You don’t expect King Arthur to hand you a business card—or at least I didn’t. He not only gave me his card, he signed a copy of his book for me.
On Sunday, the first sunny day we could get away after about two weeks of rain, we decided that it was time we stopped by Stonehenge again. The stones are always the same but each visit is different. For one thing, this was the first time I’d seen druids demonstrating.
A handful of people wearing robes over their trousers had set up signs with so many words and images that I couldn’t immediately make out their message, so I asked. The person who stopped to answer was King Arthur. The introduction didn’t faze me; not for nothing did I live for 20 years in the suburbs of San Francisco, and I figured I was meeting a loony or a role-player. He is neither. He is King Arthur.
His passport reads Arthur Uther Pendragon, and he is a king by virtue of his position as Battle Chieftain of a druidic order, the Loyal Arthurian Warband. (Their web site is at http://www.warband.org.uk; I had to update my idea of druids to include web-based publicity.) He fights against development of greenbelt land and for civil rights. Whatever else he is, he is sincere.
Arthur looks to be about 50, with a full beard and weather-beaten cheeks. He doesn’t stand on ceremony nor does he try to tell you he was born in Tintagel many centuries ago. When I told him where I lived (well, he asked), he said he knew our little village, because he’s from Farnborough, which is right down the road. Now, American readers won’t know Farnborough, and I can’t think of an exact analogy to give you the idea. So I’ll try this: it’s like meeting someone who says he’s Abraham Lincoln and having him say “Sure, I know Florida very, very well. I was born in Ocala.” Literary and folk tradition have given us several King Arthurs, the main ones being the pre-Roman Arthur and the post-Roman Arthur; this is the self-styled post-Thatcher Arthur.
After that, we mostly chatted about what druids believe and how you become one. They’re part of the modern Pagan movement in which believers venerate the earth, and while requirements of different druidic orders may differ, there’s a lot of study involved. You have to master bardic skills—singing and tales—and ovate skills—which I gather is where the magic and mysticism come in. I wanted to know more, so I bought his book: The Trials of Arthur: The Life and Times of a Modern-Day King, written with co-author C. J. Stone, published in 2003 by Element, a Harper-Collins imprint.
The best I can say for the prose style is that it isn’t my cup of tea. I wish the authors would get the verbiage out of the way and let the inherent drama of having a King Arthur alive in the 21st century come through. I wish they could trust the reader to understand something remarkable and not feel they have to restate it seven ways to get the point across. (Of a book of poetry Arthur and the early knights collected, they say it “was their Bible, if you will, their spell book, their CV, their witness, their testament, chapter and verse”. This is a brief example of a repetitive practice that elsewhere is not brief; such prose probably works well if you declaim it from Glastonbury Tor, but a little goes a long way on the page.) And there’s a bit more about Arthur’s life before he realized he was King Arthur than I would really care to read, because in the tradition of born-again leaders everywhere, he has a checkered/chequered past to put behind him.
But some of the facts of the story are wonderful. Arthur advertised in motorcycle magazines and Mensa publications for knights to form a round table, and responses came from people who felt a similar calling. That Percival should arrive in the form of a handsome black biker and Seventh Day Adventist from East London who wore three-foot dreadlocks was the first surprise. (I rather like the Christian angle. Seems fittingly medieval.)
And Arthur does have his Excalibur; he bought it at a shop in Farnham. I’ve been to that shop, the Casque and Gauntlet, and I found it the same way Arthur did: by getting lost on the way to someplace else and stumbling across it, though the sword was long gone by the time I discovered the place. It truly was Excalibur in one sense at least: it was the hero prop (filmmaking term for the fancy expensive prop made for close-ups, as opposed to the lightweight fake the actor swishes around with) for the film Excalibur, and the story of how he purchased it is well worth reading if you can get your hands on the book.
Arthur never uses the sword for violence. It’s there as a talisman, for knighting the worthy, and for the swearing of oaths and such. Arthur’s band swears to uphold truth, honour and justice. It was Arthur Pendragon who sued the government and won the right for druids to conduct ceremonies at Stonehenge at the solstices. He also climbs trees to put himself in the paths of the bulldozers where roads are to be built, and sees himself as not only part of the Matter of Britain (scholars’ name for the Arthurian tales) but as addressing what’s the matter with modern Britain.
And the point of the protest on Sunday? Archaeologists have removed human remains from a grave they found at Stonehenge, and the druids, who have no problem with the scientists running all the tests they need to run, would like them to promise to return the bones to the grave site when they’ve finished. That seems only reasonable, so I signed his petition, and he signed a copy of his book to me, with “bright blessings from Stonehenge, Arthur”.
Then he gave me his business card and asked me to keep in touch by email.