What was right, what was wrong? What distinguished Doing from Not Doing? If I were to have my time again, the old King thought, I would bury myself in a monastery, for fear of a Doing which might lead to woe.
The blessing of forgetfulness: that was the first essential. If everything one did, or which one’s fathers had done, was an endless sequence of Doings doomed to break forth bloodily, then the past must be obliterated and a new start made.
Man must be ready to say: Yes, since Cain there has been injustice, but we can only set the misery right if we accept a status quo. Lands have been robbed, men slain, nations humiliated. Let us now start fresh without remembrance, rather than live forward and backward at the same time. We cannot built the future by avenging the past. Let us sit down as brothers, and accept the Peace of God.
Unfortunately men did say this, in each successive war. They were always saying that the present one was to be the last, and afterwards there was to be a heaven. They were always to rebuild such a new world as never was seen. When the time came, however, they were too stupid. They were like children crying out that they would build a house — but, when it came to building, they had not the practical ability. They did not know the way to choose the right materials.
The old man’s thoughts went laboriously. They were leading him nowhere; they doubled back on themselves and ran the same course twice: yet he was so accustomed to them that he could not stop. He entered another cycle.
Perhaps the great cause of war was possession, as John Ball the communist had said. ‘The matters gothe nat well to passe in Englonde,’ he had stated, ‘nor shall nat do tyll every thing be common, and that there be no villains nor gentylmen.’
Perhaps wars were fought because people said my kingdom, my wife, my lover, my possessions. This was what he and Lancelot and all of them had always held behind their thoughts. Perhaps so long as people tried to possess things separately from each other, even honour and souls, there would be wars for ever.
The hungry wolf would always attack the fat reindeer, the poor man would rob the banker, the serf would make revolutions against the higher class, and the lack-penny nation would fight the rich. Perhaps wars only happened between those who had and those who had not.
As against this, you were forced to place the fact that nobody could define the state of ‘having.’ A knight with a silver suit of armour would immediately call himself a have-not, if he met a knight with a golden one.
But, he thought, assume for a moment that ‘having,’ however it be defined, might be the crux of the problem.
I have, and Mordred has not. He protested to himself in contradiction: it is not fair to put it like that, as if Mordred or I were the movers of the storm. For indeed we are nothing more than figureheads to complex forces which seem to be under a kind of impulse. It is as if there was an impulse in the fabric of society.
Mordred is urged along almost helplessly now, by numbers of people too many to count: people who believe in John Ball, hoping to gain power over their fellow men by asserting that all are equal, or people who see in any upheaval a chance to advance their own might.
It seems to come from underneath.
Ball’s men and Mordred’s are the under-dogs seeking to rise, or the knights who were not leaders of the Round Table and therefore hated it, or the poor who would be rich, or the powerless seeking to gain power.
And my men, for whom I am no more than a standard or a talisman, are the knights who were leaders — the rich defending their possessions, the powerful unready to let it slip. It is the meeting of the Haves and the Have-Nots in force, an insane clash between bodies of men, not between leaders.
But let that pass. Assume the vague idea that war is due to ‘having’ in general. In that case the proper thing would be to refuse to have at all. Such, as Rochester had sometimes pointed out, was the advice of God.
There had been the rich man who had been threatened with the needle’s eye, and there had been the money changers. That was why the Church could not interfere too much in the sad affairs of the world, as Rochester said, because nations and the classes and the individuals were always crying out, ‘Mine, Mine,’ where the Church was instructed to say, ‘Ours.’
It this were true, then it would not be a question of only of sharing property, as such. It would be a question of sharing everything — even thoughts, feelings, lives.
God had told people that they would have to cease to live as individuals. They would have to go into the force of life, like a drop falling into a river.
God had said that it was only the men who could give up their jealous selves, their futile individualities of happiness and sorrow, who would die peacefully and enter the ring. He that would have his life was asked to loose it.
Yet there was something in the old white head which could not accept the godly view. Obviously you might cure a cancer of the womb by not having a womb in the first place. Sweeping and drastic remedies could cut out anything — and life with the cut. Ideal advice, which nobody was built to follow, was no advice at all. Advising heaven to earth was useless.
Another worn-out circle spun before him. Perhaps war was due to fear: to fear of reliability. Unless there was truth, and unless people told the truth, there was always danger in everything outside the individual. You told the truth to yourself, but you had no surety for your neighbour. This uncertainty must end by making the neighbour a menace.
Such at any rate would have been Lancelot’s explanation of the war. He had been used to say that man’s most vital possession was his Word. Poor Lance, he had broken his own Word: all the same, there had been few men with such a good one.
Perhaps wars happened because nations had no confidence in the Word. They were frightened and so they fought.
Nations were like people — they had feelings of inferiority, or of superiority, or of revenge, or of fear. It was right to personify nations.
Suspicion and fear: possessiveness and greed: resentment for ancestral wrong: all these seemed to be a part of it. Yet they were not the solution.
He could not see the real solution. He was too old and tired and miserable to think constructively.
He was only a man who had meant well, who had been spurred along that course of thinking by an eccentric necromancer with a weakness for humanity.
Justice had been his last attempt — to do nothing which was not just.
But it had ended in failure. To do at all had proved to difficult. He was done himself.
Arthur proved that he was not quite done, by lifting his head. There was something invincible in his heart, a tincture of grandness in simplicity. He sat upright and reached for the iron bell.
‘Page,’ he said, as the small boy trotted in, knuckling his eyes.
The King looked at him. Even in his own extremity he was able to notice others, especially if they were fresh or decent. When he had comforted the broken Gawaine in his tent, he had been the one who was more in need of comfort.
‘My poor child,’ he said. ‘You ought to be in bed.’
He observed the boy with a strained, thread-bare attention. It was long since he had seen youth’s innocence and certainty.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘will you take this note to the bishop? Don’t wake him if he is asleep.’
As the live creature went, he called it back.
‘What is your name?’
‘Tom, my lord,’ it said politely.
‘Where do you live?’
‘Near Warwick, my lord.’
The old man seemed to be trying to imagine the place, as if it were Paradise Terrestre, or a country described by Mandeville.
‘At a place called Newbold Revell. It is a pretty one.’
‘How old are you?’
‘I shall be thirteen in November, my lord.’
‘And I have kept you up all night.’
‘No, my lord. I have slept a lot on one of the saddles.’
‘Tom of Newbold Revell,’ he said with wonder. ‘We seem to have involved a lot of people. Tell me, Tom, what do you intend to do tomorrow?’
‘I shall fight, sir. I have a good bow.’
‘And will you kill people with this bow?’
‘Yes, my lord. A great many, I hope.’
‘Suppose they were to kill you?’
‘Then I should be dead, my lord.’
‘Shall I take the letter now?’
‘No. Wait a minute. I want to talk to somebody, only my head is muddled.’
‘Shall I fetch a glass of wine?’
‘No, Tom. Sit down and try to listen. Lift those chessmen off the stool. Can you understand things when they are said?’
‘Yes, my lord. I am good at understanding.’
‘Could you understand if I asked you not to fight tomorrow?’
‘I should want to fight,’ it said stoutly.
‘Everybody wants to fight, Tom, but nobody knows why. Suppose I were to ask you not to fight, as a special favour to the King? Would you do that?’
‘I should do what I was told.’
‘Listen then. Sit for a minute and I will tell you a story. I am a very old man, Tom, and you are young. When you are old, you will be able to tell what I have told tonight, and I want you to do that. Do you understand this want?’
‘Yes, sir. I think so.’
‘Put it like this. There was a king once, called King Arthur. That is me. When he had come to the throne of England, he found that all the kings and barons were fighting against each other like madmen, and, as they could afford to fight in expensive suits of armour, there was practically nothing that could stop them from doing what they pleased.
‘They did a lot of bad things, because they lived by force. Now this king had an idea, and the idea was that force ought to be used, if it were used at all, on behalf of justice, not on its own account.
‘Follow this young boy. He thought that if he could get his barons fighting for truth, and to help weak people, and to redress wrongs, then their fighting might not be such a bad thing as once it used to be.
‘So he gathered together all the true and kindly people that he knew, and he dressed them in armour, and he made them knights, and taught them his idea, and set them down, at a Round Table.
‘There were a hundred and fifty of them in the happy days, and King Arthur loved his Table with all his heart. He was prouder of it then he was of his own dear wife, and for many years his new knights went about killing ogres, and rescuing damsels and saving poor prisoners, and trying to set the world to rights. That was the King’s idea.’
‘I think it was a good idea, my lord.’
‘It was, and it was not. God knows.’
‘What happened to the King in the end?’ asked the child, when the story seemed to have dried up.
‘For some reason, things went wrong. The Table split into factions, a bitter war began, and all were killed.’
The boy interrupted confidently.
‘No,’ he said, ‘not all. The King won. We shall win.’
Arthur smiled vaguely and shook his head. He would have nothing but the truth.
‘Everybody was killed,’ he repeated, ‘except a certain page. I know what I am talking about.’
‘This page was called young Tom of Newbold Revell near Warwick, and the old King sent him off before the battle, upon pain of dire disgrace. You see, the King wanted there to be somebody left, who would remember their famous idea. He wanted badly that Tom should go back to Newbold Revell where he would grow into a man and live his life in Warwickshire peace — and he wanted him to tell everybody who would listen about this ancient idea, which both of them had once thought good. Do you think you could do that, Thomas, to please the King?’
The child said, with the pure eyes of absolute truth: ‘I would do anything for King Arthur.’
‘That’s a brave fellow. Now listen, man. Don’t get these legendary people muddled up. It is I who tell you about my idea. It is I who am going to command you to take horse to Warwickshire at once, and not to fight with your bow tomorrow at all. Do you understand all this?’
‘Yes, King Arthur.’
‘Will you promise to be careful of yourself afterwards? Will you try to remember that you are a kind of vessel to carry on the idea, when things go wrong, and that the whole hope depends on you alive?’
‘It seems selfish of me to use you for it.’
‘It is an honour for your poor page, good my lord.’
‘Thomas, my idea of those knights was a sort of candle, like ones here. I have carried it for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle now — you won’t let it out?’
‘It will burn.’
‘Good Tom. The light-bringer. How old did you say you were?’
‘Sixty more years then, perhaps. Half a century.’
I will give it to other people, King. English people.’
‘You will say to them in Warwickshire: Eh. He wor a wonderly find candle?’
‘Aye, lad, that I will.’
‘Then ‘tis: Na, Tom, for this must go right quickly. Thou’lt take the best son of a mare that thee kinst find, and thou wilt ride post into Warwickshire, lad, wi’ nowt but the curlew?’
‘I will ride post, mate, so that the candle burn.’
‘Good Tom, then, God bless ‘ee. Doant thee ferget thick Bishop of Rochester, afore thou goest.’
The little boy kneeled down to kiss his master’s hand — his surcoat, with the Malory bearings, looking absurdly new.
‘My lord of England,’ he said.
Arthur raised him gently, to kiss him on the shoulder.
‘Sir Thomas of Warwick,’ he said — and the boy was gone.
The tent was empty, tawny and magnificent. The wind wailed and the candles guttered. Waiting for the bishop, the old, old man sat down at his reading desk. Presently his head drooped forward on the papers. The greyhound’s eyes, catching the candles as he watched him, burned spectrally, two amber cups of feral light. Mordred’s cannonade, which he was to keep up through the darkness until the morning’s battle, began to thud and bump outside.
The King, drained of his last effort, gave way to sorrow. Even when his visitor’s hand lifted the tent flap, the silent drops coursed down his nose and fell on the parchment with regular ticks, like an ancient clock. He turned his hand aside, unwilling to be seen, unable to do better. The flap fell, as the strange figure in cloak and hat came softly in.
But there was nobody there: he had dreamed him in a catnap of old age.
He began to think again, but now it was as clearly as it had ever been. He remembered the aged necromancer who had educated him — who had educated him with animals. There were, he remembered, something like half a million different species of animal, of which mankind was only one. Of course man was an animal — he was not a vegetable or a mineral, was he?
And Merlyn had taught him about animals so that the single species might learn by looking at the problems of thousands.
He remembered the belligerent ants, who claimed their boundaries, and the pacific geese, who did not. He remembered his lesson from the badger. He remembered Lyó-lyok and the island which they had seen on their migration, where all those puffins, razor-bills, guillemots and kittiwakes had lived together peacefully, preserving their own kinds of civilization without war — because they claimed no boundaries.
He saw the problem before him as plain as a map. The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing — literally nothing.
Frontiers were imaginary lines.
There was no visible line between Scotland and England, although Flodden and Bannockburn had been fought about it.
It was geography which was the cause — political geography. It was nothing else. Nations did not need to have the same kind of civilization, nor the same kind of leader, any more than the puffins and the guillemots did.
They could keep their own civilizations, like Esquimaux and Hottentots, if they would give each other freedom of trade and free passage and access to the world.
Countries would have to become countries — but countries which could keep their own culture and local laws. The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined.
The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyó-lyok, and would to man if he could learn to fly.
The old King felt refreshed, clear-headed, almost ready to begin again.
There would be a day — there must be a day — when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none — a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture.
If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.
But it was too late for another effort then. For that time it was his destiny to die, or, as some say, to be carried off to Avilion, where he could wait for better days.
For that time it was Lancelot’s fate and Guenever’s to take the tonsure and the veil, while Mordred must be slain. The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.
The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart.