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But King Arthur is also a cultural, a mythic, hero– and no eye rolls about outdated chivalry or misogynistic readings of his mythology or anything else like that, for I’m perfectly serious.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 Final Traveling Thoughts

My current travels are ever so sadly drawing to a close, though that does mean more detailed posts to come regarding what I’ve seen and done, but with a few minutes to spare this morning, I thought I’d give you all a poem that has been running through my mind throughout my trip. It’s by W.B. Yeats (one of my all-time absolutely-mad-for-him-I-am poets), I apologize if the formatting is all wonky from uploading it on my phone, and it’s called “When You Are Old”:

“WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

Perhaps an interesting choice of poem for my mind to be repeating to itself as I journey, but I don’t think it’s all that strange. Traveling always makes me a little sad even in the midst of joy, and I think this poem is such a beautiful juxtaposition of grief with love, of beauty with pain, that I can hardly stand its loveliness.

That’s all I’ll leave you with for today, plus a picture out of one of my recent hotel windows that I’ll let you create your own stories and poems from:

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