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A Galahadic Tale of Ruin

April is upon us, my rabbity friends. And boy, do poets love to start long poems by mentioning this month! In the opening of The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes:

April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.

Geoffrey Chaucer takes a more sanguine view of April in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licóur Of which vertú engendred is the flour…

But for those of us in the Society for Galahadic Study and Emulation, commonly known as “Galahoodlums,” this month is significant not for its rainshowers, nor for its mixing of memory and desire, nor yet for bathing every veyne in various licóurs. No, for us, April means the parturition of a work over which we have labored for these many months. I refer, of course, to The Lost Tales of Sir Galahad, a collection of recently discovered tales about the adventures of Sir Galahad in the Wild Forest. It was truly a consuming process to discover, reassemble, translate, annotate, and sometimes tentatively lick these ancient texts to see if we could figure out what on earth those stains were. The final publication represents many sleepless nights, many pots of mediocre coffee, and many trips to the facilities as a result of drinking too much mediocre coffee. But I digress.

I had the honor to work on a couple of small texts in this book, so I thought it fitting in this joyous release month to share some reflections on one of them, entitled “Sir Galahad and the Ruin.”

I should start with a disclaimer: Much of my life has been spent among ruins of various sorts.

As a boy, I loved exploring abandoned cabins and outbuildings left behind by early Kansas settlers. I still occasionally dream of ancient doors creaking open and wolf spiders scuttling to find shelter under rotting, dust-layered floorboards.

In high school, I sacrificed two weeks and about thirty percent of the skin on my hands to dig out a dirt-packed basement under the 19th-century limestone home that housed our county genealogical library.

Then, in my sophomore year of college, I came to realize that I’d spent my entire life immersed in perhaps the greatest ruin of them all: the English language. For years, I’d been plagued with questions like: 

  1. Why does literally every single English-speaking child need to be instructed that “goed” isn’t the past tense of “go”?

  2. Why does “island” have an “s” in it?

  3. How can “tough,” “trough,” “though,” and “through” possibly sound so different from one another?

I began to find answers to these questions as I studied the history and structure of the language. Most of the answers were some variation of: “Because this language is like an old junk drawer full of things that were once useful to someone.” And for a while, those answers were satisfying.

But as I gained more knowledge, my obsession grew, claiming more and more of me until it finally drove me to the unthinkable: graduate school. There, in a class on the Anglo-Saxon language, I encountered yet another ruin: a poem fragment from the Exeter Book, entitled “The Ruin.”

It was truly a consuming process to discover, reassemble, translate, annotate, and sometimes tentatively lick these ancient texts to see if we could figure out what on earth those stains were. Micah Hawkinson

The poem became a fragment because it’s located near the back cover of the book, and at some point about a thousand years ago, a drowsy monk dropped a firebrand onto it. The fire was quickly extinguished, but not before partially ruining “The Ruin.” Which is pretty appropriate when you think about it. And believe me, people think about it. You can’t sneeze without hitting an Anglo-Saxon scholar saying something like, “So, you see, ‘The Ruin’ is actually something of a ruin itself!”

Even in its present state of disrepair, “The Ruin” remains lovely. It begins,

Jewel-like is this wallstone,    Fate-broken. The castle burst;    its giant-work crumbles. Roofs have fallen,    towers lie in ruin. The frostgate is riven,     rime on lime, The storm-refuge in shards,    shorn to disaster, Eaten from beneath by age.    Earth’s grip holds The castle’s mighty makers,    withered and gone. —from my own translation of the poem

I had not read this old poem in more than a decade, but the text of “Sir Galahad and the Ruin” brought it back to mind instantly, for the following reasons:

  1. It is clear at a glance that both texts are badly damaged. The Galahadic tale was not burnt by a clumsy monk, but it has been ravenously nibbled upon, as well as slathered in butter and a mysterious substance that might be blood, or possibly pork gravy.

  2. Both texts tell of a mysterious ruin, built by a people long gone, yet used for a time by others after them.

  3. Upon closer reading, many specific details of the two works are also quite similar. Perhaps almost… too similar.

But you needn’t take my word for it. The proof of the pork-gravy blood pudding, as the saying goes, is in the eating. So here are some specific examples to sink your teeth into:

The Castle Gates

  1. “The Ruin” poet writes, “Oft this wall endured, / Lichen-grey and red of hue.”

  2. “Sir Galahad and the Ruin” begins, “Deep within the forest, Sir Galahad came upon a ruined castle of enormous size. Its gates were layered in grey lichen, its granite face was stained with ancient rust, and its turrets were all but hidden behind a cape of thick ivy.”

The Castle Makers

  1. The poet writes, “The castle burst; its giant-work crumbles. / Roofs have fallen,    towers lie in ruin.”

  2. In the tale, Galahad speculates about the ruin’s origins: “Perhaps the builders were giants; he’d heard rumors of a lost city inhabited by that monstrous folk.”

The Castle Rooms

  1. The poet continues, “Bright were the castle-halls, many bath-houses, / High treasure-horns, great troop-sounds, / Many meadhalls, full of men’s joy … A wall surrounded it all, / Its bright bosom, where the baths were, / Hot in its heart. That was convenient.”

  2. Again, the Galahadic tale seems to echo these features: “He passed a cavernous mead-hall, an indoor bathhouse whose cracked pools emitted steam from a hot spring, and a room that must have been a treasury, though it now contained only a few forlorn vessels of lead and tarnished silver.”

It is hard to deny the parallels between these descriptions. They suggest three possible explanations, which I list here in order of likeliness:

  1. Sir Galahad happened upon the same ruin described in the Exeter Book’s poem, or

  2. The writer of “Sir Galahad and the Ruin” was familiar with the poem from the Exeter Book and used it as a convenient setting, or

  3. The similarity between the texts is merely coincidental.

Having personally reassembled and deciphered much of the Galahadic tale, I must say I do not think its writer had read the Exeter Book (or indeed, much of anything beyond “the Catte Saith Meow”).

Is it possible that the writer of the Galahad tale merely happened to imagine so many of the same features mentioned in the Exeter Book’s poem? Perhaps. It is also possible that Sir Reginald Overbottom is correct about his ridiculous hypothesis regarding the stains on this manuscript, but I shall graciously withhold all judgment on that matter.

One thing is certain, dear reader: If you do not immediately order The Lost Tales of Sir Galahad, you will be unable to arrive at a fully informed conclusion on this vital matter. And you’ll also be missing out on some pretty good stories. So why are you still here, reading this? Get thee to the Rabbit Store!


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