I am weary.
Who would attack these cliffs? The land is rugged and untameable as if dragons’ scales stud the turf, the castle has erupted from the rocky ground as grey and cruel as winter skies.
And yet we must ever be on guard. Whenever there is something to trade, there is threat.
Behind me the seas boil. Ships come and go: traders, adventurers, thieves, invaders. The kings of Eire and princes of Cymru send envoys with marriage contracts. Strangers from unimaginable lands of heat and drought beach their ships in the icy drizzle, wrapping their silken finery up in woollen cloaks, bringing fine pots and jewellery to trade for tin and silver.
This sword – this sword is weary too.
Is this the sword which was welded in stone? That rose from a lake? That lies in hands slumbering beneath the cold English soil ready for the final battle?
Or is it the sword of the mystical adviser, stained with the blood of unearthly dragons and rusted with subterfuge?
Or is it the sword of the love-lorn betrayer, about to be cast down and exchanged for a hermit’s staff?
I am weary. Behind me is the far west, the wild sea, the setting sun, rumoured lands just beyond the horizon. The wind blows around me and the rain drives or the sun burns but I care not.
Whoever I am, whatever is my sword, I have seen enough to long for peace.
I grew up on King Arthur, both in his usual medieval guises and his perhaps more plausible Romano-British or pre-Roman British personas through books like “The Sword in the Stone”, “The Crystal Cave” and “Earthfasts”. The story is endlessly fascinating, perhaps because like all good stories, with or without any magical element, it is universal. An unlikely king, a mysterious adviser, a duplicitous half-sibling, a treacherous wife, a betraying best friend, civil war, the hope that the wisest, most honourable king sleeps until his people need saving once more. It’s a sad tale but at its heart, with the exception of the last part, quite plausible.
The Arthurian legends are generally portrayed as medieval and despite no evidence of any connection, thanks to the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, the sentimental Victorians and subsequently Hollywood, King Arthur is now firmly associated with the chivalric code.
Chivalry. Nowadays we associate it with men opening doors for women and walking on the outside of the pavement. The concept of medieval chivalry however, is hogwash.
There was indeed a chivalric code in the middle ages but it really only applied to nobles and to men. Any obligation for a man to respect a woman had a number of get-out clauses. Her best hope was to be noble and/or very rich and preferably locked up. If a woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time, unprotected, argumentative or simply poor, gentlemanly obligations were lifted. A knight in shining armour might whisk her off, but his motives were unlikely to be romantic.
The chivalric code regarding the poor and the clergy only went as far as it benefitted the knight and his particular aims. Medieval history is littered with examples of sickening cruelty at home and abroad. The crusades for example: while allegedly defending a religion of love and forgiveness, they did everything to demonstrate the worship of money and power. Their brutality resounds down through the centuries leading directly to current affairs. Chivalrous? I don’t think so.
The chivalric code of brotherhood… Well, several hundred years of almost constant civil war and fratricide indicates betrayal for the sake of power was the norm. Chivalrous? I don’t think so.
In fact, almost the only part of the chivalric code which everyone followed was the call to arms. They just had to pick the ‘right’ side.
Now I prefer to think of the real King Arthur, whoever he was, as a Celt defending his realm against the Romans or a Romano-Briton defending it against the invading Anglo-Saxons. No-one will ever really know. Both of those periods of time in my view, however vicious, were marginally preferable to the Middle-ages. At least no-one pretended to be chivalrous.
Still, what has altered since the ancient times when a man with a sword might have stood on this cliff? We think of ourselves as more civilised nowadays, but as long as life is cheap and the cries of the weak unheard in a relentless drive for wealth by the powerful; as long as the ‘right’ side changes with the wind; as long as cruelty can be ‘justified’ by ideology, nothing whatsoever has changed. The once and future king should stay asleep. The final battle will be beyond a sword.
There is a story behind this photograph.
The sky may look blue, but in fact it was full of frozen rain and little shards of ices were pecking my face as I tried to stand straight against the howling wind which was tangling my hair.
The figure may look solitary and lonely. In fact he had just seen off one set of tourists and another set, at the forefront of which was me, toiled up the cliffs towards him. A group of young people overtook me and stood in front of the sculpture before my mother could take a clear photograph of her own. It later transpired, when we looked at Mum’s photographs, that one of the young men had dropped his trousers at exactly the point her shutter had gone off. Chief amongst the many ‘why’ questions was ‘why would you do it when freezing cold rain was blowing horizontally looking for warm flesh to chill and crevices to enter?’
All that aside however, in case you didn’t know, this sculpture, by Rubin Eynon is on the cliffs of Tintagel. Does it represent Arthur? Is the sword Excalibur? Apparently that’s up to the observer.
And I couldn’t decide either.
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission