England’s Dreaming #1 – Coming home from Avalon

(St. Swithin‘s Watch, Day 3 – Rain out today. Rain out yesterday. Rain out every day?)

A couple of days ago I posted about St. Swithin’s Day and its associated weather-lore. This got me thinking about British folklore in general, mainly prompted by Sudge‘s suggestion that I get Arthurian. It’s a good suggestion, except it’s so big. I’m going to make a facetious comparison here, but when I first got into comics, there was a mountain of history and continuity to plough through – I couldn’t figure out why the numbering of various titles got squinky around 1985/86, for instance (the reason was Crisis on Infinite Earths – if you don’t know, don’t ask). The stories of King Arthur are like that, only they’re 1,400 years old and complicated.

Of all the legends surrounding Arthur (who may or may not have been based on a real person, but as we’re looking at legends, folklore and mythology here we won’t worry about that), the one that gets to me the most (other than a hard-wired male desire to be able to win a sword-fight) is the idea that one day he’ll return, in the hour of Britain’s greatest need. It’s the idea of the Sleeping Hero, the King in the Mountain, an idea I’ve blogged about before in relation to music and Elvis, but also one that keeps recurring throughout mythology and pop culture (and religion, but that association may be too controversial for me to handle here, especially given my lack of theological credentials). And Arthur’s just the most famous British example – there’s Bran the Blessed, and a giant in Wales.

The idea of an ancient hero, long believed dead (or merely absent for a very long time) who returns to kick ass when all seems lost seems to have attached itself to King Arthur in the 12th century. These were turbulant times, and I guess there’s a question of exactly who or what he was meant to come back to save – nowadays the legend covers Britain, and we assume that to mean the British isles, but back in the day there were way more active factions who needed Arthur’s help – he’d help the Welsh, or the Cornish or the Celtic inhabitants of Britain in general; he’d boot out the Normans, or the Anglo-Saxons. Not that the whole thing was politicised at all.

The legend of Arthur’s return held enough potency that, when Henry VII’s first born arrived, he was named Arthur, and genelogies were commissioned to ‘prove’ how Henry and son were descended from the legendary king. The whole point of young Arthur’s life was to be the return of King Arthur to the realm, in spirit at least; this plan fell apart when he died at the tragic age of 15 (up until his death he lived at Ludlow Castle, which is ironically only about an hour down the road from Baschurch, a Shropshire village said to be a candidate for King Arthur’s resting place).

(This isn’t a million miles away from me, so if he does come riding to the rescue one day, I should be okay.)

Really though, the historic resting place of who whoever-inspired-the-King-Arthur-legends is irrelevant – Arthur lies recovering from his wounds in Avalon, and you can say that this is really Glastonbury or Brittany or Cornwall or even Venus, it doesn’t matter. It’s another world, that strange liminal place that exists alongside the imagination and gives rise to knights and dragons. It’s Fairyland.

And I guess that’s fairly key, because the idea that Arthur’s going to come back in our time of greatest need seems to be largely an exercise in nostalgia – things were better back then, when men were knights and women were princesses, and there was none of this modern rubbish screwing things up. It’s a yearning for a golden age that never really existed. And that’s not so bad – nostalgia isn’t the worst of crimes.

Problem is, nostalgia can also be a failure of the imagination, and an inability to recognise that the world has changed. I guess that’s on my mind today – the English Defence League are marching in Dudley again, and they’ll probably be waving the flag of a Palestinian who never came to Britain, and they’ll be motivated by the idea that everything would be better if Muslims just cleared off. And it’s sad and it’s wrong and it’s an economic nightmare for the town. And these marchers think they’re riding into town to put things right for us.

Britain’s not in the best of places at the moment, and sadly King Arthur isn’t going to come and put things right for us. Problem we’ve got is, other people will try to ‘fix’ things, and that could lead to violence, hatred, the decimation of culture and public society and goodness knows what else.

So maybe there is room for Arthur’s return, because we need to stand up for what’s right, and what’s just, and what’s fair and what’s worthy. And maybe that’s idealistic and naive.

So be it.

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