When I was growing up North of Boston, I spent as little time as possible indoors. I climbed every tree I could find. My friends and I spent a lot of time in trees – something Freud, or maybe Darwin, might read into.
There was a huge elm on our block. When I was ten, I loved to climb high into it above the traffic of the street, find my favorite perch, and read for hours. Every now and then my mother would wail out a window, “IF YOU FALL OUT OF THAT TREE AND BREAK YOUR LEG, DON’T COME RUNNING TO ME!!”
As a ten-year-old, I envisioned myself a consumer of only the finest literature, much of which I read in trees. My favorite was a series of paperbacks about a quasi-superhero, “Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze,” and his team of dedicated crime fighters. I traveled all over the world with Doc and his crew. I was part of the team, and could always foresee the danger lurking ahead.
In 1963, new Doc Savage paperbacks sold for 35 cents, but a local drug store. would give a 10-cent discount if we had an older one to trade. In the fifth grade, I wrote a book review about Doc Savage. I thought it was a masterpiece of western literature, rivaled only by the book itself.
The Doc Savage installments came out about once a month. I could buy two used paperbacks for the price of a new one so I was always a month behind. I read dozens of them. They were mesmerizing when I was ten.
To this day, I remember all the characters: Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, and his team of crime fighters: Johnny, Ham, Monk, Long Tom, and Renny. Each installment was declared the finest novel I ever read. All my friends read them, and we formed a local Doc Savage fan club. Each dime store paperback passed through seven sets of hands. There was, admittedly, a certain “geek-factor” in it all.
Forty-six years later, in the prison library where I work, I opened a box of books donated by a local town library. Just inside, two circa-1960 paperback Doc Savage adventures were staring back at me, the familiar muscle-bound Man of Bronze posing triumphantly on the covers.
My heart beat a little faster as I removed them from the box and hunted for others. Alas, there were only two: Adventure no. 12 and 36. It was a Friday, so I borrowed them for the weekend.
I retreated that night to a corner of my steel bunk to reunite with Doc Savage after 46 years. I got three quarters of the way through the first book, and had to stop. It was just awful! It was sheer literary torture! I actually recalled the plot as I got into the book. I knew I had read it before, but I guess I grew up and Doc didn’t. I was embarrassed to admit that I once lived for each installment.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING
Back in the Library, the same box had a copy of T.H. White’s British classic, The Once and Future King, the famed novel about the Arthurian legend. Written in 1939, and reissued in 1958, it was based on the medieval Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory in the 16th century.
I was 16, and a senior in high school in 1969 when The Once and Future King was required reading for a literature class. It’s the classic story of the Sword in the Stone, Camelot (the famed Broadway play was based on the book), the Knights of the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail.
By the time I was half way through it at age 16, I forgot I was forced to read it and obligated to resent it. In fact, I read through its 631 pages in a weekend – some of it, even at 16, in my tree.
Forty years later, with The Once and Future King in hand, I found that I could still name from memory each of the central characters: Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad, Morgan LeFay, Mordred, the brothers, Sirs Gwain, Agravaine, Gareth and Geheris, and many others. With a nostalgic sigh, I put the book aside. Doc Savage had tainted the well.
A few days later, some prisoners talked me into watching a movie: “The X-Men”, based on a Marvel Comic that I read as a kid. It was …well… like the comic book. At the beginning of the film, (I think it was “X-Men II,” actually), the evil Magneto was being held in a prison cell after his capture in the previous installment. He had a way with metal so his prison cell was all plastic. As the scene opened, Magneto was sitting on a plastic chair in his cell reading you guessed it! – The Once and Future King.
I took it as a sign. The book in the box in the library was tattered and torn so it needed some repair. I rebuilt the cover, and by that Friday, the T.H. White classic was ready. I took it back to my cell – mine is concrete and steel, not plastic – ready to abandon it after fifty pages or so.
I must have changed a lot between ten and sixteen. If you read my post, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” everything changed in those years from 1963 to 1970. I just finished The Once and Future King for the second time – with forty years between them – and it’s a terrific book.
It resonates with something in me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on as a city teenager in 1969. I think, today, that I’ve unmasked its lure. When I read the book the first time around in 1969, the liturgical and other reforms of the Second Vatican Council were filtering down into local parish life.
It was just then, in the midst of that turmoil, that I began to take seriously a Catholic heritage previously given just Christmas and Easter acknowledgment. So many of the symbols and hallmarks of that heritage have been set aside in Catholic culture. I don’t think we’re better off for the experiment.
THERE HE GOES AGAIN!
If you have read this far, be forewarned. This is where I start to meander down a winding path of history as I’m sometimes inclined to do. Despite my best effort to be brief, I can’t help myself. History is a lure, and the hook is set.
The Once and Future King is set in a time when the Church and the agrarian society of our roots lived in rhythmic harmony. The Church’s liturgical year is itself a character of the story as all life revolved around its ebb and flow. Our technology has distanced us from all of that, from the sacredness of the seasons, from man’s relationship with the Earth, from the spirituality of sowing and reaping. All our festivals, holy days, and celebrations are linked to the life of the Earth. The liturgical year marks its signposts.
King Arthur is traditionally thought to have been a fifth or sixth century Romano-British regional chieftain who fought against invading Anglo-Saxons. The legends of the Round Table date back to the literature of the twelfth century. The location of Camelot is disputed to have been in one of four places in England or Wales. In the end, with shades of classic Shakespeare, Arthur and his illegitimate son, Mordred, were killed in final battle, pierced by each other’s swords.
In the 12th century, the French poet Chretien de Troyes wrote of Sir Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail commissioned by Arthur of Camelot. In Celtic legend, the Holy Grail was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimethea who collected into it the blood of Christ upon His removal from the Cross. Much of The Once and Future King takes us on that holy quest, and all that is good is bent toward that effort.
It’s impossible to tell fact from fiction in the Arthurian stories and legends. As historical fiction, The Once and Future King’s great value is its descriptions of how much day to day life was tied to the liturgical calendar which in turn was tied to cycles of nature. The changing of a season was a big deal in the life of the Church and in the life of mankind. The Arthurian age – the Age of Chivalry – was centuries before the Reformation, before dissent, before the dawn of individualism tore errant limbs from Christendom.
A little research uncovered some fascinating history that T.H. White’s characters all seemed to know and take for granted. A major event in the book takes place at Candlemas, the Mass of Candles celebrated 40 days after Christmas on the 2nd of February.
Today, we call this The Presentation of the Lord recalling Mary bringing Jesus to Simeon in the Gospel of Luke (2: 22-35). It was the fulfillment of a tenet set down in the Book of Leviticus (12: 2-5). Forty days after bearing a male child, a Jewish woman had to present herself in the temple for a rite of purification. Thus, Candlemas, once also called the Feast of the Purification, was set forty days after Christmas. It may even have been the other way around.
In the time before Christ in ancient Rome, February marked the Roman feast of Lupercalia. It was a pagan fertility festival celebrated in honor of Lupercus, the mythological Roman god of flocks and shepherds. The legend began with the mythical founders of Rome, the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus.
Abandoned at birth, and left – with shades of the story of Moses – to float in a basket down the Tiber River, Romulus and Remus were nurtured and raised by a wolf. The Latin word for wolf is “lupus.” Thus the Lupercalia was a ritual celebration of the coming spring emphasizing the need to guard flocks from hungry wolves as winter slowly turns toward spring.
The Lupercalia celebration began with a parade of torches. Then two boys, representing Romulus and Remus, would be smeared with the blood of a goat and chase people through the village with a sheath of the sacrificial goat’s skin. The ritual was seen as a purification of the flocks, the fields, and the village itself. The goat skin was called a “februa,” from the Latin word for purification. The month of February took its name from that word.
The torch festival that marked Lupercalia was absorbed, along with some of its symbols, into the Christian liturgical celebration of Candlemas when candles for the year’s Masses are blessed. Both the Roman and Jewish festivals of ritual purification are linked to Candlemas.
The day after Candlemas, February 3rd, the Feast of Saint Blaise also draws from Candlemas as throats are blessed with the candles that were blessed the day before. According to the tradition, St. Blaise, in the late third century, saved the life of a child choking on a fish bone.
Even the American celebration of Groundhog Day – which shares February 2nd with Candlemas/Purification/Presentation – is linked to these same traditions. A part of the Lupercalia ritual of preparing the flecks and fields for Spring also marked the emergence of hibernating animals from winter sleep.
The Old World equivalent of Groundhog Day was symbolized by a bear in Germany and a badger in Britain. In America, these were replaced with Punxsutawney Phil by the German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. An old Scottish verse links the Groundhog Day tradition to the Feast of Candlemas:
“If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
The half o’winter’s come and mair;
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
The half o’winter was gone at youl.”
In 494 AD, Pope Gelasius I set the date of the Feast of the Purification of Mary – later, Candlemas, and now the Presentation – at the same time as the Roman Lupercalia to absorb that popular celebration into Christianity with Christian instead of mythological meaning.
So, welcome to February! May our hearts and souls begin to thaw with the Earth and prepare us for our own ritual purification during Lent.
“And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this
child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that
is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.’ ”
Luke 2: 33-35