Monday, June 24, 2019

The Shining Ones

In Tir-na-Moe, the land of the Living Heart, Brigit was singing. And the other gods, drawn by the resonance of her voice, stood in a circle around her - Manannan the Sea Lord; Midyir the Mighty; the Dagda (who is also called the Green Harper); Gobinu the Wonder Smith; Nuada, Wielder of the White Flame; and Angus Og, the youngest and most playful of the gods.

Brigit's song was charged with depth and yearning, of pain and regret mingled with hope and the hint of a mysterious, softly approaching joy. And at the end, Angus Og said, 'Rich and strange is your song, O Brigit. I felt, as I listened, that I was falling down and down, fathom after fathom, until Tir-na-Moe itself was nothing more than the memory of a dim and distant dream. And the further I fell, the more I sensed that it was not yourself singing but someone or something else. Tell me, O Flame of the Two Eternities, who or what was it singing that song?'

'It was the Earth,' replied Brigit.

'The Earth!' cried the Dagda. 'But the Earth is in the pit of Hell. It has no beauty, shape or form. Serpents crawl on its surface and all is chaos and despair.'

'Yet the Earth has dreamed of beauty,' said Brigit. 'There is something high and pure trapped beneath the murk and gloom, and it is calling to us, the Shining Ones, to set it free so it can shine like the diadem it is and take its rightful place at the heart of God's creation.'

Angus shook his head. 'I wish I had never heard your song,' he said. 'Now that I have, I cannot take the Earth from my mind and I am unable to return to my games with a clear conscience.'

'Then come down with me,' said Brigit, turning to him, 'and help me make the Earth afresh. You are clothed in all the glories of the Sun and have nothing to fear and everything to give.' But Angus just smiled and plucked a blossom that turned into a dove and whirled six times around his head before vanishing into the sky.

Then Midyir the red-maned shook out his hair and beard, and sparks danced and blazed around him. 'I will go with you, Brigit,' he declared. 'I will strike the serpents and clear a space for you to spread out your mantle and renew the face of the Earth.'

Then all the gods, except Angus, cried out, 'We too will come with you, to end the Earth's agony and release the beauty held captive by the dark.'

Angus, however, still demurred. 'I would come indeed,' he said, 'if only we had the Sword of Light.'

Then Brigit laughed and clasped him by the shoulders. 'We will not only have the Sword of Light,' she said, 'but the Spear of Victory, and the Cauldron of Plenty, and the Stone of Destiny too.'

And all the gods, including Angus, shouted out as one, 'We will take the Four Jewels.'

So Angus set out to fetch the Jewels and bring them back to the gods. He flew first to Findrias, the wind-washed, dawn-streaked city in the East of Tir-na-Moe, which holds the Sword of Light. Then he went to Gorias, the flame-bright city of the South, where he took the Spear of Victory; then West to Murias, the city of sunsets, flowing waters, and the Cauldron of Plenty; then onto Falias, the city of adamant and stone in the far North of the world, where the Stone of Destiny is to be found.

When all was ready, the Shining Ones descended on the Earth like a rain of stars. Midyir took the Spear of Victory and cut a swathe through the serpents, thrusting them into the sea and making space for Brigit to lay down her mantle. She took it off and set it down, rolling it forward and out - a silver, billowing carpet tinged with flame. On and on it rolled, pushing the waters ever back, until the mantle appeared on the point of wrapping the whole wide world in its warm, nurturing embrace. But then Angus, his playful spirits restored, jumped down on it and called on the other gods to join him, which they gladly did.

The Dagda, laughing as he ran, reached into the Cauldron of Plenty and hurled chunks of green putty into the Earth's dark air. Angus, with his own hands, merrily shaped and moulded the green, but then Mannanan, the Sea Lord, saw the serpents preparing an attack from beyond the shoreline. So he stopped the mantle's rolling, bade the gods be silent, took the Sword of Light, and held it high above his head. And a great wave three times his height, of jet black flecked with green, reared up before him, poised to come crashing down on top of him and all the gods and the new world they were making. But the Sword shone in the darkness with a fierce and burning light and the great and venemous wave drew back across the sea as if in fear and trembling.

Mannanan held the Sword higher still, and a second wave rushed up - white and blue like a sea horse - the same height as the Sea Lord. And it broke and crashed before it reached him, bowing down, it seemed to the other gods watching, in submission. Then came the third wave - a quiet gentle ripple like a whisper or a breeze. And then there was silence -  stillness, peace, and a dawning, rising, spreading light, which little by little illuminated the world the Shining Ones had just created.

They looked around and beheld a fresh, fertile land of green hills, valleys and trees. And they were amazed at what they had accomplished.

Then Brigit took the Stone of Destiny and laid it down at the centre of the island. As she did so a tinkling, bell-like music resounded from the Stone and the new world started to run with the happy splash and tumble of a million rivers, streams and rivulets.

And the gods stood in a circle around Brigit as she solemnly declared, 'This land we shall call the White Island. And its other name shall be the Island of Destiny. And its other name shall be Ireland.'

Note - I told this story last Wednesday (17/06/19) at the monthly storytelling night at The Blue Bell pub in Conwy, North Wales. The above is an almost word for word transcript of my retelling. The story is based on the opening chapter of Ella Young's Celtic Wonder Tales (1910), The Earth Shapers. The illustration at the bottom of the piece is from the end of that chapter and was drawn by Maud Gonne, a classic poetic 'muse' (and an Irish revolutionary, suffragette, artist and actress) who inspired a number of W.B. Yeats's finest poems, e.g. No Second Troy. The painting at the top is The Kings of the Faery Race (c.1900) by the great poet, artist and mystic, George William Russell (1867-1935), better known today by his nom de plumeAE.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Fire in the Sky - Ambrosius Aurelianus, Last of the Romans

This piece is based around the passages which concern Ambrosius in Rosemary Sutcliff's novels, The Lantern Bearers (1959) and Sword at Sunset (1963). In neither book is he the main protagonist. That honour falls to his two companions in this story, Aquila in The Lantern Bearers and Artos (Arthur) in Sword at Sunset. But Sutcliff, in my view, saves some of her richest and most atmospheric writing for Ambrosius, and I have always suspected that he held some deep, perhaps spiritual, significance for her. Take this description from The Lantern Bearers, for instance:

'His eyes, under brows as straight as a raven's flight pinions, were not the eyes of the Little Dark People, that were black and unstable and full of dreams, but a pale, clear grey lit with gold that gave the effect of flame behind them.'

I hope I have done justice, in this foray into fan-fiction, to Sutcliff's historical imagination and also to Ambrosius himself. He stood strong against external invasion and inner disintegration and restored peace and good government to southern Britain after Rome withdrew. He paved the way for his successor, Arthur, to stabilise and expand the realm further, and more importantly to set in motion that great body of myth which has fired our national imagination since and has, I believe, its highest fulfilment ahead of it still.

* * *

I am Ambrosius, High King of Britain. Tomorrow, when the sun reaches his zenith, I shall depart from the circles of this world and cross over into the Great Light, where the God beyond the gods will welcome me home, heal my sickness, and give me rest and respite before I am called down into service again.

For it comes to me clearly, this winter's night, that I have achieved two things only in my three-score years. I have held the pass and built a bridge - rolled back the darkness and relit the Roman light - so that the next High King, Artos (I hope), has the platform and stage he requires to free us from Saxon, Pict and Scot once and for all.

Politically speaking, it has to be Artos, though due to his irregular parentage I cannot name him successor. No-one else - though some claim purer birth - is capable of binding the tribes together and banishing the enemy. I have done what I could in this matter. I have given both Roman and Celt a vision to live for and die for. We have restored the ancient Kingdom in the South, and the Saxons have fled to the eastern fringes. But they have not been expelled and reinforcements arrive every day. Picts and Scots harass us to the North and West. We have laid a foundation but nothing more. It will take one like Artos - a hero, a leader, an inspirer of men - to preserve and build on our work. And that is why I must die at once. Suddenly, with no time to plan the succession. Our survival hangs by a thread. This is no time for dynastic squabbles. An unprecedented, co-ordinated attack will fall on us this summer. All our spies say so. With the stakes so high, men will rally around Artos, our renowned Count of Britain, out of necessity. The Council will undoubtedly see that he is the only man to lead us and save us.

I am, in any case, a sick and dying man, and this is why I have returned at my end to a place dear to me in my beginning - this woodland lodge to the north of our capital, Venta Belgarum (which the Saxons call Winchester). It was here that my father, Constantine, took myself and my brother, Utha, with him on his hunting expeditions, though in truth I was old enough to come only once, when I was nine. That was the happiest month of my life, but it all turned to ashes when my father was slain that very summer and Venta set ablaze in Vortigern's coup. The chaos and agony of that burning, blood-red night - the flames, the smoke, the screams - have stayed with me always. They will be with me tomorrow when the royal stag's twelve-pointed tine rips through my groin. I had not heard the tale of the sack of Troy at that time, but when I did, I felt like a brother to young Ascanius, shepherded to safety by his father, thrice-great Aeneas, that high and noble Trojan who founded our holy city of Rome. But our father was dead. Utha and I were spirited away by a handful of loyalists to northern Cymru and our grandmother's lands in the mountains of Arfon. There, on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa, we mourned our dead and gathered our strength until that glad day fifteen years later when we marched on the South and won back our father's city.

Dinas Ffarraon, we called our mountain hideaway. The Fortress of the High Powers. It is a good name, and I miss that blessed patch of Cymric rock and earth. For I am a man of two worlds - the Roman and the Celtic - and this is my blessing and my curse. Our grandfather, Maximus, was a Spaniard by birth and lieutenant to the great Theodosius. When, a hundred and thirty four years ago, the Picts stormed the Wall and set northern and middle-Britain ablaze, it was Maximus and Theodosius who beat them back and slowly, steadily restored order. When Theodosius returned to Rome, Maximus stayed and married a princess of the northern Cymru, thereby winning the loyalty of both the Roman and the Celtic parties. Flushed with success, he made himself Emperor and set out for Italy to vanquish his rivals. And there he perished, but he left behind a son, Constantine, our father. And when the province was stripped of its Legions, Constantine swept down from Arfon and routed the Saxons, ruling in the Roman style for thirty years from Venta. And that was the world that Utha and I, the children of our father's old age, were born into.

I greatly admired, as a boy, our city's order and precision. It counterbalanced my often colourful imagination. I was on affectionate terms with every piece of granite, stone and marble in the city - columns, statues, squares, Praetorium, Basilica - so perhaps it is no wonder that it is my triumphant return there, when we took the Durobrivae Bridge nigh-on forty years ago, that stands out now. How often have I lived it again in my mind, that raw, slate-grey, sleet-spattered morning. I was shocked, I recall, by the city's appearance - weeds running riot and pavements strewn with masonry - but the people cheered and lined the streets and gave me a royal and hearty welcome.

'I knew your father, Sir,' an old man called as he tossed a branch of glowing winter berries under my horse's hooves. 'I served under him in the old days.' I rewarded him with a smile and a coin and would have given him more if I could. But that night, around the fire, with Aquila and the others, I remember how struck I was by the sadness and vulnerability in my voice. 'They remembered me for my father's and my grandfather's sakes,' I said. 'One day they may remember me for my own.'

For a moment it felt like I no longer belonged in the old, familiar Governor's Palace I had been so happy to reclaim earlier that day. I wished, to be honest, I was somewhere else - high up in the cloud-capped peaks of Arfon, close to the stars, with time and space to pray and reflect on the past, present and future of my own life and the life of this sacred isle.


Artos, Aquila and I spent the night gone by roasting chestnuts over the brazier, as I had done so merrily so long ago with Utha and my father. The windows glittered with frost, but I felt warm and content inside, at ease with myself, my companions, and the world. When the time for serious talk came, Artos understood at length the method in my madness and then, I'm not sure why, Aquila - my longest-serving comrade - wandered over to the window and told us there was fire in the sky beyond the hill called Ink-Pen. Artos shot up. 'Saxons!' he cried as Aquila opened the window. But swiftly they saw that this was none of their doing. It was the Crown of the North my brothers in arms were gazing upon. The famous Northern Lights.

I pushed back my chair, shuffled across the tesserae, and was astonished at what I saw. Many times, in years gone by, have I observed the Northern Lights from the flanks of Yr Wyddfa. But nothing on this scale - nothing so wide, bright and high as this - a curving, flame-red scimitar of light, arching up from behind the hill, conquering first a quarter, then a third, then half of the sky. Banners and streamers of blue, green and gold - brighter than the moon and stars combined - flared out into the night like heralds of Mithras, god of battles and victory and invincible Lord of Light.

A deep sense of peace and reassurance came down on me. Here was a sign from the Most High God that my intuitions were true and I was departing at the right time and leaving the country in safe and inspiring hands. And so, if folk do remember me in the future, it will not be for my father's sake, nor for my own, but for my successor's, and from where I am now at the the end of my life, having spent fifty years dragging Britain back from the abyss, that is a happy prospect indeed.

'Yes,' I said to my friends. 'There will be many pointing to the North and bidding each other look tonight. And later, all Britain will say that there were strange lights in the sky on the night before Ambrosius Aurelianus died.'

Artos went white. He had not, I think, realised until then that I intended to die so soon. I am, after all, the only parent he has known, for Utha, his father, perished on the tusks of a boar when he was three years old. His mother (who was not Utha's wife) died when he was born, so I took him in and he has been as a son to me ever since - an unanticipated, but receptive, diligent and exceptionally gifted son. So it is a sorrowful parting for me as well, I who gave up thought of wife and child to focus everything I had - mind, body and soul - on the salvation and resurrection of Britain.

The lights outside began to fade, but in myself I felt some measure of strength and vigour return. There was nothing more to do now. I had done what needed to be done and was blessed and fortunate enough to have done it well. I had fulfilled my fate and was now going gladly to the fulfilment. 'I think that the frost will not be hard enough to spoil the scent tomorrow,' I remarked casually.

'Ambrosius,' cried Artos. 'Don't be playing the madman! You could never last an hour's hunting!'

I walked back to the brazier, picked up a flagon of wine, turned to my comrades and smiled, holding the flagon up high. 'Brothers, I drink to tomorrow's hunt. Good hunting and a clean kill.'

And as I stood there before them, I felt a glow and a shine about me and knew that the Lords of Life would take what little strength I had left and squeeze it into the handful of hours that it will take to bring down the royal stag tomorrow.

No, I do not think the frost will be hard enough to spoil the scent. I shall mount my horse and the company will be amazed at the speed and ferocity of my riding. Some might even hope that my illness is passing - and that will be partly true - but it would be better to say that I am starting to transcend my sickness. And I will drink in everything I see, hear and feel as I ride - sun, sky, hills, trees, my horse beneath me, my dear ones around me - until we bring the noble beast to bay and I leap off my horse, brandishing the King's knife and claiming the kill as my own. We shall look each other in the eye then, the stag and I, not as hunter and hunted, but brothers and sovereigns - monarch to monarch - then as the blade plunges into his breast and his antlers tear through my innards, I will catch a glimpse for an instant of the world that awaits me, and Aquila and Artos, having sprinted through the bracken to disentangle my body, will find, I am sure, a look of surprise on my face.