We left Arthur sleeping, these many months, on the dark English sea, beginning an overnight sea journey to France and his long to march to Rome. Isn’t that how it is in a dream? A moment can seem a lifetime; time and space confound such that a dream journey can bring you, as Hamlet notes, to that “undiscovered country” or return you to the boundaries of your own familiar bed. “For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come?”
For Arthur, deep in sleep after the vigorous preparations on the banks of Sandwich, a dream came to him “that a terrible dragon came flying out of the west . . .covered with azure enamel [and] . . . claws . . . like pure gold. A hideous flame of fire came out of his mouth . . .” (109) Simultaneously, “out of the Orient came a ferocious bear, all black and in a cloud [who] roared so loudly that it was a great marvel.” (109)
The dragon and the bear engage in an epic, sky-borne battle in which the dragon ultimately “torched the bear” such that “he fell to powder . . . and the ashes floated out to sea.” (109) When Arthur awoke from this dream, he called for a philosopher—always handy to have a philosopher on hand!—who assured Arthur that the dragon represented Arthur “sailing here with your loyal knights,” and that Arthur was likely to fight a giant in single combat and to emerge victorious. The philosopher soothed the rattled dreamer-king “Therefore, have little dread of this dream, and do not worry, Sir conqueror, but comfort yourself.” (109)
This symbolic dream upon the embarkation of Arthur’s great journey has garnered the attention of many scholars—everything from the symbolic imagery of tensions between east and west to the philological and political question of whether the manuscript reads “bear” or “bore” (See P. J. C. Field, Thomas Crofts, Meg Roland). It marks the “crossing” from England to the continent, the transformation of the national hero to the continental emperor, the beginning of Arthur’s epic quest, and exemplifies Malory’s signature mingling of the romance genre, one of dreams and marvels, with that of chronicle, where realistic battle accounts and the succession of kings holds sway.
It is only once I swing out of the rental car agency with Malory’s medieval text as my guide and only a general regional map that I face my own dragon—I am driving to Rennes where I will stay in a pensione, and I must get there with limited French and complete reliance on French highway signs. I will have to call the owner’s son and tell him, in French, that I am going to arrive far later than I thought. The gathering summer evening spreads gorgeous long shadows across the Normandy countryside, dotted with wind turbines and summer fields.
By 11 pm, the light finally deepens into night and I drive, hopelessly tangled in the narrow, one-way medieval streets of Rennes, praying for some kind of marvel, someone who can answer my well-practiced question “Ou est le Rue St. Jacques?” As emotionally tumbled as Arthur upon awaking from his terrible dream, I send up a plea for help to my father, deceased now for two years, and add a Hail Mary. It is near midnight: revelers and drunks let me know I am not in the safest part of town. The same message comes to me as to Arthur—“have little dread . . . and comfort yourself.” I decide I can always sleep in the car if need be. Finally, after wrestling the one-way streets, I call Phillipe, the owners’ adult son, and announce with damp relief, that I am standing, I think, at the wooden gate in front of the pensione. The door buzzes open.
In sleep or waking, I am wrestling with my own dragons, but I sink mercifully onto the bed, having made some kind of crossing myself on this mid-summer eve of Bastille Day.