Sunday, September 12, 2004

There Once Was a Place Called Camelot

Men of Cornwall, Harlech and New York

There once was a place called Camelot...

Do you remember those lines? They are the opening lines of a play and then a movie. "There once was a place called Camelot." My thoughts in the inner sanctum.

As a teenager, I had a serious fascination with medieval history. Who am I kidding? I still do. But, as a teenager, the books tended toward the romantic mythical. You know? The knights all had shining armor. They were all good and noble and chivalrous (well, except for the evil blacknight, he was always lurking and in need of defeat). The women were beautiful, noble and virtuous (at 14, I was a little behind the curve on some things and "virtuous" always meant "honest", today, virtuous is funny) and in need of rescue.

When I got older and my reading materials tended towards biographies, non-fiction works, etc, I realized that the knights weren't always noble nor good, their armor wasn't always shining, the women were sometimes power hungry wenches and sometimes, just sometimes, the "black knight" had a good reason to be pissed and want the other guy's head on a pike or was bad simply because he came in on the wrong side of the political discussion or owed his allegiance to the guy on the short end of the stick.

Oh yeah, and don't forget the servants and the serfs. Somebody had to muck out the stables, cook the wild boar for 6 hours, sweep the reeds, care for the dogs and flush out the garde-robes. Nothing romantic about those jobs, right?

And the castles? I always thought of the castles as resembling something like Harlech Castle in Wales. With massive towers and walls. Even in my "romance" period, I never thought of them like "Cinderella" castles. Those kind of castles wouldn't do for the giant knights in my dreams. I didn't realize until later that sometimes these were not glamorous, massive stone structures, but a wooden manor behind wooden fences like this motte and bailey variety where the cattle often took residence with the "noble" inhabitants.

Even after learning all this, I eventually concluded that, regardless of the cold hard facts of a cold hard life in medieval times, there were still some "knights in shining armor" and the "code of chivalry" was an important part of our western heritage. Men like William Marshall who stood tall in the stirrups, knew how to give battle and when to offer surcease.

Are there men like William Marshall still running around today? Yes. We just don't always recognize them. They don't always wear armor and sometimes they don't always hold to the exact image of a noble man that always does noble deeds. In our 24/7 world, nobility and chivalry are hard illusions to maintain. The minute a hero is identified, they can be torn down. But we can dream can't we? Dream of Camelot?

The dream of Camelot is just that, a dream. A beautiful place where all is right and the table is round so that all men could sit down together and be equal. Equal in say. Equal in opportunity. Equal in the eyes of the king. Equal justice. Now I realize that this famous "equality" and dream of Camelot was only held together at the point of the sword and spear. These same men did not take their equality, their position lightly, but recognized there was evil in the world and injustices to be righted and they leant their strength and arms to the task. They had their little issues and petty in-fighting, but when Mordred came to knock on the door, they were one and ready to battle him.

Men of Cornwall, Harlech and New York
Today, like yesterday, our heroes are real men. They walk and talk and eat and fart and sing off key. They don't always pay their bills on time, don't always hold the door, some have been divorced three times and have to pay alimony and child support on three children. Sometimes, when they are tired or depressed or just because, they have one too many beers and get loud in the bar. They are not perfect.

But, there comes a day when the bell rings, the call comes down, the sirens go on and the engine's roar to life. Their armor is a badge, an insignia on a uniform, a baton or a fire ax for a sword. Their helms are yellow with a crest "Fire Station 1", a blue cap with a badge "To Protect and Serve", a khaki camouflaged foraging cap with a globe and eagle on the front "Semper Fi". And sometimes, they are dressed in business suits, with a bullhorn and a song, ushering their fellow men and women from burning buildings. Sometimes, they go to work and they don't come back. All that there is to remind us is a folded flag, the tolling of a bell, a picture on a shelf, a plaque on the wall or simply a memory that blurs around the edges.

Would that I could write a poem like the epic Song of Roland, who gave his life protecting his kings rearguard. A sword in one hand and his horn in another:

Then from the Franks resounded high—
“Montjoie!” Whoever had heard that cry
Would hold remembrance of chivalry.
Then ride they—how proudly, O God, they ride!—
With rowels dashed in their coursers’ side.
Fearless, too, are their paynim foes.
Frank and Saracen, thus they close. (...)

ROLAND feeleth his death is near,
His brain is oozing by either ear.
For his peers he prayed—God keep them well;
Invoked the angel Gabriel.
That none reproach him, his horn he clasped;
His other hand Durindana grasped;

And, Roland gives his life, refusing to call for his king although asked repeatedly to do so by his companion Olivier, who near begs him to blow his horn and let the King know they are under attack. Some interpret that as pride, but I think it has a basic theme. Roland must know that the Saracens outnumber them tremendously. If he calls for the King to return, he might be slaughtered along with the rearguard. If he stands and fights, he may buy the King some time to be further on out of the Saracens' range.

And there are other stories like Roland. Some closer in history. Such as the Irish Brigade at Fredricksburg who stood in the face of withering fire so daunting that more than half their brigade was slaughtered on the field and as they finally turned to march from the field, the confederate army gave them "huzzahs" for their unmitigated bravery. Or, the men at Rorke's Drift when 150 British Soldiers held off 4000 Zulu or Rick Rescorla in the south tower or the hundreds of stories we don't hear every day as our men and women fight in a hot sandy country far away.

After I posted my 9/11 remembrance where I included the story of Rick Rescorla where he was singing a song from the movie Zulu as he ushered people out of the burning and collapsing building, a gentleman reader read my post and sent me some information on the true story of Rorke's Drift (spelling corrected) and the song they were singing:

With reference to your September 11 blog, I note you make reference to the battle at Rorke’s Drift.

I hate to be picky but the lyrics that you quoted are slightly incorrect. They are from the film version of the song Men of Harlech, a battle hymn of the Welsh nation and its unofficial national anthem. The Film Zulu to which you refer commemorates the action at Rorke's Drift (South Africa), Wednesday 22- Thursday 23 January, 1879, when some 150 soldiers (139 of them Welsh) defended a supply station against some 4000 Zulus. At Rorke's Drift, eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded. Seven to the 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot, one to the Army Medical Department, one to the Royal Engineers, one to the Commissariat and Transport Department and one to the Natal Native Contingent. The primary regiments (in terms of manpower) engaged were 1st and 2nd Battalions, 24th (Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot (Infantry). This regiments recruiting area at the time resulted in a majority of its serving soldiers being Welsh, and as such upheld a number of Welsh social customs as part of its regimental identity. The soldiers, given their origins, would have known by heart the verses of Men of Harlech, fed as it was to them with their mother’s milk (to use an old clicheĆ©).

An interesting stereotype concerning the people of Wales is that they all have good singing voices. Though not absolutely true, there is a distinct basis for this characterization. Should you ever watch a Rugby International played in Wales involving the Welsh national team, you will be witness to something astonishing: 60,000 or so Welsh (mainly male) voices singing in harmony and time without the aid of a choirmaster. It can best be described as a melodic roar, that is as intimidating as hell. Various rugby players of other countries have said that it is worth an extra 2 men on the field – given the state of Welsh rugby at moment, the help is necessary.

As for the song, it was written to commemorate the 15th century defense of Harlech Castle. There are two versions in English, one written in 1861 the other in 1873, both being translations from Welsh. The lyrics used in the film were rewritten specifically for the purpose. The correct film version is below.

Men of Harlech stop your dreaming;
Can't you see their spearpoints gleaming?
See their warriors' pennants streaming
To this battlefield.
Men of Harlech stand ye steady;
It cannot be ever said ye
for the battle were not ready;
Stand and never yield!

On a return email, I was discussing the movie with him and remembered that the soldiers had sang another song, but could not remember it as well as the song posted above. The gentleman sent me another note:

Having read your blog, I then did a quick bit of research on Rick Rescorla. From what I read, he was a remarkable man, who is both an example and a hero for our times. Obviously, he was someone for whom the idea of duty and responsibility were not outmoded concepts otherwise why would he have re-entered a fatally damaged building to look for missing staff and to help the evacuation of others. Like an old war horse, someone who charged towards the sound of the guns rather than away. His like are sorely missed and sorely needed. (...)

(...)As for the film Zulu, I believe the other song that was sung was "Land of my Fathers" another Welsh anthem. According to the film and the official history of the battle, the soldiers singing was in response to the Zulus singing one of their battle songs promising swift death to their enemies. It was done probably to raise the morale of men facing what should have been certain death. The Zulus obviously outnumbered them, and a simple war of attrition should have seen them annihilated. However, it is believed that the Zulus called off the siege out of respect for their courage, not because the British had managed to defeat them. There was then a code of chivalry amongst the Zulu nation that was in part to blame for their being overcome by the European invaders.

Thank you, Bill, for the information.

You see, there are heroes. They fight against incredible odds. They stand when we would run. They sing in the face of overwhelming odds. They live next door or right down the hall. Sometimes they are our grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers or husbands. Sometimes, they are our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters and wives.

Sometimes, they are just ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who got up one day, put on their clothes, drank a cup of coffee and went to work. Doing what they always do.

There IS a place called Camelot and it resides in the best of us every day.

1 comment:

Tammi said...

Kat I share your love of medieval history. And came to many of the same realizations over the years - but it hasn't daunted that love one bit.

It's true - those knights are still here. Inside so many. And we do live in Camelot. Oh, it's not perfect, but then again, neither was Camelot. Camelot allowed for dreams, for desires. Camelot required loyalty, required effort.

That's what we have in this wonderful country. No, it's not perfect. But it requires the strong to be loyal, it requires that we work to keep it free and strong. It fosters our dreams and desires.

How lucky are we to live in Camelot and surrounded by Knights!