THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XIX: The Morning After
When I’d feasted on the tales of King Arthur as a boy, I’d assumed that the high king was the real power of the land and all the other kings had to do what he said. Apparently that wasn’t even close. The Grail didn’t know for sure either, but we pieced together a credible explanation. If this were a history, I would temper my certainty by saying ‘the most likely explanation.’ But since it’s fiction, I can tell you exactly what ‘high king’ meant in sixth century Britain.
Where there was no external threat, kings squabbled and schemed to increase their own holdings because that’s what kings do. Often their machinations lead to open warfare. But since kingdoms were small—we tend to think of “army” as being tens of thousands of men, but in post-Roman Britain, a king’s army might only be a few dozen armored men-at-arms—sporadic fighting wasn’t that big a deal. Plus they didn’t burn each others’ lands in those days, so the peasants could keep farming while the boys played their games.
When there was an external enemy such as the Saxons, however, you couldn’t afford to waste your strength fighting with each other. But feuds were hard to stop, as the Hatfields and the McCoys were to demonstrate. What the election of a high king meant was that the other kings would let him decide any disputes so they could fight the real bad guys.
In a way it was an office more honorary than real. Seems like it shouldn’t have been such a big deal, like electing a Justice of the Peace. But kings had big egos, and often that was enough to prevent anything as blasé as common sense from winning out.
* * *
Arthur was crowned high king on that same day, at sunset. Kneeling on the center-stone where Caradog had offered up his life’s blood, he received a garland denoting his authority from the hands of The Lady of the Lake herself. He was so handsome and so grown up, made me all motherly.
Since the next day was Beltane, as well as the official initiation of a new high king, there would be celebration a’plenty. So Arthur proclaimed the rest of that day as a time for moderation and fasting rather than starting the partying early. He huddled late into the night with a small group of trusted advisors trying to figure out how to unite the kings who had opposed him rather than start his reign trying to put down a massive civil war.
Dawn showed that he was too late; King Mark and a half dozen of his staunchest supporters had left during the night. Now more than ever it was critical to attain the loyalty of King Lot—a civil war against both of them would rip the land to pieces and effectively hand it to the Saxons.
Beginning shortly after dawn the next day, Arthur held court for the first time. Not being practiced at the traditional stilted manner in which official royal business was supposed to be conducted, he simply pitched the whole phony system and did things as he wanted to. Petitioners stood in front of him and spoke for themselves in plain speech, and he pronounced his decisions and decrees with a no-nonsense directness that today would put many a lawyer out of business.
He handled the little stuff first. Lancelot, Bedivere, and Kay begged to be allowed to swear oaths to serve Arthur for the rest of their lives. Others asked for a variety of other favors—a position among the king’s household knights for a second son; a settlement of a boundary dispute; and from a duke’s widow, armed assistance to disperse a band of bandits that had been terrorizing her lands, robbing from rich and poor alike and giving to themselves. Arthur was generous that day, giving anything that was both reasonable and within his power to give.
When the petitioners finally thinned out, Arthur summoned Lot. What he actually did was turn to Sir Ector and say, without raising his voice, “Father, would you go to King Lot and ask him if he is free to speak with me now?” No matter. The word spread like fire across a dry English grain field, improving with each telling. By the time Lot got there, everyone in Amesbury had heard that Arthur was going to challenge Lot. The nobles found excuses to be watching from as close as their rank allowed. Swords were loosed in scabbards, peace knots surreptitiously undone.
When Lot reached the pavilion, Arthur was sitting at the large wooden table where he had been working all morning, enjoying a mug of ale and talking quietly with Bedivere. However, he spared Lot the dilemma of having either to act subservient before the young king or to appear defiant. Arthur immediately stood as Lot entered, went around the table, took him by the arm as if they were old friends, and led him to a chair beside his own. More ale was poured.
Then Arthur addressed his rival, raising his voice so that all in the room could hear. “Your rancor toward my father Uther is well known, King Lot, and seemingly justified. And now this,” he pointed to the garland he was wearing, “could turn you and me into bitter, lifelong enemies.” By the elegance of his speech you might have thought he was holding me, but he wasn’t.
Arthur rose and pounded the table with both fists. “No, I say! You are wed to my sister Morgause, and your sons are my nephews. Enough!”
He turned and raised his voice to address the crowd. “I cannot offer King Lot the kingship that has been bestowed upon me. It appears to me that he deserves the garland far more than I, but that decision has been made by powers greater than us, and we must yield to them.” He turned back to Lot. “But I offer you the position of Warden of the Northern Marshes, representing both the throne of Britain and me personally. And when your four sons come of age, I will welcome them with open arms and give them a place of honor among my knights.”
If Lot or his men had come looking for a fight, Arthur’s preemptive strike took all of the hostility out of them. The normally poised Lot was so nonplused that for long moments he couldn’t find any words at all. I mean, what choice did he really have? If he accepted the generous offer, he was officially abdicating any lingering claim he might have to the throne. Gaining popular support and raising troops to oppose Arthur would be extremely difficult later if he accepted the post now. Refusal, on the other hand, would be tantamount to an open declaration of war without just cause against the popular new king who had tried his best to make peace. Discerning how thoroughly he had been outmaneuvered, Lot scrutinized Arthur through narrowed eyes.
The new high king held his gaze for a long moment before adding, “Not to mention that her sons are my closest kin. Should I die without issue, they will be my heirs and likely my successor to the throne.”
Merlin, quiet up to this point, fingered The Grail before speaking. “It’s a great offer, Your Majesty. I recommend accepting.”
And that was that.
Arthur and Lot raised their goblets to seal their new friendship. Meanwhile, as Merlin was to state afterward, “No one but I could hear the silent mirth of the fates over such an ironic pronouncement as Arthur proclaiming Morgause’s son as his heir.”
Finally, with business over for the day, Arthur went to rest for the coming harvest celebration. Merlin, with much still left to do, drank a quaff of a home-brewed equivalent of methyl amphetamines.
THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XIX: OUTTAKES
“So Arthur proclaimed the rest of his coronation day as a time for moderation and fasting rather than starting the partying early?”
The truth was, holding the throne turned out to be a much greater challenge than acquiring it. Arthur correctly judged that he needed the night for planning and could scarcely afford to waste it partying.
“Just shows how much wiser he was than I am, even though he was five years younger when he earned the throne. I would’ve named The Boomer as my seneschal and immediately sent him out for beer. Guess that’s why he became a legend while I’m just a poor, starving grad student.”
Guess that means that while you’re wiser than Jesus, you’re still below Arthur. Well, don’t worry. You’re still young, with a lot of time to gain wisdom. And Arthur has a major screw-up or two in his future.
“Wouldn’t that make a great T-shirt? ‘Wiser than Jesus’ on the front; ‘Not as wise as King Arthur’ on the back? Nah. Nobody would get it.”
And besides, you’re not just a poor, starving grad student. You’re a poor, starving grad student with The Holy Grail.
* * *
“So from your statement about the irony of Arthur proclaiming Morgause’s son as his heir, can I speculate that Mordred is real too?”
You can always speculate, Bradley. As long as you don’t think that’s going to get me to skip ahead in the story.