Tag Archives: stories

Lost Stories

A few weeks ago now, I was in York. I had the chance to revisit people and places I have long missed; one of them was the splendid Minster. It is one of those places that has been special to people down through the centuries, and I always feel as though such spaces have an aura to them, the weight of all that accumulated meaning, that you can feel as soon as you enter. When you walk around, all those long-gone people tread silently with you.

And of course, there’s much to see. One thing that caught my eye in particular this visit was this little grave-marker below.

DSC_0445As you can see, it has been there a very long while itself, there on the floor in the east end of the great cathedral, and centuries of feet have worn it away so that I, at least, couldn’t quite make out all the details of the sad little story it has to tell.

I’m sure that somewhere (perhaps no further away than a guide book in the gift shop, or the recesses of my memory) are the details behind the little stone, but standing there this summer I wasn’t able to put the story back together. We can wonder, of course, imagine the parts that aren’t readable, fill in the reasons why this baby was laid to rest where they were, in that spot where light from the great East Window sometimes falls.

However we imagine, though, the original story was largely lost to me that day. I’ve written before about how some of the stories we like to tell change over time, as we add and subtract and rewrite to suit our tastes. We also lose stories, the ones that aren’t told and gradually fade into tantalizing fragments of tales. I encounter these sometimes doing research or playfully following rabbit-holes on the internet – I’ll run into a name, with the only information available being that they were ‘a figure in such and such mythology’. Sometimes there’s a little more: they were a king, a hero, a goddess. Perhaps. Nothing more of their stories, the stories of these people, real and imagined, who would have once loomed so large, remains. They are diminished down to a single line in a book or webpage, and many more have vanished entirely.

It’s sad to think of our lost stories, and I think it’s important to remember that this is something that can happen. We need to tell the stories we think are good and important, both by passing on the ones we’ve heard or read and liked, and creating new ones. To read and remember a story is good, but you keep it alive by passing it on to another set of eyes.

We live in a world now where there are, it seems, endless tales being told about every subject imaginable and from every point of view. It is so very easy for any one story to get lost forever. Make sure to tell the stories you love; help keep them above the flood of time a little longer.

Thanks for reading.

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Pentecost

I was a bit thin on something to write about for this week, and then I was rescued by the calendar. This past Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost. Among the other reasons it is important in the Christian religious calendar, Pentecost was also the day on which (according to Thomas Malory’s version of the stories, anyway) King Arthur required all his knights to attend his court and renew their oaths.

(It’s interesting, or at least sidebar-worthy interesting, that it’s Malory who seems to have put this in. We’ll get back to it.)

Arthur’s knights all swore to do no outrages or cruelties, to give mercy to those that asked it of them, to serve the weak, and to support no causes that they knew to be wrong for any worldly gain. Even all these hundreds of years later, it’s still not such a bad standard to set for ourselves. There’s a reason this story has lasted for as long as it has.

Of course, if you know the stories, you also know that basically none of Arthur’s knights (excepting Galahad, who is No Fun), not even Arthur himself, live up to this standard. Many times when I teach about the concept of chivalry and codes thereof, one of the ideas the students enjoy kicking around is to what extent anyone ever did. And we’re probably right to be fairly sceptical.

Now, does this mean that Arthur and his knights are a bunch of hypocrites and the whole thing is hollow? I don’t think so, necessarily, and this is why I think it’s interesting that the Pentecost feast seems to have appeared in Thomas Malory’s version of the story. Malory wrote during the 15th century, a time when knights in England were behaving in anything but a chivalrous fashion, and Malory himself spent a great deal of time in prison. It’s not easy to unpick exactly what he was genuinely guilty of, but it’s clear that he got himself into a great deal of trouble.

This has led people to wonder why Malory was (evidently) such a big fan of the idealized King Arthur. One explanation, which I like (and I shamefully cannot recall who it is that I’m ripping off here) is that Malory was perfectly aware that he and his peers were not behaving as knights were meant to, or at least could, and worked out his version of the tales to suggest a higher standard and perhaps inspire the knights of his day to better themselves.

Ah, but the Arthurian knights don’t succeed themselves, so how does it work? It (potentially) works because Malory knew that probably no-one could live up to the high standards of the Pentecost Oath or other ideals of chivalry. But it was still a good thing to try. Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain and the rest are praiseworthy characters, despite their failures and flaws, because no matter what else is true about them it is also true that they try so very hard to achieve something wonderful. They fall short. We’ll probably always fall short of our ideal standards. It doesn’t mean that the standards aren’t worthwhile, and it doesn’t mean that trying is laughable or worthless.

Trying, as hard as we can, to be as good as we can be, which is what the Pentecost Oath really is when you boil it down, is tremendously praiseworthy, even though we’ll have our stumbles and missteps along the way. We can try to be kind, to help those who need it, and to use our abilities to do good things in the world. Sometimes we’ll fail. We keep trying, because we live in a better world when we do. I’m persuaded that’s what Thomas Malory was trying to encourage with his version of the Arthur stories, and I think encouraging the world to be a little bit better is one of the great things that our stories can do for us, and we don’t have to wait for Pentecost.

One last thing on the Arthurian Pentecost Feast. I also like that Arthur wouldn’t sit down to eat until he had ‘heard or seen of a great marvel’. So the Pentecost feast was also a time for stories, the telling of ones that had finished and the beginning of new ones, as knights dashed off on quests inspired by the ‘strange adventures’ that came before the King on that day.

A day when people declared that they would try to do better, and a day for the telling of stories.

Not so bad.

Thanks for reading.

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The Right Time

The other day on Twitter there was (I swear) an interesting conversation about coming to stories at the right or the wrong time. Guy Kay (an author I like a lot) was ‘speaking’ without someone about a book they had read, which this person thought they would have liked when they were younger, but didn’t actually enjoy now. Kay remarked something along the lines that they had come to the story at the wrong time in their life.

That’s an interesting way of thinking about our relationship with stories. I am a great re-reader of tales, I tend to come back to favourites again and again (for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog) and it’s a rare book in my collection that has been read only once. So on the whole, I continue to enjoy the stories that I used to like, although now that I think of it, I have experienced many of them differently as I’ve gotten (so very much) older.

A case in point that had been on my mind recently anyway – not a book, but a TV series, the 80s vintage BBC series Robin of Sherwood. If you haven’t seen it, it’s, well, a very 1980s take on the classic Robin Hood tale. It ran on that same PBS channel that got me hooked on Doctor Who, and it is, I’m pretty sure, the reason why I ultimately got into medieval history.

(As a sidebar, Robin of Sherwood is interesting to me as a good example of how we can see characters and stories like Robin Hood re-invented for each generation. This version of Robin (when the series starts, anyway) is not a disgraced earl, or the yeoman of the medieval tales, but a peasant hero, a commoner perhaps ideally suited for a modern audience. Unlike the thoroughly Christian Robin of the original stories, this one has an alliance with pagan spirituality, suiting the 1980s generally and Christianity’s receding power overall. And (I believe) this is the first time that Robin’s Merry Men includes a Muslim character – again suiting a modern sensibility that our heroes should be racially inclusive. Similarly, this show’s Marian soon ends up shooting longbows and swinging swords with everyone else.)

I watched the show in my early teens, I liked it quite a lot, and so when at I was at university and it was time to pick elective courses, I picked a medieval history course. The rest, due to a professor who took an interest in me, is history. It’s been an interesting and somewhat uneven road, but I wouldn’t change it. Through those studies, I have gotten deeper into the medieval world than Teenage Me, watching PBS, would ever have believed, and met people who I will treasure for the rest of my days.

I still have, on my laptop, the whole run of the series. I watch parts of it from time to time. Looking at it now, from the perspective of a historian, even one with sort of a glancing familiarity with the Robin Hood stories and a rather better one of medieval England – the show gets a lot wrong. In terms of giving much of an accurate sense of the 12th century, it’s … really not great.

I don’t want to dissect it, but I do wonder how I would have felt about it if I could somehow come to it fresh, without all the history the stories and I have together. Judging from the reaction my PhD supervisor had when I made her watch part of it, my guess is: rather different.

Perhaps that’s a shame, and would be an example of not being able to relax and enjoy something for what it is. Perhaps the thing is that I came to Robin of Sherwood at the right time, and now I get to keep it as a story that I love – because I still do, even though it has its problems. (John Rhys-Davies’ King Richard is still maybe my favourite)

I wonder, too, how I would feel about some of the stories that I know I loved when I was younger, if I were to read them again. I’ve seen the Prydian chronicles mentioned here and there of late, and that’s a series that I read in high school and liked a lot at the time. I’ve never come back to them, unusually for me. I wonder how I’d feel. Perhaps that was the right time for them, and that time has passed. (At some point, I’m going to have to find out)

Sometimes even a part of a story can have quite an effect at just the right part of your life. Whatever else happens with the series, I will always be grateful to Jim Butcher and his Dresden Files for just one exchange where his hero tells a sceptic: “I don’t need you to believe me.” For whatever reason, that relatively minor exchange really resonated with me, at that point someone who was really easily drawn into pouring energy into endless efforts to win debates or convince people of particular points of view. That isn’t what that exchange was about in the book, but I use it every so often to remind myself that it doesn’t matter if there are people out there who think I’m wrong on a subject or an issue. It’s fine. I don’t need them to believe me. That has, genuinely, been the source of a great deal of peace.

Anyway, this is all quite disconnected and rambly, now, but I think it’s remarkable how much power a story like Robin of Sherwood can exert over your life, if you come to it at the right moment.

Thanks for reading, and do keep reading. Those stories are out there.

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The Vigil

The only idea I had for a blog this week was a pretty hacky entry on how I see similarities between writing and making stew (I made a big ol’ pot of stew last week) and that was both extremely uninspired and also dangerously close to advice. Instead, I present the following, which is an expansion of my reaction to a picture one of my friends shared on Facebook. Yes, I went with the cat picture idea instead. I hope you’ll like it better than the stew thing.

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In our village there is a church, old and stone, worn and weathered in a fashion that lends it an aura of imperishability. When the church was first built, no-one is certain; people from the schools have come, sketched, measured, studied, and disagreed. But it has been here a very long time. You cannot find a description of the village without it.

In the church lives a cat with long, thick, grey hair. The cat belongs to nobody, although it sleeps in the rectory on cold nights, prowls the churchyard, and sits by the lych-gate each Sunday. Each day at noon it climbs to the roof, and out onto the back of a particular old gargoyle, spotted with lichen and smoothed by time. There the cat sits, and watches the horizon, all afternoon.

It watches in every season.

It watches in all weathers.

The cat’s watch has never failed.

The cat seems as though it has always sat on its perch on the church-roof, and the church looks as though it has always been here to serve as the cat’s watch-place, and perhaps both things are true. What the cat watches for, no-one can say. No-one can remember, exactly, when the cat came and took up its vigil. I cannot recall a time before the cat’s watch began, nor can any of my friends. The cat has watched a long time.

Of course we discuss this, in the village, from time to time. All cats like to climb high, and look out across their kingdoms, this is well known. But most cats do not go to the very same spot at the very same time each day, and most cats do not gaze out into the distance quite so long. Most of us have our memories of cats: marvellous, cherished, and gone, but no-one has a story to match this one.

So we talk, and imagine, and create our own reasons, sometimes believing they are true but never truly feeling we understand. It is a puzzlement joined by each person who visits the village, for there is not a great deal to see, and in time every visitor comes to the church, and sees its sentry. What the cat watches for, no-one can say, but every person who comes to our church-yard, and sees the small grey cat on his lofty perch always ends by agreeing that they are somehow glad the cat is there, and glad it keeps its vigil.

The sun is high in the sky, clear and bright today, and it is nearly noon. I stand outside my house and know that the cat will soon be watching. I look out to the horizon and wonder what it watches for. Does it look to see that something is there, or perhaps to be sure that something does not approach? I wonder, if I had the answer to that question, would I be comforted or afraid? I wonder what will happen on the day when the cat looks out and sees a difference in its world. The cat, apparently, knows to watch. Does it also know what must be done next?

Will we be shown, or told, or is that secret, and the vigil, for only a cat to know?

A vague uncertainty squirms in my guts now, and I walk to the corner, where I can look down the street, and see the church-roof.

The cat watches still.

(Thank you to my friend Victoria for sending me the picture that led to me writing whatever this is. I wrote this pretty much straight through so it is, I am sure, more than a little rough. If you have any comments, as always I’d love to hear them.)

(The church in the picture is in Knightshayes, Devon. I’ve never been but if I ever visit I hope the cat will still be there. If you own the picture and would like credit, or me to take it down, please let me know.)

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These Shoes

Well, we’re finally down to it. I haven’t had a chance to watch the new X-Files yet and so this week I’m writing about shoes. These shoes in particular:

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I have had this pair of shoes for a long while. I bought them for distance running, and after they wore out for that they’ve been walking around shoes for the last several years. As I guess you can tell from the picture, they’re pretty well done for that as well now. They leak, the soles are nearly worn through and falling to pieces, and the uppers are coming apart at the seams.

With the onset of a proper winter, it was time to put the summer footwear away, and the thing is that I probably can’t get another summer out of these guys.

Now, a sane person would have just dumped them in the trash and thought no more about it. I, however, got to thinking about everything these shoes have done in their time.

These shoes and I have been out for morning run after morning run, through ice and mud and goose poo and glass and whatever the hell else was out there waiting. These shoes got me through a half marathon. These shoes have done the plough push, deadlifts, hill sprints, and the farmer’s walk. These shoes did the run up Suicide Hill where Adam Godwinson runs for his life in The King in Darkness.

Speaking of, I wrote basically the entire book while running in these shoes. All those moments and characters, by and large, came from where-ever they come from into my mind while these shoes and I were doing our thing. For that alone, I feel like I owe them.

These have also been travellin’ shoes. These shoes have been on the beach and across the ocean. They have climbed pyramids, walked in the footsteps of the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine, through a tropical forest, and on the sand at Juno Beach. They’ve been to Alcatraz Island and in thousand year old cathedrals. They have done the ‘oh god can’t miss this flight’ sprint. They’ve been on cities afloat and on medieval streets I could follow forever. They’ve been on the paths of my child hood and shot arrows at my grandfather’s farm, which I think he might have enjoyed seeing.

In these shoes I have had days that were the next thing to perfect and some of the worst days of my life. They always brought me home in the end.

It is strange, and I suppose more than a little silly, to put so much significance on an old pair of shoes and to feel badly (as I do) that I’m going to have to give up on them in a way they’ve never quit on me. It is time, and yet I genuinely feel guilty about the idea of dumping this worn out pair of Asics. I know not everyone does this, but I also know I’m not absolutely the only person who gets somehow attached to things that I own and have used for a while, or things that have come to me in ways that felt important at the time. The shoes are the latest example of this, but I’ve been doing it all my life.

Perhaps predictably, I think it has to do with stories. I don’t think we really form connections to inanimate objects (for the most part); what we’re feeling is the link to the memories, and therefore the stories, that those things represent and remind us of. These are things that have been part of our stories and remind us of them and, as creatures of memory, it’s not easy to put those things aside and perhaps lose our link to those memories, and to the stories. After all, as everyone notices in time, our minds are far from perfect storehouses and we forget things we’d much rather keep close to us forever. I think that’s why people like me like to keep our little treasures around us: to help preserve those stories for when we need them. But there are limits, I don’t actually want to live in a trash heap, and so sometimes things just do need to go.

For a while, I was trying to think of the right way to put these shoes to rest, since (being a goof) putting them in the trash just seemed insufficient. Fortunately (maybe) I’ve come up with something. This summer I am running the Spartan Race here in Ottawa and I am given to understand that whatever shoes you wear to that thing get utterly destroyed. So these old shoes will get one last day on the field of glory and get me through one final race.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

I’ll also try to have something a little less goofy for you next week.

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