Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Singing Head

Summer Solstice by Rob Floyd -

Many centuries ago, a thousand years and more before Julius Ceasar came to this isle, a dire and dreadful war broke out between the princes of Britain and Ireland, a clash of arms which lasted ten bloody years, beginning and ending on the same day as the start and finish of the siege of Troy. Victory came at last to the invading British forces, but it was a bitter, barren triumph. They had sailed to Ireland in a fleet of a thousand ships, yet only one was needed to take the survivors back home, and that, like all their ships, had been designed to hold a hundred warriors. Just eight men and one woman now remained out of all that mighty host: King Bran the Blessed, Manawydan his brother, Pryderi son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, Glifiau son of Taran, Taliesin the Poet, Ynawg the Tall, Heilyn son of Gwyn, and Branwen daughter of Llyr, over whom the war had been fought.

Bran gave a last set of instructions to his followers as they boarded the ship: 'Cut off my head,' he said, 'and carry it with you to the Island of the Mighty. Take it first to Harlech and remain with it there for seven years. You will find the head an endless fount of song and story, more so than it has ever been while fastened to my shoulders. You must travel then to Gwales in Penfro, and you can stay there for as long as you wish. In the upper room, behind the High Table, you will behold three doors. Two of them will be open - the door on the left that looks out onto Gaul and the door on the right that looks out at the Northern Lights. But the door in the middle will be shut, and that is the door that looks out onto Aber Henfelen in Cornwall. You do not have to open that door, but as soon as you do open it - if you open it - then you must leave straightaway and head south to London and bury my head there, my face turned towards Europe, five fathoms deep beneath the White Tower. The head will guard this land from that day on, ensuring that men of ill will, be they outside the island or within its sacred precincts, do not succeed in making captives of ourselves or our descendants.'

At this, Bran's followers were aghast. He had led them so well in war and in peace, and they all held a fierce loyalty to his person and his crown. But they knew better than to disobey him - for Bran was said to be a prophet who had walked and talked with God Himself - and at length it was Manawydan, his brother and successor, who drew his sword and severed his head from his shoulders.

Sorrowfully they sailed across the Irish Sea, wondering if they had fallen prey to a collective delirium brought on by the trauma of war. For the head made no sound during the three hours of the voyage and its eyes remained glazed and vacant throughout.

They came into harbour at Aber Alaw in Tal Ebolion. Once there, Branwen looked back across the sea and saw in the distance the smoke still rising from the ruined Irish towns and villages. 'Alas,' she cried, 'that all this destruction should have been wrought on my account.' But Taliesin put his arms around her and comforted her, and they all set out after a short rest towards Harlech.

After half an hour they passed a group of peasants in a field. 'What news?' Manawydan asked. 'Is Caradog, the King's regent, still seated in power in Westminster?'

'My lord,' replied the chief peasant. 'He is not. The land has been wracked with civil strife since 'ere you left. Caswallon, son of Beli, Bran's ancient enemy, rebelled against Caradog, made himself invisible and slew the regent and his men. Now he reigns as tyrant in London and every man, woman and child in Britain suffers for it.'

Branwen wept. 'Not just one land wasted,' she wailed, 'but two.' And she died there and then of a broken heart. The seven men left buried her in a high, square grave, then pushed on mournfully for Harlech.

When they arrived, however, they found a lordly castle waiting for them on the cliffs. Everything was there that they could have hoped for. The gardens were fertile and the hunting runs excellent. But it was the birdsong that softened their hearts with its poignant beauty and moistened their eyes with tears. Far out to sea, they could dimly discern three birds wheeling and circling above the ocean. No other bird did they see all the time they were there, yet the birdsong seemed to be coming from much closer than that - from above, beside, and all around them. 

The tears that flowed were tears of grief and mourning for all those who had perished so senselessly in the Irish War. Now the head began to sing too - psalms of lamentation and supplication, invoking the High God to welcome the souls of the departed into the light of his heavenly dwelling. And gradually their spirits started to rise, and they spent those seven years at Harlech in a state of calm, peaceful rest and recollection.

After that they moved on to Gwales in Penfro, and it was the same for them there as at Harlech except even better. Here there was no need to hunt or forage as three times a day - breakfast, dinner and supper - a wonderful meal was provided by invisible hands in the castle's upper room. As they ate and drank on their first night they saw the three doors at the far end of the room - the one looking out onto Gaul, the one looking out at the Northern Lights, and the one in the middle which was shut. 'That is the door we must not open,' said Manawydan. 'The one that looks out onto Cornwall.'

The seven stayed there for eighty years, and it was the happiest, most blissful time any of them had ever known, each year richer and more fulfilling than the one before. They did not age at all throughout this time. On the contrary, the longer they stayed the more youthful and radiant their faces and bodies became. They had forgotten all about the war and everything they had suffered in Ireland. The head sang to them continually, prophecies of extraordinary events to take place in the far-off future. They were astonished, and as there was little need for sleep in that enchanted place they gathered around the High Table as often as they could, day and night, and deeply imbibed the vision and insight pouring forth from King Bran's head.

Then one morning Heilyn son of Gwyn found himself alone in the upper room. The head was silent and the King's eyes shone with a strange light, which puzzled and unsettled Heilyn. He looked up at the middle door and an irresistible compulsion surged up within him to open it wide, bring an end to this episode, and move the story forward.

So Heilyn flung the door open and looked out onto the Cornish coast. For a long time afterwards he hated himself, for the castle straightaway lost its mystic sheen and was now a shabby, run-down semi-ruin. And all the pain and loss of a decade's worth of war and woe came crashing down upon them so that it felt like no time at all had elapsed between the burial of Branwen and the opening of the door. It was all too real and raw once more.

They left that place immediately and took the head with them to London as Bran had instructed. It made no sound now, though they eyes were still open and did not have the glazed, vacant look they had on the voyage back from Ireland. The head was alive, but silent.

So they buried it five fathoms deep beneath the White Tower and came sorrowfully away. Not long afterwards, Caswallon died unexpectedly and the Great Council asked Manawydan to become King in his place. He accepted gladly and began the arduous task of rebuilding the shattered country. When he himself went to God three years later Pryderi was chosen to succeed him, and he reigned for three-score years and transformed Britain into a strong, stable realm and a beacon of prayer, learning and the arts - 'a jewel set in a silver sea,' as Taliesin wrote on the occasion of the King's golden jubilee.

Manawydan and Pryderi had great confidence in what they set out to achieve because they knew the head of Bran the Blessed was guiding and protecting them from deep below. Things stayed this way for a millennium and a half until Arthur, in his pride and hybris, had the head dug up, thinking that he and he alone should have the honour of defending the land from its foes. 

Taliesin, who had lived through all these centuries, was there to see this happen, but no-one, himself included, had any idea what Arthur did with the head - whether he tried to destroy it or hid it away somewhere. And Taliesin will be there again when - as Bran prophecied at Gwales in Penfro - the head will reappear at a time when Britain is threatened and almost overcome by a foul, unprecedented darkness. It will carry out the same salvific work then as it did after the ravages of the Irish War - that deep, eternal labour of healing, redemption, restoration, and national transfiguration. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Marble of Exchange

I remember how struck I was as a boy when I read about the fate of the Roman Emperor, Valerian (253-260, pictured above). According to the early Christian historian Lactanctius he was captured by the Persians after the Battle of Edessa and used for years afterwards as a footstool for the Persian Emperor, Shapur I. When Valerian offered the Emperor a ransom for his release, he had molten gold poured down his throat and was then killed and had his skin flayed off. Lactantius' account does not make clear whether the killing or the flaying took place first. No time was wasted anyway in hanging the skin up as a trophy in Shapur's Great Hall.

There are any number of tragic cases closer to home - both in time and space - which should have affected me at least as much but did not do so. After all, I did not know Valerian - how could I? - and I also had no idea whether he was a good man or not. But deep down none of that mattered. What trumped everything was the strong conviction that a Roman Emperor should never have had to suffer such indignities. It seemed to me then - and still does now - profoundly against the natural order. There was the personal element too, as in the title of Graham Greene's book, The Human Factor - the feelings, emotions, and propensity for suffering common to men and women of all eras - and I could imagine only too clearly the terrifying blend of humiliation, dread, isolation, hopelessness and despair that Valerian must have felt.

Not every historian, I hasten to add, shares Lactanctius' view. Other accounts claim that Valerian and the men seized with him were treated honourably and were in fact set to useful work, building dams and bridges and so forth, the type of engineering enterprises Romans traditionally excelled at. So that's a comforting hope. But it is the first version that has stuck in my mind and which somehow - viscerally, I mean - seems more likely to me and certainly more realistic.

This unfortunate Emperor, as I say, has often been in my prayers these past four decades. For fifteen years or so I would simply ask God to look after him in eternity and grant him a place of 'happiness, refreshment and peace' as Eucharistic Prayer Two of the RC Church expresses it. But when I discovered Charles Williams in 1994 a whole different mode of prayer opened up before me. Nowhere is this better articulated and embodied than in the poem appended below, Taliessin on the Death of Virgil, taken from Williams' Taliessin Through Logres collection (1938).

Williams expands on this concept of prayer in many places, most notably in his novel Descent Into Hell (1937). He makes of prayer a more elastic, dynamic thing than I had thought possible. Not only can we pray for a person's post-mortem salvation but also that they might be given comfort, hope and strength here on Earth in the darkest moments of their most intense physical and mental pain. The implications of this are staggering. Through our prayers, for example, we can make a tangible difference to a martyr (of any denomination) enduring a brutal hanging in sixteenth-century London, or to a child forced to watch the slaughter of parents and siblings in the Rwandan civil war of the 1990s. 

I find it extraordinary that the Christian Churches have not picked this idea up and ran with it with gusto. What is the Church for if not deeply salvific deeds such as these? It shows to me just how far Christianity still has to go before it can become the religion it is truly capable of being. In a sense it hasn't done anything very much yet. So much of it is still latent, still in a state of potential, raw and undeveloped. And this should give us both cause for concern and grounds for real hope.

Charles Williams was a forerunner, I believe, of this coming Christianity - richer, deeper, more creative and three-dimensional than much of what we see in our churches today. In this poem, Virgil - the archetype of the virtuous pagan who never knew Christ - tumbles down to Hades at the moment of his death. Nothing can break his fall. The words and images which served him so well in life and came at his beck and call dissolve into a meaningless welter and babble. The underworld awaits. Then grace takes a hand. 'Unborn pieties lived,' as Williams succinctly puts it. Prayers of gratitude from his subsequent readers descend upon Virgil, rescue him from the pit, and bear him up towards that heavenly home where he truly belongs. He is 'set on the marble of exchange' - a fine, gratuitous act, like the 'deeper magic from before the dawn of time' in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, cutting through the iron laws of necessity and paying the poet back in justice and truth for the miracle of his oeuvre.

This is a work of real beauty and power. The French word for 'strength' - la force  - captures its spirit well. I didn't notice it much, I confess, when I first discovered Taliessin Through Logres twenty-six years ago. I was too fixated on the Grail at that time to pay much attention to anything else. More fool me. Maybe this is the poem where the Grail was to be found all along. This is the poem, perhaps, that reaches down most emphatically  to the heart of things, to the nub of what Dante so memorably calls 'the love that moves the sun and the other stars.' Every time I read it, it unfolds - unfurls even - more and more of its secret power. May it do so for you and for all who read this post. It is a poem to pray by, and a poem to live by:

Taliessin on the Death of Virgil

Virgil fell from the edge of the world,
hurled by the thrust of Augustus' back; the shape
he loved grew huge and black, loomed and pushed.
The air rushed up; he fell into despair, into air's other.
The hexameter's fullness now could find no ground;
his mind, dizzily replete with the meaningless sweet sound,
could found no Rome there on the joys of a noise.
He fell through his moment's infinity
(no man escapes), all the shapes of his labour,
his infinite images, dropping pell-mell; above,
loomed the gruesome great buttocks of Augustus his love,
his neighbour, infinitely large, infinitely small.
In the midst of his fall others came, none to save.
While he was dropping they put him in a grave.
Perpetual falling, perpetual burying,
this was the truth of his Charon's ferrying - 
everlastingly plucked from and sucked from and plucked to
    and sucked to a grave.

Unborn pieties lived.
Out of the infinity of time to that moment's infinity
they lived, they rushed, they dived below him, they rose
to close with his fall; all, while man is, that could 
live, and would, by his hexameters, found 
there the ground of their power, and their power's use.
Others he saved; himself he could not save.
In that hour they came; more and faster, they sped
to their dead master; they sought him to save
from the spectral grave and the endless falling,
who had heard, for their own instruction, the sound of his 
There was intervention, suspension, the net of their loves,
all their throng's songs:
Virgil, master and friend,
holy poet, priest, president of priests,
prince long since of all our energies' end,
deign to accept adoration, and what salvation
may reign here by us, deign of goodwill to endure,
in this net of obedient loves, doves of your cote and wings,
Virgil, friend, lover, and lord.

Virgil was fathered of his friends.
He lived in their ends.
He was set on the marble of exchange.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Between Carbonek and Byzantium - The Reign of Constantine IV

At the end of the Grail Quest, so many astonishing things happened - King Pelles was healed of his wound, Galahad was taken up into Heaven, and the waters of life flowed bounteously through what had once been the Wasteland. Of the remaining Grail Winners, Bors returned to Artorus' capital, Venta Belgarum, while Perceval married Pelles' daughter Blanchefleur, the Grail Maiden, and lived alongside her at Carbonek Castle, the home of the Grail.

When Pelles died, Perceval became King in his place, with Blanchefleur as his Queen. In time, they brought a son into the world - Lohengrin, the 'Swan King' - who continued the holy line of Carbonek after Perceval and his wife were themselves carried up into God's presence.

That happened twelve years after the Battle of Camlann and the spiriting away of Artorus into Avalon. In the decade leading up to that calamitous day, as the Companions of the Purple tore both the realm and each other apart, Bors would often return to Carbonek to pray before the Grail and ask God to protect and safeguard the land. He knew how grievous Britain's fall would be, for the country was more than a mere kingdom now. After the Battle of Mons Badonicus, the army had made Artorus Caesar Augustus in the West, the first Imperator since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus thirty years before. In the mind of Artorus, Britain now was the Roman Empire. The onus was on him and his people, he felt, to fill the Imperial gap left by Rome.

Bors, in his trips to Carbonek, prayed for divine intervention to keep this continuation of Empire intact. But in this he was disappointed. Kneeling before the Grail, with Perceval beside him as of old, the only voice he heard was a calm and gentle whisper, counselling patience and advising him that the time for fighting and striving was over and that the time for serious prayer and the long-term preservation of everything good and beautiful was at hand. So with Medraut dead and Artorus vanished and the civil war ended, the last living Companions - Lanslod, Bedwyr, Bors, and Hector - retired to Glastonbury Abbey where they professed monastic vows, remaining there in silent contemplation until the end of their days.

Then Constantine, Duke of Cornwall, was crowned High King and Emperor in Londinium. He had never sat at the Round Table and had never been a Companion. He had been a competent and capable ruler of his duchy, a loyal and dependable sub-king, as it were. The Council saw him as a safe pair of hands and, what is more, one of the few men left with a blood connection to the ancient Royal Line. His great-grandfather had been brother to old King Constantine, the father of Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, and the grand-father of Artorus.

Right from the start, however, the weight of high office felt to Constantine like too hard a burden to bear. Though he reigned for forty years, he never quite conquered this sense of inhibition - this consciousness of his own smallness - as if he was following on from men who had been more than human, like he was fashioned from some kind of dull bronze or tin compared to their vibrant, lusty gold.

He lacked the charisma and force of personality needed to prevent the British tribal chieftains from quarrelling and falling out with each other. But the memory of Artorus' power and might kept the Angles, Saxons and Jutes penned inside their enclaves along the eastern coast. For now, at least. It would be a good while, Constantine knew, before they dared to challenge the British dragon again, but he was painfully aware that when they finally did so, they would find only a paper-thin resistance barring their way.

Britain needed strengthening and something had to be done, but what exactly Constantine did not know. He thought of Carbonek first, for he had known Perceval well and also his father, Gerren the Fleet Owner. But the problem was that Carbonek was not a place to be found on the maps. One got there by grace alone, and so far Constantine had not been given that grace. So no matter how far and fast he rode and how much he prayed and pleaded for admittance, that strange and secret kingdom refused to open its gates for him.

So he turned his attention to another project - the Quest for the head of Bran the Blessed. For long ago the head of that ancient, venerable king had been buried at his own instruction beneath the White Tower in Londinium. He had promised his followers that as long as it remained there Britain would be safe from invasion. But Artorus, in his pride and hybris, had it dug up, insisting that he and he alone should have the honour of defending the country. But now Artorus was gone and so was the head and no-one, no matter how many people Constantine asked, knew where it was. Once again his plans were thwarted. 

So he took a ship to Byzantium and met there with Justinian, Emperor of the East. Constantine was received with warmth and honour, and the two men prayed together in an all-night vigil under the dome of the Church of the Holy Wisdom. Afterwards, Justinian told Constantine that the Holy Spirit had asked him to build a tunnel running beneath both land and sea, from one end of Europe to another, with just two entrances, one in Byzantium and one in Britain.

Constantine was greatly cheered by this. He assumed that the tunnel would ensure a regular supply of arms and men from Byzantium to Britain. Then Justinian confessed that the Spirit had instructed him to seal both entrances up as soon as the tunnel was completed. They will open again, he was told, at the end of the age when East and West will finally be reunited after a long period of darkness and obscurity for the Empire and her servants. 

His hopes dashed again, Constantine reluctantly agreed. The workmen who fashioned the tunnel were sworn into secrecy, and - though many rumours abound - only a handful of people living today know where the entrances are, both in Istanbul (as Byzantium is now called) and in Britain.


Constantine had now been Emperor for twenty years and he saw very clearly the extent of his failure to bring outside aid to Britain - be it divine, mythical, or human. It had taken him two decades to learn the wisdom Bors had been granted in just two minutes at Carbonek. But it was the same insight - that civilisations rise and fall and that it was no good artificially bolstering or boosting what had already run its course. The inner impulse that had animated Artorus' Britain had lost its force and motive power, and there was nothing that Constantine or anyone else could do to resuscitate it. He started to see that what he needed to do was shift his focus onto that which was essential and unshakeable, the permanent truths and realities that lie beyond the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms. 

Recognising that he was unable to prevent the bulk of the country from ultimately being overrun, Constantine spent his time sowing the seeds of what he hoped one day would be a full-scale national revival - spiritual, political, cultural and social. He ordered copies to be made of books and manuscripts and had them stored in secret caves in the mountains of Wales. Many of these underground libraries, it is widely believed, remain yet to be discovered. He also established a number of monasteries and convents in remote places, and these would go on to play a crucial role in the eventual conversion of the Germanic tribes to Christianity.

In the week before Constantine died, when he was already on his deathbed, the Angles of Deira made an incursion from the east which took them almost as far as the walls of Eboracum. Yet Constantine died a calm and happy man. Twenty years of failure followed by twenty years of prayer and preparation had given him a wider perspective than many of his more panic-stricken contemporaries. It is said that on the last night of his life Blanchefleur herself came to him in a vision and that he was given the supreme grace of looking into and drinking from the Grail. The next morning, his hands and arms shaking, he took off the Imperial Crown - the famous Roman Circlet - and placed it on the head of his eldest son, Anastasius. Both father and son knew that the Royal Line would now have to go into hiding, and no-one knows what became of Anastasius and his children if he had any. But tales are told that this high lineage has been passed down in secret from generation to generation even till now, and that one day, at the hour of Britain's direst need, the Emperor will reveal himself at the very spot where the Byzantine tunnel emerges onto British soil. With his right hand, so the story goes, he will hold aloft the head of Bran the Blessed and with his left he will unseal the opening, and the help that Constantine worked so hard to obtain will bring salvation to his country at the last.

A steady rain was falling on the afternoon that Constantine IV died, and the sky was as grey as slate. But when he breathed his last, the rain ceased abruptly, the clouds parted a touch, and a shaft of sunlight lit up the branches of the great Royal Oak that stood in the Palace grounds. And all the people marvelled and gave thanks to God for the sign they had witnessed and for the life and reign of their High King and Emperor.