed by his master. That story was in there. Also included was a story called ‘Where Arthur Sleeps’, which I’ll come back to presently.
When I was about fifteen, and in the midst of reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s books for the first time, I bought his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from Lear’s Bookshop in Cardiff. That was my first encounter with the authentic voice of the Arthurian Tradition, and it was partly responsible for my interest in Middle English, which was revived three decades later at university. (I never went down the route of reading T. H. White, though, which on reflection is probably a good thing.)
In spite of this, I continued to follow the research whenever I got the opportunity. If I came across a book on King Arthur, Merlin, the Round Table, the Grail Quest, or the subsidiary branches of the Arthurian Tradition, and if I had enough cash on me at the time, I usually made a point of buying it. I wouldn’t say that I was in any respect an expert on the subject, but it’s held a lifelong fascination for me. After all, even in this hard-nosed rational age, who can fail to be entranced by the chronicles of the once and future king?
Once and future king? That’s the most tantalising aspect of the whole story. The mystery of Arthur’s burial place continues to vex scholars of the subject. According to most versions of the story, Arthur’s mortally wounded body was taken to the Isle of Avalon after his final battle. But it doesn’t end there. The Arthurian Tradition dangles the possibility that the king and his knights are merely sleeping, and will ride again to rescue Britain in its darkest hour.
Mr Ashe’s book mentions several variations on the ‘Where Arthur Sleeps’ story – some of which don’t involve actually Arthur at all. Indeed, he tracks the archetypal notion of a sleeping king in a cave back to Plutarch’s book The Silence of the Oracles, and an identical story which was told of Cronus, the father of Zeus. There’s a similar tradition about the fate of the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa. However, here’s Mr Ashe’s version of the story which I first read in Gwyn Jones’s book over thirty years ago:
At Craig-y-Ddinas in the southern Welsh county of Glamorgan, a Welshman is said to have been shown the cave by an English wizard. A bell hung from the roof of the entrance passage. Arthur and his knights lay asleep in a circle, awaiting the day when they should wake up and restore justice and peace throughout Britain. In the middle were a heap of gold and a heap of silver. The wizard told his companion that he could take whatever he could carry from one heap or the other, but not both, and that he must be careful not to touch the bell as he left. If he did, and it rang, one of the knights would wake and ask if it was day, and then the only thing to do was to reply, ‘No, sleep on.’ The Welshman took gold, so much that he walked clumsily and blundered against the bell. A knight woke and asked the question, and he gave the answer and escaped. The wizard warned him not to squander the gold. Needless to say, he did squander it. He returned to the cave for more, made the same mistake and forgot the formula. More of the sleepers woke. They gave him a beating and took back the gold. For the rest of his life he was poverty-stricken and infirm from the beating, and could never find the cave again (Ashe, 2003: 162).
Apparently you can hear variations on this theme in the Scottish Lowlands, Cheshire and Yorkshire, but the main reason why I found this story so interesting when I was younger is this: there’s a place called Craig-y-Ddinas not far from where I live. It’s near the village of Pont-Nedd-Fechan, a couple of miles from Glynneath. There are numerous caves in the area, and part of me wants to believe that King Arthur and his knights are sleeping beneath the hillside somewhere.
Towards the conclusion of his book, Mr Ashe writes this:
Arthur’s immortality means that the golden age of his kingship is still somehow ‘there’ and recoverable – like the pristine apostolic Church, like unspoiled humanity, like Gandhi’s ideal India. Which is one reason at least why the spell can take hold at subconscious level. He can return, after a fashion, through research and the works of imagination. His Britain can resurface, after a fashion, through archaeology.
Does anything lie beyond that? Could anything happen which would seem to fulfil the prophecy, and reinstate the Arthurian reign? The question sounds absurd. Yet, while the Camelot mystique of the Kennedy presidency was only a fanciful transfer of the image, it proved how potent the image could be, even in politics. Henry VII posed successfully as the king through whom the prophecy would be fulfilled, and an Arthurian movement might be possible today if its chiefs could hit on a formula – witness the Nazi use of Wagner and the Siegfried mythology. It is easy to conjure up an alarming picture of a latter-day leader being proclaimed as a new Arthur, even as Arthur reincarnate, and attracting influential and sinister mystics promising their own brand of golden age (Ashe, 2003: 201-2).
This image of some far-right political group jumping on the Arthurian bandwagon might seem far-fetched. However, about twenty years ago I remember a far-right organisation which sprang up called ‘the Third Way’. (Don’t confuse this with the neo-liberal philosophy of Professor Anthony Giddens which was such an influence on the New Labour project.) They seemed to be quite active in Cardiff, and used the symbol of the Celtic Cross on their literature and stickers.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that the person behind them was Patrick Harrington. Older readers might remember this odious character, whose membership of the National Front while he was at the North London Polytechnic in the early 1980s led to widespread protests both on and off campus. If any neo-Nazi grouping was going to try and capitalise on a mythic tradition of a ‘British’ island – some imagined idyll dating back to before the Germanic tribes arrived, never mind all the other various peoples who’ve settled her since – it would have been those idiots.
But Mr Ashe leaves us with a note of hope, in the appendix to his book:
Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, the eminent genealogist … referred to ‘British high kings of the fifth century’ who were very possibly related to present royalty, ‘among them probably King Arthur’. Sir Iain was thinking of the royal family’s Welsh line of ancestry, which goes back through the Tudors to King Maelgwyn of Gwynedd and through him to Cunedda, overlord of Wales in the early fifth century. Cunedda’s descendants are said to have included various princes and princesses who would have been cousins of Maelgwyn. One family tree credits him with a daughter Gwen, and Gwen with a daughter Ygerna, who was Arthur’s mother. Even if this is right, of course, it fails to bring Arthur close to the royal line traced through Maelgwyn. As an ancestor of the House of Windsor, he looks very collateral indeed. What might be asked is whether he had issue himself, from whom another line might be traced, making Elizabeth II a direct descendant (Ashe, 2003: 203).
Mr Ashe follows this line of reasoning through the maze of the historical literature, and comes to an intriguing conclusion. By drawing connections between several historically-attested figures and his favoured contender for a historical Arthur, he leaves the way open for a crowned head of a united Britain to claim descent from Arthur himself.
Mr Ashe concludes with this tantalising speculation:
Prince Charles’s son, whose ancestry Sir Ian Moncreiffe examined, is named William. But his second name is Arthur, and he could elect to use it instead. Appropriately? I see no harm in indulging this fancy, so long as no genealogist makes too much of it (Ashe, 2003: 207).
It could be argued that this country is going through extremely dark times at the moment. Through the direct actions of this unelected government, tens of thousands of citizens are left without money, without food, without medical care, without education, and without hope. After the Second World War, when ‘austerity’ was very much the order of the day, the government managed to introduce a system of universal health care and social security for everyone, regardless of class or creed. That system is being dismantled daily, as the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat henchmen pursue their ideological goals to their logical conclusion. My friend Graeme Beard (see No Future
) has often commented that there is ‘a cull in progress’ in this country. What happened to the disabled and the disadvantaged in Nazi Germany is happening here – not to the same extent (yet!), but with the same results. It’s Britain’s new dark age.
Both Prince Charles and Prince William have shown themselves to be compassionate and decent human beings. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that both of them have ‘Arthur’ as a forename. The young prince and his glamorous queen-in-waiting, in particular, have the potential to update the role of the British monarchy and revitalise it for the Twenty-First Century.
If ever there was a time for King Arthur to return and, pace Mr Ashe, ‘restore justice and peace throughout Britain’, surely that time is now. Maybe a new King Arthur would take the notion of ‘service’ which was enshrined in the Grail Quest, and rescue Britain from this new Dark Age into which we seem to have plunged while nobody was looking. It might be just an idle, idealistic fantasy, but everybody needs a dream, don’t they?
ASHE, G. (2003) The Discovery of King Arthur. (Stroud: Sutton.)