Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lore Galore!

Truly, we needed hardy cheeses for our visit to the Center for the Arthurian Imaginary and so we were bolstered in our endeavor by, starting with the craggy orange wedge, a Gouda "Extra Vieux" (extra old) which is so flavorful, it's really a whole new Gouda. We bought it in honor of Monsieur Le Fromagier himself who, I found out recently came here from Holland 24 years ago - delicious! Continuing clockwise: a Munster (stinky!); and then a wonderful new cheese for us: a Goulerou, half cow cheese, half sheep cheese: everybody's happy.

Gretchen, Iris and I went to the market this time around - it's so lovely to have Gretchen here: Iris clearly concurs! We talk medieval, we talk physics, we go the market, we explore Arthuriana. Iris showed Gretchen the way to all of our favorite stands...

...and was richly rewarded for her pluckiness at the butcher's stand. He gave her an entire, luscious slice of Jambon Fumé (that's, a kind of smoked ham, think prosciutto) - which you see her enjoying here. The Fairy of all Fairies Vivianne never had it so good!

There are more and more merchants out, too. Here, for example, is the purveyor of soccer scarves (Pedar, do you have any orders to place??), as we as fine jewels - everybody's happy!

Meanwhile, Eleanor was at home where she received a beautiful drawing and a note from her best buddy in the world; she also received a very special necklace from her friend, which she has worn all day: THANK YOU! MERCI!

And so we set off for Comper and the upper reaches of the Broceliande forest. This is the very castle that Lady Viviane grew up in before she joined up with monsieur Merlin - only to beguile and ensnare him (two words the kids really enjoyed using today). He built her a castle of crystal, and it's there that she raised Lancelot after she took him from his nursemaid who was resting on the shore of the lake as she, and the entire court of King Ban of Benaïc were on the run from Claudas. Would you like to see it all?

The pictures don't really do it justice - and I'm not being snarky. Yes, those are clearly store mannequins dressed in medieval garb, yes, they stand in dramatic poses, but I love this museum, this center for the Arthurian imaginary. Recreating the world of Merlin and Vivianne, of fairies and dragons, of some of the oldest oral traditions of this land could be a quixotic endeavor - one that's always puzzled me, as I've never felt the need to recreate (or particularly relive) any part of the Middle Ages. But this kind of display, this kind of center is really interesting to me because on one level it seeks to deny any historicity to Arthurian legend (Merlin still roams for some, the love of Lancelot and Guinevere still lives for others, Morgan Le Fay will always haunt for most); and on the other level, it is deeply steeped in a nostalgia for this historical period of chivalry, quest, honor, loyalty, and magic. You see both elements here: displays likening the Star Wars trilogy to Arthurian legend (think Obi Wan as the Merlin figure and you've gotten started) seeking to prove the eternal return of Arthur; and other displays meticulous in the historical accuracy of costume and legend. This double endeavor (the simultaneous denial of history and obsession with historical detail) bothers a lot of academics (it's certainly not something I would even begin to consider thinking about considering to engage in in my scholarship or teaching), but I nonetheless find it fascinating. The kids absolutely loved it - they are mostly free from history. Oliver did keep asking if Merlin was "real in history or what?" I said that he was real in our imagination, which has its own kind of history (completely unsatisfying answer for Oliver) - but working in art history, I can definitely argue for the reality of the imaginary: it is present, one feels accountable to it, moral decisions are made by it. No, you can't touch it, there is nothing empirical about it, but it profoundly affects reality.

Which brings me to the most pervasive dynamic of the day. The only way that I can describe walking through the forest of Broceliande with Oliver and Iris is that it's like being with Molder and Scully. You only have had to have watched the X-Files once to understand the dynamic between the mystical man Molder and the skeptical woman Scully. Here, Oliver has just discovered the pine cone that will allow him to understand the forest fairies' language - and he has also figured out that anyone whose hand he touches will also be able to understand their magical language. Iris is here holding his hand... waiting... finally she says "Now what?" This would happen over and over again, but each time (dear one) Iris would rush to her brother's side and demand to see his next "kooky thing;" and Oliver was never deterred in his discoveries by Iris's skepticism - her curiosity probably helped. :-) I love this picture of this brother and sister on the shores of this beautiful lake - sure, I can understand the language of the fairies when I see them.

The path in this enormous park around the castle takes you mostly along the edge of the lake - the forest remains incredibly dense and impenetrable. But even along the lake, nature does mysterious things like whatever this tree is up to. The lake was not particularly high, it just seems to grown out of the water, reaching and twisting. I started to wonder out loud if perhaps the Lady of the Lake (the one who had taken Lancelot to rear him) wasn't some transformation of a tree like this one that just seemed to rise up whole out of the water. "How on earth would a tree take care of a baby?" asked Iris, utterly exasperated with me. Then she went back to making her magic potion.

But in this one moment, I did catch her trying to whistle to a fairy.

So where do you go after you've walked in Merlin and Vivianne's forest? Why to Merlin's tomb of course! Vivianne beguiled and ensnared Merlin so that he could never leave the forest again - he was, then, dead to the world. Merlin, as he was explained in the exhibit (which I thought was really smart on this point) is as much trickster as wood spirit, a force of nature as well as a man. They even brought up the debate of whether or not he was Christian. I love Merlin's antiquity - his "old as the nature he controls" age. His tomb, of course, is a 19th-century deduction around a beautiful neolithic megalith. Unfortunately, the identification of this stone being Merlin's tomb led to its being blown up by the farmer on whose land it was on. He was seeking the treasure he was sure was buried underneath. As I mentioned on our first visit here, now that we know about finds like the Staffordshire Hoard, we can forgive the farmer a bit. Still, a shame, and Merlin's neo-medieval grandeur is much diminished. Still, people leave flowers, bits of greenery, a pine cone, a stone carefully arranged before it. I do think it's worth asking what Merlin means to people today - we have so pigeon-holed and sequestered our imaginaries so neatly away - not our imaginations (can't stop that), but those imaginary worlds that form the moral and social realities I was discussing above, that I think it's worth seeking out (not that I asked anybody there). There were lots of people at Merlin's tomb. And lots at the Fountain of Youth. Take a dip and you are granted one year of your life back!

Scully was skeptical.

But we all loved what was going on in what looked like a small, abandoned quarry space. People had started setting up columns of stones into megalith shapes (someone even did a lintel!) - the kids joined in and left their mark, Iris with a circle (an objective, mathematical mark), and Oliver with a castle in its castle keep (enough said). What a beautiful day. Home for omelettes (prepared by Gretchen's expertise!) and then (what else?) a screening of Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. Maybe one day "strange women lying in ponds distributing swords" will seem like a good basis for government! :-)

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