On June 6, 1944, 25,000 young men, Allied and German troops, lost their lives in Normandy, in some state of agony. It seems as if a devastating event of this proportion could only have occurred in the horrific day of modern warfare. And yet, sadly, not so.
The cemetery sits high on the bluff above Omaha Beach–the very bluff young American soldiers struggled to surmount while under German fire. On the water, the sea crews struggled to bring their transport—men and needed supplies—onto shore to support the infantry. The loss of life on both sides was staggering.
Though fictional, the tale of the Roman War account also tell of such fields of sorrow, and a connection between my Arthurian itinerary and this saturated, symbolic landscape begins to suggest itself.
Then there was launching of greate botis and smale, and full noble men of armys: and thre was muche slaughter of jantyll knyghtes, and many a full bolde barown was layde full lowe on bothe parties. (681)
In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century version of the Roman War campaign, Arthur hears word of Mordred’s insurrection and hurries back to England, his ultimate conquest of Rome eternally delayed. In Malory’s 15th century version, the devastation of the kingdom is postponed until the end of his “grete book”— but it comes just as inevitably. As the kingdom is torn into factions, the death of Arthur brings with it the devastation of war and a similar horror of the slaughter of thousands:
And thus they fought all the longe day, and never stynted tylle the noble knyghtes were layde to the colde erthe. And ever they fought . . . tylle hit was nere nyght, and by than was there an hondred thousand leyde ded upon the erthe. . . “Jesu mercy!” seyde the Kynge, “where ar all my noble knyghtes becom? Alas, that ever I shulde se thys doleful day!” (685)
This is the experience of pilgrimage—walking a landscape in which the imaginative becomes linked with the physical, the literary text intersecting with the powerful presence of space–a passionate geography.
My own experience at the cemetery entwines with Arthur’s sense of desolation: Jesu Mercy, what force of horror has taken the lives of these young men? Arthur’s words speak to this same shattering result : Alas, that any should see this doleful day!