Saturday, October 17, 2015

Hoosier Perceval

Photo received from Corvus O Diomasaigh

Once alone in the Welsh woods there lived a woman and her son. Her husband had lived with them at first; but he had a tendency to turn hairy and sprout horns at the full moon–not every month, perhaps, but as often as not–and to come back in the morning scratched and covered in dirt, with leaves in his hair. So she’d sent him away to a hut further along the track. From this hut she would summon him when so inclined. And often she was, provided he agreed to keep the stipulated distance and pretend that the full moon was irrelevant.

The boy grew up remarkably unacquainted with ordinary society; he had a heart at once innocent and yet given to murmurs of unpredictability. Through the drinking of a draft prepared by his mother from herbs planted by many other hands, he lost most memory of the father who died before the son was grown.

The loss of childhood did not come easily to him, and no more the putting on of manhood. Amidst his long mourning for the one and his confusion at the other, he sought the help and teachings of a smiling wizard who took him to the wizard’s tower, opened all the wrong books, taught him the wrong spells, and sent him off along the wrong path.

The boy remained nameless for longer than comfortable to anyone in the story. As he travelled on, he came to a gleaming palace, was invited to the requisite feast, saw the requisite bleeding lance carried in before the wounded king, and failed to ask the requisite question. In fact, he got into something of a habit of walking into such places, sitting down to such feasts (although they always seemed at the moment like new experiences, not old ones repeated), and never managing to ask quite the right question. His path came to be littered with wounded kings whom he could not cure, although from each of them (had he cured them) he longed to hear his name and learn the secret of his true identity.

One of the wounded kings was especially dear to him–the last in the series, as the legend relates according to the available sources. He chose to remain in this palace for some time after it became evident that the moment that might have cured the king was long past. In this palace he did indeed ask the right questions, more or less, but too late to work the necessary alchemy. Because he thought that tweaking the questions slightly and trying again might produce more auspicious results, he became a master of thwarted persistence, admired by some of the courtiers for his good will, ridiculed by a few (though as time went on by an increasing number) and arousing the impatience of several who wanted him just to get on with it.

Finally, the king himself announced that enough was enough. The boy’s frustration had been mounting for some time, both at his own failure and at the king’s singular passivity in refusing to offer such promptings as he might have provided; yet he was devastated to be exiled from the court at which, despite the king’s suppurating, ulcerated flank, there had been good company (such as he’d not experienced in childhood) and three square and very pleasant meals a day. There was also the king’s own company, which the boy, who had now grown to be a youth in a body old enough to be his father’s, found agreeable, endearing, and deeply familiar, providing the obvious was not mentioned. The youth began to blame himself for so often attempting to ask the right question at the right time. When he finally left the palace, he had in fact convinced himself that the responsibility lay with him and him alone for not achieving the desired outcome to this adventure.

In another part of the forest dwelt a tribe of magicians who travelled widely and with whom the youth began to cross paths. They had come to constitute a tribe not by birth but by common consent and a shared awareness of their powers, which were in fact less consistently reliable than they liked to admit to one another. Those powers, however, were real enough to be soon evident to the youth (in a body now old enough to be his father’s) and so he fell in with them, despite his misgivings that the wizard of the tower might in fact have been one of their number.

One day, consorting with one of these magi, he found that they had crossed together into the Otherworld, where his brother magus began to snuffle and snort like an animal; to his own surprise, he did as well. The visit to the Otherworld didn’t last long, but he shortly came to be absorbed in scanning the ground around him for hints of other such portals, not knowing exactly what lay on the other side of them, but increasingly convinced that going through these portals would lead to a very important discovery about himself.

Whereas these meetings with the forest magi were intermittent, his meetings with a kindly hermit, who stayed in one place, were a regular feature of his week. The hermit was on the whole remarkably accepting of the youth’s explorations among the magi and seemed inclined to respect the importance of these encounters. The hermit was committed to helping the youth reverse the effects of the draught that had expunged the memory of his father. His good will came to be more important to the boy than was the releasing of the spell, long deferred as it was–it being the practice of the hermit that the youth must master each clause of the spell for himself in order to break its power. It was a long and very complicated spell, some of it in archaic languages, the grammar of which had to be at least minimally deciphered before moving on to the next phrase. Some of the magi were inclined to scoff at the hermit; others were deeply respectful of his longer, slower, and less spectacular wisdom.

At times the youth grew weary of the whole enterprise. He found that wandering through the forest had become tiresome without the magic of the tribe, but the excitement of their magic trivial without the patience of the hermit. He had no desire to choose between them. The memory of his excursion into the Otherworld as an animal self with the magus who accompanied him there continued to burn in his mind, but more importantly, in his heart. And he came to bless the blood of his father that ran in his veins.

He continues to wander the forest: quests have a way of being endless, whether one wishes them so or not.