On 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.
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.