Growing up in the Somerset of the 1960s, we heard the legends of King Arthur. We grew up with magical stories which transformed the countryside around where we lived. The landscape of gentle hills and flat moorland became the scene for extraordinary happenings. Looking across the moor towards Glastonbury Tor, it was not hard to imagine Arthur and his knights galloping along the ridge of the hills.
Arthur was the king of the Britons; the leader who fought for light and truth against the darkness and evil of the Saxon invaders. There were stories of Arthur and the beautiful Guinevere; the brave Lancelot; Gawaine, who had strange encounters; and all the other knights of the Round Table.There was the story of the great sword, Excalibur; and, most exciting of all, there were the stories of Merlin the magician.
When people claimed to have heard the sound of horses and armed men in the dead of night; when there were claims that someone had met with the wizard Merlin; the claims were discounted, but that such claims had been made came as no surprise. The best story was that Arthur and his men were not dead, but only sleeping. One day, when the hour was right, they would again ride forth from the hillside where they slept and bring liberty and justice to the country.
We loved our legends, but no-one took them seriously. They were stories like those of ancient Ireland, where characters from myths and sagas were capable of superhuman feats. Sometimes, as in the case of the tale of Tristan and Iseult, our stories of Arthur overlapped with the Irish legends.
Perhaps it was no surprise that the church developed its own stories of magical powers and deeds. It is said that Columba of Iona was in a boat with companions when the boat was beset by a storm. Columba urged his companions not to worry because he knew that, at that moment, Canice of Aghaboe, with just one shoe on, was running to his church in the distant Irish midlands in order to pray for their safety – and Canice is, of course, said to have verified this story.
What seems odd is when the church tries to take stories from pre-modern times and set them in a Twenty-First Century context, like claiming that dead Christian religious figures can still perform miracles and are therefore worthy to be made “saints”. Of course, the process is not amenable to any independent scientific verification, we are expected to accept these things are so because the church says they are so.
The church seems at variance with Jesus himself, who resisted the temptation to impress people with superhuman deeds, regarding faith as being what mattered; and apart from those who are inclined to believe anyway, claiming a dead pope can do miracles is no more likely to convince a sceptical public than a claim to have met Merlin while walking home at night.