Here is Post #4b in the Series on Taliessin through Logres! Please visit the INTRODUCTION to this series first, and here is the INDEX to the other posts in the series.
Today we have two posts about “The Calling of Arthur.” This second one is by Charles Franklyn Beach.
Charles Franklyn Beach teaches literature and writing classes at Nyack College. He first discovered the novels of Charles Williams at a bookstore sale in August 1985, and he eventually worked with those novels on his MA thesis and PhD dissertation at Baylor University. He is also a regular presenter at the New York C. S. Lewis Society, whose members he had not yet convinced to become fans of Williams.
4. THE CALLING OF ARTHUR
This poem steps back into the past, before Taliessin’s return to Logres and arrival at Arthur’s camp. Here we see the “young” Arthur encountering Merlin, who appears “inhuman,” even “wolfish,” as he informs the youth, “Now I am Camelot; now am I to be builded.” What Merlin does is not to give Arthur a vision of what his kingdom will be, but what it cannot and should not be: what his predecessor, King Cradlemas, has made it. (The name “Cradlemas,” by the way, seems a weak parody of “Candlemas,” the Church festival on February 2nd that commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple—a festival mentioned several times in Malory’s tales of Arthur’s kingdom—or as a parody of Christmas, when Christ was in a manger-cradle and His birth is celebrated by a holy Mass. Either way, by ironically referring to the infant Messiah, the name serves as an echo of the kind of kingly figure Arthur can and should aspire to be—and which his predecessor most definitely was not.)
Unlike his young successor, Cradlemas is “cold and small,” speaking with a “high aged voice.” He wears a golden “mask” which hides “his wrinkled face”; he peers at the world through the distorted lens of an emerald which he holds to his only functioning eye. He sits in London, on the banks of the Thames River, indulging himself in pleasure and not really caring for his people. He “fears that the winter is hard for the poor,” but he takes no action to stop his lands from becoming wastes where nothing prospers and where children die. He lives in “comfort,” but the wealth and splendor of his life is not life-giving. Rather, it shrivels and withers him, leading to his demise.
But the people are on the verge of rebellion, signified by the “hammer and sickle” which have arisen and now control the “mouth of the Thames,” through which any ships leaving London must pass. Meanwhile, Bors and his wife Elayne enter the picture, and they will perform key roles in the story which follows. And Lancelot—we cannot forget Lancelot!—journeys to Logres.
In the final stanza, Arthur acts upon Merlin’s call: he “ran” toward his destiny. As the people “marched” on London, the corrupt king dies while he is being carried on the backs of his slaves in a litter, in the cold of winter. A few who were frightened out of their wits “fled” the coming of Merlin and Arthur, but upon the ruins of self-indulgent London the new king “grew” Camelot, the image of an ideal city. Yet even as the new kingdom begins, there is an image of its eventual downfall and destruction in the poem’s final line: “In Logres the king’s friend landed, Lancelot of Gaul.”
Note that Arthur does not in Williams’ Arthurian vision follow his father Uther to the throne, nor is there the kind of extended search for Uther’s successor involving the whole “sword in the stone” episode which Malory and his many predecessors, and even some more recent literary heirs, made central to the rise of Arthur to power. Often, through the sword in the stone they indicated their understanding of the basis of Arthur’s kingship. For instance, Malory made that episode an opportunity to show the people, through a proto-House of Commons, forcing the knights and barons to accept Arthur. But there is no such conflict arising in Taliessin Through Logres at Arthur’s coming to the throne. Williams does not here give a clear explanation of how or why Arthur is eligible or entitled to be king. Instead, he presents Arthur simply as a unifying and healing figure who brings the leaders and the people together and under whose reign the wasteland has the opportunity once again to become fruitful and live-giving.