Behold yonder two fires

knightsReading the text of Malory’s Roman War campaign as a graduate student, I never imagined I would step into this narrative geography of war, then find myself sipping wine at an outdoor café, listening to aboriginal music from Australia, joining in the pre-Bastille day atmosphere of a Normandy harbor town!  It is a kind of experience of the somnium, a Latin genre (think Dream of Scipio) in which the narrator falls asleep and then imaginatively dreams a “rising over the earth” (Cosgrove, Apollo’s Eye, p. 3).  I have stepped into the dreamscape of King Arthur’s Roman War campaign.


I head toward the car for the ride back to Rennes, via a big detour to Mont-St-Michel.  That is a lot of miles to cover given that it is already 6 pm.  I had tried to leave an hour earlier, but instead I circled back to the town center, tamping down my double fear of going into a bar as a solo woman, and of ordering a glass of wine with my pathetic French.  I couldn’t leave Barfleur just yet.

As the waiter came to my table, I took a breath , “Je voudrais un verve de vin.”  Then, an unexpected question from the waiter—“rouge?” “Ah, oui,” I answer.  So far, so good on my first full day in France.

At length, the evening insists upon the afternoon, and I begin the drive south toward Mont-St-Michel.  On the radio, the Beatles tune comes on—Let It Be.  I recall the statue I saw this morning at St. Anne’s church in Rennes.  After mass, several church-goers stood reverently in prayer before her.  Someone had placed a single, multi-blossomed, tangerine-colored gladiola in her arms.


I stop at a road sign that says “Le Raby,” and take a photo of a serene forest scene in which the late sun streams through the branches of the trees, creating a mythical atmosphere worthy of King Arthur on his way to take on the rapacious giant of Mont-St- Michel:

Then a peasant came out of the [Normandy] country and spoke many astonishing words to the king, saying, “Sir, nearby there is a great giant of Genoa who torments your people; he has eaten more than five hundred of our children over the last seven winters!  . . . Tonight he has abducted the Duchess of Brittany as she was riding along a river with her knights    . . .

“Alas,” said King Arthur, “this is a great mischief!  I would trade all the realms I hold of my crown to have been within a furlong of this fiend, and so to have rescued the lady    . . .

“Sir conqueror,” said the good man, “behold the two fires that burn yonder; there shall you find the churl, beyond the cold streams, and you most certainly will also find there treasure beyond measure     . . .

The king met with Sir Kay in council, and to him and Sir Bedevere the Bold he said thus: “See that after evening mass, you two are fully armed, with your best horses.  I am riding out on a secret pilgrimage, and only we three shall go.  When we are able, we will ride to Saint Michael’s Mount, where great marvels shall be seen.”(Le Morte Darthur, Armstrong, ed, p. 109-110)

As I drive toward the mystical outcropping of Mont-St-Michel, my thoughts turn to the paper I will be giving at the International Arthurian  congress in Rennes, in which I trace the influence of Malory’s Roman War account on Henry VIII’s break with Rome and his developing sense of geographical space.

In this very Arthurian tale,  Arthur’s repudiation and conquest of Rome served as a powerful imaginative metaphor for Henry–one that he would subsequently enact in very real political and religious terms and that ever marks the division between Catholicism and Protestantism. A similar imaginative space—a break with Roman authority—is opening up for me as well.  What is it that we owe Rome?

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