Today’s post is by Andrew Stirling MacDonald.
Andrew Stirling MacDonald is a composer, writer, video producer, and actor, living in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He can often be found writing unpublished novels, monopolizing pianos, extolling philosophies he understand little and valiantly attempting to raise his three adorable children. He wears kilts and a giant bushy beard.
“Bors to Elyane: On the King’s Coins”
“The Most Romantic Boardroom Meeting Minutes Of All Time.”
There is nothing in the world so capable of upsetting a noble idea as a mundane object. This poem is a recounting by Bors to his beloved wife Elayne of a meeting between Arthur and his small council. By now, Arthur has come into his kingdom. He’s conquered nobly and done his best to ensure that Logres carries the greatest possible potential of lofty ideas by establishing a school of poets, and even set Taliessin to give them some personal instruction. It is time to start actually ruling the country, time to hang up the conqueror’s sword and put on the rough work gloves and construction hard hat of civic responsibility. This is the period in which many successful warrior-kings have seen their hard-won kingdoms fall apart and slip away. Luckily, Arthur has rustled up a council of wise men to keep him from making any huge blunders. As long as they can all come to agreement on the various issues that the fledgling nation faces, there shouldn’t be anything too difficult to handle, right? Just to warm up, how about we start with something simple – currency! This’ll be easy, right guys? RIGHT GUYS?!
When Bors begins telling the most romantic board meeting minutes in the history of the world to his wife, it is pretty clear which side of the argument he is on. Which is to say, the side that everyone except Taliessin is on. Workers so far have been fine with payment in the form of:
1: Not being killed (“conquered”)
2: Being allowed to have food and places to live (see 1).
But now that Arthur has set up a (hopefully) stable system of government, it is time for people to start actually living lives again, and that means that they need money. So he begins minting coins with little dragons on them. Bors is concerned, naturally, that money may cause some long-term issues, as it is wont to do. But despite his caution, he does seem to see the need for it.
Kay is a big fan of the coins. He points out that money can be a universal language for people who don’t have much else in common, and that you really need money in order to have a smoothly-running kingdom. This seems pretty obvious, and you start to wonder why everyone keeps going on about how great and necessary it is to have money, a thing that seems like common sense. However, the reason we wonder that is that we can’t see what everyone else in the room is seeing: Taliessin, glowering in the corner, his crazy eyes getting madder and madder with each passing second. Finally, Kay makes the mistake of saying the word “exchange,” which is pretty much Taliessin’s mother-of-all trigger words.
In case you’ve somehow missed it throughout the first half of the book, Taliessin is kind of obsessed with the existential concept of “exchange,” and hearing some steward just causally throw the term around synonymously with “money” brings Taliessin’s delicate poetical sensibilities past the breaking point and he completely flips his lid. He goes on a rant worthy of any modern Tumblr user. He prefaces his argument by warning them that they can’t possibly understand the depth of what he is about to say since they are not poets like him. Once he gets into the speech itself, Taliessin points out that coins are symbols, and he knows from personal experience (as a poet! A POET, he imperiously reminds them all) that if you are not careful, symbols can take on a life of their own and do as they please instead of serving their creator.
This is actually a good point, but you get the impression that everyone is so rankled by having an artiste basically tell them that they are all slow-witted philistines that they pretty much just do their best to ignore him. Throughout the poem, it’s clear that Bors actually recognizes that Taliessin makes a good point, and he is worried that nobody is bothering to listen to the points because they all just don’t want to hear it from someone who is saying the things in such an insulting way.
So, Taliessin insults them all and has his little rant, and then the room is silent for a minute until finally the Archbishop clears his throat and is like “Yeah…. I mean, anything is possible… But we still need money to run a country.”
In the end, this seems to be good enough for Arthur to give the thumbs-up to continue with minting the coins, and the country keeps on runnin’. Bors is still a little shaken by the thought that the coins really could take on lives of their own, and asks Elayne to pray that everything will work out okay.
Oddest Inkling intertextuality note: For another approach to this poem in its literary context, check out Sørina Higgins’s lecture “Little Loosed Dragons: Intertextuality in Beowulf and the Inklings”: