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     –Beauty—a living Presence of the earth,

            Surpassing the most ideal Forms

     Which craft of delicate Spirits hath composed

            From earth’s minerals—waits upon my steps … 

                        (Wordsworth, “Prospectus to The Recluse”)



“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Among other things, this well-worn proverb proves the point that truth does not necessarily reside in the popularity or frequency of a saying.  The old saw is only partially correct.

It’s most appropriate, perhaps – and most helpful – as applied to the shifting standards of personal beauty.  In that arena it would indeed be both fair and accurate to say that Fashion – elitist caprice turned cultural mandate – rules the day.  Case in point:  taken as a body (no pun intended), the work of the painter Renoir strongly suggests that he and his 19th-century contemporaries had a marked penchant for rather large and fleshy women.  We, on the other hand, still haven’t quite got over Twiggy.

Simone Weil – no Cover Girl herself – was thinking of something altogether different when she wrote, “[Beauty is] the only finality here below … Only beauty is not the means to anything else.”[i]  This is a remarkable claim.  It assumes that Beauty is anything but capricious and subjective; that it is, on the contrary, a solid, self-validating, transcendent Reality – an end in itself.

Even the casual reader recognizes at once that Weil’s statement has nothing to do with the world of the runway or Vogue magazine.  Ultimately, it is an assertion of the Absolute.  There is such a thing as the Beautiful, Weil insists, just as there is such a thing as the Good, the True, and the Holy.  And the pursuit of the Beautiful – ars gratia artis – is one of those rarest of human activities, exceedingly few in number:  an experience that has real potential to raise us above ourselves.  Like the desire for Truth, the quest for the Good, and the selfless service of uncalculating Love, it has no place in and cannot be co-opted by the systems of the kosmos.  These are matters of supreme importance to the Pilgrim.

Edward John Carnell once observed that it is not a matter of mere personal taste to declare a winter sunset more beautiful than a crushed cigar box.  We all know that he was right.  In the sunset glows an unmistakable Something – ineffable, unnamable – that calls to us from beyond the walls of the world.  And in the heart of anyone fortunate – or unfortunate – enough to encounter it, that Something wakes an exquisite and painful longing.  A longing for the Infinite.

Precisely because the Infinite is in fact an Eternal Person, this Beauty finds its most compelling expression in living personalities.  It’s here that Beauty points most urgently beyond itself; for as Weil goes on to say, “The longing to love the beauty of the world in a human being is essentially the longing for the Incarnation.”[ii]

The poet Dante knew all about this.  Seeing Beatrice, a vision in red, Dante caught his breath and said, “Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me.”[iii]  And so she did.

It would be nice if we could say that they lived happily ever after.  Unfortunately, from that point forward the poet found himself obliged to travel a long, tortuous, and consistently disappointing road.  As for Beatrice, she married another man and died young.

But that’s not the whole story.  For in the end, it was his unflagging devotion to the domineering deity of Beauty, incarnate in the Florentine girl, that led this Pilgrim’s footsteps to heaven.

* * * * * * * * * *

[i] “The Love of God and Affliction.”

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] La Vita Nuova, Chapter II.

The Sword of Paracelsus: A Knock at the Door, Part 3

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Scratching her head, Eny returned to her seat on the bed and resumed her writing:


                   He utters raw and raucous notes;

                   He lifts his glossy, glinting pinions …



Eny was on her feet at once.  “That wasn’t the wind!” she said to herself.  “The wind doesn’t say pssst!

But when she made a second investigation—creeping to the window on all fours so as to be as small and inconspicuous as possible—the street was silent and empty.  She thought about closing the sash, but it was too hot.  Besides, if her new theory were correct—if the Other World really could break through in a place like Hollywood—then there was really no reason to be scared.  Her curiosity was roused, and she wanted to see what might happen next.  She went back to the bed and took up her poem for the third time.

He dives into the sun,” she wrote.

Hssst!  Young miss!”

This time she didn’t jump or start.  Neither did she look towards the window.  She perked up her ears and listened.

“Come out!

Someone was calling her.  It was almost as if she were expecting it.  Lifting her head from the page, she put the pencil aside and got to her feet.

Come out!  There was something about that voice, something in its tone… as if it had the power to cast a sort of spell over her.  She was not afraid.  On the contrary, rarely had she felt so calm and collected.  Slipping the notebook back into her pack, she picked up her fiddle and walked slowly to the living room.

At the front door she paused.  Come out the voice had said.  It seemed crazy, but Eny felt inclined to obey.  Slowly she reached for the door-knob.  She undid the latch.  And as she stood there, ready to fling open the door, there came a gentle knock.

She had not forgotten what her mother had told her.  She remembered that this was Hollywood.  She knew that the streets weren’t safe, that people couldn’t be trusted, that crimes of all kinds were common in this neighborhood.  “And yet,” she said to herself, “Mom never said, ‘Don’t go out.’  She just said, ‘Don’t let anybody in.’”

Tap, tap.  The knocking again.  Someone was rapping, lightly but persistently, at the other side of the door.  There was nothing harsh or threatening in that knock.  It was a friendly knock.  It was patient and kind.

What if this were Santa Piedra? she thought.  What would I do then?

Already she knew the answer.  Tucking her violin under one arm, she opened the door and stepped out into the night.

Nobody was there.  Strange, thought Eny, squinting into the darkness.  She looked to the left.  Nothing but dusky oleanders.  She looked to the right.  The lights of the apartment building next door winked at her through the leaves of an elm.  Some bits of paper stirred on the sidewalk in the sultry breeze.  A dog barked in the distance.  A moth fluttered around the porch light.

And then, without warning, she was falling.  Someone grabbed her and pinned her arms behind her back.  A hand clapped over her mouth.  Another seized her fiddle.  She gasped and tried to scream.  She twisted and kicked and struggled to wrench herself free.

At last she slipped down into an engulfing blackness and knew no more.

* * * * * * * *

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The Sword of Paracelsus: A Knock at the Door, Part 2

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Hurrying to the fiddle in the corner, Eny picked up the case, laid it on the floor, and unlatched the brass clasps.  Gently raising the lid, she lifted the glossy instrument from its velvet bed and cradled it in her left arm.  Then she tightened the bow, rosined the horsehair, and attached the chin rest.  When all was ready, she raised the fiddle to her shoulder and stepped over to the window.

Heaving a deep sigh, she stood there for a moment gazing out into the sweltering night.  It was like coming home.  It was like falling helpless and happy into the arms of a long lost friend.  It was like waking up and drinking long draughts of sweet air after a nightmare of suffocation and drowning.  She smiled.  She raised her right elbow and drew the bow across the strings.

At first she played softly and tentatively.  Feeling her way from tune to tune, she scraped out all her old favorites:  “Out on the Ocean,” “The Flowing Tide,” and “Round the House;” “The Lark in the Clear Air,” “Rakish Paddy,” and “The Dawning of the Day.”

The longer she played, the bolder she grew.  Confidence and joy rose up and intertwined, possessing her body and soul.  Like a bubbling, flowing fountain the music gurgled upward, ascending from her belly to the top of her head.  Gradually her unpracticed fingers remembered their old skill and she launched into a rousing set of reels:  “The Bucks of Oranmore,” “The Salamanca,” “The Banshee,” and “The Sailor’s Bonnet.”

At last she slipped into a melody she barely knew, a tune she could only recall having played once before—an old Welsh dance called “The Wing of the Black Crow.”  Before she even realized what she was doing, she had played it through one time without a hitch.  But when it came around again, her fingers faltered.  The name of the tune rose up before her and gave her pause.  She slowed to a stop.  The bow fell from her hand and the music ceased.

Though the night was hot, Eny felt a chill.  The black crow, she thought, peering uneasily out the window.  Away to the south she could see the great brick tower silhouetted against the luminous hillside.  In her imagination its shadow fell across her path again.  Again she felt a burst of air explode against her cheek.  Again she recoiled from a sharp blow to the top of her head.  She shrunk into herself, dropped to the edge of the bed, and sat staring down at her trembling bow-hand.

But this mood of bleak defeat did not last long.  For in the next moment a flush of red-hot anger came rushing to her aid.

“This isn’t right!” said Eny.  “I’m allowing that woman to control my life!  I have the power to stop her, and I will!  After all, a crow is a crow is a crow—not a demon!  It doesn’t belong to her!  A crow is part of God’s creation!  Fear has no place in perfect love!”

With that, she reached for her backpack, took out a pencil and her poetry notebook, and began to write in a strong, deliberate hand:


                  The wing of the black crow

                   Sails silent down the sun-blue sky.

                   At rest he sits, head downward-cocked,

                   Upon a barren, thorny branch …



Eny glanced up with a start. What was that sound?  She rose and walked softly to the window.  Had she heard a rustling in the oleander bushes?  Was some person on the sidewalk?  She drew back the curtain and looked out.  No one was there.  All was quiet.  Even the shouts of the children had faded away.  The circle of light beneath the lamp post was unmarred by any shadow.  Must have been the wind, she thought …

(To be continued …)


The Sword of Paracelsus: A Knock at the Door, Part 1

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“And remember,” said Moira, forcing her unruly auburn curls to submit to the discipline of a black elastic band.  “Keep the door closed and locked.  Don’t let anybody in!  Don’t even answer the phone till I get back.  Do you understand?”

Mom!” said Eny.  “You’re only going to pick up Aunt Grania.  It’s about ten minutes away!”

“Ten minutes too long under the circumstances.  I hope she’ll have her car back by tomorrow!  I don’t like leaving you alone at night.”

“You worry too much.  I’m not a child anymore.”

“That’s part of what worries me,” observed Moira with a wry smirk, slinging her bag over her shoulder and fishing out her big silver key ring.  “This isn’t Santa Piedra.  It’s Hollywood.  You never know who might be watching.  And don’t roll your eyes.”

“I didn’t.”

“You did.  Besides, we have a lot more to worry about than just stalkers and street people.  We can’t be too careful.”  She opened the door and scanned the street from one end to the other.  “Ugh!  It’s still so hot out!  Now don’t forget what I said.  I’ll be back as fast as I can.”

“’Bye, Mom,” said Eny in a flat voice, holding the door while her mother descended the front steps.  “See you in about twenty minutes.”

“Lock the deadbolt!” Moira shouted as she climbed into her old blue Rambler and drove away.

Eny shut the door and leaned against it.  Aunt Grania’s tiny apartment was beginning to feel like a prison.  Or maybe an asylum.  The orange lava lamps, mauve shag carpet, naugahyde bean-bag chairs, and avocado curtains only added to the atmosphere of insanity.  So did the mocking gray eye of the mute television set.  To Eny, the entire living room was nothing but one big garish assault on the senses.  Checking to see that the lock was secure, she turned away and slumped off to the front bedroom she shared with her mother.

It was hot and stuffy in there.  Knowing very well what Moira would say, she opened the window to let in some air.  Outside she could see the sidewalk, a few dusty oleander bushes, and the filmy yellow lights of the apartment buildings across the street.  Dirty patches of starless sky showed above the drooping palms, and search lights swept the dim horizon beyond the sagging telephone lines.  Here and there a random spark of blurred neon from the shops on the Boulevard, just three blocks away, managed to pierce the intervening barrier of buildings and trees.  Shouts of children echoed down a nearby alley.  From a great distance came the foreboding wail of a siren.

Switching on a light, Eny sat down on the edge of her bed and closed her eyes.  She tried hard to imagine that the constant swish and rush of passing cars was really the surge of the sea on the shores of Laguna Verde.  It didn’t work.

How long? she wondered.  How long will we have to stay in this awful place?  Yawning and stretching, she ran her fingers through her hair and fell sideways on the bed.  That’s when the fiddle caught her eye.

It had been months since she’d touched it.  She’d dropped it there in the corner on the day they moved in and had hardly thought of it since. Not once in all that time had she felt even the slightest urge to pick it up.  That would have been to invite memories of Simon.  And memories of Simon had always seemed out of place in Hollywood.  Always—until this week.

Lying there on her side, staring at the silent instrument in its coffin-like case, she became aware by stages that her feelings about the violin and everything associated with it were changing.  She realized that her internal compass was shifting.  Her mind was possessed by a single image—the image of the tall man on the bus.

The resemblance was uncanny.  It might be nothing more than that, of course—an uncanny resemblance.  But then why had he, a complete stranger, taken it upon himself to protect her?  And why had he given her such an indescribably penetrating look as he stood there on the sidewalk?  Those eyes!  Only once before had she seen eyes like that.

And then there were the events of that afternoon.  There was no reasonable way to account for them.  Where had the pawn shop come from?  Where did it go?  Who was the dark-haired, smooth-tongued shopkeeper, speaking in riddles like a Sphinx?

There was only one possible explanation.  As far as Eny was concerned, the whole thing smacked of the Sidhe.  The fingerprints of the Other World were all over it.  It was thick with mystery.  It seemed dripping with enchantment.  And yet …

No, she thought, it can’t be.  Hollywood might mean “magic” to some people, but she knew better.  She was too well acquainted with its dirty, smelly, seamy underside.  Hollywood might be many things, but it was certainly not an otherworldly place—not the kind of place Moira would have called “thin”.   And a place that wasn’t thin couldn’t play host to enchantments.

Or could it?

Eny pondered.  If all this had happened in Santa Piedra—if ocean mists had been swirling outside the window instead of hot, stale smog—it would have been a different story.  In that case there would have been little room for doubt.  In that case she would have begun searching at once for further clues and evidences of the unseen behind the seen.  As it was, she couldn’t be sure.

There was, of course, that other person—the troll, the nameless, faceless pianist beneath the big floppy hat.  What about him?  How had he learned to play like that?  How could anybody create such unearthly music and yet live in hole under a freeway bridge?

His music came back to her now.  Gradually she became aware that it was inside her brain, outside the window, in the room, on the street, floating above the bed.  It was swelling all around her, stirring the air just below the ceiling, inhabiting the halo of light surrounding the lamp.  It filled her like a sweet, warm, liquid; it lapped her like a coverlet of woven lightstrands.  It ran dripping and tingling down from her head, her shoulders, her arms.  Her hands burned with it.  Her fingers itched to be a part of it.

Eny sat up on the bed.  Suddenly it was all clear to her.  In that instant she realized that it didn’t really matter where she was.  Hollywood, Santa Piedra, Timbuktu—it was all the same.  Though parted from her in body, Simon could still be with her in spirit if only she had eyes to see and ears to hear.  Only one thing mattered now:  to merge with the music.  To participate.  To play . ..

( To be continued …)


The Sword of Paracelsus: Fifth Journal Entry

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Day 213


What I have now to recount is so astonishing, even to me, that I am unable to devise a suitable method of leading up to it.  How to weave this incident smoothly into the fabric of my narrative, so as to ease for the reader the shock it registered upon my own disbelieving mind?  The thing eludes me.  There is nothing else for it.  I must jump in boldly.  I must state the bare fact in plain language.

There was a voice. 

It came from the other side of the wall.  I heard it distinctly.  No discernible words, but a human voice.  Of that I am sure. 

How did it happen?  I will tell you.  There came a lull in the scraping and tapping.  After that, a brief silence.  Then the voice spoke.  I could not understand what it said, but I could tell that it was very close.  My spine tingled at the sound. 

It tingles still …


*  *  *  *  *  *



Heroic Hope

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Heroic Hope

A Reflection on

The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son

by J. R. R. Tolkien


              Alas, my friend, our lord was at fault …

                           Too proud, too princely!


Darkness, thick as a blanket of fog.  Night on the field of slaughter.  The moon and stars retreat behind a veil of cloud.  The scent of blood rises from the damp and broken earth.  The battle is over.  Victory has gone to the enemy.  Beorhtnoth, son of Beorhthelm, eorl of Essex and thane of King Aethelred II, has fallen in the fight.

A glimmer of yellow in the distance:  the beam of an unshuttered dark-lantern comes swinging through the gloom.  In its dim light two bent figures pick their way over the black waste, banging their boots against broken shields, kicking the crests of crushed helms:  Totta, the minstrel’s son, his heart quivering like a harp-string, his sixteen-year-old head full of the words of heroic songs; Tida, the hard-handed old ceorl, tiller of the ground, grim veteran of more Viking raids than he cares to recall.  The one hums a tentative tune.  The other coughs and curses as he slips in the mud and trips over a severed arm.

“We must be getting close,” mutters the old man.  “He’s sure to lie where the fighting was thickest.”

“Never one for the rearguard,” agrees Totta.  “Not the tall lord Beorhtnoth!  His sword was always first in the fray!  He scorned to take advantage of a foe.  We had the heathen at bay, Tida – hemmed in between the inlet and the sea – and he let them cross the causeway!  That’s the old heroic code for you!”

Tida spits.  “That’s stupidity.  We were outnumbered, boy.  But look -–”  He stops short and holds the lantern aloft.  “I believe we’ve found our man at last.”

Totta kneels, peering closely at the body.  “Can’t you be sure?”

“Could be,” says Tida wryly, “if they’d left him his head.  Still, mangled as he is, I’d know our lord anywhere.  Here’s his gold-hilted sword to prove it.  Help me heave him up, lad.  We’ll get him into the wagon.  For all his pride and excess I loved the man, and I mean to see him given a Christian burial.”

Night sounds mingle with the huff of their labored breathing.  Totta chants an ancient verse while they lug the dead man along:  “Will shall be the harder, heart the keener, spirit the greater as our power lessens.

“No place for pagan heroism here, boy,” growls Tida as they trundle the corpse into the cart.  “These are Christian times.  Lord Beorhtnoth made a mistake, that’s all.  Good men died because of it.  We’ve got to live with it.”

But as they rattle down the road to the abbey church, Totta raises his head from the wagon bed.  “Do you see, Tida?” he calls.  “Men are coming in out of the darkness!  A fire is kindled on the hearth!  There are lights in the windows!  Will shall be the harder, heart the keener, spirit the greater as our power lessens.

“Hush!” shouts the driver as a wheel shudders in a rut.  “I want to hear the singing of the monks!”


*  *  *  * *


Amazing, isn’t it? – our human penchant for blending personal ambition with devotion to Christ.  We’re like the twelve apostles in this regard:  even as Jesus was marching up the road to Golgotha, His eyes fixed unflinchingly upon the cross, they were jockeying for positions of honor and glory in the coming kingdom (Mark 9:33-34).  They had their own ideas about what it meant to be a “hero” in God’s economy.  Their Master’s thoughts, of course, were moving along a very different track.

This is the theme that J. R. R. Tolkien explores in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son[i], a short poetic drama that highlights the author’s talents both as storyteller and as Anglo-Saxon scholar.  Tolkien brings two radically different concepts of heroism – Christ’s and the world’s – into sharp contrast when young Totta recalls this line from the Old English poetic tradition:  “Will shall be the harder, heart the keener, spirit the greater as our power lessens.

Here in a nutshell is the value system that breathes through the narratives of Beowulf, the Eddas, and the Volsunga Saga:  the ideal of the Teutonic hero as a fierce and fearless fighter who never gives up and never backs down no matter what the odds.  Tolkien calls this “the doctrine of uttermost endurance in the service of indomitable will.”[ii]  It includes the notion that greater glory goes to the man who takes the greater risk – even when it’s an unnecessary risk.

The Anglo-Saxon earl Beorhtnoth took such a risk.  History tells us that he was a devout Christian man.  But he was also clearly a man of his time:  a warrior chieftain who accepted unquestioningly his culture’s notions of chivalry and honor.  Like so many of us, he held his Christianity in a hybridized form.  His dedication to the cause of Christ, though sincere, was mingled with strong elements of pride, self-will, and regard for social approval.  Beorhtnoth’s zeal for defending the faith against Viking invaders was colored by an equally powerful desire for heroic glory.  And that desire drove him to make a foolish decision:  to prove his hardihood, he permitted the Northmen to cross an important line of defense unhindered.

It was a disastrous choice.  A mistake, plain and simple.  So argues Tida, the pragmatic old farmer, as Tolkien’s dramatic account of the battle’s aftermath unfolds.  Nor is that all, says the old man:  Lord Beorhtnoth’s action was also profoundly un-Christian.  For Christian heroism has nothing to do with glory-seeking, risk-taking, and deeds of derring-do.  Christian heroism does not rush in where angels fear to tread or take steps that place others in danger.  Christian heroism is a matter of rolling up your sleeves, wading into the mess, and picking up the pieces.  It’s a question of becoming humble enough to serve.

“You will indeed drink the cup that I drink,” Jesus told James and John when they came seeking seats of honor at His right hand.  Then He turned and addressed the twelve in the following words:


     You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.  And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.  (Mark 10:42-44) 


Herein lies the tragedy of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s son:  his unnecessary death did not ransom anyone.  Unlike the Hero of Calvary, he won his badge of glory at the cost of other men’s lives.  He may have been a hero in terms of the old Germanic code, but from the perspective of God’s kingdom he was an abject failure.

Or was he?  That’s the poignant question with which Tolkien ends his little play.  Totta’s quotation of the memorable line casts a shadow of bright doubt upon the story’s bleak conclusion; for he seems to imply that there may be another way of understanding the words of the ancient code.  “Will shall be the harder, heart the keener, spirit the greater as our power lessens.”  Didn’t the apostle Paul say something to the same effect? – “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

This is how the final journey of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s son is transformed from a tragedy into a genuine homecoming.  By his flaws and faults and regrettable demise the old chieftain reminds us that Christian heroism is not a matter of strength and “indomitable will” but of undying hope against all odds – hope in the face of defeat and death.  For it is only when the battle has been lost and the darkness has fallen that most of us even begin to tread the path to eternal glory.  Only then do we realize that it is not self-will, but the sufficiency of Another that sustains us.



The true hero is lowly enough to look up. 


[i] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, New York:  Ballantine Books, 1966; 3-24.

[ii] Ibid., 20.

The Battle of Maldon, Part 2

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Thus they stood firm,              strong-hearted,

Young heroes in battle.            Earnestly there they contended

To see who with the sword-point        might first of all

Win the prize of life                 from doomed men,                                                                  

The lives of warriors with weapons.                The slain fell to earth.

But the men stood steadfast;                Beorhtnoth spurred them on,

Bidding each of the young men           to set his heart on the battle,

Everyone who would win       glory from the Danes.


Then on came a hardened warrior,      upheaved his weapon,                                

Hunkered behind his shield,    and strode against the chief.

Just as resolute            the eorl charged the churl:

Either to the other        evil intended.

Then hurled the sea-warrior    a southern-made spear,                                               

Thus wounding          the lord of warriors;                                                                          

But Beorhtnoth thrust back with his shield     so that the shaft to-burst,           

Shivering the spear      and making it spring back again.

Filled with fury was the warrior:        with his spear he stung

The Viking proud,       the one who had him wounded.

Wise was the chief:      in he thrust in the javelin;                                                          

Right through the young fighter’s neck          his hand guided it                               

Until it reached the life-source             of his sudden enemy.

Then another shaft      he swiftly shot,

Bursting the byrnie,    wounding the man in the breast

Through the linked rings;        at his heart stood                                                             

The poisoned point.     The eorl was all the blither.                               

He laughed, brave man that he was,    giving thanks to the Creator

For the good day’s work          the Lord had given him.


Then one of the Vikings          let go a dart from his hand.

From his palm it flew;              straight on it went,                                                                 

Right through Beorhtnoth, the noble thane of Aethelred.              

At his side stood          a barely grown youth,

A mere boy in the battle,          who full bravely

Drew from the warrior            the bloody spear –

Wulfstan’s bairn,         Wulfmaer the Young;                                                                         

Back again he shot the spear                swift against the foe;

In went the point         so that on the earth lay

That very man who lately had             so terribly pierced his lord.                 

At this a crafty fighter drew near to the eorl,

Intending his arm-rings          to bring away,                                                                        

His armor and ring-mail         and ornamented shield.          

Then from the sheath               Beorhtnoth drew his sword,

Broad and bright-edged,          and struck the man upon the byrnie;

But one of the shipmen            deftly hindered him,

Injuring the eorl’s arm with his blow.                                                                         

Then to the earth                     fell the gold-hilted sword,

Nor might he any longer         hold the hard blade

Nor weapon wield.                  Yet still he spoke a word,

That hearty warrior,                encouraging the young men

And bidding the good comrades          to go forth.                                                                   


Then, when he could no longer on his feet      securely stand,

Beorhtnoth looked to the heavens        and said:

“I thank Thee,             Ruler of peoples,

For all the joys             that I in the world have known.

Now I have, Merciful Creator,     most need                                                                   

That Thou to my spirit            grant good,

That my soul to Thee               might depart,

Into Thy kingdom,                  Lord of angels,

To go in peace.            I only ask of Thee

That these Hell-fiends              may not prevail.”                                                                     


Then they hewed him,             those heathen cutthroats,

And both of the men                who by him stood …


*  *  *  *  *


(At this point many of Beorhtnoth’s men flee the field.  But others – especially his loyal thanes – press on, resolving to die beside their fallen lord rather than abandon him.  They make one last desperate stand.  One of their number, Beorhtwold, cries out as his comrades fall on every side:)


“Will shall be the harder        heart the keener                                                          

Spirit the greater         as our power lessens!

Here lies our prince                 all forhewn,

A good man on the ground;                may he ever mourn                                                     

Who now from this war-play              thinks to go.

I am old of years.                     I will not go away,

But intend by the side of my own lord,

A man so well-beloved,            to lie me down.”


(The manuscript cuts off as they prepare to fight to the bitter end …)          



The Battle of Maldon, Part 1

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Selections from

The Battle of Maldon

Newly translated from the Anglo-Saxon by

Jim Ware

 (In preparation for an upcoming reflection on a lesser-known work of J. R. R. Tolkien)

On the 10th or 11th of August, AD 991, longships carrying as many as 4,000 Vikings sailed up to an island in the Blackwater River (then called the Panta) in Essex, England.  Here the invaders waited, knowing that at low tide the river would leave a land bridge between the island and the Essex shore.  No sooner had they arrived than the Anglo-Saxon ealdorman Beorhtnoth, thane of King Aethelred the Unready, came to meet them with a small contingent of Saxon warriors.

This is where the 325-line fragment of Old English poetry known as The Battle of Maldon begins …


Out went the tide;       the seamen ready stood,                                                              

A multitude of Vikings           impatient for the strife.

Then Beorhtnoth, Protector of men,    commanded a battle-hardened warrior,

Wulfstan his name,      — that was Ceola’s son,                                                               

Brave among his kin —            to hold the bridge.

The first man to set foot upon the bridge,        boldest of them all,

He shot down              with the shaft of his spear.

There beside Wulfstan,            the undaunted warrior,

Stood Aelfere and Maccus,     a hearty pair.                                                                    

Unwilling they            to take flight at the ford.

Steadfast instead          they stood firm against the foe

Just so long as they were able              to wield their weapons.


When the enemy understood               and presently perceived

That here they would find       bitter bridge-wards,                                                      

Those unwelcome guests         betook themselves to trickery:

They bid the English grant them         leave to come ashore,

Over the ford to fare,               and bring up their foot-troops.


Then it was that the eorl,         out of overweening pride,

Conceded too much ground    to the hostile host.                                                         

Then it was that Beorhthelm’s bairn   began calling to them

Over the cold water — the men listened:

“Now you have room enough;            come quickly to us,

Warriors to the fight!               God alone knows

Who will command     the field of slaughter!”                                                            


Then the war-wolves raged,                recking not the waves;

West over Pantan        the Viking troop

Carried their shields;               across the bright water

The shipmen to the land          bore the linden boards.

There against the grim foe,                  proud and prepared,                                                   

Stood Beorhtnoth and his men.           With bucklers he bade them

Make up the phalanx               and hold back that troop,

Firm against the foe.                Then the battle closed.

There was glory in the strife.   The time had come

That doomed men there           should fall.                                                                              

There was the hue and cry upheaved,             the ravens wheeled,

The eagle yearning for carrion.           A cry was raised on earth.

Then from their hands             men soon let fly

File-hardened shafts                 and grimly ground spears;

Bows were busy.         The shield received the spearhead.                                          

Bitter was the battle-rush.       Heroes fell

On either hand.           Young men lay dead.

Wounded was Wulfmaer –      he chose the bed of slaughter;

He, Beorhtnoth’s kinsman,      his sister’s son,

Was by the sword        sorely forhewn.                                                                                   

And there the Vikings             received their due:

I heard that Eadweard             slew a man

Straightly with his sword,       spared not the stroke,

So that at his feet         the fey champion fell.

For this his Lord          thanked him,                                                                                     

Faithful chamberlain,              when he had space …

(To be continued …)


The Sword of Paracelsus: The Other Sword in the Stone, Part 3

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Le Morte D’Arthur,” said Rev. Alcuin, finding the spot he was looking for.  “Book XIII, Chapter 2.  Do you know what happens in this passage?”

Morgan shook his head.

“This is where the quest for the Holy Grail begins.”  Peter jabbed a finger at a full-color illustration that filled the entire right-hand page.  “This is how it all started.”

The picture showed a band of knights in bright, heraldic regalia, standing on a sward of emerald green beside a crystal river.  In their midst was a tall man with golden crown on his head.  Arthur himself, thought Morgan.  On the water floated—yes, floated—a large stone.  And in the middle of the stone, stuck halfway in, was a long blue sword with a shining pommel, a golden hilt, and a large curved quillion or crossguard.

“Let me read it to you,” said Rev. Alcuin.  “This is what the text says:”


     So, as they stood speaking, in came a squire and said unto the king, ‘Sir, I bring unto you marvelous tidings.  There is here beneath at the river a great stone which I saw float above the water, and therein I saw sticking a sword.’

     The king said, ‘I will see that marvel.’

     So all the knights went with him, and when they came unto the river, they found there a stone floating, and therein stuck a fair and rich sword.

     Then said the king unto Sir Launcelot, ‘Fair sir, this sword ought to be yours.’

     But Sir Launcelot answered soberly, ‘Certes, sir, it is not my sword.  And I will that ye wit that this same day will the adventures of the Holy Grail begin.’      


The Reverend looked up from the page.

“I’m not sure I understand,” said Morgan.  “I thought the Sword in the Stone comes at the beginning of the story—before Arthur was king, back when he was just a boy.”

“You’re right,” said Peter.  “But this is the other Sword in the Stone.”

Morgan frowned.  “Other?  I don’t remember that.”

“Well, then, take note.  There were two.  And it wasn’t Arthur who pulled this Sword from this Stone.  Nor Launcelot.  It was Sir Galahad—the hero of the Grail Quest.  And the story goes on to say that the Grail itself appeared in Arthur’s hall that very night and fed him and all the fellowship of the Round Table ‘with such meats and drinks as every man loved best in this world.’”

Morgan felt as if he were in the middle of a thick fog.  He pictured himself standing in a swirling mist through which a point of dim light was just barely visible.  There was something, he sensed, in what Rev. Alcuin was saying—something important, something he could almost grasp, something he desperately needed to know if only he could clear away the clouds from his muddled brain.  He struggled to lay his finger on it.

“Don’t you see?” said Peter after another short silence.  “There is a link here.  Not only between the Sword and the Stone, but between the Sword and the Stone and the Grail!  That’s what I find so fascinating about all this.”

Morgan stared.  The Reverend continued.

“You haven’t forgotten what I said to you about the Grail once before, have you?  Here in this very room?  How Wolfram von Eschenbach calls it the Gral and says that it wasn’t the cup of Christ at all, but a miraculous stone?”

For Morgan it was as if a pair of scales had fallen from his eyes.  “I remember!” he said.  “And I remember something else, too.  Something about knights being fed with all their favorite meats and drinks.  That was Lia Fail, wasn’t it, Reverend?  ‘The Satisfaction of All Desire!’”

“Exactly what I’m thinking,” Peter responded.  “I wonder what it can possibly mean?”  A puzzled look clouded his gray eyes.

Morgan felt hot.  He was blushing again.  Hastily he got up and shoved his papers and drawings into his pack.

“I think I’d better go now,” he stammered.  “It’s getting late.  Mom will be wondering where I am.  You’ve given me a lot to think about, Rev. Alcuin.  Thanks.”

Then he hurried to the door.  As he turned the knob, he happened to see the Reverend’s face reflected in a large mirror that hung beside the entrance.  Its expression startled him.  He’d only seen that look on the minister’s usually jovial countenance a couple of times before—a look of deep concern mingled with a hint of pain.

“You may want to remember,” he heard the Reverend say as he stepped across the threshold, “that the beginning of the Grail Quest was the beginning of the end.  The end of Arthur’s reign and the Table Round.”

Sword & Stone 2 001

* * * * * * * * * *


The Sword of Paracelsus: The Other Sword in the Stone, Part 2

Sword & Stone 2 001

“Well?” said Morgan, still pointing insistently at the strange inscription.  “Do you or don’t you recognize this writing?”

“Heavens, no.  Never saw anything like that in my life.  But this here”—Rev. Alcuin indicated the three long cross-hatched lines running down the length of the sword’s blade—

Ogham inscription 001

” — I believe that’s Ogham.”


“Yes.  An ancient Irish system of writing that consisted entirely of straight lines.  It’s similar in that respect to the Germanic runes.  Perfect for scratching messages into wood or stone.”

Morgan’s heart jumped.  “Do you know what it says?”

“Oh, I can’t read Ogham.  I just have a general idea of what it looked like.”

“Can’t we get some books on it?”

“Perhaps.  At a university library, maybe.  I don’t have any.  That was more in your dad’s line.  Maybe you should search your stash.”

Rats! thought Morgan.  He felt like a deflated balloon.  Dropping the papers on the table, he slumped back in the rocker and stared down at the toes of his tennis shoes.

“What I’d like to know,” said the Reverend after an awkward silence, “is where you came up with all this in the first place.  Have you ever seen this sword?”

Morgan glanced up.  He hesitated.  “Only in a book.”

“What book?”

“One of my dad’s.  The one I was looking at when the notebook fell out.”

“And that book was … ”

“It was a book about …”—he felt his cheeks beginning to burn—“… a book about Paracelsus.  His Life and Times.  Paracelsus was another—well, another famous alchemist.”

“I’m familiar with the name.”

“Paracelsus was the greatest of them all,” said Morgan, warming to his subject.  “Apparently he had this big sword.  I copied that picture out of the book.  He carried it with him everywhere he went.  Even slept with it.  That got me to thinking.”


“Well, my dad was really interested in Paracelsus and alchemy and all that.”

“As you and I both know.”

“And you told me that he thought there was some kind of connection between the Philosopher’s Stone and the Grail and the Stone of Destiny.”

“So I did.”

“So I couldn’t help wondering—” he stopped to take a breath.

“Go on.”

“—I couldn’t help wondering if there might be another connection.”

Peter paused in the act of pouring himself a second cup.  He looked straight into the boy’s eyes.  Morgan leaned forward and gripped the edge of the table with both hands.

The Sword in the Stone,” he said by way of explanation.

Rev. Alcuin gave a start.  Some of the tea spilled over the edge of the cup and splashed onto a copy of Scientific American.  He raised an inquiring eyebrow.

“Sword.  Stone.  The Sword in the Stone.  The two just go together, don’t you think?  They have to for anybody who has ever read King Arthur.”

“I suppose so,” admitted Rev. Alcuin, wiping up the tea with his pocket handkerchief.  “But—”

“They do!” persisted Morgan.  “And I haven’t been able to think of anything else since—well, ever since I saw that picture.  I keep thinking about Lia Fail and the Philosopher’s Stone.  And now this sword.  Do you see what I mean?”

A light came into the minister’s eyes.  He dropped the handkerchief, got to his feet, and walked slowly to the other side of the room, where he stood for a moment intently scanning the shelves of a tall bookcase.

“I can’t say that I know exactly what you have in mind,” he said thoughtfully as he mounted a low stool.  “But what you say does remind me of something.  Give me half a minute.”

He ran his forefinger along the spines of the books lining the top shelf.  “Lewis,” he muttered.  “Lindgren … Livy, London, Longfellow … MacDonald … MacDonald—Malory!”

Pulling down a large volume, he blew off the dust, hopped down from the stool, and resumed his seat at the coffee table.

“This is it,” he said, opening the big book.  Moistening a fingertip, he rapidly flipped his way through the thick, musty, yellow-edged pages until he found the spot he was looking for …

(To be continued …)

The Sword of Paracelsus: The Other Sword in the Stone, Part 1

Sword & Stone 2 001

“Rev. Alcuin?”  Morgan rapped tentatively at the door of the minister’s study.  “Are you there?  It’s me.”

No answer.  He bent down and peered through the keyhole.  He put his ear to the door.  It sounded as if someone inside were whistling a softly lilting tune.

Again he knocked—once, twice, three times.  Slippered footsteps approached from the other side.  The knob turned, the stubborn door shuddered.  It opened a crack.  At last it swung wide, revealing a round, ruddy, bespectacled face crowned by a wide expanse of gleaming baldness.

“Morgan, my friend!” beamed Peter Alcuin, his eyes twinkling.  “So glad to see you.  Come in!”

“I hope this isn’t a bad time …”

“Not a bit!  Working on my sermon, that’s all, and I’m in desperate need of a break.  Find a chair.  I’ll brew us a pot of tea.”

Morgan shuffled into the room while Rev. Alcuin bustled out to the adjoining kitchenette.  Locating a chair was no problem, for the dimly lit study was packed with seats of various kinds:  armchairs, desk chairs, couches, footstools, ottomans, Victorian settees.  Finding a place to sit down was another matter, since nearly every available space, including the coffee table and the sewing cabinet Rev. Alcuin used as a writing table, was piled high with books and bundles of paper.  For a moment Morgan stood doubtful in the midst of the jubilant clutter.  At last he removed three volumes of Kittel’s Theologisches Worterbuch from a cane-backed rocker, stacked them on the floor, and threw himself down in the chair.

“Milk and sugar?” called the Reverend.

“Just sugar,” Morgan answered, idly leafing his way through an illustrated copy of Dante’s Inferno that lay in front of him on the coffee table.  The pictures—Gustave Dore’s woodcuts—affected him strangely:  so precise in their intricacy and detail, so repulsive in their graphic representation of the sufferings of the damned.  He shuddered and wrinkled up his nose at one particularly bizarre engraving.

“Weird!” he grunted as Rev. Alcuin emerged with a steaming teapot and a rattling tray of cups and saucers.  “These people all have their heads on backwards!”

Peter set the tray down atop a massive Oxford Dictionary and bent over the book.  “Ah, yes.  That’s the Fourth Bolgia.  It’s a place in the lowest circle of Hell.  Those are the sorcerers.”

Morgan glanced up at him.

“Their heads are twisted around like that because they’ve lost the ability to look forward.  Into the future.  Something they attempted to do all their lives, but always by means of the wrong methods.  One of them, says Dante, is Michael Scot.  The famous alchemist and astrologer.”

Morgan shifted uneasily in the rocker.  He had an uncomfortable feeling that the Reverend’s observation was intended as something more than a commentary on the text.  “I don’t do alchemy anymore,” he said.  “Not since the beginning of summer.”

“Really?”  Peter poured out the tea and handed him a cup. “Sugar’s on the tray.  Sorry I haven’t anything else to offer you.  Fresh out of scones.”

“I’m okay,” said Morgan, reaching for the sugar.

The Reverend loosened his clerical collar, cleared off a stack of newspapers from his favorite Windsor chair, and sat down facing Morgan across the coffee table.  “Now then.  I assume you have some reason for coming to see me this afternoon?”

Morgan nodded.  Unzipping his backpack, he fished out the little green notebook and tossed it down on the table.  “Have you ever seen this before?”

Peter Alcuin’s eyes opened wide.  He set his teacup aside, picked up the notebook, and studied it closely.

“Where did you find it?”

“It’s my Dad’s, isn’t it?”  Morgan had to struggle to keep a tremor out of his voice.  “Can you tell me anything about it?  Do you know what’s in it?”

Rev. Alcuin thumbed his way through the soiled and closely written pages.  “Not necessarily.  But I do recognize it.  I’ve seen him jot things in this little diary many times.  He used to take notes on everything.  He’d often sit there—just where you’re sitting now—writing and writing all the while we talked.  Aggravating when it didn’t suit my mood.  But that was the way his mind worked.”

“It fell out of one of his old books while I was looking for something else.  Some of the handwriting is pretty hard to make out.  I was hoping you could help me decipher it.”

The Reverend looked doubtful.  “Possibly.  But there’s a chance we’re up against something tougher than just cramped or sloppy handwriting.  Your father was in the habit of using several different forms of shorthand.  Some were of his own devising, almost like secret codes.  And of course he was familiar with all sorts of obscure languages and writing systems.  There may be a great deal here that we simply can’t read.”

“But we can try, can’t we?”

Rev. Alcuin smiled.  “Yes, Morgan.  We can, and we will.”

There was a pause while the Reverend raised his cup to his lips and Morgan dipped into his backpack again.

“There’s also this,” he said, unfolding a large piece of paper and spreading it out on top of a stack of National Geographics.  “It’s a drawing I made myself.  What do you think?”

Rev. Alcuin leaned forward.  He squinted through his spectacles and tilted his head to one side.  “It’s quite good.”

“Thanks, but that’s not what I meant.  Does this sword look familiar?”

The Reverend bent closer.  “Well … it’s definitely northern European.  Celtic or Teutonic.  Ninth or tenth century, perhaps.  Though there are some rather odd, extraneous elements.  Foreign touches and anachronisms.  And the pommel is quite large.  Unusually large.  Wielding a weapon like that in a fight would have been a bit awkward.  But no, I’ve never seen this particular sword before.”

“I’m mainly interested in the inscriptions.”

“I see what you mean.  Rather hard to make out, aren’t they?”

“In the drawing.  That’s why I copied them over again here.”  He unfolded another piece of paper.

“Mmm.  Now this type of thing was right up your father’s alley.”

“Yours too, maybe?”

Peter laughed.  “Your father and I shared a love of literature and history, Morgan, but when it came to languages I couldn’t keep up with him.  I know some Latin and Greek and Hebrew, but that’s about my limit.”

“So you don’t recognize this writing?”  Morgan pointed out the two strange inscriptions he’d copied from the sword’s crossguard:


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(To be continued …)