Sunday, May 11, 2014

On a Faery Castle

A WOMAN whose presence in English letters will continue to increase wrote of a cause to which she had dedicated her life that it was like that Faery Castle of which men became aware when they wandered upon a certain moor. In that deserted place (the picture was taken from the writings of Sir Walter Scott) the lonely traveller heard above him a noise of bugles in the air, and thus a Faery Castle was revealed; but again, when the traveller would reach it, a doom comes upon him, and in the act of its attainment it vanishes away.

We are northern, full of dreams in the darkness; this Castle is caught in glimpses, a misty thing. It is seen a moment-then it mixes once again with the mist of our northern air, and when that mist has lifted from the heath there is nothing before the watcher but a bare upland open to the wind and roofed only by hurrying cloud. Yet in the moment of revelation most certainly the traveller perceived it, and the call of its bugle-guard was very clear. He continues his way perceiving only the things he knows-trees bent by the gale, rude heather, the gravel of the path, and mountains all around. In that landscape he has no companion; yet he cannot but be haunted, as he goes, by towers upon which he surely looked, and by the sharp memory of bugle-notes that still seem to startle his hearing.

In our legends of Western Europe this Castle perpetually returns. It has been seen not only on the highlands of Ireland, of Wales, of Brittany, of the Asturias, of Normandy, and of Auvergne, but in the plains also, and on those river meadows where wealth comes so fast that even simple men early forget the visions of the hills. The imagination, or rather the speech, of our race has created or recognised throughout our territory this stronghold which was not altogether of the world.

Queen Iseult, as she sat with Tristan in a Castle Garden, towards the end of a summer night, whispered to him: "Tristan, they say that this Castle is Faery; it is revealed at the sound of a Trumpet, but presently it vanishes away," and as she said it the bugles rang dawn.

Raymond of Saragossa saw this Castle, also, as he came down from the wooded hills after he had found the water of life and was bearing it towards the plain. He saw the towers quite clearly and also thought he heard the call upon that downward road at whose end he was to meet with Bramimonde. But he saw it thence only, in the exaltation of the summits as he looked over the falling forest to the plain and the Sierra miles beyond. He saw it thence only. Never after upon either bank of Ebro could he come upon it, nor could any man assure him of the way.

In the Story of Val-ès-Dunes, Hugh the Fortinbras out of the Cotentin had a castle of this kind. For when, after the battle, they count the dead, the Priest finds in the sea-grass among other bodies that of this old Lord....

 ... and Hugh that trusted in his glass,
 But rode not home the day;
 Whose title was the Fortinbras
 With the Lords of his Array.

This was that old Hugh the Fortinbras who had been Lord to the Priest's father, so that when the battle was engaged the Priest watched him from the opposing rank, and saw him fall, far off, just as the line broke and before the men of the Caux country had room to charge. It was easy to see him, for he rode a high horse and was taller than other Normans, and when his horse was wounded....

 ... The girth severed and the saddle swung
 And he went down;
 He never more sang winter songs
 In his High Town.

In his High Town that Faery is
And stands on Harcourt Lea;
To summon him up his arrier-ban
His writ beyond the mountain ran.
My father was his serving-man;
Although the farm was free.
Before the angry wars began
He was a friend to me!

In his High Town that Faery is
And stands on Harcourt bay;
The Fisher driving through the night
Makes harbour by that castle height
And moors him till the day:
But with the broadening of the light
It vanishes away.

So the Faery Castle comes in by an illusion in the Ballad of the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes.

* * * * *

What is this vision which our race has so symbolised or so seen and to which are thus attached its oldest memories? It is the miraculous moment of intense emotion in which whether we are duped or transfigured we are in touch with a reality firmer than the reality of this world. The Faery Castle is the counterpart and the example of those glimpses which every man has enjoyed, especially in youth, and which no man even in the dust of middle age can quite forget. In these were found a complete harmony and satisfaction which were not negative nor dependent upon the absence of discord-such completion as criticism may conceive-but as positive as colour or as music, and clothed as it were in a living body of joy.

The vision may be unreal or real, in either case it is valid: if it is unreal it is a symbol of the world behind the world. But it is no less a symbol; even if it is unreal it is a sudden seeing of the place to which our faces are set during this unbroken marching of years.

Once on the Sacramento River a little before sunrise I looked eastward from a boat and saw along the dawn the black edge of the Sierras. The peaks were as sharp as are the Malvern from the Cotswold, though they were days and days away. They made a broad jagged band intensely black against the glow of the sky. I drew them so. A tiny corner of the sun appeared between two central peaks:-at once the whole range was suffused with glory. The sun was wholly risen and the mountains had completely disappeared,-in the place where they had been was the sky of the horizon.

At another time, also in a boat, I saw beyond a spit of the Tunisian coast, as it seemed a flat island. Through the heat, with which the air trembled, was a low gleam of sand, a palm or two, and, less certainly, the flats and domes of a white native village. Our course, which was to round the point, went straight for this island, and, as we approached, it became first doubtful, then flickering, then a play of light upon the waves. It was a mirage, and it had melted into the air.

* * * * *

There is a part of us, as all the world knows, which is immixed with change and by change only can live. There is another part which lies behind motion and time, and that part is ourselves. This diviner part has surely a stronghold which is also an inheritance. It has a home which perhaps it remembers and which certainly it conceives at rare moments during our path over the moor.

This is that Faery Castle. It is revealed at the sound of a trumpet; we turn our eyes, we glance and we perceive it; we strain to reach it-in the very effort of our going the doom of human labour falls upon us and it vanishes away.

It is real or unreal. It is unreal like that island which I thought to see some miles from Africa, but which was not truly there: for the ship when it came to the place that island had occupied sailed easily over an empty sea. It is real, like those high Sierras which I drew from the Sacramento River at the turn of the night and which were suddenly obliterated by the rising sun.

Where the vision is but mirage, even there it is a symbol of our goal; where it stands fast and true, for however brief a moment, it can illumine, and should determine the whole of our lives. For such sights are the manifestation of that glory which lies permanent beyond the changing of the world. Of such a sort are the young passionate intentions to relieve the burden of mankind, first love, the mood created by certain strains of music, and-as I am willing to believe-the Walls of Heaven.

~Hilaire Belloc



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