Behold the two fires

Arthur, poised to begin his continental campaign and to set his troops southward-bound to Rome is addressed by a peasant who steps out of the forest to address him. How is it that a peasant addresses the king so directly?

The peasant tells a grim account of a giant that is murdering, raping, and terrorizing the countryside. Arthur decides immediately to defer his mission to Rome and to detour to St. Michael’s Mount, the lair of the giant. The picturesque monastery still stands along the coast today, a lonely outcropping of medieval culture, built well after Arthur’s historic setting, but blended into this medieval romance.

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

At this, Arthur rides out to St. Michael’s Mount, “where great marvels shall be seen,” reckoning his way by those two fires. Malory writes, “They trotted along quietly together over the lovely countryside that was full of many birds.” I appreciate this sweet interlude of geography and birdlife, letting us forget for a moment Arthur’s grim mission.

After leaving Barfleur, I drive across the lovely countryside of the Cotentin peninsula of Normandy to the western coast. I’m listening to the radio, and the pop hit “American Boy” returns about every 20 minutes: Take me on a trip, I’d like to go someday; Take me to New York, I’d love to see L.A.; I really want to, come kick it with you; You’ll be my American boy. American Boy.”

I’m wondering about my marriage and my heart, my family and my sense of self. “I do want passion in my life,” I affirm to myself as I drive. Not just sexual passion, but a sense of being alive, of heading for yonder fire. How can we make a decision when there are two fires beckoning us?

Why are there two fires in the tale to guide Arthur? The profane and the sacred, what Arthur will combat and what he will establish at St. Michael’s Mount?

If one arrives at Mont St. Michel, as I did, at eight at night, in the impossibly long light of a mid-summer evening, this duality suggests itself. Sharp crag and etheric monastery, it is a portal of stone, tide, and mist, of heavy earthiness and ephemeral divinity.

Credit: David Forster,

Walking against the grain of departing tourists, I walk up the narrow commercial street to the top; peer over ramparts to the engulfing western sea, and watch the swirl of the tide that once isolated the monastic community and its stone spires. In Malory’s tale, once Arthur kills the rapist giant, he consecrates the outcropping in devotion to St. Michael.

I have a long drive back to Rennes, so as dark finally claims the summer night, around 10 pm, I come back to earth. I drive past the family beach picnics and fireworks to celebrate Bastille Day. Maybe we need two fires to find “treasure beyond measure,” passion and stability, self and family—if the giant doesn’t get us first.

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