The Traveller's Guide to
A guide to the history and fantasy,
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Harnessing the chaos in your life
It was as children that we learnt many of the habits we now have. And the way we learnt them, in most cases, was through repetition. That's how we learnt to walk, to talk, to read, to ride a bicycle: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again". But it's also how we learnt many of the habits that bind us: often in the form of derogatory statements repeated again and again by some authority-figure, like a form of brainwashing, until we eventually learn to believe them.
An irate teacher at school: "You're stupid, Kelley, you shouldn't ask stupid questions: how many times do I have to tell you that? So – repeat after me – 'Chris Kelley is stupid'. Come on – say it! Louder, child, louder – I want the whole class to hear you!" I stand there, barely able to open my mouth, squirming in shame and embarrassment... she's the teacher, I don't have the right or the strength to fight back. And a thought runs through my mind: "If can I learn to be stupid, like she tells me I am, perhaps she won't make me do this again.
Do you recognise incidents like this in your own life? Can you see how easy – and how apparently necessary – it was to change your whole way of life, to avoid that kind of repeated pressure from others?
A statement like that may well tell us more about the person saying it than it does about us – a teacher abusing his authority in order to avoid answering awkward questions, for example – but once we've learnt to believe them, we believe them. The statement eventually becomes something that we believe at an unconscious level – a habit of thought, a habitual way of thinking about ourselves. From there, precisely because it is unconscious, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: "What I tell you three times is true", as Lewis Carroll's Bellman put it in 'The Hunting of the Snark'. And then we're stuck with the results, for life – or until we can learn how to unlearn the habit. It can take a long time to unlearn habits...
THE CURSE OF BELIEF
Belief is a peculiar kind of magic: a habit of thought, an idea that becomes real by filtering reality. With a different belief, we not only change our perception of the world, but our actual experience of it. I experience the world as I believe it to be: I find experiences that confirm the belief, and tend to ignore those that don't. It always seems easier to find 'proof' of destructive beliefs than of constructive ones, so a repeated statement like "You're stupid!" can soon create a downward spiral, a self-confirming curse – even though it was never actually true to begin with.
Once I've learnt to believe that I should be afraid, for example, I experience the world as if I'm afraid: I become afraid, and in return the world becomes a fearful place. And even though the fear is of something imaginary, of something that has never existed as more than an idea, the fear itself is real: the results are tangible, in terms of my ability – or inability – to work in the world. Through belief, the untrue becomes true; an illusion – a belief – somehow becomes reality.
One famous example was the 'toilet-paper shortage', a few years back. An American TV presenter suggested on his show that there was going to be a shortage of toilet-paper. People took his warning seriously; there was a surge of panic-buying, supermarket shelves were rapidly cleared as people built up reserve stocks. In a matter of days there wasn't a toilet-roll to be had. But in fact the whole thing had been an April Fool joke: at the time there'd been no real shortage at all, and now there really was one. The untrue becomes true; an illusion – a belief – somehow became reality.
Can you see the same kind of effect happening in your own life? What rumours – imagined beliefs – do you find yourself acting on? How do you know they really are true – or whether they're just self-confirming 'prophecies' that you've been caught by?
In that sense our world is an illusion. It's everyone's illusion: an interweaving web of beliefs, of filters on reality. If we want to change our world, to improve our world, we need at the very least to change how we see it, what we believe about it. But the only beliefs we can change directly are our own – and even then it's not easy. Those 'curses', those self-destructive beliefs that we were taught as children, will seem to block us at every step: at times they twist and turn against us, like a peculiarly evil and insidious form of magic.
Children believe in magic: the 'inner child' still does – with good reason, if you think of belief as magic.
That's the child's point of view – not childish, but childlike. So once again we let go... play with belief the child's way, and work with it as if it is magic. Yet magic is, well... weird. Wyrd... Yet knowing now something of the nature of wyrd – 'there's always a choice, there's always a twist' – we can use the magic of belief to overcome the tyranny of belief: we can choose to twist it into a new and more constructive tool. Repetition – this strange process of 'what I tell you three times is true' – is how we were taught the habits that now restrict us; so now, in its turn, we can use repetition to help us break free of them.
AN AFFIRMATIVE HABIT
One way to bring up these habits of thought, and rebuild them, is through 'affirmations' – repetitive statements of intent that tend to highlight our resistance to change. And there's a surprising amount of resistance...
An affirmation (or 'intention', 'postulate', 'manifestation', 'positive thought' – there are many different terms for much the same thing) is just another belief. The difference is that, unlike those destructive curse-beliefs, it's one that we choose – as a tool to help us – rather than imposed on us by someone else. An affirmation is an invented belief, repeated over and over again, just like the 'curses', and with the same intention of making the belief into another self-confirming prophecy. Once again, the untrue becomes true – but this time in a constructive rather than self-destructive sense.
To make an affirmation, we simply write out this new constructed belief: for example, "I, Chris, now have total confidence in my ability to do anything I want". We then stop for a moment; listen for a moment; then write down the objections that are likely to come flooding in!
The first of the objections that we're likely to hit is the silliness barrier – and hard. Immediately, the whole thing seems ridiculous, childish, pointless – silly. Let alone those bitter memories of 'writing lines' as a punishment at school: "Kelley, write out one hundred times, 'I must not ask stupid questions in class"... So we acknowledge the barrier – work with it, work round it: yes, it does seem childish – it's meant to be, so as to be childlike. Yes, the statement isn't true: I don't have confidence in my ability to do anything I want – but the whole idea is to learn how to believe it to be true, so that it has a chance to become true. Yes, it does sound ridiculously optimistic: but that's only because we're so used to being forced to be pessimistic. And so on; and so
Let go... let play... let the magic of belief break the tyranny of belief...
There are so many beliefs that cripple us, it's difficult to know where to begin! But try taking a repeated experience that the world seems to confirm as 'true' – for example, "I never get any credit for what I do" – and view it as if it was the result of a self-destructive belief that you hold at an unconscious level: "I don't deserve credit for what I do". Imagine that it's a belief you've learnt, or been taught, through constant repetition or constant example – which you may even know to have been the case. To counteract it, turn this belief around – "I do deserve credit for what I do" – and repeat it to yourself. Often! After all, the destructive belief was repeated to you often enough.
To make this an affirmation, put yourself into this new belief: "I, __, deserve credit for what I do". (And sometimes in the second- and third-person forms – "You, __, deserve credit for what you do" and "__ deserves credit for what he/she does" – because that's how the old belief was given to you.) Write out this statement on a piece of paper; as you write it, affirm it to yourself as being true – say it aloud, perhaps, put some emotion into it. Then wait for a moment. See what objections come up – "People don't like me, that's why I don't deserve credit" – and write those down under the affirmation, slightly to one side. Then write the affirmation again; then the objections. Repeat this sequence at least a dozen times.
Listen carefully to the objections – can you sometimes hear someone else's voice saying them – the person whose belief it was in the first place? And can you see how bizarre and unreal some of the objections turn out to be?
It is important to regard this as play – which, to the child, is its real work. It's a good idea to treat the whole process like a piece of magic, as a piece of ritual – buy a new book to write these affirmations in, use your best pen, write in a quiet space, perhaps light a candle first... It's the 'inner child' we're working with here, so we appeal to the childlike nature of the child within us!
The usual recommendation is to do this with only one affirmation at a time, twice a day, for at least two or three weeks. (If that seems a lengthy process, remember that it's quick by comparison with the months and years of repetition through which we first learned each 'curse' that restricts us now.) It does work – though, as is typical with wyrd, not often in the way that we expect.
What we can expect, at the very least, is change: if nothing else, affirmations can be a good way of breaking 'stuckness' in our lives. It seems to be important to write these phrases and responses: speaking them, even aloud, does not seem to be enough. Perhaps writing is a way of driving the new beliefs into memory, driving them back into our deepest self, in much the same way as it's usually easier to remember a lecture from written notes even than from a tape-recording. I don't know: all we know is that it is so. Part of the magic, I presume.
Watch how the resistance arises – our own resistance to our actually living our life your own way. "It can't work", for example; "I don't deserve that, that would be too good", perhaps; or "It doesn't happen anyway, and I can't see how it could be possible, so it can't be possible". Again and again we'll find it breaks down to a simple statement, a simple belief: "It's not allowed for me to be me". But if that's so, how come other people are allowed to do what they want in life? That's worth looking at for a while.
Take one of your resistances that comes up regularly – "I don't deserve to be happy", for example – and apply the same process as for affirmations, but in reverse. Write out that statement in the same way as an affirmation – and then note the (more conscious) objections that come up to the statement. Wear down the resistance by showing, slowly, that it's absurd. "If I don't deserve happiness and affection, how come other people do deserve it?". "In which case, what is there that's so specially different about me that means I alone don't deserve to be happy?". And so on.
Can you see that the resistance is, in essence, a belief? One that is actively harmful to you? And one which, in all probability, you've been taught – for someone else's benefit, not your own?
Work at it for a while. You may even begin to see where you learnt the habit, and why: "I mustn't be happy because my big sister hits me if I show I'm happy", for example. Habits learnt very early, beliefs that are usually no longer relevant, but which we all still act on now...
One reason why it's useful to look at the resistances in this backwards way is that most of us look at the negative side, the weaknesses, first – and believe them. There's often a strong cultural pressure to do so: being positive or optimistic is considered egotistical, or naive, or both. It's not acceptable, not done, to accept ourselves as we are: we're soon made to feel pretty uncomfortable if we don't put ourselves down – as we saw earlier with the example of the bullying teacher.
But just remember: 'Whose life is it, anyway?'. It's your life: it's your right to reclaim power with your life. And this is one way to do it – to put new changes, new beliefs, into action.
Think of this as affirmative action – but there also needs to be an emphasis on action. If we only write the new beliefs out as affirmations, and then just sit on our backsides, waiting for things to happen by themselves, we're believing in the wrong kind of magic... What we're doing with the affirmation, in effect, is lifting a thread of wyrd to the surface, to look at it and see how we've usually pushed it away from our lives. But that, on its own, changes nothing. We also have to find a way to connect with that new thread: having written "I now have confidence in my ability", for example, I have to go out into the weirdness of the world and find that new confidence, find our connection with it. Let our selves find it – or perhaps let it find us.
So go looking – but without looking. Try to find it but without trying. It does take a bit of practice...
An affirmation itself is no more than a game with beliefs, a 'head-trip': to be useful, it needs to be grounded, brought into connection with the version of reality we share with everyone else. So having written out a series of affirmations, do something to 'earth' it, to honour and affirm the change in your intention. Almost anything will do: but do something. Put yourself in a different place or different situation for a change. Don't bother trying to think through what the best response would be – just follow a whim, an impulse. The wyrd thrives on difference, not sameness... thinking, on its own, will only give us 'more of the same'.
And then watch what happens: see what Reality Department gives you back. Watch the feelings, the emotions, the uncertainties that arise as you do these 'active affirmations': think of these as resistances, just like those that came up on paper as you wrote. What do these tell you?
Sometimes deciding what to do to act on an affirmation is a bit like looking for a dim star at night – it's not as simple as it seems. For a start, we sometimes have to put ourselves in a different environment: in the glare of the street lights of the city, it's hard to see anything of the sky at night, let alone a barely-visible star. If we don't do anything, if we don't try – don't even bother to stick your head out of the door – we'll never see the star: the chance will simply pass us by. Yet if we do look in the obvious way, straight at it, it disappears – and the harder we look for it, the more it disappears. The trick to seeing it is to look away slightly, to look not at it, but near it – look at it without looking at it – and let it come to us. It's much the same putting these affirmations into action: we have to do something, but somehow let the results come to us.
One way in which the results may come to us is not at all what we'd expect: namely in the form of some incident that acts like a test, a challenge. For example, if your affirmation was "I now have confidence in my ability", you might hope for people turning round and telling you how wonderful you are: but don't be surprised if, instead, some stranger comes up with exactly the same kind of derogatory remark that put you down in the first place. It's a test, a challenge: and you'll notice, by your reactions, just how much you've allowed your beliefs to change...
It's weird – but that's how it works, that's how it is. That, after all, is the nature of wyrd!
After a while working with affirmations, we can begin to see some changes – some of the old, evidently self-destructive patterns begin to weaken, until they're nothing like as compulsive as they were. For example, I recognised that I'd always viewed being on my own as a punishment – "Go to your room!", my parents would say – which had led me to cling on to others, especially parent-figures, to prove that I wasn't considered 'bad'... and kept doing this compulsively well into adulthood. Recognising this as an old fear, I turned it round and made it into an affirmation, "The more I, Chris, enjoy being on my own, the more I can enjoy being with others", and worked with it each evening for a while. It wasn't until about a month later that I noticed I wasn't going out much in the old compulsive "Got to see someone or I'll go crazy!" mode any more; instead, without my particularly doing anything to make it happen, people were coming to see me. In fact I was getting annoyed that I didn't seem to have enough time on my own...
The point was that I'd always needed time on my own – but I wasn't allowing myself to get it, because I was afraid of it, of what aloneness symbolised. But the wyrd knew what I needed, so to speak... so it's given me enforced periods of loneliness many times in my life! One way or another we always get what we need: but it may not be in the form that we want... With the weirdness of wyrd, there's always a choice, but there's also always a twist.
More accurately, the wyrd seems to give us always what we say we want – which may not be what we think we want. As long as we're stuck in habit, and in unawareness of our needs and of what we're asking for, we can hardly complain about what the wyrd ends up giving us – if I outwardly say I want company, but am inwardly screaming for time on my own, it's hardly surprising that the results in my life are a mess!
So to give those affirmations something on which to work, and to help the web of wyrd to give us a more worthwhile way of living, we need next to gain more clarity about our wants and needs, desires and intentions – and the subtle distinctions between them.
The Traveller's Guide to
A guide to the history and fantasy,
The Traveller's Guide to ARTHURIAN BRITAIN
A guide to the history and fantasy, poetry and romance,
A "biography" and its setting
Monmouth, Geoffrey's presumed birthplace, is on the south-east fringe of Wales. His family background is unknown, but he was familiar with Welsh traditions, and interested in the Celtic Britons from whom the Welsh were descended. A cleric, and probably a teacher, he was at Oxford from 1129 to 1151. In the late 1130s he produced a Latin History of the Kings of Britain covering a stretch of time not far short of two thousand years. It makes out that wandering Trojans founded a monarchy in the island then called Albion and re-named it Britain. Geoffrey runs through a long series of British kings including Shakespeare's King Lear, nearly all of them fictitious. When he gets to the Roman conquest, and thus to recorded history, he has to be a little more factual. But he claims that it wasn't a true conquest, and British kings went on reigning as tributary rulers.
Britain, in his narrative, breaks away from the Roman Empire, and here he begins building up to an Arthurian climax. He tells us that a sinister British noble, Vortigern, made himself king, and two rightful princes went into exile. The usurper had trouble with the Picts in the north, and invited some Saxons, led by Hengist, to cross over from the Continent and settle in Britain as auxiliary troops. More Saxons flooded into the country and got out of control, seizing land for themselves and spreading chaos through Britain. Vortigern fled to Wales, where he encountered Merlin, who prophesied his doom and the advent of a deliverer. The princes returned, Vortigern was killed, and the Saxons were partially contained, though still turbulent and aggressive.
The elder prince, Aurelius Ambrosius, reigned for a short time. His brother Uther succeeded him. At a banquet in London Uther was seized with ungovernable desire for Ygerna, the wife of Gorlois, duke of Cornwall. Gorlois withdrew from the court taking her with him. Uther considered himself insulted and led an army into Cornwall to ravage the ducal lands. Gorlois left Ygerna for safety in a fortress out on the headland of Tintagel, accessible only along a narrow ridge, and marched off to oppose the king. He was outwitted. Merlin gave Uther a magic potion that turned him into an exact replica of Gorlois, and in that effective disguise he entered Tintagel past its guards and found his way to Ygerna, who, thinking him to be her husband, made no difficulties. She conceived Arthur. The real Gorlois had just fallen in battle, so Uther resumed his own shape and made Ygerna his queen.
Uther was poisoned by a Saxon, and Arthur became king while still in his teens. He soon showed gifts of leadership, and launched a series of campaigns, routing and dispersing the Saxons and subduing the Picts and Scots. He had a special sword called Caliburn, forged in the Isle of Avalon. He married Guinevere and made himself popular with his subjects. Next he conquered Ireland, and then Iceland (which would not have been difficult, because in those days Iceland was uninhabited). Twelve years of peace and prosperity ensued. Arthur founded an order of knighthood enrolling distinguished men from various lands. Britain was fast becoming pre-eminent in Europe. This was the time, or at least the beginning of the time, when the adventures related in romance were said to have happened.
The Roman Empire still had a shaky hold on Gaul, now France. Arthur had designs on the Empire himself. He won over many Gauls to his side, crossed the Channel with an army, and took possession. Around this part of the story we are beginning to get familiar names in the royal entourage – Gawain, Bedivere, Kay. Some years later Arthur was holding court at Caerleon in Wales when envoys arrived from Rome demanding that he restore his conquests and pay tribute, as earlier British kings had done. Judging attack to be the best defence, Arthur led another army to Gaul, leaving his nephew Modred at home as his deputy, in joint charge with Guinevere. While he was away Modred proclaimed himself king, conspired with the Saxons, and persuaded the queen to live in adultery with him. Arthur, who had got as far as Burgundian territory, was forced to return. He defeated and killed the traitor in a battle by the River Camel in Cornwall, but was seriously wounded himself and "carried off to the Isle of Avalon so that his wounds might be attended to", handing over the crown to a cousin. It is not stated that he died. Geoffrey knew of a folk-belief that he was still alive, and left the door open for it, but did not commit himself.
As to the time when all this is supposed to have happened, an important clue is that western Europe still has a Roman ruler. Since there were no emperors in the west after 476, Arthur's continental exploits must be before that. Allusions to a real emperor Leo, who ruled in the east from 457 to 474, narrow the range. This context for Arthur is in harmony with his family relationships. Unfortunately Geoffrey's readers are also given something rare in his History, an exact date, and it doesn't fit. Arthur's passing is assigned to the year 542. Its total incompatibility is one of several reasons for thinking it an error, and it can in fact be brought into line as an error of a known medieval kind, which we need not go into. If we dismiss it and take everything else together, we see a fairly coherent picture of a reign lasting twenty-five to thirty years, largely in the 450s and 460s.
So again, where did Geoffrey get this from? Did he get it from anywhere? Or was the entire Legend born in his imagination?
We need to understand how he works. In the previous part of his History dealing with the Roman period, where there is solid information, we can compare. First, he is not really writing history and he can never be trusted for facts. What he says about Julius Caesar and others is a travesty of the truth. Secondly, however, it is a travesty of a truth which is on record, and which he does to some extent know. He habitually uses history, or what he would like to think is history, to evolve his fiction. Except in the early chapters on mythical Britons in an impenetrable past, he doesn't contrive major episodes out of nothing at all. He draws his inspiration from real events or established stories or names or monuments; always from something. With his biography of Arthur, we can be sure that he has some basis for it ... or thinks he has.
As far as the hero's setting is concerned, he has. Post-Roman Britain is very poorly documented, but we can allow that his story shows knowledge of things that actually happened. Archaeology, while not supplying all the support we could wish, does supply some.
Most of Britain was under Roman rule for well over three hundred years. Its people were British Celts, ancestors of the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons; there were no English as yet. The upper classes received a veneer of imperial civilization and, in course of time, Christianity. As the Empire weakened in the west, under pressure from barbarians, the island on the fringe was exposed and hard to defend. Britain was beset by Irish, Picts and Saxons.
About 410, political upheavals cut if off from the centre and it broke away. The emperor authorized the Britons to look after themselves.
The administration carried on for a while, but regional chiefs were rising in importance, and one of them seems to have attained paramountcy over a good deal of the country. This was the Vortigern whom Geoffrey medievalizes as a crafty usurper. He played a leading part in a policy on imperial lines, providing a group of barbarians with land and supplies in return for keeping order and driving off other barbarians. Saxons, Angles and Jutes, ancestors of the English, were settled in Britain on this basis to contain the Picts. Here again, in the tale of Vortigern and Hengist, Geoffrey romanticizes facts. More settlers arrived without permission. Somewhere in the 440s the reinforced Saxons allied themselves with the Picts they were supposed to contain and began raiding far and wide, right across to the western sea. This phase of revolt probably dragged on into the 450s, a side-effect being a flight of Britons across the Channel, laying the foundations of Brittany.
At last the raiders withdrew into their authorized enclaves. The sequel was without parallel anywhere else. Alone among Roman ex-provincials, the Britons had become independent before the barbarians moved in. Now, alone among Roman ex-provincials, they cared enough to fight back. A noble, Ambrosius Aurelianus, organized counteraction. His name shows that his family was still Roman in its traditions and sympathies. To-and-fro warfare followed, and Saxon incursions at new points. Britain probably had long spells of partial and even general peace, but fighting in the 490s culminated in a British success at "Mount Badon", unidentified, though almost certainly in the south. For a while the situation was stabilized. A brief Celtic resurgence was marked by activity in the Church and swift growth of the colonies that were forming Brittany. Eventually the Anglo-Saxons took over most of the country and made it England – Angle-land – but the Britons' descendants held out in Wales and elsewhere, handing down songs and stories about the phase of independence.
Gildas, a monk writing in the 530s or thereabouts, testifies to the main post-Roman course of events. He is a sermonizer, not a historian. He makes terrible mistakes, and the only Briton whom he names between the break with Rome and his own time – a stretch of well over a century – is Ambrosius. Nevertheless he is an early witness for the Saxon disaster, the partial recovery, and the battle of Badon.
Geoffrey, in his corresponding chapters, is giving his own treatment to these happenings. He knows of Vortigern and he knows of Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom he turns into King Aurelius Ambrosius. Since he did have some awareness of this near-anonymous turmoil, we can reasonably ask whether he found a real Arthur in it – not, of course, the King Arthur of the Legend, but some Briton whom he built up into his towering monarch.
If we could trust his preface the answer would be "yes". He claims that he translated the History from "a certain very ancient book in the British language" given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. The British language could be either Welsh or Breton. Geoffrey and Walter were acquainted. Moreover, Geoffrey makes one specific statement about the book's contents, that it gave him information on Arthur's downfall: hence, presumably, on his reign. What he says about the book is, alas, incredible. He is simply trying to make his inventions more respectable by alleging an older source for them. Other medieval authors do much the same. Still, the touch about Arthur's downfall is an extra. Geoffrey may have had some Welsh or Breton text, now lost, that told of him.
While "may have" is not an argument, an original Arthur would at least fit into the sequence of events, as a leader during the phase of British recovery. There is a curious piece of evidence for him. His name is a Welsh form of the Roman "Artorius". It suggests someone from a family like Ambrosius's, still not remote from the imperial world. It doesn't suggest a Celtic god or fairy-tale paladin. Such a being would hardly have had a Roman name. The name is actually on record in Roman Britain, proof that it was known. Lucius Artorius Castus took a legion across the Channel in 184 to suppress a rebellion. He is much too early to be the original, and the notion of his having descendants or namesakes is a pure guess. But after a long gap with no other men so called, we begin to find several in the sixth century, up and down Britain, even in Scotland. It looks as if some saga had elevated a post-Roman Briton into a national hero.
We may be closing in on him. Failing the ancient book, what can we say Geoffrey of Monmouth knew that gave him inklings of such a person?
Arthur in Wales
Before his time, Welsh bards, story-tellers and clerics had generated a varied body of literature – much more, written and oral, than survives today. Arthur occurs in several connections. Poems extolled him as proverbial for prowess in war, and one said there was a mystery about his grave, though it stopped short of saying he was immortal and never had one. Other poems gave him a train of followers, some decidedly larger than life and credited with slaying monsters as well as enemies. Popular tales abounded. Most of them are lost, and we must infer their contents from tantalizing summaries grouped in threes, called triads. Early triads mention Arthur quite often, attesting his fame, but they are not much help as background for Geoffrey's narrative. From that point of view the only interesting ones are a few that refer to a sort of feud between Arthur and "Medrawd", and to a fatal battle at Camlan. There are hints here for Modred's turning against Arthur, though not for the circumstances, and for the final clash by the River Camel.
A single pre-Geoffrey tale has survived complete, composed in its present form late in the tenth century. Culhwch and Olwen ("Culhwch" is pronounced Kil-hooch, with the ch as in "loch") is colourful and extravagant and savage and comic. Arthur is the chief prince of Britain with a court assembling most of the men and women of note in Welsh tradition, as well as many mythical figures. Pre-Christian Celtic beliefs make their presence felt. One was that there are "Otherworld" regions – places not in our world yet somehow in contact with it – which are abodes of spirits and fairy-folk. An Otherworld ruler, Gwyn, is among the characters. Arthur and his company have fantastic adventures. They hunt a colossal boar, Twrch Trwyth, who is really a wicked king under a spell. This boar-hunt has left its mark on local lore. Apart from its literary merits, Culhwch and Olwen is a storehouse of information on Welsh legend. However, it is hard to trace any use of it by Geoffrey. He may have got the idea of Arthur's court from it, but the court he portrays is very different.
Finally, several Latin "Lives" of Welsh saints include anecdotes of Arthur. They are rather hostile, and inconsistent, making him sometimes king of Britain and sometimes a war-lord or "tyrant". A recurring motif is the saints' superiority, shown when their supernatural powers make him repent of his misdeeds.
From this Welsh matter, Geoffrey picked up some notions, and he picked up some characters – Merlin (originally Myrddin), Guinevere, Kay, Bedivere, Modred. However, none of it adds up to a real source for his Arthur story or any large part of it. Fabulous adventures, as in Culhwch and Olwen, don't disprove Arthur's reality. Fabulous adventures were ascribed to Alexander the Great and other real people. But we are certainly a long way from history.
Just two Welsh items – Latin items from Wales – are on a different footing. A tenth-century chronicle, the Annales Cambriae or Annals of Wales, has a couple of Arthur entries. It notes the victory of Badon, noted long before in Gildas's tract, and assigns Arthur a major role in it, saying he "carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ" – probably meaning an emblem, or one of the reputed fragments of the True Cross that were treasured as relics. Arthur is a Christian champion here against the heathen Saxons, as he is not in the Saints' Lives. The Annals also note "the strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell". While Medraut is Medrawd or Modred, the chronicler does not say that he was a traitor or even that the two were opposed. Attempts have been made to argue that the Camlann entry was posted from a more trustworthy chronicle nearer to Arthur's time, but there is no sound reason to think so.
Delving back farther, we come to a book written early in the ninth century, the Historia Brittonum or History of the Britons. It is attributed to a monk named Nennius, perhaps wrongly, but it is convenient to say "Nennius" to mean the author. The book is a medley of Welsh legend, just-possible history, and fantasy. It includes two local legends bringing in Arthur. If we stick to the parts that may have some relation to fact, we find an account of Vortigern, his opening the door to the Saxons, and the consequent catastrophe. There is also an account of his meeting a mysterious boy-prophet in Snowdonia, named Ambrose, with discouraging results for himself.
Nennius has a chapter on Arthur. Dropping out of the blue without much preamble, it consists of a rapid survey of twelve battles which he is said to have won against the Saxons. It may be based on an older Welsh poem in his praise, though no such poem exists now. Nennius is unclear as to his status. He makes him the British warleader, dux bellorum, co-ordinating the efforts of Britain's "kings" or regional rulers. This chapter was used briefly before Geoffrey by two non-Welsh historians, William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon. William infers that Arthur was a great, charismatic warrior in Ambrosius's service, not a king himself; Henry, that he was "the leader of the soldiers and kings of Britain". Both might have been the case at different stages of his career. Arthur is a Christian champion here too, carrying a holy image.
Nennius mentions Mount Badon, credited to Arthur as in the Annals, and presented as the climactic twelfth battle. The others build up to it, identified by puzzling place-names. The most comprehensible are in different parts of Lincolnshire, in the "Forest of Celidon", and in "the City of the Legion". The Forest of Celidon was in southern Scotland. Another passage shows that for Nennius the City of the Legion was Chester. All these battles, seven out of the twelve, would fit best into a mid-fifth-century setting. The Lincolnshire battles would have been against Angles encroaching up the Wash and Humber. There were no Saxons in Scotland till long afterwards, but during the anarchic phase of revolt and cross-country raiding they had Pictish allies who might have provoked reprisals. Chester, too far west for relevant war later in the century, could be allotted to the same phase, as the target of a cross-country raid.
Geoffrey makes use of these two texts. He improves Nennius's account of Vortigern, the Saxons, and the young prophet, though he makes out that the prophet was the youthful Merlin, thus introducing his second most famous character. He adapts some of the battles. He turns Medraut into Arthur's nephew Modred, deputy-ruler and traitor. He has Arthur fall at Camlann, revised and interpreted as the Camel. So parts at least of his Arthur story draw on earlier matter and are not total fantasy. His habitual practice is confirmed. However, if we are looking for real history, and particularly if we are looking for a real Arthur, the earlier matter is not early enough. It is written closer to the events, if any, but still centuries after them. And it already has touches of legend that cast doubt on it. At Badon, Nennius assures us, Arthur killed 960 of the enemy himself in a single charge. Heroes' deeds get exaggerated over the years, but not to this extent in contemporary reports. Because the Welsh present Arthur in such different guises – as a feuding chief, as a protagonist in impossible exploits, as a foil for the saints, as Britain's war-leader – sceptics have urged that he is too inconsistent to be true. Not so. The best parallel here is not Alexander but a more recent person, the American folk-hero Davy Crockett, given juvenile cult status by Disney during the 1950s. Born in Tennessee in 1786, he hunted in wild country and fought Indians, then went into politics, entering Congress in Washington as a picturesque backwoodsman. In 1836 he joined the Texan volunteers defending the Alamo against a Mexican army, and died there. In his political campaigning he had made his mark by telling tall tales from the frontier and encouraging supporters to embroider his own life-story in the same spirit. After 1836 legends clustered around him. Within a year or two he was alleged to have killed 85 Mexicans during the siege – not 960, admittedly, but the time for exaggeration was shorter. He was rumoured to be still alive. Yarn-spinners took up his tall-tale aspect in print, going beyond anything in Culhwch and Olwen. Their fictitious Davy rode on the lightning, climbed Niagara on the back of an alligator, greased the earth's axis to set it spinning again in a freeze-up. An American historian once complained that Crockett's biography could not be written because there were half a dozen of him. Yet he existed, and he shows that Arthur's inflation and diversification don't disprove his own existence.
To revert to Nennius, he need not be rejected as dis credited. He may be giving us facts, and so may the Annals. Some at least of the battles may be authentic; Gildas's tract is a much older testimony to Badon. But if we do try to treat this matter as history, we face an immediate problem. It makes Arthur's life-span absurd. The most acceptable battles, before Badon, only make good sense in the middle of the fifth century. Badon itself occurred not far from the year 500, probably a little before. So we would deduce from what Gildas says ... but the Annals contradict him, putting Badon in 518. They put Camlann in 539. To cover all the data Arthur would have to be an active warrior when over a hundred years old.
If these texts gave a chronological fix – a statement calibrating him with known history – we might be able to pin him down somewhere in the time-range, and then find explanations for whatever won't fit. The Welsh matter never gives such a fix. It never says Arthur was born when X was emperor, or died when Y was pope. Historically he hangs in a void.
All is not lost, however. We have one more resource, Geoffrey's account of the Gallic warfare, and it is far from negligible. It takes up half his Arthur story. Assessed by allocation of space, his Arthur is more a continental campaigner than anything else. He thinks this part of the king's career is very important. Romancers after him do not go so far, but their Arthur often has a continental domain. Modern readers and novelists are not sympathetic. After all, contemporaries across the Channel don't seem to have noticed any major British invasions. Yet if we dismiss this part of the story as imaginary, we must assume that Geoffrey is fabricating half of Arthur's career out of nothing at all. It is not his style. There has to be something, and since Welsh tradition has no trace of it, it must be elsewhere.
Furthermore, in his Gallic chapters he supplies what the Welsh never do, a chronological fix – the only one Arthur ever gets. The Gallic campaigns happen in the reign of the aforesaid Leo, emperor in the east from 457 to 474. Clues from other names tie down the final campaign much more closely, to a couple of years, 469 – 70. Geoffrey's indications of date are not often so precise. When writing of the final campaign he is thinking of something relevant which happened about then.
Something did. We are touching bedrock at last. In 467 Leo appointed a colleague, Anthemius, to take charge in the west. Anthemius tried to retrieve the situation in Gaul, much of it overrun by an assortment of barbarians. He negotiated an alliance with a man described as "the King of the Britons", who crossed to Gaul with 12,000 troops. Historians have underrated him in the belief that he was only a chief of Bretons, but that opinion no longer holds. He did come over from Britain. One historian, James Campbell, suggests that he had authority on both sides of the Channel.
After a pause north of the Loire, when he may have aided British settlers against marauding Saxons, he marched into central Gaul to oppose the Visigoths who were advancing from Spain. But Arvandus, the imperial governor, had been acting treacherously, proposing to the Visigoths that they should crush the Britons and share out Gaul with the Burgundians, who held parts of the east and south. Though Arvandus was detected, the Visigoths pushed ahead to Bourges, which the "King of the Britons" had occupied. After fierce fighting he retreated into Burgundian territory, probably in 470. No more is said about him.
Here we have raw materials for Geoffrey's story. The "King of the Britons" was in Gaul with his sea-borne army at the right time. He advanced to the Burgundian neighbourhood. He was betrayed by a deputy-ruler who conspired with barbarians. When we last see him he is even moving in the direction of a real town called Avallon (still there). Geoffrey's Latin form of that place-name doesn't correspond to its Welsh original and may well have been influenced by the town in Gaul.
Several authors have noticed this king and wondered if he was Arthur. The drawback is that he is referred to, with slight variations, as Riothamus. The h is due to scribes copying manuscripts with notions of their own about spelling. The correct form would have been Riotamus. Anyhow Geoffrey almost certainly has him in mind when relating Arthur's continental adventures. He inflates wildly, he changes the politics, he invents British successes – things he does in other parts of the History. But here, at last, the trail leads back to someone living at the right time who could be the original. Riotamus is the only documented person who does anything Arthurian, and he really is documented. We even have a letter to him.
The natural objection is, "Yes, but Geoffrey just took a hint from what this man did and made out that Arthur did it, or an exaggerated version of it. That needn't mean he thought Riotamus was Arthur. After all, the name is wrong." That fails to settle the question. Other people did think Riotamus was Arthur. A Breton, probably before Geoffrey and certainly not copying him, introduces a legend of a saint with a preface reviewing events in the fifth century, and sketches the activities of "Arthur, King of the Britons" (the same title) in terms that fit Riotamus. Half a dozen chroniclers, later than Geoffrey but still not copying him, concur to give Arthur a reign running from about 454 to 470, the year when Riotamus drops out of the record. Apparently they see the two as the same, and very likely they draw on somebody earlier who took that view. One other chronicle has an intriguing touch. It calls Arthur's betrayer Morvandus, which looks like a mix-up of "Mordred", the more literary form of the traitor's name, with "Arvandus", the name of Riotamus's actual betrayer.
As it seems that these authors equated Arthur with Riotamus, Geoffrey is probably doing likewise. The identification means that there has to be a solution of the name difficulty. Otherwise it could never have happened. It could be that Riotamus simply had two names, as some Britons did, that the other name was Arthur or rather Artorius, and that he passed into tradition under that one. A less conjectural notion would follow from the meaning of "Riotamus". It is a Latin version of a term in the British language, Rigotamos, "supreme king" or "supremely royal". It may have been a sobriquet, even a title, bestowed on a man after he rose to prominence, and used in addressing him or referring to him. He could have been Arthur.
That is to assume that "Arthur" came first and "Riotamus" was additional. It might have been the other way round, with "Riotamus" as the king's original style: more likely perhaps, since it appears later in Welsh adaptations as a proper name. As noted, a previous Arthur, Lucius Artorius Castus, took an army across the Channel. A leader taking another army across the Channel might have been hailed by some knowledgeable poet as a "second Artorius". And there is a last possibility, which is odd yet worth mentioning. If "Riotamus" was the king's original name, "Artorius" could have been a sort of nickname derived from it. ARTORIUS is almost an anagram of RIOTAMUS, and could have been suggested by a reading of the letters on (say) a medallion. RIOTAMUS, plus an r for rex, king, can be arranged quite neatly to give that result.
RIOTAMUS reads clockwise, omitting the R, which is slightly nearer the centre. The reading counter-clockwise, starting from A and bringing the R in, spells ARTORIUS. The M is left out, but it doesn't break the sequence of letters. Frivolous? Maybe. Still it is interesting that this can be done at all.
Nothing is on record concerning Riotamus, as such, back in Britain before he went overseas. However, he was important enough for word of him to reach Rome through the tumult of western Europe, and cause an emperor to seek his alliance. "King of the Britons" looks like an excessive title, but he was king of some of them and probably a good many, since he could raise a substantial army and assemble a fleet to carry it. His cross-Channel contact suggests that he ruled in the West Country, Arthurian territory, and he could just about have initiated the biggest "Arthurian" project revealed by archaeology, the refortification of Cadbury Castle, reputedly Camelot. If he was involved in the anti-Saxon resistance, all of Nennius's locatable battles could find a place in his timeframe. By the date of his overseas expedition, Saxon pressure had presumably eased.
We have a provisional answer to the question "Did Arthur exist?" though not the impossible yes-or-no. Arthur is almost entirely legend, at one level or another, but he has a real original, and that original may well have been the King of the Britons who went to Gaul. There is no firm evidence for any rival "real Arthur". Yet when we study these beginnings, we face legend-making in Britain as far back as we can get, even apart from the slaughter of 960 Saxons. No single leader is likely to have done everything Arthur is supposed to have done, fighting all the battles and falling at Camlann, especially if the Annals are right in putting Camlann in the sixth century. The Riotamus candidacy works well in the early part of the time-range. It gives an answer, if any is needed, to a cavil sometimes heard – that Arthur's name doesn't appear in Gildas. If he lived that much earlier, beyond living memory, no reader who has struggled with Gildas will be surprised that it doesn't. However, the candidacy runs into trouble later. If we forget all the medieval growth, Arthur still has to be a composite figure. The same could be said of Merlin, who presents difficulties of much the same kind.
In Riotamus we may have an authentic glimpse, a moment in continental limelight. But when he or some unknown became a British hero, under the great name, the saga absorbed the exploits of others, possibly others called Arthur. A Welsh poem indicates that a war-band known as "Arthur's Men" may have continued in being after his death, perhaps long after. If so, bardic praises of Arthur's Men, on dimly-recalled occasions, might have inspired legends of their founder's presence in person when he was long since dead. In discussing places associated with Arthur, we must sometimes content ourselves with meaning "the man who is said to have done such-and-such at this place", with no commitment as to identity. The mystery, in the end, abides.
The Anglo-Normans who ruled England in Geoffrey's time were receptive to his History, partly, no doubt, because it put the "Saxons" whom they had conquered in a poor light. Their successors ruled a large part of France as well, and were glad to have their parvenu empire given proud antecedents. In 1155 a poet named Wace, from Jersey, produced a free paraphrase of the History in French verse that made it more accessible. It was giving shape and coherence to a process which Wace noticed, the spread of other Arthurian matter. The saga which had grown up in Wales, and in Cornwall and Brittany too by now, was being disseminated piecemeal. A book by a French priest had recently recalled a visit to England as early as 1113, when West Country locals pointed out Arthurian sites, and, in Bodmin, insisted that King Arthur was still alive. Bretons were saying the same. There were at least two versions of this belief, that he was on an enchanted island – Geoffrey's Avalon – or that he was asleep in a cave. Either way, his return was hoped for. Breton minstrels said many other things about him, and spread through French-speaking lands and farther. Arthurian characters were carved over a doorway in Modena Cathedral, in Italy.
Without Geoffrey and Wace, it is unlikely that the scattered traditions would have converged in a single body of literature. Because of them, however, the latter part of the twelfth century saw the beginnings of an outpouring of narrative poems and prose tales in several languages. The great name is Chrétien de Troyes. The romancers created the full-blown Legend. New characters took the stage, among them Lancelot, and the Lady of the Lake. Merlin, who, in the History, had virtually dropped out after masterminding Arthur's birth, became the wonder-working sponsor of the whole reign. Other themes from Geoffrey were taken up and improved upon. He had introduced the knighthood, but the actual Round Table, imported by Wace from Breton folklore, became a ritual piece of furniture with symbolic meanings. Geoffrey had made Arthur hold court at Caerleon, an already-existing Roman city. Now he was given a headquarters of his own, Camelot. His sword Caliburn became Excalibur. Sometimes drawing on Celtic sources, more often not, romancers developed themes that are now familiar: the sword-in-the-stone test proving Arthur's right to the crown; the loves of the principal women; the fall of Merlin through his own love for an enchantress, who trapped him in a magic imprisonment; the acts of the ambiguous Gawain, though his greatest adventure, with the Green Knight, was a later topic; and the Quest of the Grail.
The last of these themes raises issues beyond the scope of fiction. Underlying it are pre-Christian myths about magical cauldrons and other marvellous vessels, and possibly, also, idiosyncrasies in the practices and beliefs of Celtic Christians. At its literary debut the Grail has a strange and rather disquieting ritual context. When fully Christianized it is explained as a cup or dish used by Christ at the Last Supper, with miraculous properties. It came to the "Vales of Avalon" in Somerset through the agency of Joseph of Arimathea, the rich disciple who provided Christ's tomb. He had caught drops of the Saviour's blood in it. Some time after its arrival in Britain it passed into the custody of a succession of guardians in an elusive castle. Many of Arthur's knights went in search of it. The romances are puzzling and contradictory. In the most important, the vision of the Grail is a spiritual initiation which only Galahad is worthy to achieve fully.
The key to the symbolism may have been lost. Ecclesiastics generally ignored the Grail and made no attempt to interpret it. From their point of view the stories, however Christian, were suspect. However, Joseph was named as the builder of the first church at Glastonbury, in the "Vales of Avalon". There, the monks of the Abbey had nothing to say about the Grail. Their chief chronicler made some use of the romances, but he told only of two small vessels called crnets which Joseph had brought to Britain, containing drops of the Lord's blood and sweat. These were holy relics with no mystical implications.
Glastonbury was also woven into the legendary fabric by the Abbey's assertion that Arthur was buried there and it was the real Avalon. Some accepted the claim, some did not, though no one seriously challenged it with a rival grave. In a famous version of his passing, when lying wounded after his last battle, he tells Bedivere to cast Excalibur into a lake. The knight demurs twice but finally complies, whereupon a hand rises out of the water, catches the sword, and draws it under. The king is then taken away to an Avalon that is not defined, perhaps to be healed and wait undying till the hour comes for his return. His golden age may not be lost for ever, it may be reborn.
Throughout much of the medieval period, the romances enjoyed a large public among the aristocracy and upper middle classes. One reason was that women were gaining ground socially, and their literary tastes carried weight. Unlike the martial epics of earlier days, Arthurian fiction had something for everybody. The love-stories – Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult – were a novelty, and while Guinevere was slow to mature as an interesting character, Iseult was always vivid and capable. Lords and ladies held "Round Table" entertainments at which the guests enacted Arthurian roles, feasted, and engaged in jousts and other suitable sports. Ironically, Arthur became a national hero of England, his role as enemy of the early English forgotten. Plantagenet sovereigns took him seriously. Edward I held five Round Table entertainments, and bolstered his claim to rule Scotland by saying Arthur had ruled Scotland. Edward III contemplated reviving the Arthurian knighthood, though, in the end, he founded the Order of the Garter instead.
The Arthurian wave gradually ebbed, but during the Wars of the Roses some of the best-known romances, most of them in French, were adapted by Sir Thomas Malory. More than an adapter, he made contributions of his own, one of them a great enhancement of Guinevere as a character. In 1485 Caxton edited and printed his writings, and Malory's version became the standard presentation of the cycle in English. It was the basis for many later works including Tennyson's Idylls of the King and the novels of T. H. White.
New perspectives, new departures
To sum up, the Arthurian Legend is a complex growth. Some of the stories belong to history, after a fashion. Some are myths and folk-tales that have been worked into the saga, and date from earlier ages as well as later. Some are barbaric, wild, timeless – products of bardic imagination. Some are due to the courtly romancers, and portray the king and those around him transformed into medieval figures. Stories appear on more than one level and in different forms. Even names vary widely and confusingly. "Drystan" and "Tristan" and "Tristram" all stand for the same person; so do "Medraut" and "Modred" and "Mordred"; so do "Gwenhwyfar" and "Guinevere" and "Ginevra"; so do "Essyllt" and "Iseult" and "Isolde".
Arthur can be pictured in quite a variety of ways. T. H. White, in The Once and Future King, was still sticking to Malory in the mid-twentieth century, though he superimposed modern ideas. But Arthurian authorship was already beginning to be affected by new research. Historians were re-examining sources, archaeologists were probing legendary sites.
An influential step had been taken in 1936 by R. G. Collingwood. Accepting Nennius's chapter on the battles, he suggested that Arthur was a Roman-style commander-in-chief who organized a cavalry corps and routed the pedestrian Saxons. The poet Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis, adopted Collingwood's theory. Others thought the cavalry fanciful, but, for several decades, were prepared to endorse the military view, sometimes looking toward the early sixth century rather than the fifth for Arthur's main activities. At length more critical studies swung the pendulum back toward scepticism. However, the "historical Arthur" issue had been raised and could not be exorcized. Riotamus, who had been noticed as a possible original long before (long before Collingwood, as a matter of fact), was rediscovered in the 1980s.
Archaeology had results which many found more exciting. Though never a deliberate search for Arthur, it drew attention to three places outstandingly linked with him: Tintagel, the scene of his conception and presumably birth; Glastonbury, with its Grail associations and grave; and Cadbury Castle, a hill-fort reputed to have been the real Camelot. In all three cases, the connection does not appear in written records for many centuries. Yet in all three cases, excavation showed that the places were British-occupied and important in the appropriate period. While it revealed nothing about Arthur, it proved that the people who focused on these places knew something about them and located him credibly. A purely accidental three-out-of-three score would have been too much. Knowledge of Arthur's Britain clearly persisted through a vast stretch of time. The story-tellers, therefore, were entitled to a hearing on other counts also.
When researchers dug into the strata underlying romance, some critics complained that their work was either destructive or pointless. New creative writing inspired by it refuted them. Rosemary Sutcliff in Sword at Sunset, Mary Stewart in novels of Merlin, Persia Woolley and Bernard Cornwell and others, bypassed the medieval scene and tried to recapture the world of Arthur as it might have been in its post-Roman reality. Marion Zimmer Bradley, in The Mists of Avalon, invented a new myth of her own with a woman as narrator. John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy in drama, John Heath-Stubbs in poetry, approached the subject by other paths again. Extension of knowledge has done no harm to the medieval cycle, which remains immortal literature. But it has enlarged and enriched the mythos itself with new insights into the enduring impression which Arthur and his companions have made.
It is because of this impression that "Arthurian Britain" is a meaningful term. Arthurian names, Arthurian lore, spread in a network over the land – a network of history and fantasy, poetry and romance, tradition and fable. Yet Arthurian Britain has an elusive quality. The map is unfamiliar. Oxford, Birmingham, Glasgow, do not appear on it. Zennor, Aberffraw, Drumelzier, do. Except at a few spectacular places like Tintagel, what often confronts the traveller is a kind of enigma: a landscape where a legend hovers; or some natural feature, an Arthur's Cave or Arthur's Hill; or a standing stone or fortification which is linked with his name or the name of someone in his circle. Why the legend, why the name? Even when a reason can be inferred, explanation may be in order.
Yet the quest is worth pursuing, the presence can be evoked. The tradition takes remarkable forms, clinging as it sometimes does to earthwork "castles" or hill-forts dating from the pre-Roman Iron Age, and to prehistoric structures older than that. With a few hill-forts such tales have a degree of substance, because they were re-occupied by Britons of Arthur's day. Sometimes, however, we get a name or a story only. We seldom know why the name was localized or when the story took shape. The process began more than a thousand years ago and has gone on into recent times.
It is striking that the Arthur of local legend appears as he does. He has very little fame in great cities and major historic settings. We are apt to find him in out-of-way places and on sites of immemorial age. Legend and folklore may belong to a half-barbaric fairyland, or carry echoes from unseen "Otherworld" realms of Celtic myth. Since the romantic image of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table has so long been the accepted one, it is strange how little impact it has had on place-lore. Moreover, most of the sites are in parts of Britain – the West Country, Wales, Cumbria, southern Scotland – where Celtic people, descendants of Arthurian Britons, kept their identity longest and in some cases keep it still. Even today, after all the literary development, Arthur's presence belongs mainly to regions where he could actually have flourished, not to the more English parts of England. As with the three archaeological sites, we glimpse a body of tradition that is rooted far back beyond the romances.
A note from the author
PROVINCE OF ULSTER
PROVINCE OF LEINSTER
PROVINCE OF MUNSTER
PROVINCE OF CONNACHT
A guide to the legends, lore and landscape
Sample one from this book:
A guide to the legends, lore and landscape
Sample two from this book:
Healing the Hurts of Nations - sample extract
The Wounds and Scars of Nations
How we got hurt, way back when
He's the man from the Mission. He's just painted plaster, hung up there, nailed to the wall. He lived up in heaven. He looked down at us. And one day he came and stole thousands of acres from us. That's him, that painted plaster statue. Damned liars - he isn't God.
Stresses and strains between different countries, ethnic and interest groups are all too frequently reported in the news. This indicates the extent to which nations and peoples are damaged by their past. All peoples without exception are affected by painful, malignant and distorting scars deriving from events taking place years, generations, centuries, even millennia ago. Sagas of the past and their remaining footprints influence collective judgement and the quality of life today. The worst thing is that these hidden influences are largely unconscious, unrecognised and not taken into account for the effect they have on us now.
In the last decade or two we have seen conflicts involving Bosnians, Kosovans, Croats and Serbs in Yugoslavia; Georgians and Abkhaz, Chechens, Armenians and Azeris, all in the Caucasus; Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in Afghanistan; Tigréans, Eritreans and Amharas in Ethiopia; Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda; Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land; Kurds in Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan; East Timorese in Indonesia; Tamils in Sri Lanka; Karens in Myanmar (Burma); Tibetans and Uighurs in western China; Zapotecs in Mexico; the Mende, Temne, Hausa and Bassa in West Africa and Zulus in South Africa. This is not a conclusive list. More groups, some of whom have had frictions for centuries, act out their conflicts too, whether violently, in heated exchanges, nervously or in suppressed frustration.
Anxious, seldom-expressed feelings ricochet between many peoples who are technically at peace. Germans, French and English are allies, but past shadows lurk around, coagulating around any niggle that comes up - recently evidenced in their sudden sparks over Iraq in early 2003. Northerners and Southerners in USA still reference back to the American civil war of the 1860s and vie with each other politically and culturally. Russia has a wary relationship with Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, going back to the 1920s and earlier. The relationship between French Québecois and English-speaking Canadians heats up periodically, dating back at least to the 1790s. Taiwanese frictions with mainland China go back to 1948 and the Communist victory over Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists. Sikhs in Punjab, sandwiched between Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan, look anxiously both ways, having done so for centuries. Shadows of the past deeply permeate attitudes and can, in exacerbated circumstances, lead to irritability, reactivity and trouble. Every nation has its own versions, even if frictions have gone quiet or are forgotten. Events and their implications have a way of digging out old wounds.
Buried pain and shadows cause nations to overreact to events and developments. They cause them to project unwholesome imagery on their neighbours and assume postures inaccurately representing their true position or interests. This can lead to self-destructive or mutually-harmful behaviour. The long Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 was a manifestation of a multi-chapter story at least three thousand years old, even though the insecurities between the regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran actually ignited the war. Iraq and Iran (Persia) have variously controlled and vied with each other for many centuries. The ruinous 1980s war cost 1.5 million lives, to little avail, hardening both societies and propelling both into years of difficulty. One wonders whether such conflicts are between opposing sides or actually between war and peace.
If there is a history of conflict, it does not mean conflict has to break out again. It depends on what happens, on leaderships and cultural movements and what they choose or omit to choose to do. In the early 1990s South Africa came dangerously close to civil war between whites and blacks and also between Zulus (Inkatha) and Xhosa (ANC). The day was saved by white and Zulu acceptance of the situation, coupled with a mature and inclusive philosophy pursued by the ANC toward all parties. People stepped back from the brink. Actually, it is usually by far the easiest solution - as long as the bones of contention are properly sorted out.
Two unique ethnic groups have fought less than one might expect, in the circumstances: the Armenians and the Kurds. Both have lived where they live since ancient times - 700 BCE and 2000 BCE respectively - and both have long been dominated by neighbours and split up by other people's political boundaries. Around 1915 1.75 million Armenians were massacred by the Turks or deported, mostly to die, and many others were dispersed worldwide. The Kurds have sustained chemical attack twice, from the British in 1922 and the Iraqis in 1988, and the 1980s repression of Kurds in eastern Turkey was exceptionally cruel. Even speaking and writing Kurdish became a crime. Today, Armenians are much diminished as a result of death and emigration. The Kurds have shown remarkable resilience and patience with their situation. Both groups have markedly persevered. Perseverance like this has been demonstrated more than anyone by Tibetans: when the Chinese invaded Tibet in the 1950s a resistance movement started amongst the Khampas in the east, but this was discouraged by the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetans have remained exceptionally pacific, despite extreme provocation.
There are several reasons why national hurts are propagated over time. Here we shall run through a number of them.
For the Palestinians, the wars of 1948-49 and 1967 have not been forgotten to this day - understandably, since so many were exiled and dispossessed, despite assurances by the British and the UN. Circumstances since then have been adverse for Palestinians. As a people, they are divided between and within themselves over the need to fight Israel, which is why much of their resistance is secretive, in the form of suicide bombers. The Poles, who have seen Poland partitioned and swallowed up by Austria, Russia and Prussia/Germany over the centuries, have a justifiable nervousness of repetition - so much so that, after the collapse of the Soviet Warsaw Pact in 1991 Poland was quick to seek NATO membership. These two nations have been faced with the sharp-edged question of whether or not to fight back, and the very existence of the question has had a big influence on their histories.
China has seen enormous atrocities in its time, but the Japanese occupation of 1937-45 was particularly brutal. Diplomatic relations were later patched up, but the Chinese people still hold reservations about Japan today. This is unlikely ever to come to war, but held-down feelings are there. Serbia's history has been scarred by the armies of Byzantium, Ottoman Turkey, Habsburg Austria and Nazi Germany. In the 1990s, Serb treatment of Bosnian and Kosovan Muslims reflected old Serb feelings toward the Turks, and its trust of Germany has never fully revived after World War Two. During the 1990s, Serbs, or at least their leaders, chose to express their feelings through war, and the outcome has mainly been great loss, even though they were the technical military victors.
Germany, an aggressor in two world wars, has painful memories of occupation and devastation by foreigners too. What started as Protestant revolts in Bohemia and Holland against the Catholic empire of the Habsburgs became the full-scale Thirty Years War of 1618-48, in which French, Austrian, Bavarian, Danish and Swedish armies pillaged, burned and battled their ways across Germany's principalities, setting back the land for a century. The 1920s Rhineland occupation after the Great War, plus weighty war reparations, led to resentments that were exploited by Hitler to justify what became the Second World War. After 1945 Germany underwent foreign occupation by USA, Britain and France for four decades. In 2003 these shadows reared up in Germany's vehement opposition to the Iraq war: it knew what foreign occupation and interference meant. Having tasted being a victor in war, it also knows the taste is not sweet.
More insidious is civil war, such as the thirty years of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland during the 1970s-90s. The Algerian civil war of the 1990s claimed 60,000 lives. Civil wars set neighbours against each other, eating out the heart of society, and ill feeling permeate down to neighbourhoods and families. The scars of the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, the Mexican revolution of 1910-40, the American civil war of the 1860s and the French Wars of Religion in the 1560s-90s still leave their marks on current public feelings. Social trust can be fatally undermined for generations, fundamentally eroding confidence in society's fabric and its capacity to regenerate itself. Negative precedents can be set which do not disappear - they make repetition of ill-fortune easier.
During the 1980s-90s came a new type of civil war led by criminals and opportunists, usually for control of lucrative business. The Colombian civil war involved drug barons, and crime-funded leftist and rightist forces who ripped and tore at the country, caught in a loop of feuding which has devastated the country. Rationales change, yet the civil war addiction carries on, seemingly unable to exhaust itself. Wars in Zaïre/Congo, Angola and various West African states have been fought over control of diamonds, copper and gold - that is, big money. Such wars lucratively interlock with the interests of international arms dealers and suppliers, subjecting local populations to senseless atrocity, loss and insecurity. In West Africa a precedent arose in the 1990s when 40,000 boys entered the fight, desensitised by drugs, personal loss and oblivion to 'good behaviour' in war. The Geneva Conventions, regulating the treatment of war wounded, prisoners, civilians, deportation, torture, hostage-taking, collective punishment and chem-bio weapons, were completely flouted.
The avoidance of civil war in South Africa and Russia in 1988-94 was an untrumpeted victory for social sanity and maturity - or perhaps for weariness with suffering. Such triumphs don't hit the news because non-happenings go unnoticed, unannounced in the media. Yet they have a strengthening and healing effect on public integrity and spirits worldwide. Civil wars have recently been avoided in Jordan, Nigeria, China, Brazil, Jamaica, Romania, Burundi and Estonia. This century we need to build a growing tide of triumphs, de-escalating warfare and outweighing the habit of reaching for the guns. Conflicting groups cannot just be admonished by the international community and forced to sit at negotiating tables unless existing injustices are righted. Otherwise the causes of conflict perpetuate, and diplomacy is overridden.
Arms-producing countries, arms traders, banks, corporations and international authorities have been crucially involved in permitting and sanctioning civil war. Money-making is no excuse for undermining societies, popular movements and governments. CIA interventions, under the cover of anti-Communist activities yet usually on behalf of business interests, have played a disastrous role in the last fifty years. The CIA has fomented coups in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Ecuador (1961 and 1963), Dominican Republic (1963), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Greece (1965-67) and Chile (1973); it undermined elected governments in Australia, Guyana, Cambodia and Jamaica; it supported dictators in Chile, Iran, the Philippines, Haiti, Panama, Zaïre, Greece, Pakistan and Iraq; it created, trained and supported death squads and secret police in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Iran, Turkey and Angola; it launched secret, illegal military actions in Nicaragua, Angola, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and Afghanistan, and contributed to the massacre of 200,000 in East Timor, 500,000 in Indonesia and 1-2 million in Cambodia. A fine record, achieved mainly by using locals as proxies. The overall effect has been to stunt the social and economic growth of many countries.
Serious internal repression, such as Stalin's eradication of millions of dissenters and innocent bystanders in the Soviet purges of the 1930s-50s, or the suppression of Protestants in Catholic Europe in the 1500s-1600s, is equal to or greater than warfare in the damage it wreaks. If your government nonsensically turns against you, the whole logic of society turns upside down, warping social relations and setting precedents that make repetitions possible. The brightest and most valuable people are dispossessed, exiled or killed, weakening the possibility of revival, killing off ideas and peace-building coalitions. The price paid by ordinary people is staggering, often affecting them for generations. They might not think of the people who are not there because war killed them or their parents-to-be, but the gap is nevertheless felt in unconscious ways. Mercifully, the shock of disaster can sometimes make for a 'never again' response too, which can change the future.
Under Saddam Hussein's regime, the best candidates to replace him were eliminated or exiled. Exiles lose touch with their country, making them less legitimate to lead when times get better. Whenever Tibet is at last relieved of Chinese occupation, its people will have to start from an entirely new and untried basis: the exile Tibetan government has written an exemplary constitution ready for such a time, but there is no knowing what life will be like for residents, whose memory of the old culture is virtually gone, and for returned exiles, many of whom have been born abroad. Independence will mark the beginning of a long journey of nation-rebuilding, of creating a new Tibetan culture.
Pain and angst deplete a nation's spirit longterm, frequently weakening its gene-pool, kinship patterns, neighbourhood relations and social structures. Promising possibilities are killed off, together with the people who can set them in motion. The dissolution of England's monasteries under Henry VIII in 1536-40 was a massive cultural outrage: churches were wrecked, sacred artworks and relics destroyed, valuables sold and nuns and monks cast out. A whole socio-economic sector was shaken out, mainly to serve the interests of the king and his henchmen. In orthodox history Henry VIII is regarded as a great king, yet he was a tyrant who severely damaged the nation's psyche. Today his legacy contributes to an underlying shadow of British public cynicism and reluctance to turn against the political establishment. Powerful and necessary shifts and geopolitical developments took place in Henry's time, but such depravity, self-interest and theft as were practised were not inevitable, and a reconciliatory approach was perfectly possible. Are wrecked abbeys, of which England has plenty, truly gems of national heritage, or are they memorials to a nation's guilt?
Ethnic cleansing and the intentional disadvantaging of sub-groups, up to and including genocide, casts a shadow of horror which can long outlast living memory of it. The singling out of Jews, Gypsies, dissenters and homosexuals by the Nazis in the 1930s-40s left a shadow with lasting consequences in Germany. This has had not only a negative effect: Germany's promotion of tolerance and its reluctance to deploy armed forces in anything but peacekeeping and nation-building been its strong point ever since. But did we have to have Hitler to obtain such a result? Hitler's long shadow falls now on Israel, in its questionable treatment of the Palestinian people over recent years.
The damage caused to Ethiopians by the Mengistu regime of 1977-91 has made governance and the buildup of inter-ethnic trust in Ethiopia difficult. Trust was fundamentally broken and, though the Ethiopian government has since worked hard at national reintegration, sporadic war with Eritrea has persisted and other tensions lurk like ghosts, waiting for a spark to fire them up again. In Ethiopia, climatic problems, famine and social tensions interlock horribly.
People oppress others because they are already hurt. As a child, Saddam Hussein was regularly beaten for years on end, and Slobodan Milosevic watched his parents commit suicide in connection with political strife during his childhood. Stalin was bullied at school and, in his twenties, was sent to Siberia for his Communist beliefs. Hearts are thus hardened and, a generation later, thousands can suffer. Such extreme cases reveal the top of a worldwide iceberg of endemic human cruelty. Precedents established in one place germinate and propagate the psycho-emotional cruelty virus, which jumps from place to place unless it is dealt with. In Afghanistan the onus for cruelty passes from one party to another, reproducing itself in different contexts and taking hold of people whose own pain intersects with collective resentments, turning them from victims into perpetrators and criminals against humanity.
The slough of despond
Some susceptible places become sump areas where existing social-cultural weaknesses attract harmful social viruses from elsewhere, and the nation catches a disease - dissension, oppression or war. Few foresaw the breakdown of social relations in Yugoslavia around 1990 or the extent to which it would go - yet Yugoslavia, disoriented by the fall of the Iron Curtain, unconsciously took on the cold-hearted shadow of the Cold War, which was being shed by other formerly-Soviet countries, and it caught the civil war bug from Lebanon, where a civil war had just ended. Just like colds and flu, these psycho-emotional viruses can move fast.
Even so, such conflicts are usually fomented by individuals who activate harmful ideas and feelings in others, setting mass traumas in motion. This proves difficult for peacekeepers and negotiators, who must be impartial when intervening in crises. In some respects, it could be more effective to 'take out' key perpetrators, but this cannot legally be done, and it is risky. Hence, in Cambodia, Pol Pot's henchmen still walk free, bringing a pervasive atmosphere of fear and forcing the continued presence of peacekeepers to keep the matter under wraps.
Human history has witnessed a cumulative buildup of scars like these, twisting and poisoning situations out of proportion to the actual causes of the problems they face. The unchecked transpersonal motivation to oppress or be oppressed is often unconscious, usually only indirectly connected to the manner in which the oppressor was originally hurt, or the oppressed were originally vulnerable. People might not knowingly exact revenge for past injury, and it might not be aimed at the original oppressor, but it is nevertheless revenge, a psychological getting-back for past pain. One of the biggest illusions we need to break open is that victory in conflict is gratifying.
Connections between past and present events run deep. The Battle of Britain of 1942, when Germany attempted an invasion, revived unconscious English associations going as far back as the Anglo-Saxon invasions some 1,400 years earlier, which came from Germany. These invasions brought large-scale genocidal ethnic cleansing to the Britons. The main strain of the English gene stock derives from the Saxon peoples, and the Battle of Britain activated deep unconscious imagery. The Saxons had invaded Britain precisely to insulate themselves from pressure and attack by others - they came there seeking safe space and willing to fight for it. In the 1940s, this was by no means a consciously-held memory, but its symbolic associations were nevertheless there - a miasm or hidden propensity in the psyche of the English.
Ill feeling frequently represents a shift of blame onto an available scapegoat, in the absence of truth and of sane ownership of responsibility at home. Discrimination aimed at convenient minorities such as immigrants deflects attention from deeper national issues, fears and social stresses. This has happened for Arabs and Berbers in France, for Mexicans in USA, for Palestinians in Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon and for Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, to name just a few. The anti-Americanism of today is of this kind, even though Americans are not underdogs: while there is cause for such feeling, Americans have become opportune targets for a range of sentiments concerning other issues. USA currently embodies a ghost of imperial heartlessness and big-footedness going back at least to the Romans, also attracting residual anti-imperialist ill-feeling derived from the now-defunct British Empire.
The bottom line here is twofold. First, oppressed or formerly-oppressed peoples, while genuinely hurt, are nevertheless responsible for their own lives and feelings. They cannot continue indefinitely blaming oppressors or symbols. Whether or not they are correct in their feelings, it does them no good. Second, former oppressors have a duty to act to redeem their history and to recognise how others have experienced their actions, whether or not such feelings on the part of recipients are fully justified.
Minorities are scapegoated to steer public attention away from domestic weaknesses. The net effect is that overall social control is increased - not only of the minority. Recently, in USA, anyone looking vaguely Arabic has risked trouble. Sikhs have suffered discrimination, even though they are not Muslims, they dislike Muslim fundamentalism and have themselves suffered greatly from its effects. But their turbans, skin-colour and beards are sufficient to spark mistaken discrimination. Such things happen in many countries and cultures.
Over time, Jews have faced tremendous pressure, insecurity and persecution. This has meant that errors on their part, real or perceived, have been blown out of all proportion, and they have caught blame for things they had little to do with. During the Crusades, European malice toward the Muslim infidel fell first on Jews, who were close to hand and easy to punish - so Jews were persecuted. In our time, as traditional anti-Jewish prejudices have generally been subsiding, except in the case of people who feel aggrieved toward Israelis' recent and current behaviour, it is important for Jews to release the anticipation of persecution. It can cause Jews to over-react to events, misread situations and develop questionable rationales for mistreating non-Jews. The challenge for Jews is to trust: the miasm of anti-Semitism is a two-way tango.
Ethnic jealousy and intolerance can lead to the destruction of cultural heritage remains. This gets at the heart of a culture. The Romans burned part of the library of Alexandria to teach a lesson to free-thinking intellectuals in that city, and in 640 invading Arabs destroyed its remaining 700,000 volumes for similar reasons. In 1993, Serbs targeted Bosnian archives and museums in Sarajevo and Croatian sites in Dubrovnik, and in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the historic Greaco-Bactrian Bamiyan Buddhas. The Serbian case represented distinct ethnic retribution and culture-attack, while the latter was a case of historic deletion of signs of the country's pre-Islamic greatness.
Sometimes such actions are carried out from barefaced arrogance, born of decades or centuries of hard-heartedness. Sometimes they are pointed and intentional, as was the Chinese destruction of Tibetan holy places in the 1950s-70s. Sometimes, though, cultural destruction has been deliberately avoided: the Ottoman Turks, taking Constantinople in 1453, converted the architectural wonders of Christian Byzantium to their own uses, inheriting a ready-made proud capital. Alexander the Great and his fellow Greeks enjoyed inheriting the assets of Phoenicia, Egypt, Babylon and Persia - they thought of themselves as an upgrade of all preceding civilisations.
Passing the buck
What pain drives USA to bombard various parts of the world every few years? One contributory factor lies in the nation's birth and earlier times: many settlers arrived as escapees from hardship and oppression. Once they had got there, carving out a life and building the infrastructure of American society incurred further hardship. The trials faced by refugees, settlers, pioneers, homesteaders, slaves and factory workers built a strange mixture of a strong family spirit and a gun-addled hard-heartedness. USA has at times utilised its arms superiority to positive ends, but the shadow of gun law, armed might and self-interest largely cancel out this benevolence. Conservative Christian fundamentalist values have ruined millions of lives in Latin America and the Middle East. The overwhelming force of the American military permits nothing but the most skilful opposition, such as that of al Qaeda - and many of al Qaeda's methods were taught to them by none other than the CIA in the 1980s. What goes around comes around.
Conservative power-lobbies in USA semiconsciously create enemies against which to rail and joust: once it was Communists, 'the evil empire', and now it is Muslims and rogue states, 'the axis of evil'. There is some basis for these projections, yet they betray a national obsession and paranoiac tendency. USA's underlying insecurities undermine its best interests. There is talk of Pax Americana, but for such an ordered world hegemony to work longterm and wholesomely, if such is possible, it needs to be created with the minimum of force and the maximum of cultural sensitivity. In the last sixty years USA has done more for arms proliferation than any nation. This ethical failure creates an unconscious dynamic inviting the attentions of such people as Muslim terrorists: in their view they challenge the evil forces of world destruction. But their own error is that terror fails to stop war: they have fallen into the same trap as USA's hawks.
Nations, like individuals, can become self-immolating or suicidal. This applies to all nations, each in their own way and to a greater or lesser extent. As a whole the world is in an unprecedentedly suicidal phase: this surfaced with the exploding of the first atomic bombs in the 1940s, extending since then into environmental, demographic and climatic arenas, into disease, inter-ethnic and military manifestations. Collective death-urges have existed throughout history, but only in the late 20th Century did this become global, consistent and truly visible.
Dallying with death has its thrills - like motor racing or skydiving, it involves treading a fine line between life or death, as if to precipitate one or the other. Yet the brunt of this collective death-wish falls upon some more than others, on victims of war, drought, famine, destitution, disease and social breakdown, whether in Sudan or Harlem. This overall world condition hits vulnerable individuals, social subgroups and nations because it is there globally, like pollution. Suicides in jail, heroin junkies, suicide bombers, terrorists and dictators are not just isolated cases dumping their personal problems on everyone else - they carry something on our behalf that we suppress by living routinised, 'sensible', cautious, self-suppressed lives.
To cover up past inequities, injustices and shadows, a country unconsciously infects itself with degenerative tendencies, taken sometimes to the point of national collapse. Some African countries have fallen in this deep pit - damaged beyond sense or easy revival. Cambodia's 2.5 million deaths in the 1970s represented a nightmare humanity presumably had to suffer, in order to draw a line on depravity, yet Rwanda proved that the shock therapy had been insufficient. Saddam Hussein took Iraq twice to the edge of disaster, with suicidal panache.
National rulers and their competitors can engage in ruinous power-manoeuvring; society lapses into crime, drug-abuse, drunkenness or mass murder; endemic corruption or delusion penetrate business and government, or military establishments gain total control; or social life can drift into a sad movie of contrived appearances and false beliefs. Such symptoms conceal gaping untruths, eating into the body social like dry rot, undermining it to the core. The cultural revolution in China in the 1960s-70s dulled truth perhaps for generations. Such scenarios seem unstoppable until they exhaust themselves and the bottom of the trough is reached.
On the surface, all might seem well enough in many societies, but something insidious lurks underneath, relating to undiscussed national verities and collective crimes sanctioned by public omission and commission. Northern Ireland, Colombia and Angola each became so habituated to polarisation and violence that they had trouble stopping, even when the causes of conflict changed or when resolution came in sight. Afghanistan's future rests on its warlords choosing to bury the hatchet, forget past rivalries and get on with the job of reconciliation. In the end, this is mainly an attitudinal issue, and everything else proceeds from there. It depends also on the amount of power a community gives to those leaders who promote rivalry.
Pain and difficulty are habit-forming. It seems easier for conflicting parties to perpetuate strife than face conflict-redundancy and the facts and realities that peace reveals. While war is in progress, people are toughened, accepting what comes as best they can, but when peace comes pain can surface as people realise how fruitless and ridiculous the whole trauma was, and how much they have lost. The dead and disappeared are missed and the bombsites and minefields starkly remind everyone of their traumas. Delayed-action loss and bitterness can take years, if not generations, to work through. Forgiveness only partially relieves the shooting of one's parents, since it remains a concrete fact that they are no longer there. Yet, still, things can be done to relieve such pain: festivals, mourning occasions, reconciliatory ceremonies and forgiving messages, truth commissions, rebuilding projects and simply getting on with life do bring healing - if the pain is acknowledged rather than suppressed.
The lawless and arbitrary terror of Idi Amin's Uganda and Duvalier's Haiti in the 1970s represented extreme examples of hidden national self-hate and self-doubt turning in on themselves. In Haiti, poverty, dictatorship, an anarchic history and American meddling created a long-lasting nightmare. In Uganda, post-colonial hiatus and the abstractness of Uganda as a nation, founded by colonialists with little regard to local peoples, allowed Idi Amin to drive tribes against each other, then to justify taking military control. This started a murder epidemic. After he escaped to Saudi Arabia (where he still lives), his reign of terror was followed by an AIDS epidemic, caused by rape and bad behaviour during Amin's days.
The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 arose from internal degeneration tipping over a critical threshold. The Hutus and Tutsis had been cemented unwillingly into one nation - again, Rwanda was a former colony inappropriate in shape to its residents. The Tutsi minority customarily held the power. The Hutus were deliberately stirred up by their leaders, who exploited a difficult situation to make things worse, and the massacres followed. This kind of thing does not have to happen, but to survive in peace a divided country needs collectively-reinforced social values and impartial institutions to protect it from division or degeneration, and this can sometimes be difficult.
If a nation has steadying factors, cultural or institutional, to prevent the rise of dictators or the descent of society into degeneracy, such nightmares can be avoided. Individuals can do this too: characters such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel and Konrad Adenauer each raised the spirits of their nations after hard times, contributing mightily to reconciliation. But the balances are fine: the friendliest and most beautiful of nations can transform into places of horror - Ireland, Lebanon, Bosnia and Cambodia all being examples. One major helpful force is women, whose collective power to shift social values, when it gains momentum, can be final and unstoppable.
When society splinters and atomises, national attention and energies are diverted away from the central issues it faces. Ulster has always suffered a certain geographic marginality which it needed to counterbalance by developing its special talents and assets. Yet it accentuated its marginality by becoming a civil war zone, prompting emigration, discouraging outside contact and, overall, disempowering Ulster society. Moderate sectors of the population were hampered and cowed by sectarian extremists of both sides, just 10-20% of the population, who dominated and skewed all dialogue. Further complications arose too - drug-abuse, disaffected youth, diseconomies, unemployment and lack of a future. Such a loss of social spirit makes any enterprising person choose either to get out or to become a troublemaker.
Opium consumption in China deflated what otherwise could have become a movement for reform or regeneration in the declining days of the Qing dynasty in the mid-1800s. Western business interests imported the opium, seeing an opportunity to control China through its markets - and, incidentally, establishing the precedent of secret government involvement in the world drugs trade. Opium-addled degeneration was not China's sole alternative, but imperial and cultural conservatism made China easy to exploit. Popular rebellions against the Qing took place, but they failed and, again, were exploited by foreigners for their own designs. Corruption, stagnation and social apathy took hold. Had significant changes come about instead, perhaps around 1790-1840, the later revolutions and disasters of the 20th Century might have been avoided. The Qing were ousted in the nationalist revolution of 1911. This was followed by warlordist mayhem and systemic corruption in the nationalist period of the 1920s-30s, then by Japanese invasion (1937-45) and finally the Maoist revolution of 1949. The Maoist revolution went awry, leading to late-1950s famines during the Great Leap Forward and the 1960s madnesses of the Cultural Revolution. Each of these crises was a mother-of-all-disasters in itself. Arguably, they all dated back to avoidable causes such as the opium trade of the 1800s.
Nations can wallow in self-indulgence to conceal their historic unease. They gratify and placate themselves through consumerism, or pageantry and ostentation, military adventures, investment bubbles, political insanities or faddish cultural permissiveness, in an attempt to bury old woes and dilemmas and to conceal signs of cultural emptiness or decline. The 1920s demonstrated such symptoms in many countries - an exciting time in one sense, but also a time of avoidance and creeping lunacy.
During the 1980s and 1990s countries of the developed world lived in an affluent daydream from which they are only now waking up. At a time of urgently pending world change, comfortable indulgence, self-interest and affluent leisurism prevailed. Western civilisation has many virtues, yet it is plagued with immoderate, unsustainable levels of materialism, complacency and self-entertainment. Gulping consumerism vacuums up the world's resources, prioritising the developed world's interests over all others. This has a burn-up effect, like over-indulgence at Christmas, leading to cultural lethargy, indigestion and eventual crisis. Indulgence makes some sense when a society is reviving from hardship, but ongoing affluence can be self-destructive. Europe's and America's futures lie in humane cultural creativity, but materialism blocks this and is very addictive. As a result they omit to contribute their maturity and inspiration to a changing world.
The sunny opulence of California compensated for the compounded historic hardships experienced by immigrants to USA and migrants heading out West, a century and more ago. The Golden State promised fortunes and the fulfilment of dreams which were to bury Californians' woes forever. This worked well enough between the 1930s and 1980s, at least for the winners, but things are now moving on. When rich and successful, it is difficult to change, even though plenty of Californians do seek it. This is tragic, because available wealth can help bring change, yet change is often delayed until times get hard. Affluence is an age-old means of lulling internal irritations to sleep. Reality does return. Western affluence is now a key global problem, and California is one of its centres. Something must change.
One symptom of insecurity is intolerance toward alternative perspectives, coupled with an unwillingness to discuss major national defining issues. Ruling classes or whole nations can go into denial, maintaining enormous falsities for a long time. This was a perverse cause of the Protestant Reformation in 1500s Europe: the Catholic church had stifled nascent ideas for so long that new and necessary religious developments could take place only outside its cloisters. The church became increasingly militant and repressive in response to the challenge of the innovators. When it staged a comeback in the Counter-Reformation from the 1540s onwards, it had lost its character as a 'broad church', a catholic church.
Internal oppression takes many shapes: domination of provinces by capitals; the tyranny of ruling classes, majorities or influential minorities; the exploitation of workers or specific social groups; male dominance, selective infanticide, ageism, caste and race discrimination; exclusion of the disabled, disadvantaged or outsiders; and punitive judicial systems and suppression and exile of dissenters. These reflect a deep-seated division of the collective psyche into compartments which lose dialogue and eventually stand in opposition.
Such splintering weakens the national psyche as a whole. This goes back longer than anyone can remember, accreting gradually, with flare-ups following latent periods. National characteristics feeding such crises are often accepted as given, indelible tendencies. As global interaction and cultural comparison have increased, populations have become more aware of others' strengths and weaknesses, throwing light back on their own societies. Sometimes this relieves age-old problems and sometimes it transplants social ailments across borders.
Deep social divisions can channel very ancient issues. Caste separation in India is an atavism of the Aryan invasion of 3,500 years ago. It prevents ethnic groups from intermarrying or diversifying their social roles, thus rigidly preserving separate gene-stocks, social groupings and roles in a multi-ethnic subcontinent. Indigenous Dravidians, such as Tamils, are today mostly spread across ethnic minorities in south India. At the top of the caste pile are the Aryan Brahmins and warrior and merchant castes of the north. They themselves were kicked around by Muslim invaders of Afghan, Mongol and Turkic origin, who arrived in waves between the 1000s and 1400s, placing themselves on top. Then came the British in the 1700s, placing themselves above Muslims and Hindus. The British successfully dominated India because their own class system had educated them to 'divide and rule'. Mother India absorbed them as a new ruling caste. To an extent this was a balanced power arrangement. But when the British left, Hindu-Muslim relations deteriorated, India was partitioned, Pakistan became entirely Muslim and India remained mixed, with a reduced Muslim population. Secular governance handled this up to the late 1970s, but Hindu nationalists gained the ascendancy by the 1990s. This widened the north-south, Aryan-Dravidian divide in India. An old story was thus revived.
Some empires have been founded on the emotional energy generated from being kicked around or threatened. The Ottoman Turks, busy carving out an empire in Anatolia, were suddenly defeated by Timurlenk at Ankara in 1402. This galvanised them and, within 50 years, they had taken Constantinople and much of the former Byzantine empire. Eventually they controlled the Middle East, the Balkans and North Africa.
The rise of imperial Rome can partially be attributed to demeaning treatment by the Etruscans, when Rome was but a small town. Already aggrieved, the Romans smarted after the sack of Rome by invading Celts in 387 BCE. Eventually they broke the back of the Etruscans and other Italian tribes until, by the 290s BCE, they controlled most of Italy. This invade-and-control process extrapolated itself until, within 400 years, their empire stretched from Iraq to Scotland.
The British had been merchant adventurers, pirates and haphazard colonists for 200 years, but when the Americans shockingly declared independence in 1776, the Brits became serious imperialists. Napoleon then took over Europe between 1794 and 1810, isolating Britain, and industrialising Britain was goaded into action by loss of its European markets. The British made sure they dominated the seas and colonies, embarking on a massive colonial project.
The point with the above instances is that, as with school bullies, imperialists and oppressors have historic pain that they then pass onto others.
Historical hurts manifest in the destruction of landscapes. Insecure nations think short-term - so the forests are thoughtlessly chopped down, the grasslands desertified and the rivers polluted. It is not felt to be worth it to invest energy in wise land-use, improvement of ecological capital and conservation. Inter-tribal feuds on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) led to its deforestation centuries ago. Ancient Sumerian farming and irrigation techniques were cut back when attacks started, and this led to land salination, turning much of Mesopotamia into semi-desert. Settler pressures and over-farming in the US Midwest led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Soviet industrial, plantation and irrigation projects in Uzbekistan led to the draining of the Aral Sea, now a fraction of its former size. Britain, once 97% and now 4% forested, was deforested gradually, but the shipbuilding exploits of Henry VIII and his successors robbed the forests of their greatest trees, and ordinary people, over-taxed and rather jaded, permanently cleared much more.
Collective pain can blind a culture to its environment, causing it to bypass sustainable development strategies. This can emanate directly from rulers - such as the decimation of Lebanese cedar forests by king Solomon for the building of the Jerusalem temple. Heavy taxation, economic downturn, social disturbance and civil war mightily contribute to environmental degradation. As each new generation grows up it carries no memory of how things were before, so it tends not to return things to their former glory. Military actions have laid waste whole landscapes, polluting the soil with lead, chemicals and, more recently, depleted uranium. A mixture of human folly, local need and industry-scale exploitation has denuded the world. Restoring healthy natural balance involves not just policy decisions and investment but significant psycho-emotional shifts in humankind. The biggest single ingredient in environmental correction is love - love for life, love for the land and love for the massive job of restoring it.
We have examined various manifestations of social pain and historic scarring. To prevent further tragedy and repetition of error, a fundamental healing process is needed. Treaties, fair trade, peace processes and nation-building have their virtues and their place, but they do not replace healing They usually work more for governments and business than for ordinary people and their feelings. Healing through economic growth and democratic institutions without attending to the feeling-substrate of society can create fuel for future crises - like chocolate, it relieves a craving but leads to longer-term health problems. What is needed is a deeper process of public communication, communion and reconciliation which addresses hearts in their own language of empathy and feelings. When victims recognise that oppressors are in themselves hurt and defensive, some movement might start. When oppressors realise that victims have genuine grievances, movement can accelerate.
Pain-inflicting activities ultimately help no one: they are internalised injuries externalising themselves. Cycles of tyranny can go on forever. Until negative tendencies are turned around, their repercussions can reverberate through to generations uninvolved in the initial wrongs and often unaware of them. Collective memory-shadows can stretch back thousands of years. No matter what justification is given for conflict, conflict is critically obsolete now that globalisation has changed the context. Even pre-emptive strikes on the most humanitarian of grounds have a damaging longterm impact. Conflict obstructs the process of getting to grips with global issues. So a matter of primary importance is to set in motion a global process of directly addressing hurts. It is not just a matter of dealing with the past: we need to stop creating new pain for the future.
Healing the Hurts of Nations
Sample chapter from...
Stories that Crafted the Earth
The Banyan Deer King
Once upon a time long long ago the Buddha was reborn as a Banyan Deer. The herd of deer in which he was a family member lived in an area rich with valleys and hills, fields and forests. It was a blessed place to be a young deer, full of wonders and adventure as well as danger. He grew up wisely, learning the ways of the deer, and when he was fully grown, he was elected as the leader of his tribe.
Other clans of wild deer also lived in the area, as did a great menagerie of other animals such as bears, foxes, and boars. This was no problem, for theirs was a rich land in natural bounties of the Earth, and there was plenty of food and space and fresh water for everyone. As leader of his clan, the Buddha led his herd into the heart of a bountiful and beautiful forest, where he knew they could live in peace and humble splendour, surrounded by the bounty of nature and the protection of the tall trees.
But then one day it came to pass that the human population of the area elected a new human king. The king of the people considered himself good-hearted and wise, and in some ways this was true - he appreciated bravery and craftsmanship and strength. Yet in other ways he was less good-hearted and less wise.
The new king's gravest vice was his love of the hunt. Nothing pleased him better than to mount his horse and charge across the farms, fields and meadows, or into the valleys and through the woods, with a great convoy of courtiers hunting alongside him. He gave no thought to the terror this inflicted on the poor animals running for their lives away from him. He considered the hunt a great and noble tradition, and he was determined to celebrate the fact with frequent rides, regardless of the consequences this had upon the land or other people and animals that lived in the area. This was pompous and ignorant pride - though he did not at first see it as so.
The king would mount his horse as soon as the sun rose, and charge away from his palace with a small army of men armed with bows and arrows, and a great cluster of wagons following rapidly behind. The hunters would race across the land in hot pursuit of any prey unfortunate enough to cross their maddening path. Fields would be ruined, meadows would be trampled, forests would be beaten this way and that. And as the sun went down, the king would return to his palace, the long line of wagons laden with monkeys, boars, tigers, pheasants, rabbits, deer and other creatures that had made the surrounding landscape their home.
The hunters were thrilled by the chase and the success of their catch, none less so than the king himself. But the people of his kingdom were less pleased. Fields and meadows had been trampled underfoot, and many of the common folk were expected to leave off their daily chores to beat the long grasses or shout between the trees. With long sticks they would shout and stamp and holler and swing - this being to scare the wild animals and make them bolt in the direction of the waiting king and his troupe of armed men. The king was so busy hunting he gave no time to affairs of the state,
so that many of the farmers and traders and other common folk feared their small country might soon fall to wrack and ruin due to the king's lack of attention.
And so the people devised a plan. First, they went to the edge of the forest and cut down a great number of young, tall, sapling trees. Slice, crack, thwack. The sound of metal cutting into wood, and the groan, creak, whoosh of the trees as they fell and hit the forest floor, resounded heavily through the valley. This was followed by the crunch and thud and whomp of hammers and spades as the fallen saplings were bound together and their ends buried into the rich black soil of the forest floor. Carpenters, masons and builders worked side by side, and with everyone working together, they
erected a strong stockade. The tall saplings made an excellent fence, with a wide platform running along the top of it, and a sturdy set of wooden stairs that led from the platform to the forest floor. The fence was higher than a deer can leap, and wide enough to encompass a long sweep of forest glade. The fence was well disguised, for the tied and bound saplings were camouflaged by the tight canopy of trees that grew naturally all around them. And there was but one set of wooden stairs, which could only be used if you were outside the perimeter of the fence. Inside, there was nothing but a tall drop, taller - as you know - than a deer can leap.
The people then crept stealthily through the forest, quiet and careful and skilled - hushed as only those humans can be who have explored a forest as children, learning its every dip and bend, and played hiding games there. In this manner they crept upon two large herds of deer which were grazing together on the rich green grass.
With whoops and cheers, the people leapt forward. They chased the deer toward the open gates of the stockade. The deer turned and leapt and darted and sprang, but at every bend there were more people shouting and waving, and in the end the deer were chased straight through the disguised gates of the forest stockade.
Then the people leapt forward and, with swift and eager hands, they clamped the wide gate shut, entrapping the deer within. The deer were horrified to see themselves confined. They ran this way and that along the inside edge of the fence, running and jumping and snorting and panting, till their bodies were slick with wet sweat and their limbs were utterly exhausted and their heads drooped in despair.
Yet the people were glad. It was their intention to present the stockade of wild deer to the king - present it to him as a gift of their labours and a sign of their goodwill. This they did, and they made sure to emphasis to their king that within the stockade's perimeter lay a domain rich with wild game - including two full herds of deer.
It was the common people's unspoken hope - unspoken before the king, that is, for they spoke openly enough of it amongst themselves - that this stockade, built as it was within the wilderness of the forest, would satisfy the king's lust for hunting. This would at the same time hopefully discourage the Royal Hunt from chasing across the farmers' fields and meadows and from trampling the good earth, the precious seeds and plants underfoot. Also, if the king agreed, the people would be free to tend their farms and their shops and other businesses, rather than beat out the animals for the hunt, and this would advantage them greatly. The hunt was an unwelcome expense to their energy and their time.
The people hoped in earnest that the stockade would bring an end to their troubles, for whereas the Royal Hunt had repeatedly crossed their land time and again, they knew it is very difficult and extremely perilous to say no to a king. And so the stockade was built and it was presented before the king. The new king was openly pleased and secretly flattered that they, his subjects, had created such a thing in his name.
It seemed fair to assess that the building of the stockade had been a success and granted everyone's needs. This might be true, if viewed narrowly and with a closed heart - truly the people were very glad and so too was the king and his troupe of proud hunters. However, view the same situation with open eyes and an honest heart, and it shall be clear that the situation did not please everyone. For the two herds of wild deer were trapped within the fence, their freedom to run the wild forest had been ended and instead, they were ensnared. This knowledge unsettled the deer and filled their days with fear.
The Banyan Deer King watched the wide startled eyes of the frightened deer in his clan and the other herd. He saw some of them leap and charge and run along the fence, trying to escape.
The Banyan Deer King walked amongst them. His huge many-branched antlers caught the soft golden beams of the sunlight as he walked amongst the shadows of the trees. His dark eyes shone.
"Do not be fearful," he said. "Truly we are caught within the perimeter of the stockade. Yet still we have green grass below our hooves, protective trees all about, rich fruits and berries and nuts to feast upon, sweet flowing rivers to drink from, and the high blue sky above our heads. While there is life, there is hope. Trust in me, for I shall find a way."
This gave the deer clan of the Banyan Deer King a sense of faith that worked greatly toward healing their fears. He was truly noble and truly wise, and they trusted he would not let them down.
When the king of the people arrived, he walked to the top of the high stairs and peered down at the many deer that were caught in the confines of the wide stockade. He saw the two deer kings who led the clans and he was in awe of their majestic beauty, their strength, and noble grace. And so he looked to his courtiers and he said, "The two deer kings are magnificent creatures indeed! Let it be known that they must never be harmed."
Then, aiming away from the two deer kings but into the general crowd of deer standing in the enclosed forest below him, he notched an arrow to his bow, and fired. His men followed suit. It seemed to the deer that a great rainfall of arrows was showering down upon them. The deer panicked, in fear for their lives, and they darted in wild frenzy this way and that, in a terrified attempt to be safe from the bitter sting of the arrows. The stockade was wide and long, but the hunters could run along the wooden platform and seek the panicked deer out as they hid amongst the trees. How they shouted and pointed and cheered, as they let their arrows fly!
When the firing stopped, several deer lay slain. The men entered the stockade with their arrows at the ready, lest any of the living deer dare to charge them. They need not have worried. The deer were shocked and horrified and exhausted. The king's men gathered up the fallen deer and loaded their wagons.
When they had left, there was great mourning, a huge mist of sadness that descended upon the two deer herds. Their situation seemed desperate indeed. And they realised that the toll they had taken stretched further than the slaughtered deer which the king had taken away, for the wild terror of their stampede had meant several of the deer had crashed together and been badly wounded.
Several days later the king and his hunters returned, and again
a great storm of arrows hailed down upon the terrified deer who stampeded this way and that. And again the men's arrows killed several of the deer, and the men came and took them away. And again, there were a number of deer who had managed to escape the arrows, but who, in blind panic, had tripped or stumbled or crashed together, and they lay now wounded on the forest floor.
Buddha, in his reincarnation as the Banyan Deer King, called upon the other deer chief to meet him in council, to discuss their fate. Thus the two deer kings met and contemplated what could be done. It was resolved that from this moment forth, each day every deer would pull a single blade of grass from the forest floor, pulling it loose between their sharp hooves. And it was decided that whenever they heard the sound of the king's horses coming toward them through the forest, whosoever amongst the deer had that day pulled the shortest blade - they would sacrifice themselves to the hunters.
When the kings' council was over, the Banyan Deer King spoke to his tribe and he instructed, "The two herds shall take it in turns to pull grass from the forest floor. The deer who pulls the shortest blade shall stand alone in clear view, and offer themselves up to the hunters' harsh arrows. It is a bitter and a tragic event, and yet such a sacrifice shall save lives, for it will spare us the maddened stampede - the stampede that only occurs when the hunters fire down in an attempt to reach us with their arrows. The stampede is casting injury and death amongst us. Let a single deer offer himself, herself up - by allotment of fate - and let the rest of the herd thereby be daily spared."
And thus, when next a few days later, the king and his courtiers arrived with their horses and climbed the steep wooden steps to the top of the stockade, they were astonished to see a single deer standing in clear view directly below them. The deer's eyes were bright with terror, and its legs and body trembled. Yet it held its head high.
"What is this?" the courtiers remarked, questioning their king and looking to him for an answer.
The king of the people looked down at the deer, and he was touched by the sad nobility of the creature as it stood there in direct view below them. "Why this deer is noble indeed!" the king said. "For it is clear to me that this deer has chosen to give up its life, in order to save the many. Hmmm. Let it then be so - for who am I to contest such a noble fate?"
The king took his bow, notched an arrow, took aim, and fired. The aim was direct and the deer fell to the forest floor. The king hung his head, and in silence he returned to his horse and rode sadly back to his palace. The hunters gathered the single deer and placed it upon their wagon, and with many wagons still empty, they followed their king slowly home.
That night, when the king took himself to his bed, he dreamt of a great and powerful stag. It ran with him through the forest - running as brothers - the stag's swift hooves carrying a grace and a speed, as his antlers arched tall and wide into many branches which captured the bright radiance of the dazzling sun.
When next the hunters arrived, the king was not with them. Yet a single deer stood in clear view below the wide platform of the stockade. The hunters, following their king's orders, fired upon this single deer with a single arrow. And the deer fell dead, and the men gathered it into a single wagon, and rode home.
And so it was that the fear amongst the deer was greatly abated. And yet still, each day, every one of them would drag a single blade of grass from the forest floor - and much did they dread that it would be their turn to sacrifice themselves to the good of the many.
Then one day it happened that the shortest blade was drawn from the soil by a pregnant doe. She was terrified that it was now her turn to sacrifice herself, and yet more than this, she was horrified that this would also mean the death of the unborn child which nestled in the nourishing warmth of her womb.
She went to her king, who was not the Banyan Deer, but the other - yet nonetheless her king was good-hearted and wise. After all, unlike the kings and queens of the humans, the royalty of the deer folk are always elected according to virtues of wisdom and bravery, gentleness and strength combined. Her king listened to her plight, and then he replied, "Dear doe, I wish it were not so. How I wish we were free to roam the forest, instead of penned into this single forest glade. And yet alas we are stuck here, and each of us has agreed to work together, for the better good and the ultimate survival of us all. You have drawn the shortest blade of grass. If I allow you to be free of the condition of the sacrifice, then I must also allow others to free themselves as well. This cannot be, for soon we would return to the wild stampede, and we should certainly vanish sooner as a herd."
Sick with sorrow for the fate of her unborn child, the pregnant doe went in desperation to the king of the herd to which she did not belong - the herd led by the Banyan Deer King. She went to him, and knelt before him on the ground. He too listened to her plight. And he said, "Dear doe, I wish it were not so. How I wish we were free to roam the forest, instead of penned into this single forest glade. Alas we are stuck here, and each of us has agreed to work together, for the better good and the ultimate survival of us all. You have drawn the shortest blade of grass. And yet - our agreement holds that only one deer shall be sacrificed each time when the hunters come. And you are not one deer. You are two. Therefore, be free of the bounds of the sacrifice, for they do not and cannot apply to you."
The pregnant doe leapt to her feet in a flood of relief and gratitude and joy. She jumped off through the forest glade, even as the Banyan Deer King began a slow walk amongst the deer of his tribe.
The Banyan Deer King walked amongst his clan. Already he knew what he must do. The pregnant doe had been released from the terms of the sacrifice, and another deer needed to be selected to stand in her stead. His herd peered upon him with trustful eyes, for he was great and strong and noble but never pompous. He was humble in his majesty and grateful for the joys life could bring. They looked upon his high wide antlers and his strong neck and clear eyes, as he walked amongst them. Never had he lorded it over them. Always had he looked after them with care and compassion and
wisdom. They trusted that if there was a way to escape this current disaster, then he would find it. He had always done his best to care for them. They wondered what they would ever do without his gentle strength and clarity to guide them.
Walking amongst them in slow silence, the Banyan Deer King already knew there was none in his tribe he could ask to take the pregnant doe's place. The terms of the sacrifice must be fulfilled, or be discarded forever to the detriment of them all. Yet among his herd there was no one he could order to replace the doe he had released.
And so it was that when next the hunters arrived, they climbed the wooden stairs to find the Banyan Deer King standing alone below them, in clear view. This startled them, and they knew not what to do. So they sent a message for their own king to come, and see for himself.
The king soon arrived, with a rush of his horse's hooves and a sweep of his long fine robes. The king mounted the stairs and peered down from the platform. There below him stood the beautiful majesty of the Banyan Deer King.
"What are we to do, our king?" his hunters asked him.
The king of the people descended the stairs and went to the gate of the stockade, then slid its clasp to one side and entered. His courtiers watched in awe as the brave man walked toward the tall and powerful deer. The human king carried his bow, but he held it gently to one side, and his arrows rested without threat in the quiver.
The king of the people walked softly and slowly and quietly toward the great antlered deer king before him. Then, standing almost nose to nose, the two kings locked eyes - and in this stance they began to speak, to speak not using words, but with their eyes only, for this was enough.
The man spoke first, and said, "Great and noble deer king, I know you. I have seen you in my dreams, where we have run through the forest as brothers - though I could not match your grace or your speed. You know that I have decreed my hunters may never fire upon you. Why then do you sacrifice yourself?"
To which the Banyan Deer replied, "Great and noble man king, what ruler can be free if those we rule suffer? We have decreed that only one deer should die when your hunters come, and on this occasion the lottery fell to a pregnant doe. She asked for my aid, and although not of my tribe, yet we deer are all of us in this together. Our fate is shared. I could not ask her to commit the sacrifice, for she is not one deer. She is two. Therefore I had little choice but to let her go - and to stand here in her stead. This is my right and my duty as a king. How could it not be so?"
The man hung his head, for deep was his reverence for this noble deer. He contemplated what had been said, and then he raised his gaze to again look into the eyes of the Banyan Deer. The king of men said, "Noble deer king, you have instructed me in the task of kingship, as though you were my teacher and I a mere student.
"A good king should take care of all the subjects in his domain - from the meekest to the greatest. I have been mistaken in my handling of kingly affairs, and for this lesson I shall grant you a reprieve. You may lead your herd out of the stockade, and live in freedom in the open forest. Never again shall you or any of your herd be hunted by my courtiers or any person within my domain."
The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. He might have accepted the offer there and then - it is well known it is often dangerous to say no to a king, and the offer was, after all, a generous one.
Yet it is told how the Banyan Deer King raised his head high and said, "Great man king, I must say no!"
"No?" asked the man, astonished. "I give you and your herd the gift of life. How can you say no?"
"How can I not?" asked the Banyan Deer. "For if I accept, and my people leave the stockade, I must contemplate the devastation that would reap upon the other herd. A good king rules with a compassionate heart, looking over the needs of everyone, and balancing what is best for all. Our freedom would come at too great a price. For look into the hearts of those who live in the other herd, and imagine the terror and the devastation that would fall upon them. They would taste the bitter death of a storm of arrows indeed, which would rain down upon them with relentless fury, and there would be no reprieve. Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."
Again the king of men found himself to be astonished, and to feel humbled before the depth of compassion evident in the noble deer before him. He thought at length, and then he said, "Noble deer king, you would sacrifice yourself and your herd to share the burden of this grief with the other herd, rather than realise your own freedom?"
"I would and I must," said the Banyan Deer King. "For a good king considers the fate of all things in his domain, and weighs the good of all to the best of the many."
The king of men needed some time to consider what to do. He was humbled before the grand compassion of the Banyan Deer. It inspired him. And so, in the end, he said, "Noble deer king, your compassion has opened my locked heart, which I knew not to be closed until this very moment. For this lesson, I shall pay you the boon of freedom for both the deer tribes. Go to your herd, and go to the king of the other herd also, and inform all that you have bargained their freedom well. All of you may henceforth live in the open forest, and no man shall ever hunt the deer again within my domain."
The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. He might have accepted the offer there and then - after all, you don't lightly say no to a king who holds power over you.
The Banyan Deer King said, "Great king of men, I must say no!"
"No?" The king of men exclaimed, his eyes wide with surprise. "I offer you the freedom of all the deer in the stockade, how can you say no?"
"I can and I must, it is my duty as a king," replied the Banyan Deer. "For if all the deer are free from your arrows, my heart goes out to all the other creatures of the land - the bears and the pheasants and the tigers - who must pay a weighty price for our freedom. If you and your people spare only the deer, then death shall come quickly indeed to the other creatures that also call this land their home. If I am to live at all, it must be in compassion. For a good king looks to all who live in his domain, and cares for them equally. Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."
The king of men could not believe his ears. He could not believe what he was hearing, but deep within him, he felt a weight fall from his heart, and it was as though his eyes had been opened for the very first time. He peered into the gaze of the noble Banyan deer, and the king of men said, "Noble deer king, let it then be so. Your words have opened my heart, and opened my eyes. Such compassion as yours is a gift indeed. I am privileged to have witnessed it, and shall strive from now on to follow your instruction in my own kingly deeds. May I be a better king than I have been. And thus I do decree, that from this moment on, all animals who walk this land shall be saved from the sting of my hunters' arrows, and no man shall ever endanger you again. Now, return to your tribe, and to the king of the other herd, and leave the stockade. Tell all the animals of the land what has been said and what has been agreed."
The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. It was a good offer. He might have accepted it there and then - you do not easily say no to a king who holds the power of life or death over you.
The Banyan Deer King stood tall and raised his mighty antlers toward the sky, then said, "Great king of men, I must say no!"
"No?" stammered the man king, his eyes reeling in surprise. "I have offered you the freedom of all the animals of the land who live in my domain! How can you say no?"
The Banyan Deer replied, "I can and I must. It is my duty as a king. For if all the animals of the land are spared by human hunters, how swift shall be the silence that ends the singing of the birds who live in the sky. Your arrows shall in no time at all end their song forever, and we shall all be the poorer. Lament the day the sky is emptied of their graceful flight, and the trees are barren of their nests! Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."
The king of men trembled as he looked up, and admired the smooth glide of a wide-winged hawk as it rode the wind, carving a slow and gracious path through the sky. Somewhere a small bird chirruped and cooed, and the melody of it softened the man's heart even more. He looked back to the Banyan Deer, and the king of men said, "Noble deer king, you are a wise teacher indeed! Your words are like music that softens and shatters the hard binds of ignorance that until this day have captivated me, and held me as their prisoner. From this moment on, I shall decree the freedoms you request are granted, and all creatures of the land and the sky shall live without fear of men - for never again shall they be hunted by any person who lives in my domain."
The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. He might have done well to accept the generous offer there and then - it is said to be unwise to challenge a king, and to say no when the king requires a yes.
The Banyan Deer King said, "Great king of men, I must say no!"
"No?" choked the man king. "I have offered you the freedom of all the animals of the land and the birds of the sky who live in my domain! How can you say no?"
The Banyan Deer King bowed his great head and pointed his branched antlers toward the soft song of the nearby river. Then he matched the man king's gaze, and with his eyes he said, "I can and I must say no. It is my duty as a king. For if all the animals of the land, and all the birds of the sky were safe from the arrows of your people - what then the fate of the creatures who live in the fresh water rivers and pools? The water refreshes us all, it gives life to the plants and the animals and the people. Open your heart to feel compassion for the fish and the crabs and the eels and all creatures who make their home in the fresh water, who honour it with their presence and give it the entirety of their lives and their dreams. Their fate would be a bitter swift end indeed, if I were to agree to your noble terms. Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."
The king of men was awed and dumbstruck. It was as if a great wave of compassion swept from the heart of the Banyan Deer King and flooded his own. Such compassion was a beautiful and a wonderful ocean to swim in, a momentous cleansing wave that washed away all his previous misconceptions. It made him want to dance and sing, and he sensed a great new era open out for his entire kingdom.
The king of men bowed and looked into the Banyan Deer's eyes, and he said, "Oh, most noble Banyan Deer King, you have washed away the old chains of disillusionment and selfish nature which have bound and tortured my unknowing soul. What I saw as pleasure of the hunt was really my own desire to run free with the deer in the forest, to swim free with the fish in the rivers, to fly free with the birds in the sky. It seems you shall make farmers of us all, and yet I can see now more clearly than ever I saw before. My heart is an ocean of compassion, and I wish to nurture it wholly and faithfully. Therefore, noble deer, I shall today decree that from this time henceforth, no creature of the land or the sky or the water may ever again be hunted by any person in my domain. We shall all share this home of ours as brothers and sisters. May the story and the example of our kingdom spread across the globe of this Earth, and touch people's hearts as you have touched mine. Oh, let there be peace at last on Earth!"
And the Banyan Deer King said, "Yes!" He leapt into the air and danced, his antlers and hooves gliding gracefully and in utter ecstasy. He had done it! He had found a way! As he ran through the forest, the king of men ran alongside him, laughing and dancing and whooping for joy. The man could not match the Banyan Deer's speed or grace, and yet they were brothers, each with their own power, and the world was to be a better place for it. If only the world would listen.
And so it was that a peace that had never before been matched, settled into the kingdom wherein lived the Banyan Deer King, the king of men, and the creatures of the land and sky and water. Compassion softened that land like a gentle blanket of glorious warmth and endless grace, and all living things were glad.
The king grew to be old and wise, and the kingdom prospered. Before he died, the compassionate old king of men had a stone pillar set in the forest - set in the very spot where he had stood and spoken with the Banyan Deer King all those years ago. Upon the stone, masons carved the image of a deer, and the words:
Homage to the Noble Banyan Deer,
That stone stands in the forest still. Its message lives on in the hearts of those who look upon the stone and sit by it for a while, in the hearts of those who live in that small kingdom, and in the hearts of those who listen to this story.
The name Avalon has become associated with Glastonbury to a point beyond question. It is everywhere: in house-names, businesses, a school, and more. It has long had a sort of vague acceptance among the local people as something to do with legend, King Arthur and the Grail and all that sort of thing. But to dig deeper, to try to find out why this is so, or how it happened, is to get into a very complicated area indeed. Perhaps we shouldn't worry. Might we not just as well content ourselves with Avalon as a 'feeling', recognized subjectively as a magical point of fusion between the known and the unknown applied to a small area of semi-rural England?
All places breathe their own atmosphere of destiny, hinting at some future deliverance coloured by a nostalgia for a once-known, but lost, past. Glastonbury's is writ larger than most.
The fact of it all lies in the landscape itself: nature has set the scene to allow our myth-making faculties full rein, opening a gateway, a bridge, to another world.
Every nation has its chief holy place. We can think of Jerusalem in the Middle East, Delphi in Greece, Tara in Ireland. For England it is Glastonbury. The name itself is a thing to conjure with, as John Michell shows in his New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury:
"It is possible that the first syllable in 'Glastonbury' derives from an old British word for oak or woad, and it has also been linked with Glasteing, a legendary early settler at Glastonbury... but there is no reason to doubt the obvious explanation, that it is a simple translation from Glastonbury's former Celtic name, Iniswitrin, Isle of Glass or Crystal Isle. A glassy isle is mythologically a place of enchantment. Within it is Caer Wydr, the Glass Castle, and Caer Siddi, the Fairy Fort, also translated as the Spiral Castle. The country where these places are to be found is Annwn, the Celtic land of Faery. In The Spoils of Annwn, a poem attributed to the sixth-century Welsh bard, Taliesin, is described how Arthur sailed there to rob its ruler of his magical, pearl-rimmed cauldron which gave sustenance to all who were worthy of it. This vessel seems to have been an early version of the Holy Grail, and Arthur's quest for it in Annwn foreshadows the location in Christian times of the Grail Quest at Glastonbury."
There is little doubt that Glastonbury was a pagan centre long before it became the prime Christian shrine of the West. In ancient times it was a tidal island, a sea-shore place, and, as Geoffrey Ashe has suggested, may have been venerated as one of the 'Isles of the Dead' from which souls passed on into the other world.
From a distance, the landscape is dominated by the strange conical hill known as the 'Tor'. A lone church tower caps its summit, dedicated, as such places nearly always are, to the Archangel Michael. Apart from the lesser hills scattered round and about, the land westward towards the Bristol Channel is flat as far as the eye can see, the shelf of the Mendips to the north and the less dramatic ridge of the Poldens to the south-west. Near the side of the Tor, set in a well cared-for garden, is the ancient chalybeate spring known as Chalice Well. Water pours from it at all times even in periods of long drought.
The town of Glastonbury itself is ranged around the square of roads which frames the extensive grounds of the ruined Abbey, once the largest and grandest in the country. These days there is nothing 'quaint' about the town. There are supermarkets, filling stations, cafés, tourist shops, inns and car-parks. Some eight thousand people live there.
To the west, towards the long-closed railway station and these days intersected by the relief road, runs Benedict Street, passing an ancient church bearing the same dedication. More correctly this should not be Benedict at all, but Benignus, a Celtic personage whose name ought not to have been so blatantly expunged from memory. A half-mile further on, within a system of fields known on old maps simply as 'Bride', is the site of a hermitage and chapel, no longer visible, said to have been occupied by the Irish saint, Bridget, with her community of nuns. Nearby was once a spring known as St. Bride's Well, of which more later. On the southern edge of this area, close to the road leading to the neighbouring shoe-making town of Street, the whale-back shape of Wirral Hill rises up and falls sharply towards the crossing of the River Brue at Pomparles Bridge. This is the 'Weary-all' Hill of the Joseph of Arimathea story, the place where it is said he struck his staff into the ground. This took root, to become the famed Glastonbury 'Holy Thorn' which flowers remarkably every year at Christmas.
It is known that prehistoric settlements existed here. A hundred years ago a local antiquarian, Arthur Bulleid, discovered the foundations of two ancient lake villages, built for security on wooden piles in the sea-marshes a couple of miles or so outside the town.
In more recent times the suggestion has been put forward that the dominant prehistoric culture here was matriarchal - making it pre-eminently a 'goddess' place. This dovetails well with the theory, which we will explore later, that a women's druidic 'college' may have existed at Beckery, on the site of St Bridget's settlement, in early Celtic times.
There are two linked traditions at Glastonbury. The first is that Christianity came to Britain immediately after the crucifixion, with Glastonbury the chosen site of its foundation. The second is that Glastonbury is the ancient 'Isle of Avalon' where, as legend has it, King Arthur and Queen Guinevere lie buried. The two are connected by the story of the Holy Grail. One tradition has it that the uncle of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, brought the Cup of the Last Supper with him to Glastonbury, and disposed of it by either, as some say, burying it on Chalice Hill (near Chalice Well), or delivering it to the safekeeping of a secret priesthood. In time its location was forgotten, and this was deemed the cause of the many misfortunes that befell the Kingdom. In the Arthurian romances, the Quest of the Knights of the Round Table is for the recovery of the vessel leading to the restoration of the Waste-Land to life and fecundity. The trouble is that none of these stories comes into any kind of focus before the chronicles and other literature of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is not before this time, either, that there is any reference identifying Glastonbury with Avalon.
There are indications that point to a pagan origin for much of the later, Christianized material. This conclusion need not destroy anything for us if we are primarily apprehending these stories on the level of the 'soul', as atmosphere, as poetry. With Christianity came a sea change, an adjustment of the psyche, collectively and individually, which extended but did not demolish, the pagan rapture of the Celtic heart. So, too, the storytelling flowed on the inner currents. There was a new promise of Divine Love, of Transcendent Being, of Deification - but ever the battle with the forces of opposition, of destruction. It is not the place here to discuss the historical complexities of the development of the Glastonbury Arthurian and Avalonian lore, nor is it in my power to do so. The whole ground has already been thoroughly worked over by that greatest of latter-day Avalonians, Geoffrey Ashe, who has lived for more than thirty years in Dion Fortune's former home at the foot of the Tor. In his King Arthur's Avalon, all these questions are carefully sifted through and discussed sympathetically at length.
We should hold it as our basic premise that 'Avalon' is something spiritually real and valid, something that can be recognized by those whose destiny it is to travel close to the heart of 'inner' things. We can allow that it has both an identity with the location known as Glastonbury and a meaning on a level which transcends it. During the nineteenth century, an awareness gained momentum of what might generally be called 'The Matter of Britain'. Precisely where this revival began, if it had ever wholly died, is debatable. Possibly with certain poets; possibly within certain Masonic, Rosicrucian groups; certainly with William Blake. In his writings Blake foresaw a spiritual destiny for Britain, personified as the giant Albion, and the birth of a new awareness in men and women.
The idea that the sleeping Arthur might return, and that this represented something, took hold. Tennyson was the most notable exponent of the Arthurian myth, and its connection with Glastonbury, in his Idylls of the King. There was also a bevy of socialists and 'New Thought' radicals who saw it all as an allegory of the birth of the 'whole man', unexploited and emancipated with nature in useful toil.
This period saw the emergence of new occult and esoteric movements which taught that myth has meaning for our inner evolution. Initially, the impulse was from the East and the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, but first with Anna Kingsford, then with Rudolph Steiner, and finally with Dion Fortune, a sense of an indigenous western 'mystery tradition' saw light of day, giving credence to both Pagan and Christian elements.
These developments bore in an interesting way upon aspects of the Celtic revival being witnessed in Ireland and Scotland at that time. While much of this had to do with politics and the overthrow of the English oppressor, there were, within the cultural engine of the endeavour, key figures who were fellow-travellers with our fore-mentioned occultists. We can think here of William Butler Yeats and George William Russell (aka AE) in Ireland, and William Sharp (aka Fiona Macleod), Lewis Spence, Patrick Geddes and the painter John Duncan in Scotland. All had connections with the Theosophical Society. However, there were qualitative differences between the aspirants in the two countries: Yeats and Russell were prepared to invoke the powers of the Old Gods and heroes to give zeal and inspiration to the call to arms in Ireland, while the Scots preferred to confine themselves to fostering a more pacific spiritual awakening of the ancient Celtic spirit chiefly through the medium of the arts. The Welsh, too, should not be ignored here. Their arising ran on different lines with a highly successful restoration of their language and a reinstatement of the Bardic tradition with the Eisteddfod as the focus for its celebration.
Even if perversely, there was a minority in England that found it could easily identify with the developments happening just beyond its borders to the north and west, mindful that it had once itself been a Celtic land in ancient times. We can fairly identify this seeming anomaly as the "English Celtic revival"; if it requires a venue, then we need look no further than Glastonbury, with its green hills and apple-orchards. This is the God-given stage-set on which our Dramatis Personae now enter.