The Book of Merlyn

When they had reached the top, he sat down puffing, and the old man sat beside him to admire the view.

It was England that came out slowly, as the late moon rose: his royal realm of Gramarye. Stretched at his feet, she spread herself away into the remotest north, leading towards the imagined Hebrides. She was his homely land. The mood made her trees more important for their shadows than for themselves, picked out the silent rivers in quicksilver, smoothed the toy pasture fields, laid a soft haze on everything. But he felt that he would have known the country, even without the light. He knew that there must be the Severn, there the Downs and there the Peak: all invisible to him, but inherent in his home. In this field a white horse must be grazing, in that some washing must be hanging on a hedge. It had a necessity to be itself.

He suddenly felt the intense sad loveliness of being as being, apart from right or wrong: that, indeed, the mere fact of being was the ultimate right. He began to love the land under him with a fierce longing, not because it was good or bad, but because it was: because of the shadows of the corn shooks on a golden evening; because the sheep’s tails would rattle when they ran, and the lambs, sucking, would revolve their tails in little eddies; because the clouds in daylight would surge it into light and shade; because the squadrons of green and golden plover, worming in pasture fields, would advance in short, unanimous charges, head to wind; because the spinsterish herons, who keep their hair up with fish bones according to David Garett, would fall down in a faint if a boy could stalk them and shout before he was seen; because the smoke from homesteads was a blue beard straying into heaven; because the stars were brighter in puddles than in the sky; because there were puddles, and leaky gutters, and dung hills with poppies on them; because the salmon in the rivers suddenly leaped and fell; because the chestnut buds, in the balmy wind of spring, would jump out fo their twigs like jacks-in-boxes, or like little specters holding up green hand sot scare him; because jackdaws, building, would hang in the air with branches in their mouths, more beautiful than any ark-returning dove because, in the moonlight there below, God’s greatest blessing to the world was stretched, the silver gift of sleep.

He found that he loved it–more than Guenever, more than Lancelot, more than Lyó-lyok. It was his mother and his daughter. He knew the speech of its people, would have felt it change beneath him, if he could have shot across it like the goose which once he was, from Zumerzet to Och-aye. He could tell how the common people would feel about things, about all sorts of things, before he asked them. He was their king.

And they were his people, his on responsibility of stultus or ferox, a responsibility like that old goose-admiral’s upon the farm. They were not ferocious now, because they were asleep.

England was at the old man’s feet, like a sleeping man-child. When it was awake it would stump about, grabbing things and breaking them, killing butterflies, pulling the cat’s tail, and nourishing its ego with amoral and relentless mastery. But in sleep its masculine force was abdicated. The man-child sprawled undefended now, vulnerable, a baby trusting the world to let it sleep in peace.

All the beauty of his humans came upon him, instead of their horribleness. He saw the vast army of martyrs who were his witnesses; young men who had gone out even in the first joy of marriage, to be killed on dirty battle-fields like Bede-graine for other men’s beliefs: but who had gone out voluntarily: who had gone because they thought it was right: but who had gone although they hated it. They had been ignorant young men perhaps, and the things which they had died for had been useless. But their ignorance had been innocent. They had done something horribly difficult in their ignorant innocence, which was not for themselves.

He saw suddenly all the people who had accepted sacrifice: learned men who had staved for truth, poets who had refused to compound in order to achieve success, parents who had swallowed their own love in order to let their children live, doctors and holy men who had died to help, millions of crusaders, generally stupid , who had been butchered for their stupidity–but they had meant well.

That was it, to mean well! H caught a glimpse of that extraordinary faculty in man, that strange, altruistic, rare and obstinate decency which will make writers or scientists maintain their truths at the risk of death. Eppur si muove, Galileo was to say; it moves all the same. They were to be in a position to burn him if he would go on with it, with his preposterous nonsense about the earth moving round the sun, but he was to continue with the sublime assertion because thew was something which he valued more than himself. The Truth. To recognize and to acknowledge What Is. That was the thing which man could do, which his English could do, his beloved, his sleeping, his now defenseless English. They might be stupid, ferocious, unpolitical, almost hopeless. But here and there, oh so seldom, os so rare, oh so glorious, there were those all the same who would face the rack, the executioner, and even utter extinction, in the cause of something greater than themselves. Truth, that strange thing, the jest of Pilate’s. Many stupid young men had thought they were dying for it, and many would continue to die for it, perhaps for a thousand years. They did not have to be right about their truth, as Galileo was to be. It was enough that they, the few and martyred, should establish a greatness, a thing above the sum of all they ignorantly had.

But then again there came the wave of sorrow over him, the thought of the man-child when he woke: the thought of that cruel and brutish majority, to whom the martyrs were such rare exceptions. It moves, that for all that. How few and pitifully few the ones who would be ready to maintain it!

The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White – Chapter 18