England’s Dreaming #2 – Swords to Ploughshares

I’m not afraid to admit it, I’m a sufferer of cognitive dissonance. I may even be a full-on hypocrite, and for that I apologise in advance. See, while there’s no way on Earth I’d want a gun in the house,  I really wish I knew how to use a sword. Can’t really explain why – both are weapons, both of designed to do serious damage to the person you use them against – but to my mind, one of them is acceptable and the other just isn’t. And I don’t know why that is.

King Arthur would probably have looked at me as if I was mad, if he was here now, and assuming he even existed. One of the most familiar aspects of Arthurian legend is the story of Excalibur, Arthur’s sword and a name significantly possessed of the Cool Force (although it was called Caledfwich in the original Welsh_. Forged in Avalon, it was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake … Or maybe it was placed in a stone, only capable of being freed by the One True King, who of course turned out to be the young Arthur. That’s the thing with these myths, they lack consistancy, sometimes conflating two earlier stories, sometimes just making something up because it’s cool.

(I like Excalibur being the Sword in the Stone the best, if only because it’s an epic story, and ties in with other myths from around the world of a legenhttp://www.livejournal.com/update.bmldary sword or other weapon conferring legitimacy on the rightful ruler, or just becoming a sacred weapon of the country in question – you can see elements of this in Japan’s sword Kusanagi, China’s Glory of Ten Powers and Thuan Thien of Vietnam. Nowadays, of course, we’re too sophisticated for that sort of thing, and our rulers don’t need magical swords to legitimise their rule, just magical birth certificates.)

It was only in researching this that I found out that Excalibur wasn’t Arthur’s only significant weapon – he also had a dagger called Carnwennan and a spear unpronouncably called Rhongomyiant, which bizarrely gets shortened to Ron in some versions of the legend. I’m surprised more isn’t made of Ron, because there are a whole bunch of mythological spears and lances in both Irish and Norse legends (Gae Bulg, Luin of Celtchar, Gungnir and, in Japanese mythology, Amenonuhoko, which is used to create the first land. And that’s before we get onto the Spear of Destiny, the weapon said to have pierced the side of Christ as He hung on the cross, and whose story is probably a blog entry in itself (even though, like the Holy Grail, its existance as a physical object is hardly mentioned in the Bible).

It’s strange how the image of these ancient weapons still resonates today, almost as if the mythic underlying themes refuse to be re-contextualised. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I’m British, and to update the legendary weapon thing nowadays would mean linking it to guns, something we might struggle with.

(Britain has an ambiguous relationship with guns, on the one hand celebrating military achievements, on the other struggling with the idea that thousands of good, decent, responsible Americans feel the need to own handguns. Maybe it’s to do with more recent mythic, non-military images – America has the figure of the Cowboy, or a white-hatted sheriff; Britain has, for instance, a murderer who seemed to wish he was a legend.

Some weapons do seem to have acquired a mythic status over the past few decades, however – nuclear bombs and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction terrorised generations, while anyone who saw news coverage of the post-911 allied attack on Iraq saw the conviction saw something that seemed to be more than reportage. Modern weapons may be acquired mythic status, but it’s an ambivalent one.

(Don’t get me started on The Matrix, which seemed to be trying to introduce a new totemic weapon for a mechanistic age – when Neo says "Guns, lots of guns" and proceeds to slaughter a police station full of cops, it’s portrayed as awesome in all its jacket-flapping glory. All I could think of was how a similar scene in The Terminator was portrayed as an atrocity. I may have ranted about this before… I guess my stance on fictional weapons is limited to lightsabers or… Well, I would have said Doctor Who‘s sonic screwdriver, but I’m convinced that’s sapping the lead character’s natural ingenuity, so instead I’ll go with Macgyver’s Swiss Army Knife.)

So what would we consider to be an acceptable modern Excalibur, a weapon that can become a legend and that can legitimise the one who wields it? Might I suggest we think outside the box a bit – maybe a weapon for an age in which bombs can destroy the world and any lunatic with a gun can shoot up a high street or a school needs to be something more…Human. We’re in the Information Age now, maybe our weapons need to be words, communication, video phones. We’re in an age where everything seems so polarised, so maybe our weapons are compassion and understanding. We’re in an age where everything is grim and aggressive, so our weapons are laughter and satire. And maybe we don’t need kings to wield these weapons, maybe just healers and tricksters.

Excalibur was thrown back into a lake, its job done. But the fight goes on, and we need to be smarter in our choice of weapons. Maybe we need to beat our magic swords into ordinary ploughshares…


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