Thursday, October 8, 2015

Congratulations--You're a Grail Author

When I started reading (or actually, finishing) a children's book series in July that dealt with British mythology, I didn't know I'd be spending a month's worth of blog posts writing my own version of the Grail story. It was completely unplanned, as my blog posts usually are. I found out, though, that I haven't been able to let go lately of what's sometimes called the Matter of Britain, a key part of which is the Grail literature. It's not all that surprising since I've never really gotten over my fascination with King Arthur, the Round Table, and the Grail that started around age eight. It only takes a little encouragement to reignite the spark.

From what I can tell, Arthurian studies is a subset of medieval studies (or possibly Celtic studies, depending on whom you ask), and Grail literature is a further subset of that, so it's sort of like that riddle wrapped in a secret rolled up in an enigma that you've heard about (apologies to Winston Churchill). My initial research into this area a few years ago showed me that there's a lot of controversy surrounding the "origins" of the Grail material. It's a fascinating subject, but the great thing about just trying to tell the story is that you don't really have to worry about who's right or wrong on all of that. There are many versions of the Grail story, and while there are common elements, there are so many differences between them that it's hard to say just what the "official" story actually is. There really isn't one, unless you consider Chretien de Troyes' version as a starting point (and he actually didn't finish his).

I really just thought it would be fun, considering all the different versions of the story that are out there, to put together my own narrative with all the parts I like and some bits of my own thrown in. Being completely ad hoc and spontaneous, it's certainly no more the cat's pajamas than any other version (and probably less so), but it did satisfy my yearning to tell a cohesive story, and more than that, to try to get at that most elusive idea of all--what is the Grail, exactly, and what does it mean?

What initially attracted me to the story as a child had something to do with this indeterminacy. Arthur's world, as I experienced it, had a mysterious quality that made it hard to pin down. While the setting had an ostensibly Christian background, there were supernatural elements that made it uncanny--wizardry, inanimate objects with a life of their own, strange beasts, magical occurrences, and an atmosphere both solemn and eerie. It didn't belong to the world of fairy tales exactly, but it seemed to hail from some long ago and far away iteration of medieval Britain, or at least a through-the-looking-glass version of it. There was nothing else like it.

Anyone familiar with the Grail story in any of its renditions would have recognized in mine such standard features as the Quest, the Grail Castle, the Maimed King, the Perilous Bed, the Chapel of the Black Hand, and the Loathly Damsel. I didn't necessarily order the elements in the same way or put them to the same use as other writers have done, being most concerned with just playing around and seeing what I could come up with within the broad outlines of convention. In other words, I did the same thing as everyone else and used artistic license.

To my own ear, my version picks up on some of the tragedy depicted in renderings such as Tennyson's, in which the Quest for the Grail, ostensibly begun as a high adventure, is actually the beginning of the unraveling of the Round Table. I initially thought Gawain's stay in the Grail Castle might be somewhat light-hearted, more in the spirit of Wolfram von Eschenbach's humorous telling, but as soon as Gawain encountered the lions in the vestibule, things started going in a different direction. I initially pictured the great hall of the Grail Castle as a more welcoming place, comfortable and luxurious, but then a monkey appeared on the candelabra and things took on a more haunted aspect. To be true to what I think of as the spirit of the stories, I had to adhere to a serious tone, though I found Gawain's (understandable) reactions to things to be sometimes humorous.

If you were expecting Perceval, Galahad, or Lancelot as the hero and wondered why Gawain is in there, that's easy. Gawain does appear in some of the traditional stories as a Grail knight, and I consciously settled on him because I wanted more of a workaday, everyman knight than a paragon. Given all the fantastic adventures he was about to encounter, I thought a more lucid, practical-minded character would be a better foil to the general strangeness than a saint would be. While Gawain is a fine knight, he is also a human one, and I wanted someone I could relate to, someone whose reactions I could understand. (This isn't necessarily the way I would have seen the story as a child, when all of the knights seemed much alike to me, but as an adult I tend to differentiate more.)

It was for that reason also that I left out the Siege Perilous, a motif that appears in some of the traditional stories in which the Chosen Knight, by reason of his superiority, is the only one who can occupy a certain seat in the King's Hall without coming to grief. I always liked the idea of this seat, which by some kind of magic is able to differentiate the true from the false (sort of like the Sword in the Stone can select the true king), and I thought about putting it in. I decided against it because in the end it seemed contrary to both the character of Gawain and the theme of my story, insofar as it has one.

Well, you might be saying, fine, but what about those things you didn't explain--like what did the running girl throw in front of the knight that caused the horse to stumble? What was all that about? (The answer is: I don't know, though maybe it'll come to me one night while I'm making dinner or mopping the floor. All I know is this was not a damsel who required rescuing.) Well, then, you ask, what about the Grail, huh? Did you, Wordplay, ever get around to saying exactly what that is?

As far as that goes, I'm not one of those who think a satisfying Grail story is a reductionist one. I will say that to me, the old myths and tales of the magical horn or cauldron of plenty seem to have a strong echo in the Grail, so that there is the idea of a mysterious source of abundance. It's obvious though, that this source of bounty, whatever it is, is tied to much more than just material plenty, seeming to be not only somewhat ambiguous in nature but also somewhat self-referential. If you're wondering how many times the Grail actually appeared in the story, and whether the cup in the Grail castle is the same Grail that appeared in Arthur's hall, I've got to say, those are some really good questions.

I thought I could tell the Grail story in one post, or at the most two, and was really surprised when it took four. I sat down to do each one feeling some enjoyment as the story unfolded but also the dread of someone who's taken on an ambitious project. It was dissertation time all over again! It seemed kind of brazen, to be honest, but I started it on the spur of a moment, and once started, it seemed best to go through with it, one of my motivations actually being to find out what was going to happen.

Somewhere along the way, I started thinking about the great Henry James, a writer whose labyrinthine prose both fascinated and infuriated me when I read him at an earlier stage of life. At the end of his novel The Wings of the Dove, one character says to another something to the effect of, "Well, let's just go back to the way we were before all this happened." And the other character says, quite simply, "We can never be as we were." I had that in mind as I wrote my ending, as something of that spirit of change seems to permeate the Grail story as I understand it.

As for Gawain, I hope he got a good dinner and a good night's sleep after his return, but whether he did or whether he didn't, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Gawain at Camelot

(Many versions of the Grail legend exist, with various authors each selecting and arranging elements to suit a personal interpretation. This is my attempt.)

Gawain's Further Adventures in the Wild; a Nap; a Return

As Gawain journeyed closer to Camelot, some of the blighted look lifted from the land. It no longer appeared barren, and the fields and trees took on the green of early spring, though the air was chill and few birds sang. Gawain made steady progress until early afternoon, when he stopped in a glade to let Gringolet rest, seating himself beneath an apple tree. He heard the sound of bees buzzing somewhere nearby; the glade itself seemed warmer than the open lands he had been passing through, and soothed by the warmth and the murmuring of bees, he fell into a light slumber.

As he dozed, a dream, or perhaps it was a vision, came to him, and he thought he was once again in the hall of Corbenic at night, with the shadows thick in the corners and a pale moonlight streaming through the windows. Before him, Gawain saw the bleeding lance of the strange procession he had witnessed standing upright of its own accord, the blood flowing into the cup that contained it at the base. Gawain saw no one in the empty hall, but he heard someone weeping. Then it was as if he had come back quite suddenly to himself, there beneath the tree, and there was the sound of a galloping horse fast approaching.

A maiden, very fleet, ran swiftly across the glade in front of him, pursued by a knight covered in black armor from head to toe. In the twinkling of an eye, she threw something behind her before disappearing into the trees, and the horse pulled up short, rearing and plunging. As the knight struggled to control the animal, Gawain sprang up with a shout and drew his sword in challenge. But then Gawain opened his eyes, and though he was somehow on his feet, the glade was as empty and quiet as it had been before, except for the droning bees, and though his hand was on his sword, he had not drawn it.

I've been drowsing, he said to himself, and it's time to move on if I'm to reach Camelot by nightfall. But he was troubled by his dreams, even as he readied Gringolet for leaving, and he remained thoughtful even when the glade was far behind, though the lands around him grew ever more familiar and he could almost taste Camelot sweetly on the breeze. And happy would he be to arrive there, in the place he had loved so long and well. And it came to pass, when at last he came out of a small wood to the west of Camelot and looked upon its white walls, graceful towers, and flying pennants, that it was but late afternoon, and he was in time for dinner.

Gawain left Gringolet to a bowing squire in the courtyard and hurried into the King's hall. As he entered, everyone turned to see him, and a hubbub arose as the court realized that it was Gawain returned safely to them; he was greeted on the left and right by the knights and ladies of the court, and Arthur himself rose to embrace him.

Arthur said to Gawain, we no longer have to wait this day for a marvel before sitting down, for now we have one in our midst.

Glad as I am to be among you again, Gawain said, I did not think to have produced such wonderment after only a few weeks' absence.

A few weeks? exclaimed the King. Why do you talk of a few weeks?

I thought it had been no more than that, said Gawain. How long, then, have I been gone?

Truly, it has been three years since we saw you last, Arthur told him, and we thought not to see you again at all. Have you been in the land of fairy, under some enchantment all this time?

That may be, said Gawain (who had heard of such things).

And now you must tell us about it, the King said, leading Gawain to his seat. But, just to show that they were not yet finished with marvels for that day, a commotion near the door brought everyone up short. As they all turned to look, a lady entered the hall on a mule, the seneschals, even including Sir Kay, having been quite unable to stop her. Remarkable as this was, her appearance was even more so, for though she had the form and bearing of a woman, her aspect was hideous. She had the furred face of a bear, the tusks of a boar, the ears of a salamander, and the eyes of a cat, though other than that she was rather fine.

A boon, she said to Arthur. I require a boon, if there is any courtesy in this court.

You have but to name it, Arthur said, and we will assist you in any way we can.

My name is Sovrentee, and my business is with this knight, she said, pointing a finger at Gawain. Though, she added, I doubt he will be pleased to learn of it.

Indeed, I will do what I can for you, said Gawain, if you will tell me what it is.

A little thing, a mere trifle, she said. I crave a kiss from you.

All the court gazed at her silently, knowing that the rules of knightly courtesy required Gawain to fulfill her request and also knowing that Gawain would abide by them, but wondering how he would bring himself to do it.

But Gawain did not hesitate, approaching her with a mannerly air and giving her the kiss she required. But though there were those in the room who might have expected--given the tales they'd heard--that this loathly damsel would suddenly metamorphose into a beautiful maiden after the kiss, no such transformation occurred. Gawain himself stood impassively, but many of those present held their breath to see what would happen next. What did happen was that the merest tip of the lady's snout, black and leathery, fell off, revealing what looked like a pinprick of human skin underneath.

The Lady Sovrentee looked at Gawain then and laughed, loudly and long. I didn't think you'd do it, she said to him, though little good may it do you. Then turning her mule around, without another word, she left the hall, and was never seen at Camelot again.

What means this? Arthur then said to Gawain. Do you know this lady?

No, said Gawain. Though by her manner, she knows us.

Does this relate to the adventure from which you have just returned?

I think, said Gawain slowly, that it bears on that, and also on the court, though it is only my opinion, and I wonder much at the appearance of this lady here today.

Well, what of your quest, then? said the King. Were we not told that the knight who undertook it would come back to explain to us the meaning of the Grail and its appearance in this hall?

Gawain then said, I can only tell you that though I may have encountered the Grail on my quest, it was not in the same manner as I saw it here in Camelot. Ah, me, what a rare gift it is, as I know now and have always known.

And it was only to say this that you have been kept from us all these years! exclaimed the King. Is there nothing more to this mystery?

Yes, Gawain said. It is in this wise: no one knight can achieve the Grail always and forever. You must let each of your knights go, as they wish, and one by one come back, or not, as the case may be, and tell what they have seen, if they are able, and willing.

All of my knights? Arthur said in astonishment. But you have been away for three years! If I were to let all my knights pursue this errand, it would empty out my court. It would break up the Round Table.

That's as may be, Gawain replied. But unless that happens, I fear the visit of the Grail in this hall will become but a fable, a relic, a riddle told by the fireside in ages to come.

But my court, said Arthur, my Round Table, which was established for the sake of honor, courage, and chivalry, and the doing of great deeds! If the Round Table is broken, we will lose all that we have struggled to achieve. Things must remain as they have been, or it is all in vain.

I fear, Sire, Gawain said sadly, that never again will things be as they have been.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the Waste Land

(Many versions of the Grail legend exist, with various authors each selecting and arranging elements to suit a personal interpretation. This is my attempt.)

Gawain's Sojourn in the Wild and What Availed Him There

It would not be true to say that Gawain had an uneventful journey back to Camelot. He had set out on his quest late in the month of May, in mild weather, but his return was accomplished through a land sere and barren, as if it were late in the year. All that had been green and fresh had withered, and chill winds blew the few dead leaves remaining in listless eddies along the ground. Gawain traveled for several days without seeing anyone, until late one afternoon he encountered a maiden sitting beneath a tree, cradling a dead knight.

Sir, she said, looking up at him. Will you give aid to one in distress?

Gladly, said Gawain. But what has happened?

I've lost my champion, she replied, and I would ask you to help me bury him decently.

Since there is nothing else to be done, I will, Gawain said, and together they buried the knight under the tree.

I charge you not to seek vengeance for the killing of my knight, the maiden told him, but to crave justice from the king when you return to Camelot.

That I will, Gawain said, though it seems little enough to do. Then they parted.

Gawain traveled for several more days without seeing anyone before taking shelter one night in a wayside chapel. The crumbling shrine looked abandoned but had candles burning inside, and Gawain stretched out on a bench, intending to rest there until day. Hearing a scuttling noise, he opened his eyes in time to see a white arm, clothed in black, reaching out to snuff one of the candles. Gawain sat up with an oath; at this, the arm flew toward him, attempting to grab his neck. Gawain struggled for several minutes to pull the arm off his throat, finally succeeding in seizing it by the wrist and flinging it with all his might against the wall. At that, it shriveled to dust and disappeared, and Gawain spent the rest of the night in peace.

Gawain traveled for several more days without seeing anyone before being caught in a storm one night, a wild tempest that bent the bare branches of the trees nearly sideways and almost blinded him and Gringolet with stinging rain. They were deep in the forest when this happened; branches fell all around them, the wind shrieked barbarously, and the lightning struck here and there among the trees, leaving charred remains that smoldered briefly in the downpour. Gawain had seen neither dwelling nor hermitage since entering the wood, which was knotted with undergrowth and vines that caught at him and tripped the horse.

A more desolate place Gawain could not imagine, and seeing no choice but to go on, they continued, as the storm seemed to reach even greater heights of ferocity with every step they took. Then Gawain thought he noticed a faint light, so faint and far away that it might have been illusory, and he dismissed it at first as a trick of the night and the storm. Although he paid it little heed and merely tried to find any way forward that he could through the undergrowth, the light, instead of disappearing, slowly became more definite. Whether Gawain turned aside to avoid a hanging vine or went out of his way to skirt a fallen branch, the light never disappeared, seeming to shine softly but steadily far ahead of him.

It may be, he said to himself, that there is after all some hermit who lives by choice in this wild place and will offer hospitality to one seeking shelter on such a night.

And although the thickets and branches appeared almost to conspire to drive him far off to the left and right of his chosen way (which was quite possible, since the wood was an evil place), the light never seemed to wane or grow dimmer, until finally, Gawain found himself at the edge of a small clearing, looking at a tidy stone dwelling with a shed attached. After leading Gringolet into the shed, Gawain knocked at the front door; hearing no answer, he tried the handle, and the door opened into a small but neat room, furnished with a sturdy bed, table, and chair. A fire burned in the grate, filling the room with the pleasant scent of aromatic wood, and the dwelling was warm and dry, though there was no one in it. The table was set for one, with a plate of meat and potatoes, and bread and cheese.

Gawain sat down and looked around for several minutes, listening to the rain and wind, and waiting to see what would happen. For it's unlikely, he said to himself, that anyone would be abroad for long in this storm, with such a shelter available. But although he sat until the fire burned low and he had to get up to add a log to it, no one came.

Finally, Gawain ate the food, and after adding another log to the fire, he lay down on the bed and fell asleep. When he woke up in the morning, the fire had burned down to embers, the cottage was still warm, and a sunbeam lay across the foot of the bed and the floor of the room. When he went out to get Gringolet, he saw that though the storm had left a good deal of wrack in the woods, the area around the cottage was clear, and a path led from behind the dwelling into the trees.

Thinking it just as well to take an open path after so many trackless days, Gawain went that way, riding Gringolet to the top of a small rise. He saw then that the forest came to an end a few yards past the bottom of the hill, and that beyond, the country consisted of meadows and small hills. Unbeknown to him, he had come in the night to the very borders of Arthur's lands, and Camelot lay a mere day's ride to the east.

To be continued . . . 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Good Day for a Grail Quest, Continued

(Many versions of the Grail legend exist, with various authors each selecting and arranging elements to suit a personal interpretation. This is my attempt.)

The Grail Castle: What Gawain Saw There and How He Sped

At the top of the stairs, Gawain paused in a vestibule. Ahead of him was a short corridor with a closed double door at the other end; to his left and his right, stony corridors, lighted only at the near end, stretched into darkness. Before Gawain could take another step, a low-pitched growling issued from both sides, and two enormous lions emerged from the dark, moving toward him as with one accord. Gawain waited as the lions advanced, their heads held low and eyes burning, until they reached the edge of the vestibule. The lion on the right snarled and bared its teeth, while the lion on his left stretched one paw into the antechamber--whereupon Gawain drew his sword. 

Though I would do no unnecessary harm to man or beast, he said, God knows, if you accost me, I will cut off your heads. As you will.

After a brief pause, both lions retreated into the shadows. Gawain, sheathing his sword, proceeded to the wooden doors, which opened noiselessly at his approach and closed with a thud behind him. In the spacious, high-ceilinged chamber in which he now stood, a throng of richly appareled people was gathered, talking together animatedly. They all turned to look at Gawain, though their conversation continued as before.

Couches and benches with embroidered cushions were scattered about; stone steps at either end of the room led to an upper gallery on the opposite wall. The few windows were high overhead and blank with night. Tapestries hung here and there, and the floor was covered with black and white marble tiles. In one corner of the room, a harpist was accompanied by a dulcimer, timbrel, and flute as a trouvere sang. From a hanging candelabrum in the center of the room, a monkey in vest and breeches swung, eating a pomegranate and eyeing the crowd with glittering eyes. In front of the fireplace, a crowned, gray-haired man, clad in robes edged with fur, reclined on a sofa, playing chess with a courtier.

At Gawain's approach, the gray-haired man raised his head and lifted a hand in greeting. Welcome, knight, he said. Welcome to Corbenic. I have a wound that troubles me, so forgive me if I do not rise, but such as we are, you see us. He waved his hand to encompass the hall. I am King Pelles.

Corbenic, said Galahad. Then I've come to the Castle of the Grail.

Yes, and just in time for dinner, the king said. I commend you on your alacrity. You were not hindered at the gate, I take it.

No, Gawain said, though I wonder at your keeping such a pair of greeters when a couple of strong watchmen would do.

One of our idiosyncrasies, said the king. You must indulge us. But now, dinner.

As he said this, the light in the hall dimmed and all conversation from the assembled ladies and gentlemen ceased. Soundlessly, they melted away into shadow; the courtier sitting with the king arose and disappeared with the others, leaving the game unfinished. The king motioned for Gawain to sit down.

No sooner had Gawain settled himself than a strange procession entered the hall, issuing from a set of steps half hidden in the corner beyond the fireplace. Foremost was a squire grasping the hilt of a broken sword with both hands, the shattered blade pointing straight up; he was followed by a damsel carrying the rest of the blade on a cushion. Next came a knight holding an upright lance that bled profusely from its tip, followed by a gentleman carrying a boar's head on a deep platter. Lastly, a maiden entered, bearing a silver cup that glowed with an inner light. Passing slowly and without expression in front of Gawain and the king, they crossed the dim hall wordlessly and disappeared.

As they did so, light sprang up in the room, and Gawain could see all the courtiers now seated at couches and tables set with gold and crystal. The tables were weighed down with everything from fish to nuts, and delicious aromas wafted through the hall. In front of the king, a repast had taken the place of the chessboard, and the king indicated that Gawain should serve himself first. Gawain found that, though it had been long since he had last eaten, he had strangely little appetite, despite the fabulous display in front of him. But after rinsing his hands and wiping them, he took some soup, potatoes, and a dish of meat.

Murmurs of conversation and strains of music reached Gawain from the assembly, though no one spoke to him. The king ate his dinner without comment, only looking over now and then at the courtiers gathered in his hall. Gawain noticed that despite his wound, which seemed to prevent the king from sitting up straight, he was strong in appearance. I hope, sir, he said, that your wound doesn't trouble you greatly.

Ah, said the king. You wonder, I guess, what sort of wound could keep a strong man recumbent. Self-inflicted, I'm afraid, and of a rather delicate nature.

A sporting accident, then? Gawain ventured.

It was a--ah--hunting accident, the king replied. It does not prosper me, but I've learned to live with it. No physician can help me with it, you see.

I'm sorry for that, said Gawain.

The king was silent then, and after eating enough for politeness' sake, Gawain spoke again, saying, sir, I wonder at the meaning of the procession in your hall of those carrying relics. These are hallowed objects, I presume, and the ritual has purpose.

Sir, said the king, you are right. I thank you for your consideration and your acuity. But let us not speak of it. It touches on my trouble, and my kingdom, and more besides. I would not have you sit at my table and listen to tales of woe all evening.

Soon after that, the king signaled to pages stationed at the edges of the room. All of the courtiers rose, and as they did, the lights went down once again in the hall, the music stopped, and the squire, the knight, and the gentleman of the procession appeared at the king's side, along with the chess player from earlier in the evening.

I bid you good night, the king said, and such hospitality as my hall affords. You are welcome to it. Then each of the four attendants lifted a corner of the couch on which the king reclined and carried him away. Gawain was then approached by the same maiden, remote and pale, who had earlier carried the silver cup. She now held a torch.

Sir, she said. I will light you to your room. Gawain followed her across the hall, noting in the torchlight that tables, couches, courtiers, musicians, and pages had all disappeared. In a chamber off the main room, plainly but adequately furnished, the maiden lit a candle, leaving it on a table. In the torchlight, Gawain could see that the bed coverings were figured with an intricate wheel-like pattern. The walls of the room were of thick stone, and the floor was of the same black and white marble as in the main hall. The room had two windows but no fireplace.

I will leave you now, said the maiden to Gawain. And fare you well.

Well, said Gawain. I hope so.

As this damsel retreated, Gawain noticed that an owl had perched in one of the windows. As he approached, it swiveled its head to look at him before flying away in a rush of wings. When Gawain looked out, he was surprised to see the faint outline of the causeway visible in the foaming sea below. For, he said to himself, I entered this castle from the opposite side, and there the causeway ended. It's a strange thing that it should now appear on this side, as if the castle had turned--though one hears tales of such things. Then he closed the shutters, got undressed, and climbed into bed, blowing out the candle.

He had no sooner lain down than came a sudden whistling noise, and out of nowhere a spear was flung hard at him. Though caught off guard, Gawain managed to catch it. Anticipating further attack, he leaned over to grasp his shield, which was propped against the table. He was just in time, for something heavy leaped at him with a snarl from another quarter, and though he tried to beat it off with the lance, he found it as much as he could do to hold onto his shield, so he threw the lance away. He then discovered that the bed itself was not stationary, but whirled about the room of its own accord, banging him against the headboard and the walls and making it that much harder to combat his unseen foe. For what seemed half the night, he fought the malevolent creature, whose strength never appeared to wane.

At last, Gawain saw an opening to use the moving bed to his advantage. As it twisted past the wall where his sword leaned, he reached out just as the weapon came within reach and snatched it from its scabbard. Striking at the creature, he elicited a blood-curdling howl as the blade hit home. His enemy, which he now saw bore the vague outline of a huge wolf, fled immediately. Gawain, exhausted but unhurt, lay back on the now unmoving bed.

It seems, he said to himself, that I have not come to a restful hostel. I will keep watch. Propping himself against the headboard, he made ready to spend the remaining hours until daylight awake. But his plan did not succeed, for sitting up in bed, with his sword in one hand and his shield in the other, he unknowingly fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

How Gawain Found Himself on the Morrow

When Gawain awoke at last, he lay for several moments with his eyes closed, unable to recall where he was. When at last he opened his eyes, he was no longer in bed, or even in the room to which he had retired. The room, the castle, the causeway, and all had vanished, and he was resting on a grassy dune near the sea, with his sword at his side and his shield covering him. His horse, Gringolet, was nibbling at the grass nearby. Gawain had awakened to a gray daylight world, and though he was dry, a heavy mist was on the land. 

Inspecting his shield, he saw that the creature he had battled the night before had not only gouged the shield with its claws but had left them embedded in it. On the other hand, it seemed wonderful to have fought a mortal combat and yet find no trace of it on his sword. For Gawain's sword was entirely clean, as if he had just polished it.

Looking out long at the sea, Gawain saw nothing but a featureless sky merging into empty waves.  After a time, he turned his back on the water and faced the land, which stretched out eastward in small hills tangled with gorse and trees. It seemed both colder and more desolate than he remembered it. No particular path recommended itself, but it was certain there was no going back to the Grail Castle--even if, he said to himself, one wished to prolong one's stay. Calling to Gringolet, he walked straight to the edge of the waste land, and pausing for a moment to grasp the horse's bridle, began to pick his way through the scattered shrubs.

To be continued . . .

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Good Day for a Grail Quest

(Many versions of the Grail legend exist, with various authors each selecting and arranging elements to suit a personal interpretation. This is my attempt.)

How Gawain Put His Impertinence on Hold and Took Up an Adventure

In the days of Arthur, it was the custom at Camelot to await the onset of a marvel before sitting down to Sunday dinner. One particular Sunday in spring, when it was raining, the King had almost decided to forgo his usual custom for that day, due to dampness, when a sudden breeze penetrated the hall, slamming all the doors and nearly blowing out the candles. A single beam of piercing light entered through a high embrasure, and a sweet odor filled the air with a wonderful fragrance. Before the astonished eyes of the court, a shining cup appeared, shedding a soft radiance through the silky veil that covered it as it wafted gently over the heads of all assembled. When the ladies and gentlemen looked at one another in the strange light, each appeared as his or her best self, astonishing in grace and comeliness.

Speechless as they were, each went quietly to his or her seat, wondering at the beauty evident now in every face. None of them had ever looked so fair! Silently, as the cup passed over each of them, all of the things he or she loved best to eat and drink suddenly appeared. Once everyone had been served, a crack of thunder and a sharp blaze of lightning occurred simultaneously, and the court was momentarily blinded. When they could see again, the cup was gone, but something of its soft light still shimmered in the hall, and the odor of rare and precious flowers and elixirs lingered delightfully.

Breaking the deep and profound silence, Arthur said, well, we have seen a marvel this day, for certain. I wonder if any assembled here can explain the meaning of this thing.

The king's bard spoke up then, saying, I have heard tell of a wonderful cup from the Otherworld, a Grail of plenty, but the stories, truly, do not do it justice, from what I have just seen. It is said that when the Grail appears, it heralds the start of a great quest, and those who make it their business to seek it will have many adventures. Yet few who seek it shall ever find it. It is a high quest, but perilous.

And the purpose of this quest? Arthur asked. For if any of my people were to undertake this adventure, I would have them know to what end.

It is said, sire, that the meaning only becomes clear to the one seeking, who may then return to reveal it to others. The appearance is a rare gift and carries no obligation, except for the one called to follow the Grail.

Gawain, who sat near the king and was known for his surly and outspoken disposition, surprised them all by saying, I have a mind to seek this thing, although I do not know the reason. I have not much use for nonsense, but this Grail has moved me. It's a thing I will never forget.

You, Gawain? said the king in surprise. I would have thought Perceval, or Galahad . . . and he gestured towards these two noble knights, known for their high-minded and spiritual natures. Yet neither of them spoke.

Yes, you doubt that I am the one for the job, said Gawain. But after all, an irreverent fool may be best suited to such a strange adventure and may succeed where the pious fail.

No one doubts your courage, Sir Gawain, but I would have thought that a more tender nature . . .

It is hard to say what one may encounter on the way, said Gawain, and they all could see that he was determined to go (and many in the hall that day, though they ate and drank all the good things gladly, were happy with all their hearts that someone else undertook the quest).

Two days later, Gawain, fully appareled as befits a knight, took his leave of them. All of the deep and winding ways he traveled would be a long tale to tell, though he encountered nothing out of the way for a knight used to deeds of errantry. (Truth be told, Perceval or Galahad might have fared differently, but Gawain was notoriously level-headed, and marvels tended to stay out of his way.) At the end of two weeks' ride, which took him well beyond the borders of the king's lands, he found himself at the edge of a sea, with a storm coming on.

Strange though it seemed, he descried many lights far out across the water, though in the darkness, he could not tell what they might signify. Stepping forward into the surf, he found the beginnings of a stone causeway beneath his feet. As the moon rose, he began to see the vague outline of a castle whose many windows glimmered through the rain. Climbing onto his horse, he set off at a gallop, hoping to reach the gates before the storm broke in earnest.

In that, however, he was disappointed, since no matter how hard he rode, the castle never seemed to draw nearer. On and on he went, with the rain in his eyes and the wind in his hair, with huge waves crashing across the causeway, almost as if they would wash it away before his eyes. Yet he rode on, never stinting, and after what seemed endless hours on the causeway in the howling storm, he at last discerned the gates. As he slowed his horse to a walk, he noticed a faint glimmer in the churning sea on either side. Looking down, it seemed to him that there were faces in the water, though, he thought, it might have been the merest fancy.

If Galahad were here, he said to himself, he would doubtless believe he had seen mermaids and mermen and even a selkie. I am not so sure that it isn't some type of sea creature, because, for certain, the light is bad, and being a landsman, the sea is strange to me. Perhaps it is what they call dolphins or some other fish.

Riding up to the gate, he gave it a hard knock with his fist, whereupon the metal grate rose and the wooden doors swung inward into a spacious forecourt with columns, hanging greenery, and a plashing fountain. The doors closed behind him immediately, shutting out the sounds of the storm. He might have been, he thought, at any richly endowed castle in Logres or Brittany. A squire came forward to take his horse, and Gawain climbed a set of wide carpeted steps toward a lighted doorway.

To be continued . . .

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Original Sin, or . . .?

There was an article in The Hill about a former U.S. congressman, J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, who defines the difference between Democrats and Republicans on the basis, essentially, of belief in original sin. He believes that Republicans think human beings are bad at heart, and that when bad things happen, it's often the fault of the individual--hence the Republican disinclination to extend help to the poor or disadvantaged, who, it is thought, should be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Democrats, on the other hand (says Mr. Watts), believe that everyone is born good, and that when bad things happen, it's often due to injustice or forces beyond the individual's control. For that reason, safety nets and assistance in the form of social programs are said to be necessary.

I think there's some truth in what Mr. Watts says (and some depth psychologists have identified competing archetypes behind many political disagreements, such as the arguments over health care, abortion, and national security). But I don't think his argument holds up completely. For instance, when you think about gun control, many (though not all) Republicans don't feel the need for stronger laws, and many (though not all) Democrats do. If people are basically bad, wouldn't stronger gun control be an easy sell for Republicans? And what about the fact that so many progressives (many of whom are Democrats) support the need for stronger regulation of corporations, corporate CEOs, and financiers? If people are essentially good, why regulate these people? And why is this an area where so many Republicans are against more regulations?

To me, this latter circumstance points to a more telling way of slicing the differences between "Democrats" and "Republicans." Differing attitudes toward money, economics, and power, at a time when wealth inequalities are very much a part of the political discourse (and much on the minds of most Americans), is, in my view, a crucial reason why there's so much stalemate in Washington. Those who believe that capitalism and market forces should be allowed to proceed unhindered and those who believe that they must be regulated to prevent money and power from being concentrated "at the top" have profoundly different worldviews. Arguments that focus on dividing people on dimensions of virtue and vice often obscure that important fact.

It's certainly possible for people of good will to disagree. The perception of many in the American public, however, is that, for a number of years now, the Wall Street bankers, the CEOs of major corporations, and their cronies have held far too many of the cards, and that politicians in general are no longer listening to their constituents in favor of these oligarchs. According to a poll done last year by the Pew Research Center, most Americans, despite considerable polarization of views, still want their government representatives to work together to iron out differences--but this is what we fail to see happen.

I've read recently that some policy proposals regarding taxation and other matters, now considered wildly radical and progressive, were actually in line with the policies of self-respecting Republicans a generation ago, proving that political policy is not as set in stone as it sometimes seems. By the same token, I believe that many Democrats (though not all) who espouse the "traditional" Democratic platform of workers' rights, equality, and social welfare actually do not serve these interests, having moved their allegiances from the middle and working classes to the wealthy and powerful. They just don't acknowledge that this is what they've done.

Is there a solution to all of this? Maybe less attention to the issues that divide us and more to the ones so many of us agree on would be the place to start. If voters let their representatives know their priorities and their interest in keeping power in the hands of the people, where it belongs, politicians can't say they don't know where the public stands. Too much of the conversation seems to be driven by the forces at the top; let's hear from the American people.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Blessing on the Road

Last week, I wrote about the imaginative possibilities of walking. I know the area surrounding my home intimately as both a walker and a driver, and this past week has ushered in a new era for those of us in south Lexington: a major connector road, closed all summer, has reopened, newly realigned and boasting not one but two rotaries. Rotaries are relatively rare around here (I know of one other in town), and I was curious to see how people would take to them. So far, everyone seems to be taking them cautiously but in stride.

I set off down the road myself the first day I saw it open, and it was a bit like a circus (no, really, a circus) to come upon the first rotary, bristling with crosswalks and traffic signs where there used to be a simple four-way stop. At the old intersection, there was one crosswalk, not clearly demarcated, and it was always a question when you were on foot whether the driver would stop (or even see you). Navigating the rotaries takes a little attention, so it does require drivers to slow down. If you're making a left turn from either of the rotaries, your semicircular sweep is a little like a twirl on a carnival ride, with the caveat that you may have to stop.

Work on the street took all summer, starting in May, and I remember the first time I crossed the newly closed road on an evening walk. The familiar pavement was simply gone, leaving a dirt road leading off through the low hills into the middle distance. In my reading lately, which has focused on Celtic mythology, there's a lot of emphasis on shapeshifting, mythic events impacting the shape of the land, and the existence of an Otherworld often contiguous with the everyday one. My first glimpse of that formerly busy road suddenly transformed (almost overnight, it seemed) into a dirt track gave me a little of the feeling of all three phenomena rolled into one: the same familiar hills and trees, the same sky, the same buildings were there, but--poof!--the road had vanished. What was once suburban now looked like the country, and I hadn't had to go anywhere.

Now, I have to say I haven't encountered any even remotely Otherworldly beings all summer (though I have seen a few mortals who may have gone astray on their way home from the pub). No Sidhe, no bards, no supernatural warriors, nor even any wandering knights, magical horses, or enchanted deer. But I'll always remember the day I crossed the street and the road was gone, giving me a quick glimpse of what the area might have looked like before there were any roads (though I bet there were more trees then as well).

It's ironic that this brief, bucolic experience came about as a result of progress; new dorms and a big new parking lot have brought more people to this side of town, and the old road was no longer adequate to serve the increased traffic. But actions sometimes have unintended consequences, as may happen when you tear down a road to build a new one and shift the view temporarily. As to whether all the new bustle in the neighborhood has bothered the Sidhe, if there are any about, I'm not really sure. I believe some people think that they don't like busy places and lots of people, but if my understanding of their essential nature is correct, they're not likely to care one way or the other. If they did, you'd be the one discommoded, not them.

May the road rise to meet you. Oh, no worries, it already has.