Long ago, in the days of yore, when mankind was yet young and supple and had not yet firmly established his dominion over nature, in the days of old, when knights rescued princesses from dragons but could not save themselves from the plague,
There lived a beautiful princess in a great castle on a jut of land whose rocky cliffs were night and day assailed by the curling waves of an energetic northern sea. The castle walls were tall and thick and strong, and her father was as just as a petty warlord in an unsettled feudalism could be. That is to say, he didn’t exult in his little bit of power. He was faithful to his wife and took care of his children and was as fair and careful with the lives of his subjects as he thought he could be without endangering their collective safety, which felt always and was indeed always very tentative — touch and go — maybe and maybe not — here today, gone tomorrow — precarious.
A time like this requires real faith. Not in empty symbols and stories about God and man. But a faith in the Light within that alone Knows that and in what way it is True to say we are all in this together.
The princess’s name was _____, and she spent her days in prayer, study, and at needlework and learning how to manage household in expectation of the day when she would be married to a prince worthy of her hand and possessing lands and means worthy of her father’s alliance. She was dainty, shapely, tender little thing. The world seemed to her strange and impossible, but she let it in, let it pretend that it was real.
The politics of the time and place were rather coarse. The princess’s kingdom was on the smaller side, but fortunately quite distant from and — with rather rocky soil and a short growing season surrounded on either side by months and months of short days and cold skies — unattractive to the larger, richer, more powerful and fashionable kingdoms. The big fun of the era was feasting, holding tournaments with jousts and other violent contests, swearing oaths, drinking deep, stuff like that. Political alliances were formed by gifts, oaths, revelry, and, wherever possible, marriages. It was understood that a prince must dream of finding his princess and a princess must dream of finding her prince, and that both must remain true to that ideal until someone, some perfect combination of beauty health virtue and political connection would appear and curtsy prettily or bow courteously. Noble families generally aimed for one son with some kind of warrior political position and one son in the church. The remaining sons were free to pursue wealth as merchants or prestige and connections as lawyerly administrators or honor as knights. A lesser noble family might actually have to settle for a knighthood as their warrior political position. Daughters were married to warrior political figures, clergymen, and, better options lacking and the prospects looking pretty good enough, merchants or lawyerly administrators of noble birth. Things were always changing as they always are, but not so fast and crazy fast like nowadays. So people were able to settle into their roles pretty well, and as the generations wore on they tended to get their sitting britches on and the centuries rolled on.
Of course most people weren’t nobility — they were tradesmen, peasant farmers or common laborers, educated nobodies like scribes, merchants with no titles, or doctors who didn’t really know all that much, or healers who knew a little more, or — and this is not many people — entertainers: musicians, actors, poets, fools. This final category of profession/station either survived by wandering from town to town and pleasing commoners and nobility alike for a few tuppence — or, and this tripped up many an undisciplined minstrel — food and drink; or they thrived by getting themselves installed at one of the grander courts. While it is true that Beyonce & Jay-Z may have gone from poor to a billion dollars in the span of a few decades worth of singing and dancing, the entertainers of this time and place had no such prospects, and no princess in her right mind would spend so much as two seconds dreaming about one of them.
Our princess was gentle, sensible young woman. She dreamed of a prince, but with a certain ambivalence. A prince, a home, a marriage bed, a family, the satisfaction of one’s deepest longings for love, touch, and affection. That would all be heavenly. But how do you know who to dream for? Even a good, strong, wholesome man shaped in body heart and mind to match your stride — even such a man’s love was only as safe as his future. And in this life, life seemed to hang by a thread. How many aunts, uncles, cousins, and more had she already lost to disease, accident, violence? And, anyway, how does one know who one is really getting? How many giddy bridesmaids had she seen grow weary and frustrated by their lot as wife, companion, mother, helpmate? There are things people don’t say aloud, but still the lines around their eyes and mouths and the dash of broken light in their eyes: all this testifies loudly and plainly to any who would be quiet and listen.
The kingdom, being smallish and as we’ve said more secured by its inconvenient location and relative poverty of resources than anything else, had not the resources for a large court. But there was a man, not exactly a young man, but at the time of this telling still a youngish man, employed by the king as a sort of all-purpose courtier. A scribe by training, he made copies of important documents. But how many important documents can a kingdom like this have? And so he had time. Time to copy the Bible. But isn’t that really more for the monks? Time to help out with administration, but that was a delicate balance since the bulk of that activity had to be carried out by noblemen. Time to compose poems and set them to music. And so, among other duties, this young man, well perhaps not quite young, but a man and not old anyway, would play music and read poetry — his own and other more famous works — for the entertainment of the royal family and their guests.
What did he think about it all? He didn’t know what to think. He never had. It had all taken him by surprise and he’d never really adjusted. His arrival had coincided with the princesses’s ascension from a kind of naive girlish womanhood into a more self-possessed young womanhood. Or so he imagined to himself. The truth was he never spoke to her very much and always addressed her as her majesty, and with a bow and eyes that fled the moment after they entered hers — lest they might disclose what he could not contain. He’d always loved her. From that day when, still new at court, he’d been asked to explain to the princess how ballads function.
“Your father has communicated to me your wish to examine more closely the nature of common poetic forms, beginning with the ballad.”
“Yes. I enjoy listening to them, but I feel always as if I am missing something.”
“Well, poetry is something of a trick.”
“How do you mean?”
“It follows simple rules. There is no magic involved. And yet by playing upon the body’s natural inclination towards motion and rhythm, and towards passion bounded by order; well — poetry can cast a kind of spell over one.”
“Yes, it mesmerizes.”
“Exactly, but the form more than the content mesmerizes. If the content is also beautiful, then the spell is complete, for beauty also bewitches — because the experience of Beauty is awe at Truth paired with a longing for home and completion.”
“You know much, then, of truth and beauty?”
“Not as much as I’d wish.”
“An empty answer. Who could state the contrary?”
“Indeed. But let us pass on to the ballads. I mustn’t keep her highness from her more essential studies.”
“What could be more essential than Truth and Beauty?”
“Nothing, but neither Truth nor Beauty can be taught, nor even can the knowing of them be quantified. I aim only to explain to your majesty the structure of ballads.”
It was here that it began, but only as a muted confusion — a pinprick of uncertain origin.
But in time!
What is human life that a man can fall completely for a woman while she forms only a soft regard for him? What does it mean that he can stare all night at the darkened ceiling high overhead whispering desperately over and over again to the cold castle airs: “I love you, I love you, I love you” while she falls asleep easily, thinking nothing at all of the man whose soul she’s accidentally split apart?
The years passed. The princess grew more beautiful as she grew wiser and calmer — wider in the scope of her thought and more exacting as to her desires, duties, and abilities. The bachelor courtier had been almost a young man when she arrived but now was not a young man. He had treasured hopes of another sort of life in a larger kingdom, but he’d never been able to decide whether he was supposed to be a poet and accept whatever poverty and loneliness might grow along that quasi-mystical path, or if he was really better suited as an administrator, perhaps with an income that would allow him to marry and enjoy the happiness that comes of living fully as a man — of being a husband and a father. The years passed. He couldn’t anyway pull himself away from the princess and her little kingdom. Though he knew he was wading into the abyss. For someday and it must come soon, someday her prince must come and he must lose her forever instead of just always being without her touch, her answer to his needs, her acceptance of those recesses within the soul shared only husband to wife and wife to husband.
Indeed, suitors came. Men a little or quite little older than the princess. Men of noble birth with titles, treasures, lands. Men well-spoken and yet ready and able to thwack off an opponent’s head while leaning to one side of an armored charger. Men well-spoken, daring, sure of themselves. But some of them also thoughtful, reasonable, able tacticians and organizers of the state. Certain days the princess’s eyes would shine for one man. He seemed the chosen one. And the courtier felt himself dying, accepting the death of all his hopes, understanding that he’d been wrong to hope and always known himself wrong to hope. But then he thought, well, soon it will be over; she will leave and I finally feel the loss that I’ve always pretended wasn’t already mine; I will feel it straight through in the way I never could when she was near and unattached; and then, then I will see what is left of me; perhaps God will more easily guide the empty hull I am becoming than this hopeful fool I have been.” But then for reasons sometimes clear, sometimes guessable, sometimes simply unknown, the princess’s eyes would look impatiently past her dashing would-be lover. The courtier would breathe a sigh of relief, but also feel himself sink down a little deeper into what he now understood to be the defining sin of his life. For people, creatures, kingdoms, the world: everyone and everything needs attention and kindness, needs wisdom and gentle resolve. But all he ever thought about was holding the princess just beyond his reach, was marrying her, being good enough for her, giving her what she needed and accepting from her the love he needed.
One day, in between suitors, the courtier resolved to ask the king for a letter of recommendation to another kingdom where he might be a functionary in a richer king’s larger bureaucracy, hopefully something more than a scrivener and scribe — something more than a copier of other men’s words and a chronicler of other men’s dealings. And then, when he was leaving, he could turn to the princess and tell her that he loved her, and that he knows he cannot be a prince and thus not her husband, but still if she could know that he loves her, then he could accept this fate with equanimity. And that, he thought, that, why that would set him loose upon the world. Perhaps it would help him to move beyond this selfish love that so possessed him. Perhaps God would find space within him, space enough that God might guide his heart, mind, and hand to some deeper purpose than the mere sustenance of his body and the empty exercise of his mind.
Then what happened? I do not know. I can’t watch anything to the end. Every show — no matter how relaxed — is too stressful, awkward, painful to me. I can’t watch anything for very long before I have to escape into another show for another little while. So I don’t know what happened here.
When can a man and woman join together in holy matrimony?
What systems foster goodness?
What systems reward and grow goodness and punish and shrink evil?
Copyright: Andy (Watson)