Monday, May 4, 2009

Still searching for Arthur..Glastonbury and Cadbury

After a windswept and disappointing day in Glastonbury, we came to Cadbury late in the afternoon, having lost ourselves in a combination of a featureless landscape and an inadequate road map.

Glastonbury, for all its mythic and mystic possibilities, had been a nothing place. The struggle up the Tor in a violent wind had provided a good view but that was about it. The abbey, which in the Middle Ages claimed to contain Arthur's grave, had been nothing but a pile of stones on some very green grass. If this was the famous isle of Avalon, as some of the tacky books in the local shops suggested, to which the dying Arthur had been transported after his final battle, then the fairies were all long gone.

Tired and disappointed we had decided to make one last attempt at pilgrimage, to the Iron Age hill fort at Cadbury, which had been excavated by Leslie Alcock in the late 1960's. During the immediate post-roman period the earthworks had been refortified and Cadbury had been advanced as the type of place where Arthur, or someone like him, might have lived, had he lived at all, in that dark period between the end of Roman Britain and the coming of the Roman missionaries.

We arrived as the sun was going down, and trudged up a muddy track, through a wooden gate, to the hilltop. There was nothing there but the vast earthen ramparts, and a primitive feel that deepened with the growing shadows and the dropping temperature. Human beings had used this place continuously since the Neolithic period. From the top of the hill you get an uninterrupted view across the plane we had just crisscrossed. It was easy to imagine staring into the distance, watching for the telltale signs of an enemy on the move. As the sun set it was impossible not to feel the weight of its history pressing down, and the feel of so much time trembling under its own weight. If you turned quickly, it was easy to believe you would see and hear men and women in fifth-century clothes moving through the murk.

The stories of Arthur grew out of this landscape: born in the wind blown rain and the wild sea thrashing against steep dark cliffs. Sunshine on green hills after rain, their soft curves like reclining forms, and only songs, friendship, the warmth of a lover's body and the words and music of the story teller to offset the misery of long, dark, cold winters. If you want the "Arthur of history " forget the "sources" and go to Cornwall, to Bodmin Moor when the snow dusts the tors and the air is so clear it looks like it's going to crack. Go to Tintagel. Ignore the tea shoppes and the pathetic ruins and watch the sea on the cliffs and listen to the wild wheel and call of the sea birds. Go to Castle Dore in the evening or Cadbury, or go for a walk in the Welsh Hills on a bad weather day (there's lots of them to chose from). Get away from electric lights and computers and mobile phones and sit in the dark by a fire and listen to the noises around you. And imagine a world of shadows and desperate uncertainty: five hundred years of stability, gone. Nothing more now than a story your grandfather told you: a memory of logic and straight lines and predictability. Imagine a small group of armed men gathered around a fire: there's not enough light to keep the shadows out and there is not enough information to keep ignorance at bay.

The Historian, reading backwards, takes his or her own assumptions and imposes them, subconsciously, on the inhabitants of the past. Hampered by all the intellectual paraphernalia of the twentieth century, it requires an act of imagination to begin to understand. Some documents call Arthur the "Comes Britanicu", and much has been made of this title. Scholars have pondered whether it was being used in a late Roman technical sense: was he appointed by the "Kings" of Britain to lead their armies? Or did it mean something else?

The reality would have been very different. If, during the fifth century, someone arrived at your front gate and said "I'm the Comes Britanicu" the watch man didn't ask, like a refugee from a Monty Python skit: "Excuse me, are you using this term in its strictly literal sense with its legal and administrative implications, which date back to the later days of the Roman presence in this Island? Or are you merely using it to associate yourself with a no longer existing authority? Do you even have the first idea what it means?" No. The watchman saw a man with enough armed followers to burn the place down around his ears and opened the door.

We live in a world that is mapped in terms fo more than geography. The calendar and the diary offer a sense of security and continuity. We make plans for tomorrow, next week, two years’ time. Electric light has banished the nightmares. Information is accessible and you can, if you want, check your facts. You can pick up the phone and talk to someone in another city to find out if the rumours of disaster are true. You can compare news reports, from a variety of media, to try and sift the truth.

These people didn't and couldn't.

In the dark beyond the fire's glow there were all the traditional monsters: the age-old earth demons that snuffle through the night reeking of death and lusting for flesh. And now there are newer enemies, men whose language they can't speak, who they don't understand, who have come to burn and destroy what little is left of their way of life. And just as the light isn't strong enough, there isn't enough information, only rumours and stories. Around small fires, on a hill top, in a ruined villa, by a lake side, in the shelter of the rebuilt walls of an ancient hill fort, they huddle near to the flames and warm themselves with stories of the war they have lost and a leader who won five battles, or eight battles, or was it twelve, who slew fifty or seventy or 960 of the enemy in one day, and the story grows, appropriates incidents, is overlaid with wish fulfilment and the "truth" fades and in the end the only truth is the truth of consolation to be passed on to children and grandchildren.

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