Is Arthur Pendragon the Reincarnation of King Arthur?
I went over to see King Arthur at Stonehenge.
In case you don’t know him: King Arthur is this ex-biker, ex-soldier, ex-builder (not necessarily in that order) who had a brainstorm back in the eighties and decided he was King Arthur, after which he donned a white frock and a circlet, and has been causing various kinds of trouble ever since.
I wrote a book with him once.
Well I say he’s an “ex” biker, but this isn’t quite right. Once a biker always a biker. As King Arthur says, he may not ride a flesh and blood horse this time around, but he rides an iron horse instead: in this case a Suzuki VX 800, a growling beast of a machine, more like a dragon than a horse (except that it had a flat battery while I was there, so it wasn’t growling at anyone at all).
Getting to see King Arthur is an expensive business. I had to take a train to Salisbury, a bus to Amesbury, and a taxi from there to Stonehenge. There is a double-decker tourist bus from Salisbury railway station (for those of you thinking of making the journey) but this costs £17 including the entrance fee, and - given that Arthur is there protesting about the entrance fee, amongst other things - it probably wouldn’t have been proper to have been seen supporting English Heritage’s on-going exploitation of the monument (or “temple” as Arthur prefers to call it) even if it had meant a tourist guide with a microphone giving an on-board history lecture along the way.
I was with Susanna, who is Arthur’s “Dame Knight Commander”, a title I think he stole from a James Bond movie or something.
As I say, he is currently parked up at Stonehenge where he is protesting against the government’s failure to agree plans on the future of the monument – having already spent £37 million on consultations – and wasting several years of Arthur’s life in the process, attending a whole string of long-drawn-out, dreary and, finally, pointless meetings.
The fact that he was invited to any meetings at all is a sign that he is taken seriously by certain people in the government. But then again it might just be another way of shutting him up.
My first sight was of him leaning against a wooden fence which was strung out with hand-painted banners, looking wind-blown and swarthy, dressed in his robes, a silver circlet about his brow, chatting idly to the tourists who were, naturally, intrigued by the peculiar sight of a dark ages battle chieftain in full regalia hanging around outside Stonehenge as if he owned the place.
Stonehenge is his natural environment, of course, both as a biker (he used to attend the festival here) and as King Arthur. I think the tourists must have thought that he was placed here specially by English Heritage as a photo opportunity, monumental figure that he is. I saw at least one person grab a shot standing next to him, and judging by his demeanour, standing there in a relaxed manner with his arm around the young archaeological digger, looking kingly for the camera, I would guess that he is very adept by now at being a part of the scenery to be photographed by. He is certainly more photogenic than the turnstiles or the tunnel or the prefabricated building posing as the visitor centre.
I had brought him two bottles of cider and some packets of ham from the Co-op (two for the price of one) as his diet consists exclusively of meat and alcohol.
His first words to me were: “It wasn’t a raven, see, it was a black and white bird.”
And he got one of his fellow protesters to show me a photograph of a large black bird with white flashes on its wings. “It’s huge,” he said. “Sometimes it sits there on the fence. It has white patches on the underside of its wings. We’ve tried looking it up, but we can’t find out what it is.”
I had no idea what he was talking about at first. I thought he said, “rave” rather than “raven” so it was a strange picture that came into my head, of a woman at a rave-party all dressed in black and white.
It was only when I was looking at the pictures of this large, black unidentified bird on his friend’s camera, that it all became clear to me.
He was referring to the mythology of his own life, and the way I had shifted it in the book for my own ends.
It had happened like this:
When he’d begun to have his revelations about the possibility that he might be King Arthur - a very disturbing experience at the time - him and a friend had driven over to Stonehenge so that he could look for some kind of a sign. They’d hopped the fence and gone into the Stones in the dead of night, at which point a large bird had flown out from amongst the stones and, in a flurry of air and furious flapping, its wing-tip had brushed his face. He took this to be the “sign” and went home contented.
He had no idea what kind of bird it was, though he had the distinct impression that it was black and white. He was living in a caravan under an oak tree at the time, in which a magpie was lodged, so he assumed the bird at Stonehenge must have been a magpie too.
Later, when we came to write the book, I reconstructed the story somewhat, to serve a mythic purpose. I made the bird into a raven. There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, because the birds at the Tower of London, a site associated with the idea of monarchy in Britain, were also ravens; secondly, because one of the gods of ancient Britain, Bran, was associated with ravens; and thirdly, because I wove the image of a raven throughout the book to represent the spirit of ancient Britain observing the current state of the nation.
It was a poetic conceit, of course, but it had a certain resonance. I liked it. I changed the Stonehenge bird into a raven to fit in with the scheme.
I’ve since tried looking up the bird Arthur’s friend showed me on the internet. There is only one possible candidate, a white-winged Chough. Unfortunately the white-winged Chough is an Australian bird and cannot possibly be in Stonehenge.
So let’s just say it’s a mystery.
What is this bird?
Stonehenge was very busy when we arrived, this still being tourist season. There was also an extensive archaeological dig going on at the same time.
Every so often one of those huge air-conditioned tourists coaches would draw up and, with a hiss of its power-assisted doors, would disgorge its well-dressed contents into the car park, cameras at the ready, where they would line up at the gates of the underpass leading into the monument, chattering away in their native tongue.
In the same field as Arthur, just down the hill a little, there was a green and white striped marquee tent with an archaeology exhibition inside. My friend Mike Parker-Pearson is the director of the site and I wanted to go and say hello. Unfortunately there was a circle of people around him listening with rapt attention as he was animatedly telling them about this year’s discoveries, waving his arms about enthusiastically like the presenter on a TV show, so I was unable to get his attention.
As it happens he is almost like the presenter of a TV show, as there was a Time Team special being filmed from there.
Meanwhile Arthur was running his picket.
There was a string of banners tied up along the fence. One said: “Honour Thy Spoken Word.” It is a reference to the promise that English Heritage made to improve the site and the facilities at Stonehenge, to remove the fences and to return the monument to its natural environment.
Another banner said: “Take Up Thy Fences And Walk”, which was Arthur’s call for a political miracle, put forward in the following terms:
NOTICE TO QUIT
I, Arthur Uther Pendragon, being a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Chief Druid & representative thereof: Do hereby exercise my legal right to ownership to the Temple & property variously known as Merlin’s Enclosure, the Giants Dance, and Stonehenge, inasmuch as: It was left to the people of Britain after the Great War in 1918 and has since been in the care and control of OUR elected representatives (H.M. Government) who have acted on our behalf. It is my contention that successive Governments, and Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition and their agents, have since that time woefully failed in their duty of care, for & on my behalf, at Stonehenge of this World Heritage Site, and that the Executive Non Departmental Body, English Heritage, have been grossly incompetent, since their establishment in Statute in 1986, and squandered funds raised for and on my behalf at Stonehenge: that they and other Government Departments, eleven years & thirty seven million pounds later, have expressed a wish to squander yet more of our monies is a further demonstration of their Gross Incompetence. I therefore give "NOTICE TO QUIT" to English Heretics & H.M. Government.
"Pick up thy fence & Walk"
And return it to its rightful owner
The peoples of this Once Green & Pleasant Land
You see, this is what I like about Arthur, the sheer scale of his vision and his nerve, him, a biker in a dress, giving the British Government notice to quit.
And I guess at this point it would be worthwhile to offer some justification for all of this.
Who is this guy?
Is he really King Arthur?
What relation does he bear to the historical or the mythological King Arthur?
And therein, of course, lies the key, since it is not actually clear that there ever was an historical King Arthur as such, and the mythological Arthur is precisely that – mythological – and it is therefore open to interpretation what we understand by what that means.
The only historical Arthur that we can really prove actually existed is this Arthur, our Arthur, the one standing before us now, clad in his robes, mounting a picket at Stonehenge. And if this guy seeks to call upon the spirit of a mythological being as justification for his actions, then who are we to argue?
My view is this: that whatever you think about the man or his purpose, the fact is that he invoked the name, and that by invoking the name he called it down upon himself and made it real. He has lived the part. He has stood his ground. He has adopted the mantle and used it to some effect. Is he the reincarnation of some historical Arthur? Who knows? Does it even matter? What matters is that there is an idea of Arthur, and that, as Arthur’s go, this one is as good as they get.
As someone once said, “If King Arthur didn’t exist we would have had to have invented him.”
In this case King Arthur clearly does exist, only this time around he has managed to invent himself.
CJ Stone writes about King Arthur in the Independent
- Arthur Pendragon: The once and future king | The Independent
King Arthur is at it again, putting himself on the line for yet another lost cause. In this case the cause is an insignificant parcel of dusty chalkland between a nearly finished park-and-ride scheme, at Bar End near Twyford Down outside Winchester
So after this we went back to Arthur’s tiny caravan by the drove, within sight of Stonehenge, to drink some cider and to talk.
Arthur said, indicating the monument only a few hundred yards away, “see, that’s what I see when I get up in the morning.”
Actually the reason we were there was that someone (John Higgs) had written a film script based around Arthur’s life and our book, which Susanna wanted to read out to him and to get his approval.
Arthur doesn’t actually read very much.
He said, “I trust you two. If you think it’s OK, that’s good enough for me.”
I think that by the end of the evening he’d probably said this several times at least, this being his habit once “under ciderance” that he starts to repeat himself.
So Susanna read the script, Arthur and I drank cider, I fell asleep, and then it was dark.
Susanna and I were supposed to be travelling back to London together, but it was very late by now, I was drunk, and Arthur and I wanted to drink more. So instead one of Arthur’s neighbours drove us into nearby Amesbury, we dropped Susanna off at the bus station, and I went into an off-license and got more cider.
I don’t remember much more.
Just two things.
One was the sight of a line of cards strung up across the caravan. This must have been earlier in the day as it was still light. Arthur pointed them out to us and asked us to read them. They were cards from well-wishers posted from various parts of the globe, and were the idea behind this story.
Arthur said, “That’s what makes this whole thing worthwhile: all those cards sent to me from around the world.”
He said they were sent via the monument. I’ll give you the address at the end.
The Year Our Book Was Written
The second thing was very late at night. I’d been talking about our book. It was the year of foot-and-mouth in Britain, when huge funeral pyres piled up with carcasses were sending clouds of black acrid smoke into the atmosphere, and animals were being slaughtered by the million.
A sickness upon the land.
This of course is an Arthurian theme, as it appears in Cretien de Troye’s last unfinished romance about Arthur, Perceval, when there is an image of the wounded Fisher King, custodian of the grail, who abides in a land blighted by sickness. Perceval is taken to the King’s castle where he sees a strange procession, as four objects are carried through the castle. They include a bleeding lance, a sword, a silver tray and, of course, the grail itself. These are “the four hallows of the Holy Grail”. Later Perceval discovers that if he had asked the King about the grail the King would have been cured.
It’s hard to know what this story means, but the image of a land blighted by sickness was a peculiarly apt one at the time.
So we were sitting together in this minuscule caravan, very late at night as the candles began splutter out and we were left in darkness. Arthur was sitting opposite me. I was sitting on what would be my bed for the night, a small bench no more than two foot across. I could just make out Arthur’s silhouette in the faint light from outside. He was sitting cross legged on his bed, when he suddenly took one of his legs and, completely unconsciously, folded it on top of the other into what yogis refer to as the half-lotus position.
This was startling. He’s lost a lot of weight since being at Stonehenge. I always think of Arthur as this burly biker dude, but suddenly he looked like a Pixie sat there in what seemed like an unlikely position, and it reminded me of another time he had surprised me with his agility. This was when we were in Scotland together. We were in the grounds of this abandoned house, in the garden. There was a tree a few of us had unsuccessfully tried to climb. I had looked away briefly and then, suddenly, there he was, lying on a branch halfway up this tree, as if it had been no effort at all, or as if he had been transported there by magical means. And, again, he had looked like a Pixie, lying on his side, with a mischievous glint in his eye, leaving us all to wonder how he had done it.
On both occasions he had seemed less like a 21st century biker, and more like some elemental being, a creature of the woodland and the grove: a spirit rather than a man.
King Arthur's address
Here is his address if you want to write to him.
King Arthur, Stonehenge, Wiltshire, Britain.
Remember this: that by writing to him you are also invoking him thus making him more real.
The more people who write, the more that English Heritage and the British Government will have to pay attention.
- Loyal Arthurian Warband
Press Release and Statement of Intent
By Arthur Pendragon
Winter Solstice 2007
Stonehenge was presented to the Nation after the Great War in 1918. Sixty years later in 1978 a fence was erected around it. Thirty years on what’s changed?
NOTHING, LESS THAN NOTHING
After spending many years and an obscene amount of public money on consultations, enquiries and the commissioning of countless reports and architectural drawings, the Stonehenge Vision as expressed by English Heritage, to return the Temple to a natural environment and remove the fence that holds it in a stranglehold like a snared animal, is dead in the water. Why?
Because since 1918 H M Government, Her Loyal Opposition and agents, English Heritage, Wiltshire Constabulary, The Highways Agency, The Department of Transport, Salisbury District Council, The Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport, Wiltshire County Council and their predecessors, have been all equally complicit in the mis-management and failure to comply with their duty of care for this living, working Temple that was left to us, the people of this once green and pleasant land.
Countless enquiries amount to nothing because no one is prepared to invest in what is after all A World Heritage Site and, incidentally, the biggest cash cow in English Heritage’s arsenal.
The Authorities have shown their gross incompetence in their mis-management of Stonehenge and therefore, on behalf of the Nation and the people therein, I lay claim to this Temple and will mount a legal, moral and political challenge to their custodianship.
In the meantime, I have spent the best part of twenty years in negotiations with said agencies, only to have it brushed aside with the stroke of a pen. It is now my intention to celebrate Solstices and Equinoxes in the environs of Stonehenge but I will not enter the Temple until their promise is realized and the fence removed.
My mistake was, I dared to dream, dared to believe and to work for their vision. I too have a vision, to re-erect the fallen Stones, replace the lintels and rebuild our Temple. I call upon leaders of other religions, belief-structures and philosophies to support me in this. I call also upon the people of Salisbury to support me through the ballot box and to send a peoples’ champion to Westminster to represent them in Parliament – by, for and of the people.
Arthur Pendragon Independent Proposed Parliamentary Candidate for Salisbury
Is Arthur Pendragon the reincarnation of King Arthur?
© 2008 Christopher James Stone