April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land…
So begins T S Eliot’s masterpiece, the Waste Land – that poem that was used to torture me during A level English and that I appreciate so much more as an adult! Eliot’s waste land is not just a physical one, but also a spiritual one – the waste land of civilisation, struggling to recover after World War One.
There are a number of influences in this poem, but perhaps the most obvious one and the one that most interests me is the Arthurian legend. King Arthur – Britain’s hero, the once and future king. Definitely a mythological character, but possibly also a historical one. His story has been told and retold down the generations with many associated legends. One of the most famous is the Grail Quest and the Fisher King, both of which feature in Eliot’s poem.
The Fisher King is the last in the line of kings charged with guarding the grail, but he is wounded in the groin. The resulting impotence of this king spreads to his land, which becomes a waste land. All this helpless king can do is fish, to keep his people from starving until he is healed by the perfect knight.
The link between the king and his land is a theme which crops up in many mythologies and may have played a part in Dark Age kingship rituals. At the ancient Scottish hill fort of Dunadd there is a footprint carved in the rock, which may well have formed part of the crowning of Dark Age Scottish kings, where the king became one with his land.
The legend of the Fisher King first appears in the 12th century but is likely to have its roots in much earlier legends. But could it also have a historical basis? The dates for King Arthur are sketchy at best, but the 10th century Annales Cambriae put the Battle of Badon at 516-18 and Arthur’s final battle at Camlann to 537-9.
In the years 535-6 was a period of extreme cooling across the Northern Hemisphere. The Byzantine historian Procopius recorded it in his history of the wars “during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness”. The Annals of Ulster recorded a failure of bread. In China snowfalls were recorded in August and a dense dry fog. There was drought in Peru. Crop failure was widely reported. Britain was a largely illiterate society at this time and there are no records of this event. But could it have lingered on in people’s memories, forming the basis of one of our most famous legends?
What caused this disaster is unknown. possibly a comet or asteroid exploding in the upper atmosphere. But perhaps more likely is an eruption of a super volcano, spewing its dust and ashes into the air. Krakatoa, Rabual or North American volcanos are all possible candidates, but the people of the time would have had no idea and may well have attributed it to some supernatural event caused by the physical or spiritual illness of their ruler.
We can only speculate on the effect on the people of Britain as their land became a wasteland. How did the Saxons and Angles, recently arrived in Britain, cope? We don’t know what methods the people of Britain might have used to assure their survival, but I find an added poignancy now to the title of Fisher king – an unknown Dark Ages leader turning, as the harvest failed, to his last possible food source as the only thing that would stand between his people and starvation.