Thursday, 23 July 2015

The True Legend of Prince Bladud

Long, long ago, long before English was the language in the land, the forests were roamed by wolves.

Wolves! Hunted for their skins, hunted for their meat, hunted for sport, and hunted, most notably, by the young and muscular Prince Bladud, son to Lud-Hudibras, eighth King of Britain. In the days of the late summer, in the thick grassland, Prince Bladud and three large dogs -- bred in a litter across the sea -- would venture near the wolf dens. The dogs would find the scent, and drag down a wolf as it returned to its cubs or chase it into the path of Bladud's arrow.

Earlier in the year, during the lean times for wolves, Bladud would hunt at night, carrying a piglet in a sack, which he would take out and tether in a clearing in the moonlight. Before long, a wolf would come. It would jump on the terrified piglet and sink its teeth in, and then when it was distracted the dogs would be released, and sink their teeth into the wolf, or Bladud's arrow would fly straight into the wolf's heart.

One such moonlit night, Bladud carried a piglet in a sack through the trees. The piglet had been chosen by a servant, and Bladud had not seen the animal until the moment when he undid the drawstring. Normally he would sacrifice a piglet without a second thought, but when he removed this one from the sack, and it squealed, he saw that it had a bent foot. For some reason, which perhaps even Bladud himself could not explain, he stroked the foot and said: 'Poor thing." And when he placed the piglet down and tethered it to the stake, the piglet looked imploringly into Bladud's eyes. Still, Bladud walked away to hide with his dogs. A little while later, he saw the wolf creeping out of the tall grass, and the piglet trembled, and then it turned its head towards the very spot where Bladud hid. The prince suddenly stood up, waving his arms, and he cried at the top of his voice: 'Go away with you, wolf!' The wolf ran into the night. Bladud walked towards the piglet. He took out a knife and cut the tether. The pig limped into the forest, turning to look at Bladud once more before it vanished. 'You may or may not survive,' said Bladud, 'but neither you nor the wolf will die tonight.'

The next morning, Bladud received a summons to his father's throne room. The king was a great fat man, so fat that Bladud had been heart to call him 'The Giant Egg', and this may perhaps lead to comparisons with Humpty Dumpty, if one wished to cite a nursery rhyme which did not then exist.

Courtiers witnessed no happy exchange between father and son. Too much time, said the king, had been devoted by the prince to the idle pleasure of hunting. No more would he let his son roam the forests. Bladud pleaded, asking for just one more season, one more month, even one more night of hunting. He made every argument in hunting's favour that he knew, of which the principal one was that it made a man sharp for war. But the king's decision was irrevocable. His son would sail to Athens in the morning to learn the arts of civilisation and conquest, and become the king's worthy successor. With the heaviest of hearts, the prince bowed and left the throne room, realising that there was nothing to do but accept.

It was strange then that, once in Athens, Bladud became a changed man. No longer did he show the slightest interest in the hunt; he embraced his new Greek life wholeheartedly. He sought all that Greece could teach, and he immersed himself in Plato, Zeno, Epicurus and Pythagoras. He loved especially the stories of the gods and heroes, and would listen intently to the tales of Athena and Apollo. He had learnt the Greek language, of course -- he was the keenest of students, and he chanted aloud the syllables pi-pa-pu-pe, mi-ma-mu-me as his instructor pointed to them on a tile. He mastered the Athenian accent to perfection. As if that achievement was not enough, he even wrote verses in Greek, first on sand with a finger, then on wax with a stylus, and finally on parchment with a pen and ink. His inspiration was the works of the great poets. He learned their manliness and their wisdom. He cherished their great storehouse of virtues.

In short, he did all he might to become a Greek. He would be seen wrestling on the sand, or drinking wine in honour of the gods. He would be heard chanting his poems, which often had a patriotic theme, and he accompanied himself on the seven-stringed lyre.

Never did he mention the land of his birth, that far and rainy kingdom founded by Brut. Bladud loved only the rough, mountainous terrain where figs, olives, grapes and lemons grew.

Yet underneath Bladud's calm assimilation lay a desire for a particular syllabus of Grecian knowledge -- and this desire possessed him like a mania. He sought out the Greek shamans, and begged then to teach him their dark arts.

He had heard that shamans could free their souls from their bodies, and travel forth across the world in spirit form. Night after night he tried to master this wizardry, and followed the course the shamans prescribed. He placed some simple object -- a small piece of pottery, a shoulder-pin, a stylus -- upon a low table at his bedside, and imagined himself, willed himself, believed himself, in the last moments before sleep, separated from his physical body as he attempted to stretch a spirit hand out of his physical hand to clutch the object on the table. Once or twice he thought he had done so. But it could have been a dream. Then came a night of conviction, when he knew the object was in his invisible fingers.

His thirst for secret knowledge had been awakened, and he needed more.

The shamans led him into underground chambers. By torchlight, they whispered that one day he would control the wind and the rain, and that he would melt hailstones. With more study, he could predict earthquakes, and close fissures in the ground. In time, he would calm giant tidal waves. With more study still, he might both be in the underground chamber, and yet be seen on the surface by other men. Finally, he would attain the knowledge of the air-traveller, the knowledge of the great Abaris who rode on a magical arrow, who flew over wide seas and ascended mighty mountains.

All this held Bladud in Athens. For 11 years he stayed and studied the arts of the shamans, ignoring his father's many entreaties to return. For what was a small earthly kingdom on the western fringes to the vast empire of shamanic knowledge?

And then, one morning, when he awoke, Bladud noticed a rash upon his forearm. He dismissed it as nothing. He said to himself that during physical exercise a wrestler had gripped him too hard.

The next morning the mark had spread. Soon marks were on his chest and thighs.

Now his sleeves were always down. He said he was too weary to wrestle. He refused the pleasures of women, confessing that he was too tired. But the spreading of the marks to his hands, calves and face made concealment impossible -- and the suspicion was aroused before that moment.

He entered the underground chamber and begged the shamans for a cure. They told Bladud that the disease was a sign that he must return to his homeland. They would teach him no more. He must leave their chamber, leave Athens, leave Greece.

He implored the shamans to allow him to stay, saying that his knowledge was but superficial, and he needed complete mastery. They turned their backs and vanished into the darkness. Their refusal distressed Bladud far, far more than the marks that were gradually spreading, and that threatened to consume his whole body.

So, leper that he was, Bladud, eldest son of Lud-Hudibras, eighth King of Britain, concealed himself in a hooded cloak and found passage on a ship, though it took great persuasion in gold for the mariner to take a diseased man as freight. For freight he was -- kept in a hold away from the others on the vessel.

The Giant Egg's cheeks boiled and cracked in rage when he saw his disfigured son. Athens was to blame, the king screamed, the city had poisoned his son with its disgusting food and pox-riddled women. Bladud confessed to his father, on bended knee, that he had studied secret arts, and believed that if he could but return, with the king's blessing, the shamans would accept him once more and cure the disease. This admission merely provoked the king. If Bladud practised the dark arts, children in Britain would go missing, the corn would not grow, the realm would collapse, and invaders would come from overseas. The disease was the prince's just and fair punishment.

Bladud left the throne room in disgrace. His brother sure to inherit the kingdom now, approached and said, with a cruel smile: 'You will need this.' It was a leper's warning clapper, to be sounded when nearing healthy folk.

Bladud might have seized the clapper, and used it to strike his brother around the face; instead he took it meekly, and saying no more, walked away.

Some believe that the king banished his son; others that, overcome with shame and despair, Prince Bladud quit the court of his own accord. Whatever the facts of the case, one day at dawn, Bladud left to seek the wider world. A simple message was left behind: 'Consider me dead.'

So Bladud wandered around Britain, cloaked and hooded, with no particular destination in mind. And although his strain of the disease was not the worst, still he was called leper. He was classed with those whose skin was rough and scaly, whose voice was hoarse, those who had lost all feeling in their bodies until only the tongue retained sensitivity, and that resided in a fog of foul breath. 'And who,' said Bladud to himself, 'would respect the proclamations of such a tongue, no matter how wisely it wagged?' He knew he had no right to be his father's heir.

At first, he sought the company of other lepers sitting at night around a fire with men whose fingers bore burns and abrasions, because they could not feel the heat of a pot when lifted from the fire, as well as with others whose hands had stiffened and turn to claws. One leper, who ate a bowl of soup, had a noisome discharge from his nostrils, and when Bladud looked at this man he realised he had sunk lower than he had dreamt possible. He resolved that no more would he associate with human beings. He left the company of lepers and took the lowly, lonely occupation of swineherd.

Before long, Bladud started to enjoy the company of pigs. He imitated their grunts and their little woofs and came to know the sounds which meant satisfaction and the sounds which meant hunger. 'Ah, pigs,' he said -- for he spoke to them often -- 'I am not so sure that you eat too much. Poor maligned beasts.'

The pigs rooted around in the soft spring earth, seeking an old tuber or a piece of decayed bark. One pig would bite the ear of another, and even rip off flesh amidst much blood and shrieking; yet later the same day the two pigs would sleep side by side, as though they had infinite capacity of forgiveness. Deciding that Bladud was not too disgusting, they would sometimes lick his face -- to the, in spite of his royalty, he was a pig. And when a pig was slaughtered, some of its lard was used by Bladud in a lamp: he watched its flames burn out upon the wick in the evening, and he would bid his brother farewell.

One day, a new pig was given into his care -- one that had a bent foot. 'It is surely not possible,' he said to himself.

He came to believe - and then it became an unyielding conviction -- that this was the very piglet he had freed all those years before, now fully grown. There was a look the pig gave him, which was exactly the look he had received from the piglet in the moonlit grasslands. Bladud needed no more evidence. He felt the greatest joy he had experienced in ages! To think they had been reunited, these old friends! The pig licked his face.

So life continued for Bladud, and he herded the swine into ancient forests of beech, where early spring flowers and fungi free, to forage for mast; but pigs, being pigs, had wills of their own, and if they were herded one way, they would take it into their minds that the food was better the other. Indeed, it was most peculiar: they seemed to know which food would make them the tastiest to eat. The roast pork of Bladud's pigs was renowned.

As the pigs ate, Bladud stood against the trunk of the largest tree he could find, with foliage so thick that some lower branches were rotting for lack of sunlight. There was nothing to apply his mind to, except the appearance of trees. He knew trees by their frost-cracks and by their twig-scars, their roughnesses and irregularities. He admired in particular the ornamentation of ivy, and the pleasing way it wound around the bark of an oak. All the same, this knowledge was no substitute for the knowledge he desired. He carved Greek letters into the bark, forming the start of an incantation, but he could not remember the end. He slapped the bark, as though fearing that soon all his knowledge would be gone.

One cold day, in late autumn, the pigs roamed far in search of mast. Bladud found himself among forest he did not know. Dead leaves were still clinging to some trees. Then one of the pigs -- the one with the bent foot -- wandered a long way from the others. Bladud called and the pig turned, but grunted and continued, and vanished behind a rock.

Bladud found the pig wallowing in a mudhole. He had seen pigs wallow many a time in summer to cool down, but it was a cold day, and steam rose from this mud, as well as a herby, sulphurous odour, which the pig must have scented from afar. The heroines was easy to explain, for dead leaves and beechnuts were on the surface. Bladud bent and touched the mud, and rolled its warmth between his finger and thumb.

The next morning the corrupted skin of his fingertips was not as red as before. When he saw his friend the pig, there was a change in its appearance, too. Its skin looked softer overall, and a crustiness around its ears had lessened.

Bladud immersed himself in the mudpool. He rubbed mud all over his body, even around his eyes, and within his ears and nostrils. He felt the heat reach deep into his pores. He stayed in the hot mud, and his friend the pig joined him. Bladud let the mud dry on his skin, then he stood beside the pool, and gave praise to Sulis, goddess of healing. With beech twigs, pebbles, stones, moss and ivy, he decorated the perimeter of the mudpool. He decorated too, the beech tree nearest the pool, whose large overhanging branch dropped its fruit into the hot mud. The pool and the tree formed a sacred pair in his mind. He also returned at night and stared into the black steaming mudpool, which reflected, unsmoothly, the stars and the moon. It was as though he knelt at the very entrance of the underworld, and the celestial bodies were torches to mark the way down. He praised the goddess Kerridwen, for whom pigs were sacred and magical.

For a full month, Bladud stepped into the mudpool. By the end of that time, his skin was as normal as any man's. With pride, he ran his hand over his smooth arms and chest.

He released all the pigs. and lingered over the goodbye to one.

It was now that he returned to his people. As he approached the city walls, he sounded the leper clapper -- but now flaunting it proudly above his head, waving it was the one thing he did not need, to announce that he was leper no more.

Bladud would, in due time, exchange the clapper for a sceptre. He ascended the throne, married and ruled.

There were glories in Bladud's reign, and his foundation of the city of Bath at the site of the mudpool, was certainly one of his finest achievements. The healthy hot springs that continue to attract so many travellers are Bladud's legacy.

Yet Bladud was unfulfilled. He yearned for shamanic knowledge. Often neglecting the needs of his subjects, he spent his days working on wooden contraptions, inspired by the arrow of Abaris. Sometimes it was said that the leprosy had been cured on his skin, but the true scar of Athens had been left in his mind -- he had not completed the course he had set for himself.

In Trinovatntum, the place now called London, Bladud climbed to the top of a wooden tower, the height of 20 men. He wore a knee-length tunic; around his neck was a beechwood amulet in the shape of a pig with a bent foot; and strapped to his back was a structure of timber, cloth and feathers, which he could flap by ropes attached to his hands and feet. He said incantations. He moved to the edge of the tower. 'I will do what birds do,' he proclaimed to the crowd below. 'I will do what the gods do.'

The tower stood upon a hill. there was an uplift of wind, which he felt upon his face at the tower's edge. Soaring jackdaws came close, and looked him in the eye.

'I have the will to soar,' he said, in a low voice. 'I believe I shall soar. I imagine I am soaring.'

In the crowd below, Bladud's son looked up, hand over his mouth. At one shoulder stood his mother the queen, who covered her eyes; at the other shoulder stood a boy his own age, dressed in a jester's outfit -- an exact copy, in miniature, of the outfit worn by the boy's father, Bladud's jester.

'I say that if your father thinks he can fly,' remarked the little jester, 'he must be feather-brained indeed.'

'I'll have you whipped!' said Bladud's son. 'We must pray for a storm or a hurricane to lift him up.'

Bladud now raised the wings and they filled with wind. He said one more incantation with his eyelids firmly closed. Then he opened his eyes and launched himself off the edge of the tower.

An up draught caught his contraption and for a moment Bladud attained flight. He laughed in triumph and was lifted higher.

Then he twisted in midair, and Bladud plummeted down, down, down. At the instant he struck the earth, the crowd, acting as one, drawn in their breath, and this covered the sound of his neck snapping.

(Henry Jarvis, Death and Mr Pickwick)

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