Of Heroes, Travels, and Historical Dragon-Slayers

To continue recounting my sojourn abroad, I’m going to theme today’s post as notable dragon-slayers. I have written before on individual dragons themselves, but given the roads and places I trod recently, I think the dragon-slayers are entitled to their own post. Starting, of course, with one of the original and most badass of all dragon-slayers: King Arthur.

King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler

King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler

Now, given that my recent trip led me all around the British Isles, you may be surprised to learn that the above picture is not actually a ghost I saw of King Arthur, just a lovely painting of him. Not to say I didn’t see his ghost, but phantoms are remarkably hard to photograph; they hardly like sitting still long enough.

I did, however, get the chance to see Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, which is a peak in the center of the city reputed to be one of the possible sites of Camelot– and that was just on my first day:

arthursseat

When I reached Wales, I journeyed to what I consider King Arthur’s shrine (I’m nothing if not devoted), and that would be the mountain of Cader Idris, which I did hike to the top of (via the steepest path, by the way). There are a number of legends surrounding this mountain; one of them states that if you spend the night on the mountain, you’ll come down either a madman or a poet. Another is that King Arthur and his knights are sleeping underneath Cader Idris, awaiting the time when Britain needs them again. Tell me you can look at these pictures and possibly think otherwise:

cader

the mountain and Llyn Cau at its feet

the mountain and Llyn Cau at its feet

looking over the edge into the fog

looking over the edge into the fog

I know many people tell the story King Arthur’s one-day return with a wink and a nudge, but there’s a reason we’re still telling his story today. Part of it is that the story of Camelot is one of the greatest tragedies of all time; it’s got it all: action, adventure, romance, heaps of forbidden sex, betrayal, honor, heartbreak. And since those things will continue to exist as long as people do, King Arthur will also continue to endure in all the various incarnations he’s been granted by storytellers, fantasy writers, historians, and any other interested parties.

But King Arthur is also a cultural, a mythic, hero– and no eye rolls about outdated chivalry or misogynistic readings of his mythology or anything else like that, for I’m perfectly serious. A man who tried to do the right thing for his people, for his kingdom, for his marriage, and who might’ve gotten tangled up in a whole heap of stuff along the way but who persevered and did the best he could. That is heroism. Heroes don’t always win and they don’t always get the girl; sometimes they lose the girl, the fight, and the kingdom– but that hardly makes them unheroic.

looking down at the surrounding valleys

looking down at the surrounding valleys from Cader

view from the top

view from the top

Speaking of heroes who seem to lose, get ready for this shift: I’m going to move on to Oscar Wilde now, whose grave I visited in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris (why yes, I did manage to sneak in two days in Paris during my 2-week whirlwind trip around the UK):

oscarwildegrave

Oscar Wilde is one of my personal heroes, and oh what an understatement that is. I remember the first time I read “The House of Judgment,” I wept as hard as I’d laughed when I first saw The Importance of Being Earnest performed. I won’t go into all the details of the way Wilde was vilified in his society, aside from just to say that it was utterly and incomprehensibly cruel and wicked and wrong, but I do want to transcribe here what is engraved on the back of his tomb in Paris:

“And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn.
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.”

Too beautiful and heartbreaking to elaborate on. So my final downtrodden hero of the day is William Wallace. I had the chance to visit Stirling to see both Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument, both of which were breathtaking. The views from the monument in particular were astounding:

view from the monument

at the top of the monument

viewfromwallace2

and again

The monument is essentially a massive tower with several different floors you reach via a tiny stone spiral staircase. Super fun when you’re going up and others are coming down. One of the floors– and my favorite, obviously– was the Hall of Heroes, which contained busts of a number of famous and influential Scotsmen, as well as (brace yourself) William Wallace’s actual sword, enshrined in a glass case of beauty.

the sword to beat all swords... except for Excalibur

the sword to beat all swords… except Excalibur

Again, Wallace seemed to have lost everything in his fight against tyranny, and in many ways, he did. In many other and equally important ways, however, he won. The Battle of Bannockburn happened only a handful of years later, which won Scotland independence, and Wallace has continued to be looked to as an inspiration by many groups throughout history seeking independence, equality, justice, etc.

So, I guess today was more about “losing” heroes than anything, but it’s good to remember that just because heroes don’t always seem to win, that doesn’t mean they don’t. That doesn’t mean the light doesn’t shine a little brighter, the darkness retreat a little more, as we continue to tell their stories– their defeats and their triumphs– for years and centuries after they’ve gone.

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Of Heroism in a World of Grey

This weekend, I saw the new Captain America movie. While I won’t gush on about my feelings concerning the specifics of the movie– aside from simply saying that it exceeded my expectations and was so good that everyone needs to go see it immediately– it gave me a lot (and far too much to put in one post) to think about. I’m sure I’ll talk about it all eventually, but today, I just want to think about heroism– and good and evil– in 2014. (I know I said “just,” as if it’s such an easy topic that a few hundred words with some pictures interspersed can do it justice; bear with me.)

Captain America

So for this post, let me make clear that I’m talking about heroism in my own life, and in the lives of others like me. I am not touching on those who actually physically fight for my right to say whatever I want on this blog; our soldiers are unquestionably heroes who cannot be thanked or praised enough– and whose situation I think the newest Captain America film does an excellent and heart-wrenching job of portraying. What I’d like to consider is all the rest of us: those who don’t in our daily lives encounter physical monsters and dragons in need of slaying.

What do you do when there is no black and white? When monsters wear masks, when dragons move in masquerade among us, when everything seems so unbearably grey? And even when there are black and white issues, as there will always be, what do you do when, the world being what it is, you can’t fight evil physically, and even your words seem (in the words of George Eliot) “in their feebleness nothing better than despair made audible”?

Movie Still from Sleeping Beauty

Movie Still from Sleeping Beauty

Well. I have never claimed to have all the answers (or even some of them). But what I will do, as I so often do when I am struggling to find an answer or some meaning in seeming meaninglessness, is turn to literature. One of my favorite series of books growing up was The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. First of all, everyone should go read them right now. Second of all, this is just one of many quotes from the fifth (and last) novel in the series, spoken by the hero Taran:

“Long ago I yearned to be a hero without knowing, in truth, what a hero was. Now, perhaps, I understand it a little better. A grower of turnips or a shaper of clay, a Commot farmer or a king– every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone. Once you told me that the seeking counts more than the finding. So, too, must the striving count more than the gain.”

These words ring as true today as they did when I was a child. There are so many more ways than just one to be a hero– thankfully! There are so many kinds of heroes and so many ways to be heroic, and I think they always involve some form of selflessness. It is so hard to be heroic in small ways– not to say that it’s not hard to be heroic in big ways too. They’re both difficult, just in different ways. I think what is most difficult about being heroic in “small” ways is that it involves fighting against intangible evil. And unfortunately, I am so often (and sadly so easily) discouraged by intangible evil. How do we strive against that which we cannot see? How do we know we are effecting change if we can’t even see what we are fighting?

The Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov

The Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov

I don’t have an answer. Not more of one than simply to say that I do believe that daily acts of kindness are just as important to stem the tide of darkness as are physical battles. How to remember this in the midst of getting bogged down in the living of day-to-day life, I continue (and will continue) to struggle with. So to end today, I’d like to quote again, this time from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” as a reminder that maybe the striving is what counts the most– maybe the refusal to yield to darkness, to keep chasing after light and compassion and empathy and goodness, matters most:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Of Wooden Swords, Strange Women Lyin’ in Ponds, and Chivalric Codes

I’m taking a bit of a break from what seems to be my recent trend in self-empowerment posts. While I was at the beach recently, I also went to a show of Medieval Times, and I’m fixing to speak on that because 1) It’s amazing, 2) Everyone should know about it, and 3) I can.

image

So if you don’t know what Medieval Times is or have never been to a show, let me illuminate the issue for you: Medieval Times is a dinner show where you sit around a big arena while you watch a version of a medieval tournament with knights on horseback, jousting, swordplay, trained horses, etc. You also eat as if you were in the Medieval Ages, which means no silverware. I realize as soon as I say Medieval Times, some people’s eyes glaze over with visions of painful versions of LARPing– I’ve seen said glazing happen myself. But I thumb my nose at such naysayers.

The shows vary according to location and when you go see them– they have to mix it up to keep it fresh, clearly. The show I went to consisted of a dinner with half a chicken (yes, half of a whole chicken), the best spare rib I’ve ever eaten, and some other things that my carnivore’s brain remembers less well since they were not straight-up meat. The show itself had trained horses performing a number of tricks (if you’ve ever heard of the Lipizzaner stallions, picture that), as well as an actual falconer and trained falcon hunting down his prey in the arena.

image

Retrieved from blog.visitnorthumberland.com

Then of course there was the actual tournament. We started off with some spear-throwing at targets, then some ring-catching on horseback (which means the knights ran their horses full-speed, their lances down, and tried to catch a teeny tiny ring on the end of their lances as they sped past). And then the jousting and sword fighting– on horseback and on foot. During all of which you are expected to cheer for the knight whose section you’re sitting in and boo all his opponents.

If you’re still not sold, then you’re missing out, but such is your right. But aside from championing Medieval Times and the need for everyone to go see a show, I do want to talk a little bit about chivalry because MEDIEVAL TIMES.

First off, I’m not advocating a return to the 11th century or the Dark Ages or anything like that. There were plenty of terrible things that thank goodness we don’t have to put up with any more. But as I screamed myself hoarse (I’m nothing if not an enthusiastic fan), I asked myself why this show appealed to me so much. Number one, swords.

Number two, (if I’m being honest), is that there’s something about it that’s like a UFC fight– lots of skills needed to make it good, violent, and appealing– only with swords, lances, axes, and flails.

Number three, it’s about honor and respect. *eye rolls from some* I know, I know, a bunch of men fighting each other with swords and shields, “the violence inherent in the system,” “strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords,” lobbed scimitars, and anything/everything else from Monty Python and the Holy Grail may not sound like much of a basis for honor and respect. There was plenty not worthy of respect or admiration in the Middle Ages. But guess what. You could say the exact same thing about today’s world. There’s something to be said for the ideal of a man’s word being his pledge, for the ideal of the stronger or more well-advantaged taking care of the weaker or less privileged (I mean here individually, not governmentally – but that’s another post), for there being a code. And by code, I don’t mean figuratively. I mean literally, the code of the five chivalric virtues: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Clearly, this is all incredibly idealized, but it’s also from a time when such things were held up as a paragon of behavior and not as subjects of mockery and ridicule.

Sir Galahad: The Quest of the Holy Grail by Arthur Hughes

Sir Galahad: The Quest of the Holy Grail by Arthur Hughes

Number four, it appeals to me because it hearkens back to when we were all kids and let our imaginations run wild. I saw little boys running around Medieval Times with wooden swords and shields, fighting imagined monsters; I saw little girls throughout the audience who were named Queens of the Tournament by their respective knights and giggled and blushed down to their tiptoes. There’s something here that appeals to us on a fundamental level, and I say this without distinction to gender– we want to be heroes, slay dragons, be the princess, kill the bad guy, do the rescuing and also be rescued, be loved and valued and part of something that goes beyond just us. Is it too much of a stretch to say all this just from watching a little girl get crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the tournament? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.

The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

So, today’s life lessons from Medieval Times:

1) You’re gonna get beat. Nobody wins everything all the time. Welcome to life.

2) When you do get beat or miss the mark, the worst thing you can do is just stop.

3) A man being chivalrous towards a woman doesn’t mean he doesn’t think the woman can do something (i.e., open a door). It’s a sign of respect, and a woman accepting such an action is to return that respect.

4) Don’t believe anyone who tells you dragons don’t exist. They’re wrong.

5) Don’t believe anyone who tells you dragons can’t be beaten. Again, wrong.

Well, perhaps this was more self-empowerment of sorts. Shocking. That’s all for today.

-Hannah the First, self-proclaimed Queen of Love and Beauty

Retrieved from the Texarkana Entertainment Blog

Retrieved from the Texarkana Entertainment Blog

The Truth about Dragons: An Introduction

Greetings and salutations, and welcome to The Truth about Dragons. I write this first post simply as an introduction to what I plan this space to be. I intend this site– at least initially, and we’ll see what it evolves into– as a record of my efforts to discover where my passions will take me in life. A daunting and clichéd task, I realize, but so it is. In the last year, I’ve moved from my beloved Georgia up north to join a Ph.D. program in English Literature, and I’m now heavily considering leaving the program to embark full-time on a quest to become part of that club of writers who can actually write for their livings as well as for their passions.

Now, as to the name of this blog– The Truth about Dragons– I owe thanks to G. K. Chesterton, who wrote in Tremendous Trifles, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

For me, dragons take all sorts of shapes and sizes. While it might be easier to spot them in fairy tales and fantasy– which happen to be my favorite genres– that doesn’t mean they don’t exist in real life obstacles and challenges, in people who are real-life villains, in external forces we may not recognize, and sometimes even within ourselves. The truth is, they can be beaten; we tend to forget this because generally, it is only the smallest dragons which can be slain with just one blow. Far more dangerous are the dragons which take years of battling to defeat, and sometimes we may only be part of a dragon-slaying relay team, wearing away at forces too great to defeat on our own and which we may not even see the results of in our own lifetimes. We get singed, burned, and beaten down, and we may not always get the girl– or whatever it is we are after. But that doesn’t mean the possibility doesn’t exist and that we shouldn’t try, with whatever tools we’ve each been given, to battle dragons with our words, swords, humor, hope, and perhaps most of all, a belief in the power of goodness and light to prevail in the end.

“I hope that simple love and truth will be strong in the end. I hope that real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in the world.”

-Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

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