On Arthur, Abraham and an Old Black Dog

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It’s been a long, low weekend and I’ve been feeling the pull of the Old Black Dog—Churchill’s name for the bouts of depression that plagued him throughout his life. Rather than fight the tide, I’ve decided to embrace this inner time and turn to things that bring me comfort—in this case, the feel of my pup’s flank against my shins, an old cotton blanket, and a viewing of “Camelot.” (The 1967 version with Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero–who made me swoon, although I always preferred Arthur.) The Arthuriad is my refuge; whether it’s Camelot or Tintagel, I am drawn to the mist and the mystery in equal measure. The fact that it’s been raining here in Denver for several weeks when normally we enjoy 80° days only makes the retreat more necessary.

My favorite scene in Camelot occurs in the last hour of the film—when the tipping point is at hand. Mordred has made his poisonous appearance and the dye is cast. Arthur has fled to the woods, seeking the counsel of Merlin, who has not been about for many years. Arthur longs to be the boy Wart again and calls for the ancient wizard who indeed comes into view—just far enough, close enough, to be seen and heard.

In the scene, young Wart and Arthur appear side-by-side, each beseeching Merlin to answer the cri de couer that opens the third act: “What’s the best thing for being sad?”

Merlin replies: “To learn something.”

He repeats: “Learn something. It’s the one thing, Wart, that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your heart, you may grow old and trembling in your arteries, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your father, your mother, your dog, your only love.…There’s only one thing for all of it. Learn. Learn. Why the world wags and what wags it. Thinking helps in everything….”

As the scene unfolds, Merlin once again makes Arthur feel and see as the hawk, the fish, the boy. He asks, “What can you see as a hawk that you can’t see from the ground?” “What do you see as a fish?” As Arthur surrenders he is transported to the larger view and is restored if not released.

The larger view. It’s what is required sometimes when the sight of what’s right in front of you seems barnacled and small. It’s the ability to fly above the battlefield so as to once again embrace the perspective expressed in Blake’s lines from Songs of Innocence:

“To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a Heaven in a wildflower,

Hold infinity in the heart of your hand

and eternity in an hour.”

Perspective is enhanced by learning. It may be the only thing that can enlarge one’s world without moving one’s feet. I know that learning something new has always had the ability to bring me out of myself and my circumstances. Knowledge has filled the abyss that stares back like no other potion I know. And life being what it is, what I learn always relates in some way to what I already know. Because the world itself still makes sense even when the people in it defy logic. Nature is a mobious strip, a perfect system, a diadem of sanity in the midst of ancient, modern paradox.

I’ve been reading from a book of Abraham Lincoln’s collected writings of late. His correspondence is direct and knowing and wholly without artifice; it’s as different from Jefferson’s as honey is to salt. I daresay he knew more than his fair share about Churchill’s black dog. I know the war he witnessed rendered rhetoric hollow. I’ve been listening to Lead Belly too. His whole life is in his voice and to listen is to hear something of the soil rooted in my blood.

In an hour or so, I’ll be cutting back my roses. The first blooms were burned by the unexpected snowfall two weeks ago. The sun is actually out today. I see some blue in the sky—a blue that on this Memorial Day reminds me of a memory of my father’s eyes. My dad’s copy of Tennyson is close at hand. I know how much he read it by the feel of the page and the aged, seared binding. The book falls open like a maiden’s skirts in a sunny May meadow. It shows a map of Britain. A view my father first saw from this book perhaps, and then later–on more than one occasion, from above, as the world waged another war that turned the meadows red. I know my father loved to fly, even over a world gone mad. I don’t think he would have survived had he not been able to see it from above. I don’t know if I’d be here if he hadn’t. For that I am grateful. And happy he had a view of Arthur’s mythic kingdom to keep him on course.

I didn’t start out wanting to write about war. It crept in from the corners like a growing shadow. Or an old black dog. So I let it in. It didn’t bite. And now I choose to let it go because today, for one brief shining hour at least—as the song goes—I’d rather focus on the place that was known as Camelot—and pruning the roses to bloom another day is as far into my own kingdom as I wish to venture. In that one red bud, I can see an entire garden.

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