Tuesday, May 8, 2007

King Arthur's Raid on Hell - Part II

The second increment of the long poem I started posting yesterday - the story continues.

To Severn’s banks then Arthur brought his fleet
as promised, there the Salmon old to meet.
Of his three ships the first was named Prydwen,
and laden full with five-score mighty men
she stemmed the tide, Fair Beauty of the sea.
Above her Arthur’s banner floated free –
a dragon red on silken meadows green,
wrought by the hands of Guenievere his Queen.
His second white-hulled ship was Gwennen named–
far had she sailed, and farther was she famed.
Her cargo equaled Prydwen’s – five-score braves –
bright spears and shields they bore across the waves.
Last of the three, not least, was Bronwen called –
five-score bold Britons rode within her walls.
For captain she had Kai – from no man he
would take a blow without returning three.
On Gwennen’s deck stood Bedwyr, mighty man,
with his four-cornered spear and shield in hand.
In Prydwen Arthur led them – bright his crown
glittered in sunlight golden; fierce his frown,
until he saw before them in the sea
the ancient Salmon – longer than a tree
his back stretched, silver scales like shields on him
were all his armor; huge and grey and grim
he loomed before them, and he gave this call:
‘Follow who will – I’ll swim to Hell’s own walls
as I have promised.’ And he was away. —
Then Arthur blew his horn, and ‘Come what may,’
he shouted, ‘we shall follow through the foam
and Mabon from his prison we’ll bear home!’
Flying bright banners, so they put to sea –
but grimmer far their journey home would be.

Nine days and nights they sailed – no sight of land
they had, no glimpse of rock or shore or sand,
only green waves above the mighty deep
that roared like lions and rose like mountains steep
beside them, while above them still the Star
burned red and baleful in the heavens far,
till ragged clouds that rushed across the sky
brought utter darkness. They could only try
to keep their course by wind and wave and prayer
through driving rain and bitter salt-filled air,
until they saw at last through freezing dark
above the sea a tiny glowing spark
that grew into a candle, then a flare,
and then a beacon blazing through the air.
It burned upon a tower tall and black,
darker than jet, without a chip or crack
to mar its smoothness, and about it, walls
massive as mountains, iron-barred gates and halls
lit with red light and full of well-armed men.
‘This is Caer Sidhe ,’ said Taliesin then.
‘Its walls by magic long ago were made.’ —
The Salmon seemed a minnow in their shade.
‘So far I’ve brought you, Arthur,’ he cried then.
‘What I’ve begun, it is for you to end!’ —
Then, ‘Men,’ cried Arthur, ‘follow me ashore!
We’ve come to fight – let’s show them now a war!’

When all of them had brought their ships to land,
captains and warriors gathered on the strand.
Bright were their weapons and fierce their array.
Toward the gate they climbed a winding way.
Six thousand men were waiting on the walls –
not easy to be heard above their calls! –
But Arthur shouted, ‘Open now the gate!’ —
Replied the Porter, ‘Who comes here so late?’ —
‘Arthur am I , and King in my own land!’
The gate swung open. — ‘Enter with your band,
and I will guide you to my lord’s own hall.’
They came within, past walls and towers tall.
Huge beyond dreaming was that stone-built place.
The sneering Porter led them on apace.
At last they came into a gold-roofed hall –
lofty it was; hangings on every wall
glowed in bright colors, red and blue and green.
A thousand lanterns lit the splendid scene.
Within that hall upon a carven throne
a man sat waiting. Of all kings he’d known,
never had Arthur one so kingly seen.
Black were his hair and beard; his eyes shone green;
snow-white his skin, and blood-red silk his robe;
within his hands he held a gilded globe.
‘Be welcome, strangers,’ said he. ‘Tell us now
your names and whence you’ve come, and why, and how.’—
‘Our mission to you, Lord, is easily told:
we seek your prisoner Mabon.’ — ‘Not for gold
or silver will he ever be set free,
but you may win him, if you’ll do for me
one task.’ — Then Arthur grinned a wolfish grin.
‘Name but your task, and swiftly we’ll begin!’ —
‘Long years ago I ruled o’er all this land.
One day a stranger landed on my strand
as you have done. He made fell war on me
and I could not defeat him. To win free
full half my land I gave, and three things more –
three splendid gifts to seal the end of war:
the Speckled Ox, whose collar is of gold;
the Cauldron of Pen Annwn, which can hold
enough to feed this company and more;
and Llemnawg’s sword, which opens every door.
If you can go and slay my enemy
and these three treasures gather back for me,
then Mabon’s yours.’ — Said Arthur, ‘Who will guide
us through your land, and shall we walk or ride?’ —
‘Three and three hundred horses shall bear you.
Mabon himself shall be your guide most true,
but surety I’ll have for his return:
I see one here, does bright with awen burn:
his Chair’s prepared; for me he’ll sing his lays –
Mabon may go, but Taliesin stays
until to me you bring those treasures three.’
And Arthur nodded — ‘Short time will it be
till we return – but Lord, I warn you now,
when we come back, be sure you keep your vow!’

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