A visit to my sister’s home in Belfast brings an encounter with her delightful duo of dogs, Arthur and Galahad. In Northern Ireland, the names probably find little resonance, do children even read such tales now? Growing up in Somerset, neither name would have been spoken without evoking the legends and folk tales with which we grew up.
Glastonbury Tor was Avalon. It was a place with mythical status in childhood; a place where legends began and ended. Cadbury Hill, in the south of the county, might have been an ancient hillfort, but it was much more a place of hope for it was here that King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table lay sleeping, awaiting their appointed hour. The tales of Arthur and his knights were part of that irrational buoyant childhood belief that there was not anything in the world that could not be changed. There was always hope.
Stand on the Tor or on Cadbury Hill and look at the country spread below, and there are, carried on the wind, hints of horses’ hooves and men’s voices. Of course, they are pointless imaginings, but if life is devoid of all imagining, what then is left?
Amongst the books in our house there is a copy of T.H. White’s Once and Future King. Michael, our son, read it when he was an age at which I still imagined that Arthur was real. It closes on a note of irrepressible optimism:
The old King felt refreshed, clear-headed, almost ready to begin again.
There would be a day – there must be a day – when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none – a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.
But it was too late for another effort then. For that time it was his destiny to die, or, as some say, to be carried off to Avilion, where he could wait for better days. For that time it was Lancelot’s fate and Guenever’s to take the tonsure and the veil, while Mordred must be slain. The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.
The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart.
EXPLICIT LIBER REGIS QUONDAM REGISQUE FUTURI
Gathering Arthur into my arms, there is a wish that the old tales might be true, that Arthur would ride forth from his sleep, that the wizard Merlin would return with his magic, that Galahad might not be a small dog, but a heroic figure standing defiantly on a Somerset hilltop; that the sound of horses’ hooves and the shouts of heroes might again be carried on an autumn breeze.