Today’s post is by David Llewellyn Dodds.
David Llewellyn Dodds is editor of both the Charles Williams and John Masefield volumes in Boydell & Brewer’s Arthurian Poets series (and recommends Masefield’s Badon poem too). He is currently editing Williams’s Arthurian Commonplace Book and his largely-unpublished 45-poem Advent of Galahad cycle for publication.
‘Percivale at Carbonek’
Taliessin through Logres displays something I think we can see in the Arthurian poems in the earlier Heroes and Kings as well: the careful ordering of a selection of poems which are nonetheless intended to be parts of a larger cycle. Avid Williams fans of the 1930s could even just have glimpsed how it grew out of the earlier (form of Arthurian) cycle, if they knew Lascelles Abercrombie’s anthology, New English Poems (1931). The result is, these poems tell us something about each other, and the careful sequence of this volume, but not about anything that isn’t there yet. And so we have two poems leading up to Grail Masses which have no poems of their own; two poems which also bracket the first of these Masses – and the healing of the Wounded King after the Dolorous Blow – at Carbonek.
Behind the scenes, Williams made this very clear exactly 77 years ago, in a letter of June 1939 to Alice Mary Miller (later Hadfield), where he discusses plans and ideas for poems to come next, including one “just preceding the present Percivale at C.”, and ones about the Conception of Galahad, the Grail Mass at Carbonek, and “Balin and the Dolorous Blow. God had better take care of this; I can’t”, but “O no; not the Achievement in Sarras; not yet.” (In the event, readers have had to be content with extrapolating for themselves from the splendid Graal Mass in War in Heaven, and glimpses in earlier poems.*)
‘Percivale at Carbonek’ presents Percivale’s only poem in this book, an eyewitness account of an extraordinary incident when the three Grail knights arrived, but Galahad did not immediately lead the way and re-enter Carbonek (where he was conceived and born), for Mass where the elusive Grail – beckoning in the first line – is familiarly present, and to heal his wounded grandfather, patiently waiting in daily agony “for health” for longer than Galahad’s lifetime. Galahad does not, however, have to pause to battle a monstrous enemy lurking at the threshold to gain entrance, as, in ‘The Son of Lancelot’, Merlin must physically dash the filicidal cannibalistic werewolf Lancelot out of the way to allow Galahad as a newborn to exit the same gate, to be borne to Percivale’s sister for nurture. Why does he pause?
Carbonek is a mysterious place, quite concrete, yet beyond the border of Logres, in Broceliande, and “the people of Pelles” are presented as “celestial,” as “astonished angels of the spirit,” and seem bewildered by Galahad’s behavior. They remind me of “the winged squadrons of the sky” who “Look down with sad and wondering eyes” in Henry Milman’s Palm Sunday hymn, ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty.’ In his own way, here, as Christ there, Galahad bows his “meek head to mortal pain.” Why?
It would seem that, just as Pelles’ daughter, Helayne, is ‘the destined mother,’ so Lancelot was her destined husband as father of their son, Galahad. But Arthur’s selfish choice(s) contributed to the mortally sinful selfish choices of Lancelot and Guinevere of an ‘exclusive’ adulterous relationship in which (in words of Tennyson praised by Williams) they are “falsely true” to each other. While, in the western understanding, the eligible bride and groom are the ministers of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, each must be not only eligible for, but also consenting to, the marriage, or there is no marriage, but a nullity. So, what Helayne could intend and wish for as a marriage could not be so without Lancelot’s consent. And Lancelot had not come to Carbonek simply consenting as virgin eligible spouse like Helayne, nor as a consenting penitent, having been converted from and forsworn his persistent adultery. He was the subject, the victim, of a ‘bed-trick.’
In All’s Well that Ends Well–one of the two plays which F.S. Boas calls “Shakespeare’s problem-plays” where there is a bed-trick–the husband, Bertram, is tricked into consummating a marriage publicly celebrated to which he had explicitly consented. In the other, Measure for Measure, Angelo is tricked into becoming one flesh with someone to whom he was publicly affianced by oath, with “the nuptials appointed.” Nothing like this applies in Lancelot’s case.
[Interestingly, the title of that play is thought to be taken from one of the ‘measure for measure’ passages in the Gospels (cf. Matthew 7:2, Mark 4:24), and in ‘The Son of Lancelot’, Merlin rushing to dash Lancelot aside is characterized by an echo of Luke’s version (6:38) as “the measure pressed and overrunning.”]
Lancelot, who had adulterously tricked Arthur innumerable times for years, had in turn been tricked into becoming one flesh with his own ‘destined wife.’ And yet, he had never been convinced, converted, had never consented. The fact that he had, as it were, ‘unintentionally done the right thing, for once’ by intending to have sex with someone who turned out to be his ‘intended’, drove him mad. Yet, in that madness there is responsibility for murderous intent, and for particularly odious filicidal intent against his innocent newborn son.
Yet the grown-up Galahad, come to Carbonek, does not (for whatever reason) seem to resent or fault that murderousness, or Lancelot’s deliberate, habitual adultery, and in it constant betrayal of friendship as well as active treason. Instead, he “wept for the grief of his father” at an unconscious ‘betrayal’ on Lancelot’s part – for which Galahad has no personal responsibility, though he is in his person the beneficiary of it as cause of his very existence. What ‘should have’ happened, has in fact happened, yet not as it should have happened. He also explicitly seeks “pardon” as member of “the house of Carbonek”: what was done, was done deliberately by his mother, presumably as intended by his grandfather, Pelles.
What is even stranger is that, immediately after Galahad’s birth, Lancelot was taken into “Carbonek’s guest-chamber” where he “lay tended, housed and a man, / to be by Easter healed” – only 7 weeks later. There is no clear suggestion anywhere in the book that Lancelot regrets being saved from being a murderer, and a cannibal filicidal one at that, or that he holds anything against Galahad in his innocence, or even against Helayne, Pelles, Brisen, or Merlin for their deliberate action.
But Galahad is agonized by the fact of the fraud, their betrayal, even if it “betrayed […] to truth,” the means, even if it is “the means of grace,” and Lancelot’s actual suffering that followed, feeling his inextricable involvement in it: “In the name of Our father forgive Our mother for Our birth.” Interestingly, he asks this of his paternal kinsman, Bors, who must serve as a substitute for Lancelot, who is only mysteriously present by a “padding of paws, […] the faint howl of wolf,” from before his return and healing, audible at least to Percivale.
[Also interestingly, with Grevel Lindop’s post on “Taliessin in the School of the Poets” – with its attention to the sephirotic tree – in mind, we see that Galahad (corresponding to the central “column”), between Bors and Percivale (corresponding to the “columns of Justice and Mercy”), turns “to his left, to Bors” – presumably the column of Justice – asking for “pardon” or forgiveness.]
Bors effectively corrects him: “only God forgives.” He reminds him Lancelot is “kind”, which in the historical meaning of the word reaffirms his having returned to being “a man” and living according to the proper end of human nature (however falteringly). No children according to their human ‘kind” choose in advance to be born, but he prays “that my children assent / and through God join with me in bidding their birth”, in gratitude for that gift of existence – and opportunities for its “proper operation” (as Williams translates the book’s motto from Dante). By another substitution, Galahad asks Bors to go first and steps “in his footprints”. Probably most of us know this image from J.M. Neale’s carol, ‘Good King Wenceslas,’ where the page treads “boldly” in the saint’s “footsteps,” but it is a saintly and Christological image with a long history in legend and liturgy, about which I would like to know a lot more.
*Including ‘The Song of the Riding of Galahad’ in Heroes & Kings, arguably ‘Percivale’s Song’ in New English Poems, and ‘Percivale’s Last Song’ first published in my Arthurian Poets edition (together with reprints of the other two).
For more details about some of the history and imagery of ‘Percivale at Carbonek’, see my “Continuity and Change in the Development of Charles Williams’s Poetic Style”, in The Rhetoric of Vision: Essays on Charles Williams, ed. Charles A. Huttar and Peter J. Schakel (Lewisburg; Bucknell UP / London: Associated University Presses, 1996).