Once as Alive as You or I

DCIM100GOPROOn the tour of a Norman castle I took last spring, I heard all about the moat and the boiling oil, the outer wall and the inner wall and the poor souls who got tossed over the latter, to fall screaming to their deaths below.

I listened as hard as I could, trying not to be distracted by the vista surrounding us.I found it that fascinating.

at-the-castle

But for all my listening I heard very little of what the daily life in that castle was like, which is what I most yearned to know about. I had to come back home and dig out my copy of T.H White’s The Once and Future King for that; because I had bought a paperback copy of this great tale of the Arthur Legend back when I was young and sure enough, there the tattered volume still stood, on the shelf where I had placed it. I flipped through the pages and there  was the passage I had remembered, outlined and waiting for me all these years later.

In it White describes the great walls surrounding a castle of this same era in England. Then he goes on on to say how things looked from the inside in those far-distant days, and what a spell he does cast with these words:

“So much for the outer defenses. Once you were inside the curtainwall, you find yourself in a kind of wide alleyway, probably full of frightened sheep, with another complete castle in front of you. This was the inner shell ‘keep’ with its eight  enormous round towers which still stand. It is lovely to climb the highest of them and to linger there looking toward the marshes from which all these old dangers came, with nothing but the sun above you and the little tourists trotting about below, quite regardless of boiling oil. 

“Think of how many centuries that unconquerable tower has withstood. It has changed hands by secession often, by siege once, by treachery twice, but never by assault . On this tower the lookout moved. From there, he kept the guard over the blue woods toward Wales. His clean old bones live beneath the floor of the chapel now, so you must keep it for him.

“If you look down and are not frightened of heights (the Society for the Preservation of This and That have put up some excellent railing to preserve you from tumbling over), you can see the whole anatomy of the inner court laid out beneath you like a map. You can see the chapel, now quite open to its God, and the windows of the Great Hall with the solar over it. You can see the shafts of the huge chimneys and how cunningly the little side flues were contrived to enter them, and the little private closets now public, and the enormous  kitchen. If you are a sensible person, you will spend days there, possibly weeks, working out for yourself by detection which were the stables, which the mews,  which were the cow byres, the armory, the lofts, the well, the smithy, the kennel, the soldiers’ quarters, the priest room, and my Lord and Lady’s chamber. Then it will all grow about you again. The little people – they were much smaller than we are and it would be a job for most of us to get inside the few bits of their armor and  gloves that remain – will hurry about in the sunshine, the sheep will baa as they always did, and perhaps from Wales there will come the ffff-putt of the triple-feathered arrow, which looks as if it had never moved.”

I have worked as a professional writer for over 35 years, penning essays and columns and autobiographical pieces and I just know that I would need another 35 years of study to even come close to the verbal artistry of this lonely and complicated man, who took a time 1400 years in the past and brought it to shining life.

 

 

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Sleeping Outside

sleeping bag funWhen my big sister Nan and I were simple kids living in a house thick with ancient relatives, we yearned for that rare occasion when we got to sleep outside.

We never did that in our own yard, so small it could hardly fit its in-ground garbage can and its creaky old clothesline. But oh when we went to visit our cousins in West Roxbury!

There were no trolley cars screeching past the end of their street. There were no alleys between brick buildings like the one we had with its revolving store of interesting things, bits of brightly colored glass, a discarded lady’s scarf, and once, for a thrilling six-week period, the remains of a small dead animal, flat as an envelope.

Their neighborhood felt like the neighborhood we saw on Leave it to Beaver. Their mom wore an actual apron. They had a real screened-in porch, and we could roller skate as much as we liked along smooth sidewalks.

And best of all I would get to “camp out.” Nan would do other, older things with the other, older cousins but I was always matched with cousin Mary Lou, who was closest to me in age, and boy did Mary Lou know how to have fun. For our big campouts she would fashion a little tent for us, expertly pounding its pegs into the grass. She would produce real sleeping bags, the old-fashioned kind, made of cotton and lined with plaid flannel.

There, as evening gathered in, we would feast gloriously on Franco American spaghetti heated up over small cans of Sterno and lie back in that soft grass, telling ghost stories and waiting for the stars

It was heaven. And I believe I remember it today because last week I came upon a passage I had copied out just 20 years ago from T.H. White’s wonderful bThe Once and Future King. 

The passage goes like this:

The boy slept well in a woodland nest when he laid himself down, in that kind of thin but refreshing sleep, which people have when they begin to lie out-of-doors.

At first he only dipped below the surface of sleep and skimmed along like a salmon in shallow water so close to the surface that he fancied himself in air. He saw himself awake when he was already asleep.

He saw the stars above his face, whirling on their silent and sleepless axis and the leaves of the trees rustling against them, and he heard small changes in the grass. These little noises the footsteps and soft-fringed wing beats and stealthy bellies drawn over the grass blades or rattling against the bracken at first frightened but interested him so that he no longer cared to see what they were but trusted them to be themselves, and finally left them all together as he swam down deeper and deeper, nuzzling into the scented turf, into the unending waters under the earth.

Perhaps it was the part about trust that moved me to copy this out in the summer of ’96. Anyway, it’s the part that moves me now. And tonight when the darkness gathers, I want to look up at the still-swollen moon and those steady stars and remember to trust more; to trust, as Lincoln said in his farewell to the people in Springfield, that all may yet be well.    

sleeping in the woods (1)