Once and Future

A long time ago, in a land of green hills and incessant rain, there lived a King.

This king, it was, who united all the sundry belligerent lords under one banner: that of England.

And all because he managed, at a insanely young age, to haul a great big enchanted sword out of a hulking piece of granite.

King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table wrote the rules for a time when men were men, wizards were wizards and women were either simpering maidens or dissembling witches.

The old tales never lose their potency. And yet: they never really existed.

And the place we went to today, purporting to be his supreme headquarters, was actually built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1233 or so.

Much work has been done to identify who the real Arthur was. He is thought to have been around during the late fifth and early sixth centuries AD, and to have led the British against the Saxons.

He gets mentions from the sixth century onwards in various chronicles. But it is Geoffrey of Monmouth who created a filigree framework, a pretend-history on which the people of this country have always loved to drape their stories.

Not least the knight, Thomas Mallory, who wrote them all down. And latterly, one of our great storytellers: Terence Hanbury White.

Born in Bombay, the son of a police superintendent, who would have predicted he could hold us all spellbound with his tales of a place and time which exist on Monmouth’s lacework of supposition?

A rather wonderful letter from TH White to a friend explains how he stumbled on Morte D’Arthur. And managed to write a thesis on the stories, apparently without reading them in any depth.

After four years teaching, he ducked out of life, lived in a workman’s cottage and learned falconry, hunting and fishing. And one day he looked on his bookshelves, desperate for something to read.

And his eyes lit on Morte D’Arthur.

He wrote:  “I was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) The thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognisable reactions which could be forecast.

“Mordred was hateful, ” he added, “Kay, a decent chap with an inferiority complex, Gawaine that rarest of literary productions, a swine with a streak of solid decency. He was a sterling fellow to his own clan.

“Arthur, Lancelot and even Galahad were really glorious people–not pre-raphaelite prigs. Anyway, I somehow started writing a book. ”

The Sword In The Stone achieved instant popularity. White’s storytelling style was accessible, human, absorbing.

The characters won White’s heart. He painted Merlin as a wonderful absent minded academic with something akin to a bedside manner.

I love his consultation with Mrs Roach: a fish, for which he takes a fish’s form.

He casts a spell to heal her fin, concluding with the following advice: “No lob-worm, not for two days. I shall give you a prescription for a strong broth of algae every two hours, Mrs Roach. We must build up your strength, you know. After all, Rome was not built in a day.”

I felt as if White was by my side as I scaled the cliffs of the place which story says was Arthur’s castle: Tintagel.

It is a great towering island, separated from the mainland by a precipice. At its foot: the dark gaping mouth of a cave which bears Merlin’s name. Cascading down the cliffs is a fairytale waterfall.

A set of precarious slate steps hugs the island and climbs, quickening the heart, winding upwards over the sea, presiding over wild purple slate cliffs stretching into the vast distance. Words desert even the storyteller, on approaching the small arched door, which affords access to the fortress itself.

We stepped through it and gazed on castle walls almost one thousand years old, with windows onto an untamed ocean.

It’s a ruin, built of golden rocks, covered in green, green turf.

We climbed this emerald vale, further up and further in, to the well, and the site of a mediaeval garden, the tunnel to the old food store and the chapel where an altar of sorts still stands.

We stood on the slate-topped escarpments of the castle, taking in views to make your spirit leap and your heart stand still, views which, even though in reality they stretch for just miles, inspire the mind towards infinity.

No wonder. No wonder the stories have endured, and attached themselves here, at the top of the world, where the weather and the ocean have their wild way, and sometimes the sun shines and sometimes the storms rage giving eloquence to the tales we tell.

A once and future castle, to be sure.

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59 thoughts on “Once and Future

  1. This one of many things we are sharing (UK and France). Since, I believe, Britany was at that time part of England, part of the story might have taken place there. In France, we believe that Merlin’s forest was the forest called Brocéliande. I always loved that story and always will !!! Thanks Kate for reminding me this great legend !!!

    1. Hi, Matthias – yes, the legends travelled both sides of the channel, and Thomas Mallory used French romances as the basis for his Mort D’Arthur: I love Brittany, it feels much like Cornwall but the food is immeasurably better 😀

  2. Wonderful. I’ve read the TH White stories over and over again but I’ve never been to Tintagel. As I was reading your post, I hoped there were some more pictures at the end. So I’m absolutely THRILLED to be watching the slide show. Thanks, Kate!

  3. You have to climb slate steps because the arch that originally joined the island to the mainland fell down some hundreds of years back, Kate. Nice to hear of the old places again!
    Love Dad

  4. I am reading the story now. “The Saxon Shore” by Jack Whyte. My next “I’m going to get to it” history project will be to challenge the concept that the Roman Empire collapses in the late 400’s. Just a change in administration and bureaucracy from emperor to church.Constantine makes the empire church centered anyway in 350’s so where’s the real fall? Rome’s conquerors in the west were absorbed into Roman culture and emulated it as was the same for Egypt centuries earlier. Post Roman Britain remains very Roman in tradition for several hundred years as does France and Spain and certainly Italy. The Eastern empire lasts another 600 years and several historians have postulated that post Christ Rome had its axis at Constantinople not Rome because wealth and culture and industry and agriculture so so forth flourished in the east not the traditional west as we are led to believe. The east subsidized and supported the less productive west.

    1. Here, the end of the Romans’ stay in Britain is taught rather line a damp squib, Carl. Some Romans stayed on because it was what they were used to. It appears they went on doing what they were doing, as you say. There’s evidence they were at Tintagel.

  5. Spectacular slideshow Kate. I’m disappointed to say that I’ve never visited this future castle. Ah, but there’s always the future, right? Must say that I learned quite a bit with this post that I would otherwise have not known.

  6. A tale, within a tale, within a tale, as only you can manage, Kate. You had me with you every step of the climb. Your slide show is wonderful and now yet another place to yearn to visit.

    When I was in high school, my senior year, I was given the “task”, with another student, of taking time off from classes to go into Chicago to one of its then elegant and ornate theaters to watch Camelot, based on White’s The Once and Future King. I was the make-up editor of our school newspaper and my assignment was to watch the movie and do a review of it for the “Proviso Pageant”. I could not wait to go home and tap out my very first movie review and did so with great gusto that night. I still have the review. Looking back at it, it was pretty good for a seventeen year old girl from the ‘burbs.

    Anyway, the movie led me to T.H. White’s book and I’ve been under its spell ever since. Thanks for a wonderful post and a chance to awaken a memory of my own once upon a time.

    1. I’ve never see ‘Camelot’, Penny: I wonder if I can track it down? Right now Arthur – and more significantly Merlin – are all the rage because of a TV series which started as a children’s programme but has its adult audience too. Your assignment sounded the perfect challenge, and with TH White at the centre it must have had such charge.
      Time to get the book out once again and read, I think 🙂

  7. I just drooled on my poor keyboard. (Wiping. Wiping.)

    Okay. I love these stories. I must go back and reread them again, especially with such stunning scenery to now imagine. Masterful weaving of story and place, and the pictures are such a treat for me.

  8. I know what you mean Kate, the Legend lives on and I suppose always will, because of the Ancient History which seems to cling to the Cornish area as your photo’s show in detail … The legend of King Arthur always appealed to me…and I’ve read the story The Once and Future King, plus.. ‘The Crystal Cave’ and ‘The Hollow Hill’ by Mary Stewart, ( may read them again now…) and Merlin is a fascinating character all on his own-some. The Prophecy “Arthur will Return When England Faces it’s Greatest Threat’ gives my imagination a thrill, as wow oh wow , what a sight that would be… xPenx

  9. As one whose nation is only a few hundred years old and who lives where historic “old” buildings date back to maybe 1880, I’m fascinated by castles and ruins more than a thousand years old, and by tales of those times. To stand among the very stones of a castle that old — incomprehensible.

    1. One day, PiedType, you must try it. It’s a heady experience, even for someone who has lived alongside them.
      One of my dreams is to get across your country in a train. To see the places which have shaped the history of such a vast land. It’s on my list 🙂

  10. Kate, you’ve done it again! You’ve captivated my love of Lancelot, the wild coast weather, the history, the landscape and MERLIN – in both text and photo!

    Though I didn’t visit Cornwall, I’ve been to England twice, Both times, this Western Canadian was awed with knowing I could stand anywhere and trust that layers and centuries of historical events lay at my feet. History of such colour and age lives in the hearts and memories of our First Nations people, not in the lives of non-natives who settled my home turf.

    I think we once had a war when Mrs. Hendrigan copied a dress pattern originally sewn by Mrs. Potney. 😀

    1. That must have been a mighty conflict, Souldipper…we grow up with the noise of history around us here. You cannot go far without stumbling on something old. I spend my life being amazed and surprised. But I do long to see some of the younger countries and the places which made them special. Need to bag a job as a travel writer 😀

  11. Thanks, Kate! I love this area and it echoes many areas in our beloved state of Oregon. I grew up on the White tales of Arthur and Camelot, plus we played the musical with Robert Goulet, Julie Andrews and Richard Burton over and over. I still love singing “Fie on Goodness,” and “What Do the Simple Folk Do.” Oh, the the legend transcends genre, writer, and time. Love the slide show.

  12. Really amazing photos, Kate! Thanks for sharing them – I am happy to associate the images with this much-loved story.

  13. …”Have fun storming the castle!” Sorry, one of the things that came to mind as I read your brilliant post. This time of year is when I long for the magical, mystical world of Merlin and his ilk. Your slide show is most impressive…thanks for sharing with us ~

  14. Terrific post, Kate! Exquisite slide show.

    When Disney did the Sword in the Stone, I fell in love with Merlin, Arthur, and the rest. My mom made puppets for us ~ we had the record album and we listened to it for hours on end as we bade the puppets to pull the sword from the stone.

  15. I fell in love with “The Once and Future King in 9th grade. It was one of our required reading texts that year. It was the same year that Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot” opened on Broadway. so we listened in class to the musical soundtrack on occasion. I have not re-read it in a long time. I think I’ll pull it down to my Kindle, and read it again.

    Thanks for a terrific post, Kate!

  16. I’ve just finished reading Mark Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” for a class. The book is fun in its way, but I’m grateful to read here and let you make the legends lovely again.

    1. I lived there for a while, Tooty. Took on a high-powered job in Port Isaac, the Doc Marten village: mistake. Suddenly slow tractors in front of you, and sheep crossing, were no longer charming but major stressers. I am only just learning to enjoy the area again after ten years….

  17. It’s a stunning part of the country. Had a friend who lived down the road, used to stay up late and tell stories – it’s that sort of area. Thanks for the memory, and the views too.

  18. Oh, Tintagel! Kate, you took me there, and I’ve so wanted to go. I discovered the King and his knights by accident when I was about six, rummaging in a box of things left-behind by previous tenants in a back room of our rented farmhouse. There was the book King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and I was whisked away on an epic quest. After that, and some years later, I read Morte D’Arthur (my copy illustrated with fantastic drawings by Aubrey Beardsley). I’ve yet to read The Once and Future King…

    1. It’s worth a read, Elizabeth, if you have the time. I love the way he makes the old legends accessible yet retains the ancient magic. He was a bit of a ild child, really, and it comes through in his writing. Must look up the MOrt D’Arthur you describe. Sounds wonderful.

  19. awww, somewhere I have always wanted to go.

    The most romantic story ever, a desperate strugglr to live and love all in that beautiful setting.

    i remember when my brother used to ask me for books to read, following in my ‘eyesteps’ and then he naded one back. TH White’s Once and Future King, saying he’d had it as a setwork. I was so jealous, we’d had the worst of the most boring writers in my day. in 6 years attitudes had changed and teenagers encouraged to read stuff they would enoy.

    1. What a shame it didn’t change in time for you…I had Vanity Fair as one of mine. Rumpus rollercoster…..the Arthurian legends are such beautiful stories: I wonder why their elements endure?

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