Thursday 10 February 2022

Bredbeddle's Well - A Superb Epic Poem by Gary Bills - based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

 


BREDBEDDLE’S WELL



I.

White pillars, each one half-way to a star,

The vaults so high no echo might return

Except from angels, answering each prayer

With words among the sibilance of candles,

Where this is that - and that is something else;

(When angels fart, we say we hear their trumpets.)



It is a pious place - King Arthur’s court,

With quiet cloisters built of pearly quartz;

But arch by arch, past effigies on tombs,

In subtle light, like starshine off the frost,

Such solemn beauty saddens by reflection.

Here knights must pace to weigh their sovereign dread,

How honour is a unicorn on earth,

(Improbable, no matter where you seek it.)



II.

In chantries for the saints who died for love,

(Not love that cries in chambers after dark

But passion for the thumbscrew and the flame...)

To snuff one candle out brings winter’s chill.



The minstrel nobody hears is singing still…



The maiden under trees presents her lap.

Charmed by her virginity to kneel,

The unicorn is as docile as a cat.

He claims the place her suitor’s yet to feel.

 

Charmed by her virginity to kneel,

The unicorn presents his dubious horn.

He claims the place her suitor’s yet to feel;

Her tender flesh, protected by the thorn.

 

The unicorn presents his dubious horn;

The artist has a narwhal in his mind;

Her tender flesh, protected by the thorn

Which is the grace of Christ for humankind.

 

The artist has a narwhal in his mind,

The lance that points towards the northern skies;

It is the grace of Christ for humankind,

Or just a marvel, sold through faith and lies.

 

 

And still the kneeling priests, both night and day,

Recall cruel deaths while praying for the land,

While lords and ladies feel the epoch’s pulse,

Content that pomp may hide prophetic dread

When roofs are shining, tiled with burnished gold,

And flags are frantic dragons in the wind,

Red dragons on the North Wind and the East,

And this becomes a vision while we blink,

A momentary splendour on the hill;

But even now the castle is encircled.

The oaks about it will admit no light

In summer when the canopies conspire,

Except for sunrays splintering through leaves;

They bring an amber glance to seething moss,

Green mosses, scarlet mosses, one nail deep,

(Here millipedes and beetles joust and die)

And sometimes, while the wintry moons are fat,

The loam by knotted roots is silver-tinged,

Or pools of silver tremble and are gone.

Such glades are still denied the tread of Man

Except as sacred groves in troubled dreams;

The dreamer never turns and scarcely breathes

For fear of one who watches from the shade

And loathes the preening artifice he finds,

The artifice in Man, who hacks the woods,

The disregard of Man, who fouls the streams,

To make new worlds beyond kind Nature’s bounds;

And why should Man place grandeur on his plate

Or craft a plate at all, or drain the cup

To set himself above the snouting beasts?

Bredbeddle knows his larder is not mean;

(The Durham Grimoire’s puts this rather well…)



The beasts enjoy his offerings of Fall,

First blackberries, ripe with thorn-blood from the stems,

A child’s quick fingers draining to the crop

From pin-prick wounds, one bead and then another;

The sweetness of such pain when pain is sweet.

Then nodose apples, called the ogre’s jewels;

Misshapen hangings, swinging from the boughs

When autumn is applauding through its leaves;

All summer, leaves have waited for the drop

And one by one the guilty apples fall;

Each apple was the murderer of blossom.

He lets this harvest fester on the ground,

Unhallowed, unloved, except by mouthing slugs;

Then damsons blush with mould, a thin white gloss

Which is the yeast that Bredbeddle bestows

To froth his vats, for wine to toast his name

When Winter is a stranger at the hearth,

A white-haired pedlar sharing rambling tales

Beneath the rafter-wreaths of ivy tangles

Or glistening holly, severed from the moon;

Turn once, his alcove seat’s an empty place

As chimney snowflakes sizzle on the grate;

Then mind how you were kindly with his share,

For butchered meat must pass from hand to hand,

And hinds were gifts before the bow was drawn.


III.

At New Year’s Eve, the stranger at the door

Is two-faced Janus, who loiters at the porch

And blesses what has been and what will come;

He lights the hopeful future with a torch;

Another lights the past and all its griefs.



In Arthur’s court, the past was put away

With many toasts to praise the dawning year:

New bastions of conquest - talk of war,

To put the scowling Bretons in their place;

(It’s wise to show the Bretons what is what.)

 

Then Arthur raised his hand to start the feast,

Commanded that the talk should be of peace.



With timbrels, and the hurdy-gurdy’s throb,

Slim pages brought rare offerings to the table,

As I’ve heard told, a peacock in its feathers

But stuffed with meats to tempt the probing knife,

And swans that beat their wings above the pies

Because of cunning clockwork in their breasts,

And Bardon’s head, still horrid with his tusks,

Befitting for the God of forest boars;

Three pages bore his weight and set him down,

Still fearful of his snarl and reputation,

Their faces pale, they raised him to dais,

The centrepiece for merriment and jibes,

Surrounded by a scattering of acorns,

(The favoured treat of Bardon, while he lived.)


Now, as this was a feast day and was holy

(A mite more holy than the previous day)

And Arthur feared no enemy at his gate,

He ordered the portcullis to be raised,

The signal of the welcome he would proffer

To any passing Knight in Winter’s rage;

The Great Hall’s door was bolted out of need,

To keep out Winter’s snow - those angry bees,

With crystal wings and bodies, swirling down,

Which bring an Arctic sting to face and hands.

 

The King expected no guests on that day,

For who would ride through driven snow like that?

Outside, the winds were moaning from the moors,

Inside, the minstrel’s song and such delights

No other worldly kitchen could contrive;

Frozen honey crafted into ships

Which sailed on tides of marzipan and glaze,

And sprinkled sweetmeats: spice from Eastern lands

Which turned the mind to pleasure and no more;

And wine was poured – more wine in agate cups

(And after that, more wine, in agate cups)

Until the knights were dosing on their plates

And Arthur too, who snored beside his Queen;

And it was then the door was blasted in,

The oak bolt splintered; wood dust filled the air

While Janus, unperceived by mortal eye,

Was on his knees in drifts of blasting snow,

And both his faces frowned with shock or fear,

Both torches out, and smoking out of reach

Upon the mosaic floor where he had dropped them;

And with a shrug, old Janus disappeared,

To seek another door to bless the year;

(He barely dodged the chance of being trampled.)



Green hooves slamming smashed the tessellations,

A mosaic of the seasons, Spring to Winter,

Ruined, in fragments, where that stallion stamped;

Round and round it went, and on its back

The Green Man whirled and blew an emerald horn,

As if he called keen hounds to chase the deer.

His hair blew loose, as wild as willow fronds

When April gusts are ruffling the stream;

His skin was green, like lichens on the bough,

Like water weed, his beard was rippling green;

His nostrils flared, as if through rage or mirth;

His eyes shone bright as sunlight, but were green.

 

The knights who’d used their platters for their pillows,

Snoring through their fouled, beruffled beards -

They jolted out of sleep, they bellowed oaths

And each complained of ringing in the ears;

Their clearing eyes showed puzzlement or rage,

And still the Green Man blew his deafening horn.


Now knights were vaulting tables, six in all;

One grabbed the bridle made of twisted vine

And bearing verdant vine leaves out of season,

Another seized the Green Man by a leg

And tugged him from the saddle to the floor;

And though the stranger was immense in height,

With powers to match, no doubt, he did not fight

But took their blows and kicks, and stabbings too,

Until his leafy surcoat blushed with blood

And he was still and quiet at their feet.

(Too much horror gives the mind a shrug…)

 

One knight, Sir Bors, produced a hunting knife

And hacked the giant’s neck, from front to back,

Lifting the stranger’s head by his green hair,

To get the windpipe tight. There came a gurgle

And then the head was off and raised up high

To win a smile from Arthur, who approved

And praised Sir Bors for courage, and for prowess,

Before Sir Bors was punched across the room -

 

The headless man had clambered to his feet

To claim his head from Bors’ triumphant grip,

Shoulder-tapped, the knight had turned, indignant,

But with a nod he’d handed back the head,

Politely, with the courtesy required,

Only to take a blow that left him twitching.

 

From knight to trembling knight, along the tables

The Green Man stalked; he held his head before him

And fouled the mounds of food with blots of blood;

He held the head as men might bear their lamps

When lost in lanes, the dark time of the year,

Its eyes were wide, with green light streaming out,

And each knight looked away and felt ashamed,

For in that light their cowardice was clear.

At last, the Green Man stood before the King;

The severed head was mumbling – tried to speak,

Yet only babbling issued from its lips

Until half-words were formed, a limping sense,

As if a wounded mind had missed its step

Because of pain, and paused with every stumble,

That is, until a verbal gallop started,

Fence by mental fence, beyond confusion.

 

Great King - good King… I bless your wonky eye!

But I’m confused - I do not understand;

Is this how guests are treated at your court? –

I’m puzzled – I’m confused… Did I deserve this?

See, my head was severed at my throat,

If not by your command, you smiled to see it.

I only came to call you to my feast;

Bredbeddle - that’s my name - the wood is mine,

And every starting deer is in my gift

And every cobnut’s counted for my tally;

Wine I have, from elderberry vats

And honey from the forest bees, my vassals;

If sweetness is your taste, my gift is sweet.

 

But no – no, I curse you, - you are cruel,

As Bardon found, when cornered for your sport;

He lost his head, but see – I still have mine,

And by my head I tell you, all is lost,

For Camelot must fall and you must die,

Within one year, unless you work this change:

To send one man to find me at my feast

And share with me the larder of the forest,

And once a day has passed, both day and night,

He must return to tell of his adventure,

And no dishonest word shall pass his lips,

Only then, my curse shall lose its pith.

 

But who shall dare to seek me where I govern?

Rest easy, King, upon your sumptuous seat;

I know it won’t be you, - your brow is pale

And unweaned fears are trembling through your beard;

Its ginger wires reveal a timid soul

Because they quiver so; but calm your nerves!

Once I have gone, draw straws to find a brave one,

Unless there is no courage at your court.”



The hall fell silent and all eyes were on Arthur;

But like a bullied child whose nose is tweaked

By someone three years older, Arthur sat,

A dummy on his throne – he spoke not a word

And gave no signs of anger or resentment.

 

Bredbeddle shrugged. He turned and marched away

And as a man puts on his hat or helm,

Without a pause, he plonked his head back on,

A seamless join, as flesh embraced the flesh,

Like water joining water over sand;

And still the court was quiet while he muttered,

And some knights held their breath, while others prayed;

They prayed on, while he mounted to the saddle,

They prayed for angels while he shook his fist.

Those who shut their eyes still heard those hooves,

The metal churning marble into shards,

A grinding anger, a bellow of contempt,

Then galloping hooves - praise Heaven for that sound!

Hooves over cobbles, the clatter dulled by snow,

Hooves that smashed the inch-deep ice on puddles,

Hooves they would recall, though he had gone,

When uproar matched the shame that they all felt -

Until they beat the tables in their valour,

And swearing swore their court would be avenged

Tomorrow – tomorrow, when someone would be chosen,

Someone who would ride out into Winter.

 

IV.

Sir Gawain was suited for the quest

Because he burned for glory and was young;

Scarcely out of squiredom, he was keen,

They gave him that. He dreamed of hopeless causes

And aimed to die inside a dragon’s jaws

Or battling half an empire by himself.

As yet, he’d seen no wars, no dragons either;

His keenness did not match his martial skills,

They all knew that. In raids, they would not miss him;

The other knights were glad to see him go,

This boy-knight with a slender, girlish waist,

Who could not cut a bar through with one blow,

Who loved his horse too much – he’d kiss her nose

To say ‘Sweet Dreams’ –

(He never missed one evening.)

Through snows on perky Gringolet he rode,

His palfrey steed since boyhood, strong and true

But stumbling in the drifts and Winter’s chill.

 

The minstrel nobody hears is singing still –

 

Where is silence? ‘Here,’ says the frost,

 

Glazing white the hands of withered trees;

Linger in my stillness and be lost,

Listen, where you cannot hear the breeze.’

 

Glazing white the hands of withered trees

Beside a moor where life has never stirred…

Listen, where you cannot hear the breeze,

Listen, where you cannot hear a bird.’

 

Beside a moor where life has never stirred,

A moor of snow that looks you in the eye…

Listen, where you cannot hear a bird,

I bring the silence from an empty sky.’

 

A moor of snow that looks you in the eye

And makes you listen, robbing you of speech…

I bring the silence from an empty sky,

And nothing is beyond my settling reach.’


Bad weather might have done for young Gawain,

Except he saw the light as evening fell –

A fire, no doubt, a glow from someone’s hearth;

A horde of peasants keeping warm with twigs?

(They also might have done for young Gawain,

For Arthur’s bounty did not stretch to them;

The peasants loathed the King and loathed his knights

Who ate humongous pies, while they all starved;

The nobles stole the pigs the peasants reared,

Their children too, when servants were required.)

But wait, this was no glow from any hovel,

It flickered from a forest on a ridge

Where snow-bound moorland rose by manly trees.

Gawain was wary, but glimpsed his only chance

And spoke soft words to wheezing Gringolet.

She rallied for another stumbling mile;

That plucky horse plunged on, in clouds of breath.

 

Beneath the holm oaks, green in any season,

Winter held its breath. No snow had fallen;

Their canopy, a roof for perfect shelter.

Gawain could hear the quiet round his thoughts,

Was this the place already? Was he here?

Over leaf-fall, knight and horse together;

Nervous, even fearful, in the gloom;

Though Gringolet was careful with her hooves,

Her every step went crackling over frost.

Where was that light – the fire – in so much dark?

They could not see it now. Were they deceived,

To see a fire that promised warmth and life?

That hope had gone. What folly it had been…

Gawain had vowed find the Green Man’s lair

And kill him on the spot, and bring his head,

Just how, he could not tell, - an edgeless boast!

(How do you slay a man who cannot die?)

And yet, in riding out, he’d pleased the court

Because it was a quest with whiffs of honour,

And quests may last ‘forever and a day’,

And if Gawain were never to return,

The King could still pretend his quest endured,

(And honour would be satisfied by that.)

 

Still deeper into dark… a nervous horse,

A trembling, beardless youth upon her back.

Gawain had raised his visor to see more,

But nightfall gathered round with many dreads;

It was as close to blindness he had been,

Between great trees he could no longer glimpse,

And so he sang – to Gringolet he sang,

Of castles in the mountains, far away,

Where men have fire and company and food

And horses dine on mash, or roll in hay,

And never a nightmare comes to trouble sleep…

They shared their living nightmares, horse and boy,

In that deep forest, - the silence was the worst,

Until they heard that drum, a steady drum,

And horse and boy both trembled while they listened,

For oh! – it was a melancholy throb,

As if the skin had left a beggar’s back,

It was so slack, and weary of itself;

Gawain was weary too and thought of death,

Because that was the message of the drum;

It called him on, to lose himself in darkness,

And lost he would have been, but for that glow,

The glow they’d seen before - rekindled, fierce:

A bonfire in a glade! - and by that blaze

The Green Man sat, and played his drum with bones.


V.

Gawain by now was close enough to hear

The crackling of the logs, the hiss of ash,

The mutterings of the Green Man while he played

With someone’s yellowing thigh bone, old and dry.

Then Sir Gawain dismounted in the glade;

He kissed his horse, three times, upon her nose,

Then tethered her by fire-glow to an oak,

(And whispered of an apple in his bag.)

 

Welcome,” said the Green Man to the horse.

Welcome,” said the Green Man to the knight,

And are you are here to cleave me with your sword?

Or have you brought an axe to lop this head,

Or will you place steel gauntlets at my throat

And squeeze me like a snare around a rabbit,

Until my breath is spent and I am still?

No matter, let me teach you, with my spite.”

Afterwards, Sir Gawain could not recall

How long he was suspended by his throat;

His boyish legs kicked panic through the air;

He clattered in his armour – losing plates -

(A kitchen-cupboard din when pots come down,

A clanging metal symphony of shame;

He was a hapless, shaken thing that day.)


Gringolet neighed long and loud for help,

To no avail, - as limp as any mouse,

When joggled by a cat, Gawain was spent,

His armour dropping off him, piece by piece,

His quinty-joints and yes, his pauldrons too,

His counter-cups; one cuisse, and the other;

Quite unbuckled, sagging and defeated,

Gawain was in a dream where he was bold;

(Gringolet turned and shuddered, shocked and cold.)


Gawain awoke to find a turning world;

Upon his knees, he rode a spinning glade

And guessed he had been sick inside his helmet,

And down his front… then he was sick again,

While something heavy smacked his flinching back

And made him puke one more - “Enough!” he cried,

And Bredbeddle ceased his weighty, well-meant pats.


At last the world stopped spinning for the knight,

Who saw how bits of armour lay around

And he was only wearing half his suit.

The Bredbeddle spoke – a thoughtful, growling voice…

 

That stuff’s all mine – I won it in our fight,

A fight in which you failed to draw your sword;

I beat you fair and square – I shook you silly!

You’ve not much armour left, and if you like

I’ll have that too, and make a little friend;

I’ll set it in that corner, on a log,

Just so, and when I’m lonely, it shall speak,

Or else, I shall imagine that it speaks;

I’ll pay you with my kindness, and your life,

A life that’s mine to take, – but where’s the sport?

Still, now I must decide what happens next;

I’d like to let you go – but can I trust you?”

 

Gawain nodded meekly at those words;

He tugged the tacky helmet from his hair

And stood to view the glade and his strange host –

What kind of freak was this? – a giant in height,

With that green face – stained green with summer’s juice,

The emerald conflagration of his eyes…

The young knight felt their potency and heat,

Remembered how they’d flickered through his mind

When that green beard was inches from his chin,

When those green lips were inches from his mouth,

Bellowing fen and mildew in his face,

Straight through his gaping visor - foam and spit,

The giant’s tepid breath and scalding insults!

 

Now Bredbeddle was calm – still as a statue,

Amber-flickered in that bonfire’s glow,

His leaves and tangles crossed by dancing shadows

Until he’d almost lost the shape of Man;

Except for those green eyes, which did not change,

He was a leafy, barky, tendrilled thing,

Almost tree, and half-way to a god.

 

He smiled and gestured to the glade, his court.

This chilly night, we’ll dine on forest fare;

At my behest, four spirits shall attend

And light four tables, each for your delight;

Wood-smoked boar with pickles – Winter’s gift,

And Autumn’s board, which barely takes the groan,

And elderberry wines, in grails of treen;

But first I’ll take the armour you still wear,

As I have half already, grant the rest

For that shall pay your fee – to eat and drink!

But one more thing – two things I ask of you,

You see my humble well of moorland stone?

(It guards a corner where great roots invade.)

Once you have dined, gaze long into that well,

Then, once you stand again in Arthur’s Court,

Say what you beheld, and tell it all.

Perhaps Mankind will turn once more to me,

Because, if Man’s to thrive, his pride must fall.

If Man’s to live, then Camelot must fall!”


Who can half relate the marvels seen?

Which bard has tongue to tell? Who has the skill?

Suffice to say, four tables did appear

And these, indeed, were served by bobbing lights,

Crystal white for Winter, green for Spring,

Red for Summer’s fire; for Autumn, gold;

And when one touched a table, meat and drink

(In keeping with its season) flowed abundant.

Too soon, too quickly, Sir Gawain was drunk;

He staggered to the well to bring it up

And paid scant heed to visions he beheld,

Between his coughs and splutters, moans and heaves;

The sense, the shapes, were tricky to discern,

(Among the rafts of spew and drifting leaves.)

But after, while he trotted from the glade

He did recall huge mushrooms built of flame,

With lightning in their stalks, and boiling clouds;

And there were iron columns in a desert,

All capped with fire to scorch the rippling sky;

And there were tides of tar and gaping fish,

And seabirds, slick with ooze, which could not fly;

And he remembered cities swamped by floods,

Where not one steeple inched above the waves;

All this he saw, but did not comprehend,

For when he left the well, he’d sought his bed,

A nook of leaves and down beneath a bough;

He let a lustful sprite approach instead…

A straddling nymph, bare-faced except for shame,

She blushed – she blushed, but rode him to excess,

Exhausting both, though neither thought to stop,

For Sir Gawain was pleased to be her saddle,

And by her cries, he guessed she loved to gallop;

But by and by he fell into fatigue

And might have slept, but novel chance arose,

A naked, straddling boy was in her place,

A youth who pouted where he might have smiled;

But Sir Gawain was charmed by such a change

And stirred again - he set fatigue aside.

If passion is a phoenix, sleep’s a wren

And only one has powers to revive

The jaded, flagging emblem of desire.

(Old Mother Wren may chide us how she will,

The phoenix burns and dying still must rise.)


VI.

When Sir Gawain awoke at last, alone,

He missed his straddling nymph and winsome boy.

There was no sign of Bredbeddle at all,

No laden tables, - not even that charmed well,

All gone, all gone – as fancies flee or fade…

But Gringolet remained – she neighed with joy

And chomped her way through hay and golden pears –

His final gift? – not quite - there was a banner;

Its cloths were autumn leaves and summer’s leaves

Which creepers held together with rare craft.

Spread out – displayed, it shimmered on the ground,

And by it was a cloak of ferns and bark,

Uncouth but warm, to keep out Winter’s spite.

Gawain had searched and searched to find his armour;

Recalling it had gone, he shrugged and sighed.

He paused awhile (in gambeson and breeks)

And saw his breath, and thought how he might freeze.

No doubt, that rustic cloak was meant for him,

The banner too, of course – (at Arthur’s court

They’d take him for a Wodwo from the North!)

No matter, yes, no matter - he’d surprise them,

With tales of how the Green Man was defeated…



But mighty boasts require outrageous proof –

A wound, a head - a body part or two;

(And Sir Gawain had none of these, he knew.)


The ballads say, he sought another quest,

Forsaking any thought of his return;

He rode due West – due West to find the sea,

Where Spring breathes early on the troubled shore

And troubled minds may feel the warmth of change.

VII.

New Year arrives at Arthur’s court once more,

And two-faced Janus guards the door, unseen.

Now cups are raised to praise the brave Gawain

Who still has not returned (and never will)

But Arthur speaks of hope, and that’s the toast,

Before he speaks of war in foreign lands.



The Bretons need a lesson, come the spring;

The fleet will sail - the fleet will sail again

With soldiers who must burn and rape and kill.


The minstrel nobody hears is singing still…

 

Where summer stood, a king is lying dead;

Let evening’s shadows swathe him where he lies –

It’s over now, there’s nothing to be said,

Let’s hide the staring country of his eyes.

 

Let evening’s shadows swathe him where he lies

And in the breathing sadness of cold air

Let’s hide the staring country of his eyes

Or place a crown of leaves upon his hair.

 

And in the breathing sadness of cold air,

To spite the hopping raven and the rat,

Let’s place a crown of leaves upon his hair,

For all he was, - at least we owe him that?

 

To spite the hopping raven and the rat

Let evening’s shadows swathe him where he lies,

For all he was – at least we owe his that?

Let’s hide the staring country of his eyes.




Bredbeddle's Well...

Is an experimental poem, based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a postmodernist parody and satire on one level, with a contemporary message or two.

Gary Bills was born at Wordsley, near Stourbridge. He took his first degree at Durham University, where he studied English Language and Medieval Literature, and he has subsequently worked as a journalist. He is currently the fiction editor for Poetry on the Lake, and he is enjoying studying for his MA, at BCU. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, Magma, HQ and Acumen, and he has had three full collections published, – “The Echo and the Breath” (Peterloo Poets, 2001); “The Ridiculous Nests of the Heart” (bluechrome, 2003); and “Laws for Honey” (erbacce 2020). In 2005, he edited “The Review of Contemporary Poetry” for bluechrome. Gary has given professional readings at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, Poetry on the Lake in Italy, and at the Poetry Trend Munich Festival in 2010. His work has been translated in to German, Romanian and Italian. A US-based indie publisher, The Little French, published his first novel, “A Letter for Alice” in 2019, and a collection of stories, “Bizarre Fables”, in 2021. These were illustrated by his wife, Heather E. Geddes.

 

 

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