Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Geoffrey Ashe on the power of Myth for renewal

Geoffrey Ashe, Mythology of the British Isles (Methuen Publishing Ltd., 2002)

Epilogue [pp. 305-307]

William Blake in his conception of the giant Albion, ranged far beyond accepted legend. By making this island the source of the primeval world-order, he was able to present the giant as a symbol of humanity, Primordial Man. Yet he did not turn him into a pure abstraction. He kept in touch with the mythologies he transcended, and, in particular, with a leading figure in the mythology of Britain. He wrote:

The giant Albion, was Patriarch of the Atlantic; he is the Atlas of the Greeks, one of those the Greeks called Titans. The stories of Arthur are the acts of Albion, applied to a Prince of the fifth century.

That last sentence has an air of profundity, but what does it mean? Blake is referring to several things, but pre-eminently to an aspect of Arthur that we have glimpsed more than once. A major reason for his recurrent spell, in a variety of guises, has been his golden-age aura. Other legends express the same dream, but the Arthurian golden age has an extra dimension. The king is gone … but he is not gone for ever. He is asleep in his cave, or immortal in his magical island; he will return, and presumably bring the golden age back.

That Blake saw Arthur in this light is manifest from what he does with his Albion, chiefly in the prophetic book Jerusalem. He depicts the symbolic giant’s career in such a way that Arthur’s departure-and-return story becomes a reflection of it. Wise and glorious in his primary state, Albion goes spiritually astray and sinks into a deathlike sleep, in which he lingers for aeons. This is externalised in the ills that beset humanity through loss of vision: the apostasy of the sages, and their decline into historical Druidism, prototype of oppressive religion; war, division, perverted science, and, in Blake’s time, the factory system and the iniquities of wealth. But at last light breaks in, Albion awakens, humanity is reintegrated, the world is reborn in love and forgiveness.

Even apart from Blake, Arthur himself, in this aspect, is a distinctive contribution to world mythology. There is nobody else quite like him - no human hero, at least. Other legendary sleepers, who may or may not wake up, are very probably imitations of him. And in any case they do not carry his golden-age quality. What Arthur stands for is the idea of a long-lost glory or promise, plus a belief (as may be repeated here) that it is not truly lost; that it can be reinstated for a fresh start, with intervening corruption swept away. Belief of that kind is a real and potent motive force which is seldom given due weight as a factor in history. It has inspired, or helped to inspire, several of the most radical movements for change.

Thus, the sixteenth-century Christian reformers, both Catholic and Protestant, held that the Church once had its golden age of apostolic purity. Cumulative abuses had corrupted it, but the Reformation, however conceived, would abolish them and recapture the pristine rightness. Or again, Rousseau gave the French Revolution a driving mystique by his doctrine of a virtuous, long-ago natural society ruined by bad institutions, but capable of being restored by good ones. Engels and Lenin invigorated Marxism by adding what was not at first part of it, a classless idyll of ‘primitive communism’ at the dawn of history, which the Revolution could restore on a higher level by ending the long succession of class tyrannies. In India, under British rule, nationalists who favoured westernised progress made no headway with the masses. The leader who did rouse them was Mahatma Gandhi, who condemned westernisation and evoked a wiser pre-conquest India of village communes and handicrafts, and the need to re-create it.

More recently the same motif has appeared again in the work of some women prehistorians, drawing on the poetic insights of Robert Graves, but also on the work of so accomplished an archaeologist as Marija Gimbutas. Their view was foreshadowed some time ago by the ‘Goddess’ interpretation of the megaliths. Once, they claim, there was a ‘matristic’, Goddess-oriented epoch when both sexes had their proper status, and society had a basic balance and rightness. This was brought to an end by the advent of a patriarchal, male-dominated age of gods. Suitable enlightenment through an informed women’s movement can bring the lost rightness back.

These phenomena, and others like them, have nothing explicit to do with Arthur, and many of those concerned would reject such an association. The point, however, is that Britain has evolved a myth embodying a way of looking at things which has deep roots in human nature. Some might speak of an archetype. It may be reasonable, it may be misguided. It certainly calls into question the humanistic idea of progress. Yet it remains a fact, recurrent in history. Why this should be so, is a matter for debate. Perhaps we should see it as an affirmation of life against death, against a sense of things-closing-in, which is all too frequent and natural. The glory did exist once; therefore it is not a mere phantasm, an impossibility; it can exist again. To have created a myth expressing that affirmation, however irrelevant its literary trappings may seem, is a unique achievement for Britain’s story-tellers. Was it an accident? Or did it grow, as Blake implies, out of the whole character and life-span of Albion? Certainly, when he traced that life-span in the same terms, with an apocalypse of awakening at the last, he was creating a myth himself, in full harmony with the materials that came to his hand.

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