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Blog : Posts tagged with 'King Arthur'

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A confusing mixture of emotions

In which we have to save ourselves before even thinking about saving someone else from herself


So, Big Dave has left, in a cloud of adulation and office stationary, getting ready to move house over the break. Everything is booked, and everything is ready to go, and when I get back after Christmas I will have someone new to share the office with.

Things have been a little strange lately, and not just because of Dave. Work has been very stressful, and other things have been very stressful too. I see someone and I want to try to help them, to save them from themself and from dangerous people, but I know they would not accept my help. The stress of all this, and all the work that has been piling on me at the office, makes me want to curl up for a thousand years, not sleeping, just dormant. A bit like King Arthur, maybe.

Talking of King Arthur, here’s more Susan Cooper:

For Drake is no longer sleeping in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, it all its beauty and marvellous joy.

Maybe that should be my epigram for the coming year. In the meantime, I’m going to occupy myself with the King William’s College General Knowledge Paper. I might only get a handful of answers,* but it will keep me busy for a while.

* which may or may not include “Copernicus”, “Theodore Roosevelt”, and “The Waterloo and City Line”. That’s how random they are. Feel free to guess what questions I think those are the answers to.

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Ravens (part two)

In which we consider myths of the literal and the figurative


(read part one here)

I thought I’d better get around to finishing this post off, because the Tower Of London ravens are in the news again. Now that bird flu has started to make its way into Western Europe, the Ravenmaster is getting ready to move his birds into the top-quality indoor aviary mentioned previously, and the story is making its way into all the papers.* We can’t have the ravens dying on us; the fate of the country isn’t at stake.

Except, though, that the idea that the fate of the nation depends on the Tower’s ravens is all a big misunderstanding. The myth isn’t about living ravens at all. The real myth is that the fate of the nation depends on the raven god staying at the Tower. Furthermore, according to some, he already left.

The closest we have to the original superstition is in medieval Welsh myth. In Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, part of the Mabinogion, the hero Bran – “Raven” – is mortally wounded in a battle with the Irish. He tells his companions to cut off his head, and bury it on Tower Hill. The head stays alive for 87 years, but eventually the spell is broken, and they do as they were told:

[The followers of Bran] could not rest but journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, insamuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.**

The Iron Age people of Western Europe were big on heads and head cults. Stone heads have been found buried at various archaeological sites, and this passage is the best evidence we have as to why they were buried: they were protective talismans. Clearly, the writers of the Mabinogion believed in their power, too. They have to explain why the Welsh lost control of south-eastern Britain, when the raven god’s head was protecting them from invasion. Answer: the English only managed to invade after the head was removed. The blame for this is placed on King Arthur, who, not being superstitious himself, deliberately dug the head up in the hope of making his armies try harder. It worked, whilst Arthur himself was around; but after his death, Britain fell to the English.***

So, in short, the Tower Ravens might be a twisted survival of an ancient Welsh myth. The modern version of the story doesn’t appear in print, though, until the late 19th century, well after the Celtic Revival, and well after the Mabinogion had been published in English. Furthermore, the original story is that the promised fall of the nation has already happened; and England is the country that replaced it. If the Tower’s ravens do all leave one day, we English don’t have much to worry about; we are the people they were meant to be protecting the country from in the first place.

* and a lot of people are searching the web and coming here for more information.

** From the Charlotte Guest translation of the Mabinogion available from Project Gutenberg.

*** This part of the story isn’t in the Mabinogion; I’m taking it from Mythology Of The British Isles by Geoffrey Ashe.

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