Monday, May 7, 2007

King Arthur's Raid on Hell

This week's offerings are going to center around a long narrative poem I wrote a few years back for a competition. As it is 432 lines long, I will be posting it in chunks over the next few days. Friday's post will be background information on where I got the ideas I used in writing it. Those of you who have read Storyteller will recognize the plot as one of the long interior stories from the book - but the poem came first.

King Arthur’s Raid on Hell

The King was sitting in his winter hall
and for some song or story he did call
to cheer the evening and make waiting sweet
until such time the company sat at meat.
Of all his bards the eldest then stood up
and said, “My Lord, by Jesus’ Sacred Cup,
there is a story that in Wales men tell
of how King Arthur led a raid on Hell
to free a prisoner and great treasure bring
back to his court.” — The King commanded, “Sing!”
“In Winter’s darkness, e’en as now we are,
my tale begins. One night there shone a star –
a burning dragon in its form and flight –
whose awful radiance reddened all the night.
The Porter came, the watchmen from the walls,
and all who saw it, into Arthur’s halls
to bring the news, and cried, ‘My lord, come see
this fearful sight, and tell us if it be
the Day of Judgment, for afraid we are.’
Then all within came out to see the star
which burned above them. Arthur gazed full long
upon it, then spoke to his courtly throng –
‘Who reads this riddle, let him prove his worth!’ —
And Taliesin Chief of Bards stood forth.
‘My King, last night I dreamed a curious dream.
I stood beside a fortress, as it seemed,
and heard within a voice lamenting long
his heavy chains and most enduring wrong.
Then I awoke. My lord, the only one
can read this riddle is Madrona’s son.
Mabon they called him – he’d no time to grow
into a longer name, as all men know,
for on the third night following his birth
he vanished – none knows where on middle-earth
he is, or if he lives, or if he’s dead.
But he must read your riddle.’ — Arthur said,
‘Then who will find him?’ — Taliesin smiled
and said, ‘My Lord, I know of tame and wild
all that a man may know twixt earth and sky,
but there is one knows more of lore than I.’
Arthur then bade him, ‘Go, and bring me word
where Mabon lies, and when your tale I’ve heard
I’ll forth and free him, I and all my men!’
And so the Bard his journey did begin.
Far in the North upon a treeless dome
the Ouzel of Kilgwri made her home.
There Taliesin came, and ‘Bird,’ he said,
‘You know the names of all men live or dead,
so long you’ve dwelt upon this mountain high.’ —
‘Not so,’ the dark-winged singer made reply.
‘I know your quest, though not the one you seek:
although a smithy’s anvil with my beak
I’ve worn down to a nut, through sharpening it,
yet you’ll no news from me of Mabon get.
But if you’ll come with me, and boldly fly,
I’ll lead you to one older still than I.’
Then Taliesin took the Ouzel’s form
and on the winds of heaven they were borne
until a forest glade below them lay
where dwelt the noble Stag of Rhedynfre.
‘O Stag,’ the poet said, ‘your ears are keen:
have you heard aught of Mabon, who has been
so long unknown?’ — The great Stag shook his head.
‘I cannot tell you whether live or dead
is he, although in truth I’ve lived so long,
I’ve watched an acorn grow to oak tree strong,
wither away, and fall, and go to dust.
But follow me; I’ll show you one who must
know what you seek, although she shuns the sun.
Take you my shape, and with me swiftly run!’
Then Taliesin took the Stag’s swift form
and ran beside him over meadows warm,
then into tangled forest grim and dark
where fungus bloomed, and moss was thick on bark
and twisting vines grew green to block the light.
There, in a trackless glen as black as night,
perched on a limb in darkness unalloyed
they found the ancient Owl of Cwm Caw Llwyd.
‘O Bard,’ hooted the Owl, ‘ I know your name,
your birth and kindred, and not small your fame.
Yet more than you by far I still do know –
within this glen I’ve watched two forests grow
and be cut down – and this one is the third.
Older than almost every mortal bird
am I – yet must I own, I do not know
where Mabon is. In my shape you must go
if you would find him – follow then and see
that ancient one who’s older still than me.’
Then feathers covered Taliesin’s skin,
his arms were wings, his feet grew talons grim.
He soared through darkness and yet clearly saw
all things about him, tasted flesh blood-raw,
became the ancient Fear that shuns the light
and knew the trackless pathways of the night.
They left the forest and through moonlight flew
o’er stony slopes, where wider stretched the view,
and came at last where on a mountain’s crest
the Eagle of Gwernabwy built his nest.
As rose the sun, the Eagle raised his head.
‘O Taliesin, long you’ve searched,’ he said,
‘for news of Mabon. I of all the birds
the Eldest am, yet nothing have I heard
of him, though in my lifetime day by day
I’ve watched the very mountains wear away
to pebbles. Still, I think there yet may be
one creature God created before me.’
Then Taliesin took the Eagle’s form
and soared above the world, o’er field and farm,
o’er forest green and mountain cold and grey
until they came at last at close of day
to a deep lake, and saw within their view,
Oldest of all, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw.
Weary was Taliesin when as man
at last he stood upon the lake’s white sand
and faced the one he’d come so far to see.
‘Salmon,’ he said, ‘traveler of lake and sea,
far you have journeyed. Tell me, have you heard
in all your life of Mabon’s fate one word?’ —
‘I have,’ the Salmon said, ‘and you I’ll tell:
his prison lies upon the Shores of Hell.
Heavy his chains, his ’prisonment is long,
and sadder than any other’s is his song.
If you would free him, I will lead you there,
but bring an army with you, for that Caer
is strong and well-defended – on its walls
six thousand stand, and brave is he who calls
its gates to pass. Of living men but one
could bring it down, and that is Uthur’s son.’ —
‘Salmon,’ said Taliesin then, ‘my thanks
be with you. One year hence between the banks
of Severn meet us, and across the sea
we’ll follow you, and Mabon we’ll set free!’

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