Myth or Legend?

Folklore of the Renaissance has it that King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table lived in Camelot

The latter centuries of the Middle Ages were to herald the Renaissance. Europe stirred to a riot of romance writing – the sum and symbol of it all being Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Marte d’Arthur.
True, it was not exactly an original work, having been compiled in the main from French romances which, in turn, had been based on ancient Celtic legends. This is perhaps why, in the company of the Knights of the Round Table, we find British heroes comparable to the heroes of classic myth and to the German Niebelungen Lied.

Le Marte d’Arthur tells tales of Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad, Percival, Tristram and other great figures. It comes in 21 parts – the first, telling of the legends of the birth and early days of Arthur.
The embedded sword
One day, there suddenly appeared in a huge stone in an English churchyard, a sword embedded in anvil. Written on the marble were the words in letters of gold: “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is righteous king born of all England.”

Arthur had been sent home from a New Year’s tournament, to fetch his elder brother’s sword, and, thinking to save himself the long journey, he went to the churchyard and pulled the sword free from the stone and anvil. Thus, he became King of England. His accession brought him many adventures as well as a battle with 11 kings and a great army, against which “he did so marvellously in arms that all men had wonder.”

To digress, I would like to examine romantic history that seemed to develop in cycles, clustering around this or that hero. The offshoots are almost forgotten today, but there were the weirdest stories, where the fairy prince Oberon was identified as the son of Julius Caesar, and how the Saracens kept the Feast of St. John. Periods, regions and religions seem to have been freely confused by the old romancers and even heathen mythology was used as a convenient cloak. We find ready example of this in Chaucer’s Knights Tale, where some licence was taken to mix the manners of different ages.

The learning of the times was quite classical. The collection of works in the “Gesta Romanorum” included the stories of Codrus, Atlanta, the Minotaur, Androcles and the Lion; of Argus tricked by Mercury, and of Achilles hiding among women. Even the story of the Sword of Damocles and Damon and Pythias are to be found, while Virgil is degraded to being a mere magician and Aristotle suffers the same fate.
Monkish authors took incidents from classical legend to “dress up” their works. The tale of Sir Tristram is full of such instances. Like Perseus, he slays a monster; like Philoctetes, he is wounded by a poisoned arrow; like Ulysses, he is recognised even when in disguise, by his dog; like Paris, he deserts his bride, and just as AEgus was driven to despair by the deception of the hoisting of a flag, likewise was Sir Tristram.
Other metrical chronicles had Orpheus made to figure as Sir Orpheo in his quest for Eurydice, and Vespasian and Titus undertaking a crusade to avenge the death of the Christ.

Revival of Greek
It was the revival of Greek that went a long way in exposing the absurdity of these pseudo-classic romances. It also gave us the Alexandrine verse taken from the chronicles of Alexander. Another is the use by both Chaucer and Shakespeare of the Trojan War and its heroes. The pastoral romances of the 16th and the heroic romances of the 17th centuries also derived much from these classics. However, the most absurd are the romantic fictions in which Biblical characters appear. Pilate becomes a felon knight. Joseph of Arimathea carries chivalric arms. Joshua becomes a contemporary of Solomon, and Joseph and his brothers and kinsmen are made conquering missionaries in Britain and who became the ancestor of the Knights of the Round Table.
We also have the story of a German minstrel who seemed to have anticipated Milton in versifying the penances of Adam and Eve. This man had our first parents (if they were) having to immerse themselves in the freezing waters of the Jordan and Tigris!

These old Christian storytellers drew their material from the East as well. We now know that the legends around the Buddha are founding a long line of fiction that is the seventh century romance of Barlaam and Josephat. This was also adapted to Jewish and Moslem tenets.
The problem has always been that poetic invention in the Middle Ages gave itself airs as historical authority. Even Caxton listed the nine most famous in the world, true heroes of romance, as Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, the Jews’ Joshua, King David and Judas Maccabeus, then Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon.

Ancient history was certainly outraged, but to this day, the romances of Arthur remain the most familiar, if not the tales of Robin Hood. In fact, the two are knit, and well at that. While I touched briefly on Malory, many may be more familiar with Tennyson’s Idylls of the King – a rather inappropriate title, given that the “idylls” are rather epical fragments. Anyway, Milton also thought of an epic on this theme, but later gave up the idea. Other poets such as William Morris and Matthew Arnold also drew freely from this bank of legend.

How it began
How did it all begin? Certainly from shadowy traditions held together by the peoples of Wales and Brittany, sung by bards, then assembled in writing by churchmen. We find Geoffrey of Monmouth giving vein to a Latin chronicle, in which the supposed descendents of the grandson of Ascanius, named Brutus, sailed to the south of Britain to found a new kingdom. Brutus’ descendents, Geoffrey claims, were Arthur and Cadwallader. But even when Malory gave us Le Morte d’Arthur, the heroic king was not so familiar in England as that of Robin Hood. Arthur was better known of in Wales. Even Caxton, to the preface to the first of his printed books, reminded with some dolefulness that Arthur – “is more spoken of beyond the sea, more books made of his noble acts than there be in English, as well in Dutch, Italian, Spanish and Greekish, as in French.”

But he did declare that Arthur’s tomb is in Glastonbury and the impression of Arthur’s seal in Westminster Abbey, while Gawaine’s skull is in Dover Castle with other Arthurian relics. Therefore, Caxton added:
“Can no man reasonably gainsay but there was a king of this land named Arthur. For in all places, Christian and heathen, he is reputed and taken for one of the nine worthy, and the first of the three Christian men.”
Neither Malory nor Caxton could explain, however, why the Celts honoured Arthur as a god. Actually, the question arises: Was there an Arthur; did he ever live? We are still left to imagine where or when Arthur ruled – if he ever did rule. But all over Britain, various localities still seem to be haunted by his name: from Arthur’s Seat to Tintagel. The romances do not make it clear either. Was Arthur’s chief seat in England, Scotland, Wales, Cumberland, Cornwall, or in the legendary land of Lyonnesse that is believed to have sunk beneath the sea that now laps the Scilly Islands?

Camelot to be identified
Even Arthur’s capital cannot yet be fixed. In Winchester Castle, there is a “round table” from which 24 segments shoot out from the centre, each engraved with the names of Arthur’s famous knights. This table has its bullet wounds, having been shot at by Cromwell’s soldiers. It is supposedly an Arthurian relic, but it is now thought to have been made from a “wheel of fortune” that had been listed earlier among Winchester’s treasures.
We find in the stories, Arthur ruling from London, then Winchester, then Caerleon in Carlisle. We cannot as yet find Camelot, but there are various candidates: Camden mentions Camelot near the Somerset villages of East and West Camel. It is said to be the scene of the great battle between Arthur and the Saxons. A large central mound in Camelot is said to be “Arthur’s Palace,” near “Arthur’s Well’; and “Arthur’s Causeway” is the track to Glastonbury.

To this day, villagers claim they hear the sound of Arthur’s phantom hunt. Another Camel River in Cornwall runs by Camelford and there, people still commemorate the battle in which Arthur fell. There is a stone that is said to mark his grave.
What have we got? A mirage? Even geography has got more hazy than history. If we were to follow every hint as to the scenes of the knights’ adventures, we would need to travel to every corner of the British Isles!


Kashmiriyat - A review

For a moment of freedom

By Maheen Senanayake
‘Every man dies, but few live...’
– Mel Gibson starring as William Wallace in Braveheart
The cover of Kashmiriyat, recording the formation of the institute of Kashmir Studies, Srinagar, in May 2008 does not do justice to the tale within. Whilst the spirit of a people is perhaps captured in the cover photograph, the publication has somewhat of a tendency to give one the feeling that this is something of a report. This is no progress report, though the cover seems to project it as such, but rather it is a tiny spec of progress in anthropology.

Kashmiriyat details, in no uncertain terms, the profound story about a movement, a man and a vision in action. We have all been told to live righteously ever since we can remember, do the right thing and do the simplest yet the hardest first: The 10 commandments of Christendom and the five precepts of the Buddhist world being such.

Yet, we all recognise that in this world, living right is probably the hardest of all things. In that gem of a performance by the infamous Al Pacino playing Lt.Col. Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman, propounds this when his weekend babysitter and sidekick Charlie refuses on occasion to take the easy way out because, “...it just didn’t feel right.” It is indeed this unseeming notion that ‘it just may not be right’ that guards our inner selves from immorality. Yet, most presumably for the wellbeing of and the security of the physical self most consider it perfectly acceptable to perhaps ignore the laws of morality on certain occasions. Kashmiriyat challenges the core of our comfort zones parading in front of our eyes and our very beings what can be achieved when one stretches oneself beyond that frame of comfort. Kashmiriyat is about people, the young and the old alike, who in their demand for freedom, defy the toughest of bans and calls for boycott for a moment of freedom.

Unity in music
On May 25, 2008, the banks of Lake Dhal were transformed into a musical extravaganza open to elements, gods and men alike amidst, strict security and a call to boycott an otherwise harmless event, tens of thousands of young and old ignored the call of the jihad, and many other security threats to attend none but a peaceful demonstration of love and unity in music. “It has been a 10-year-long tryst with destiny and Junoon is with you,” Salman said amidst thunderous applause from the audience.

Powered in the sixth page by the emotional reunion of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his childhood classmate and friend Raja Ali Muhammad, now a Pakistani, from their ancestral Gah village in Chakwai district in Pakistan, Kashmiriyat promotes the spirit of India’s pluralist Bhakthi-Sufi-Rishi culture. And thus the opening of the Kashmiri instituted is christened in Music, unity and harmony amidst gloomy clouds of threats.
While live coverage was not forthcoming, the Indian press, of which we still have the highest regard with reviews appearing on many a national daily, television and radio, at least captured the core essence of Ambassador Madanjeet Singh’s purpose. Embedded in the spirit, purpose and principles upon which the South Asia foundation has been founded upon, Ambassador Madanjeet Singh is determined to see the people of south Asia rise above all and works within a framework of diplomatic tact that dissolved any resistance from any organisation that has even attempted to slow down the progress of his efforts.

The book does not fail to note that Guru Nanak Dev at the age of 30 had said no more than repeat “There is no Hindu. There is no Muslim” as he believed that religion was a matter of personal belief and a private affair, far removed from state or governance. Today the modern secular state separates the state and education from religion. Performing on the banks of Lake Dhal, Salman Ahmad’s group Junoon and the Singhs enthralled audiences while the founder of the South Asia Foundation, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Mandanjeet Singh Sat amidst the crowds watching his son, Miki, the leader of the Singhs capture heart and mind of his people.

Tale of diplomacy
It’s almost as if Miki and Ambassador Madanjeet Singh were characters out of a novel. With their remarkable tale of diplomacy, fortune and return to give back to their own people, Kashmiriyat’s tale perhaps can only be surpassed by their own. A ready reckoner for any human being wanting purpose, Ambassador Madanjeet Singh has in no small measure lived and done everything possible to justify the rainbow on the SAF Logo. The Institute of Kashmiri Studies being just one of those, the body has made an impact on the lives of Asians in South-East Asia in sustainable form.
Unlike in so many other ways, The South Asia Foundation has stayed true to its cause and it must be reflected that the spirit in which the foundation has conducted its activities are resonant of the rainbow so prominent on their logo. It is not often that pictures complement a story well, yet in this instance, the photography has been able to add lustre to the story and strength to its purpose with the capture of both mood and even climate.
The photography sans editing is real and has captured the spirit of a people, from the misty hills in the backdrop of Lake Dhal to the veritable colours and sounds of everyday life afforded through this natural medium. In their natural form, the pictures bring the story to life. It is this spirit of capturing the truth rather than seeking artificial perfection that has perhaps differentiated the very activities of the SAF.

Whilst this publication has ‘coffee table’ written all over it, it also not incorrect to note that in its current form, it is perhaps manifested from the subtle diplomatic and diversified toolkit of the SAF founder, for an impromptu and casual flipping through its pages would undoubtedly leave an impression in the eye of the mind of the reader. A must read for all Asians, Kashmiriyat is about how the young would handle issues.

Reasons to hate and fight
We inhabitants of this planet delve too much on history, dig deep enough and we can always find reasons to hate and even fight. But watch the young, see how innocent they are seems to be the SAF founder’s message. IT seems that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had more than one message. The young must not be burdened with the failings of history. This perhaps is the underlying message for if left to them men would live in concert. The concert of human existence.

Making the dream of performing in Srinagar a reality for Junoon’s leader, Salman, one concert could not have stood for more. Even those, whose every action and word have been dictated by the web of politics could not but tacitly endorse this action. Testimony to Madanjeet Singh’s superior diplomatic skills, was his ability to elicit from the very populations divided that, they would let the past rest for a moment and find anew, ways and means of tolerance. With careful and clear and conscientious motion forward Mandajeet Singh’s actions both in his personal life left a dent in the armour of groups with vested interests, including those of political and military natures and an indelible mark on a people who have suffered too long at the hand of an egotist machine.

Kashmiriyat is a coffee table expose of what could be given half the chance. It is an account, un-edited to suit any camp of ideology, this is a book about the truth and as such a work that merits honours, for the account, the message and the importance of sustained efforts to make a dream come true: A united and peaceful Asia, in the true spirit, principles and purpose of the South Asia Foundation.