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Archive for May, 2012

For thousands of years, we have struggled with the deaths of our idols; we knit conspiracy theories, we tell tales of ‘fake deaths’ and we refuse to believe that the stories of our heroes have drawn to an end. In our hearts we believe we haven’t seen the last of them, and we wait patiently to be proved right.

Legends of warriors who sleep beneath the Earth, waiting for a renaissance, can be found across the British Isles. Eventually I hope to collect all their tales here, or as many as I can – for this post, I am going to concentrate on the Once and Future King himself, King Arthur.

This enduring legend has stayed with me since I first read it as a young child. The story gives the location of Arthur’s mountain as a crag named Craig y Ddinas in Glynneath, Wales. (Other tales give different locations, but that is one of the most charming things about folk stories – passed as songs or poems or tales told by firelight, the details become lost and the locations change, but the thread of the story remains the same.) In my favourite version, Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table lie sleeping in a chamber far beneath the hill, arranged in a vast circle, their swords and shields beside them. Their luminous armour fills the cavern with light, and glinting in the centre of the circle lie two huge piles of coins – one silver, one gold. A bell hangs in the entrance; when this bell is rung, it will wake the Warriors from their enchanted slumber and they will rise to defend their country once more.

In some versions, the story begins with a Welshman who is led to the cavern entrance by a strange, wizard-like figure, who advises him to take only as much gold as he needs, and warns him not to ring the bell lest he accidentally wakes the Knights. The wizard says that if the bell is rung, a knight will ask “Is it time?” to which the man should reply “No, not yet, sleep on”. On his first visit, the bell is rung but the man remembers his words, and escapes unscathed with his pockets full of gold coins. Growing greedy, he returns to the cavern once more; this time, in his haste to escape, he hits the bell on his retreat, and forgets what he must say – the knights break his bones and fling him out onto the road, and he never again finds the entrance to the cavern, no matter how hard he searches.

There is another version of this tale that has its roots very locally to me – Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, is set in Alderley Edge in Cheshire (about two miles from my house). Garner’s version has the Edge housing an army of one hundred and forty knights who lie in an enchanted sleep beneath the rocks. If anyone feels like visiting me for a ‘research trip’ one day, do let me know…

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Inspired by a Facebook discussion about 100-word short stories, I remembered this little treasure from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s British Folk Tales:

He woke up frightened, and reached for the matches; and the matches were put in his hand.

Seventeen words long, and still makes my skin creep when I’m sat in a dark, silent room settling a wakeful child…

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The Ninth Wave (Девятый вал) by Ivan Konstanti...

The Ninth Wave (Девятый вал) by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1850) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My Twitter handle is @Ninth_Wave. Someone once asked me where I got it from, and I had to confess to pinching it from Kate Bush – it’s the title of the ‘second side’ (vinyl flashback!) of her 1985 album Hounds Of Love, and is best described as a sort of mini-concept-album about a woman’s struggle to stay alive in the sea after being washed overboard. It’s such an evocative expression, but not one that I knew very much about; a few hours spent down the Wikipedia rabbit-hole have enlightened me, though.

In Irish mythology, the Ninth Wave is the barrier that separates the Earthly world from the Hy Breasil, or ‘otherworld’. The legends told of a mystical place that lay beyond the West Coast of Ireland, far out across the sea. This island was invisible to the naked human eye and only accessible if you managed to survive the mighty onslaught of the ninth wave.

The ‘ninth wave’ may simply be an old seafarer’s term for the phenomenon of the ‘giant wave’ – a rare occurence, described as a huge wall of water that seemed to come out of nowhere on the back of a series of smaller waves [Fortean Times]. This wave would have had deadly consequences for a flimsy fishing vessel, hence the fear that such a wave could carry its victim off of the mortal plane. (The bodies of those lost at sea were very rarely recovered, so it’s possible that the idea that they had been swept away to some mysterious island would have provided comfort for families left behind.)

Lord Alfred Tennyson described the infant Arthur being washed ashore at Merlin’s feet on the ninth wave, after a supernatural ship appeared at the moment of Uther Pendragon’s death:

Descending through the dismal night–a night
In which the bounds of heaven and earth were lost–
Beheld, so high upon the dreary deeps
It seemed in heaven, a ship, the shape thereof
A dragon winged, and all from stern to stern
Bright with a shining people on the decks,
And gone as soon as seen. And then the two
Dropt to the cove, and watched the great sea fall,
Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame:
And down the wave and in the flame was borne
A naked babe, and rode to Merlin’s feet,
Who stoopt and caught the babe, and cried “The King!
Here is an heir for Uther!” And the fringe
Of that great breaker, sweeping up the strand,
Lashed at the wizard as he spake the word,
And all at once all round him rose in fire,
So that the child and he were clothed in fire.

Idylls of the King: The coming of Arthur by Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)

From this extract it seems that Tennyson was familiar with the lore of the Ninth Wave; he uses it here to strengthen the notion that King Arthur was more than just a mortal, having been borne not from a woman but from the wave that separates us from the ‘Otherworld’. (An extract from this poem also featured on the artwork for the Kate Bush album mentioned above.)

It may also be worth noting that the legend of a magic land found across the West sea, where the spirits of the dead dwelled is a theme Tolkien drew on for the Lord Of The Rings trilogy; Frodo and the Elves travel to the West as they come to the end of their mortal lifetimes.

Further reading:

Gaffa.org: an interesting analysis of Kate Bush’s use of the ‘ninth wave’ mythology

The Ninth Wave and the ‘Otherworld‘: a history

Idylls of the King: The Coming of Arthur: full text of this part of Tennyson’s epic poem

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Fulk FitzWarin heraldic arms earthenware floor tile, 13th Century

Fulk FitzWarin heraldic arms earthenware floor tile, 13th Century

Earlier this week, my four-year-old became the proud owner of a copy of Marcia Williams’ fabulous comic-strip retelling of The Adventures Of Robin Hood. We’ve now read it several times, and it prompted me to check my shiny new copy of The Folklore of Shropshire by Roy Palmer to see if the Robin Hood legend had ever made its way over to the Marches.

Well, it had. For a start I discovered that Robin Hood’s Butt – a Bronze Age tumulus – lies just a couple of miles from where I am in Ludlow at the moment, near the racecourse in Bromfield. The legend claims that Robin climbed a tree that once stood here and shot an arrow at the tower of St Laurence’s Church in the centre of Ludlow, some two miles away, but his aim fell short and the arrow embedded itself in the chancel roof. A neat little tale, but the truth is rather more pedestrian: the iron arrow was the emblem of the Palmers’ Guild of Ludlow.

A little more digging, however, revealed something rather more exciting. Early 13th-Century Shropshire seems to have had its own outlaw, in the form of Fulk FitzWarin

(more…)

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