CREATIVE PROJECT BY TOH HONG JIN (’23)
The Distant Utopia
Literary Art (Short Story)
An Interpretation of Le Morte D’Arthur
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309)
“Bedivere, take my sword,” said King Arthur in between heavy breaths, “and cast it into the waters…”
“My lord, your commandment shall be done,” said Sir Bedivere, head lowered. Slowly, he reached for the sacred sword, its golden hilt ever gleaming in the afternoon light, and tugged it under his belt. “I shall not be long.”
And he turned, mounted onto his horse and rode off, the image of the king laid against an ancient willow tree burned into his mind. Once or twice he glanced behind to ensure he could still see his king, that as though his glance could will the king to continue breathing. He had to make haste, for his king still needed him. The others were not around.
The lake, crystal clear, was a short path away from the willow tree. Sir Bedivere quickly dismounted and pulled the sacred sword. Lifting it high in the air, he halted.
This was Excalibur, said to have been forged by the fairies and imbued with miraculous powers. For the longest time it had been the symbol of his king, the symbol that held Britain together. He had witnessed its might and prowess in victories which secured the well-being of all under the sun. This was a gift, a bestowment of divine providence. The sword of promised victory. Sir Mordred might had fallen, but what of the enemies beyond who were plotting to cannibalise Britain once they heard word of his king’s defeat?
But this was King Arthur’s to wield, and his only. There could be no one else that was eligible. Perhaps the king’s decision was to ensure that the sacred sword would never be used for harm. His death shall seal the miracle away forever.
When Sir Bedivere returned to the king shortly, he reported the fulfillment of the order. King Arthur, seemingly in a trance, asked what was seen there.
“My lord, I saw a beautiful lake with rippling waves pushed by a gentle breeze.”
The king closed his eyes and opened them after a moment and smiled. “O foolish Bedivere, you did not do as I say… make your way back and carry out my commandment. Spare it not, and throw it in.”
“My apologies,” Sir Bedivere stood up at once. “I shall be on my way.”
Returning to the lake, Sir Bedivere retrieved the sacred sword from beneath a towering cypress. As he raised it up, he halted once again.
The others were gone. Sir Lancelot was still away in exile, but many of the rest were not as fortunate. Sir Lucan, his brother, was dead as well. Although nowhere near the prominence of Sir Gawain and Sir Tristan, Sir Lucan was a loyal knight. For years he had been a mentor, friend, and confidant to Bedivere. He could still see the time when the round table was whole, when he and Lucan were both there, enjoying the festivities at Christmas, engaging in swordplay together, eyeing each other as they made a toast to the fellowship, their king, and their kingdom. Bedivere stared blankly at the water. The flickering light had begun to turn gold.
When Sir Bedivere dismounted and knelt before his king to report the fulfillment of the order, the latter asked once more what was seen there.
“My lord, I saw nothing but the moving waters and shifting waves.”
The king heaved a long sigh. “O Bedivere, you must enjoy teasing your king. It had been two long naps… Go, Bedivere, you have never yet questioned my orders… go forth and set my mind at ease, so that I may rest…”
Sir Bedivere’s head hung low. “My apologies, it will be done this time.”
After fetching the sacred sword from a beech’s hollow, he walked towards the water’s edge for the first time.
He could still hear Lucan’s laughter as they watched the court jesters. He could still see Lucan’s guts spilling out, tainting his polished armour, and the foam that gushed from his mouth. He could still see the last light leave Lucan’s eyes, and the thud sound that echoed within even Bedivere himself as his brother fell to the ground, never thence moving…
Bedivere’s grasp onto the handle tightened.
The image of his king’s better days flooded him. His courage, his uplifting speeches, his inspiring spirit, his battle prowess, his undying care for the people, and his kind smile… it was a smile that he had not seen in a very long time. It was all reduced to a worn-out figure by the willow, a tired man who desired peace and closure. He had to hurry, for he must not keep his king waiting.
With all his strength, Sir Bedivere hurled the sword far into the water. Just then there came an arm and hand above the water that caught the sword, much to his surprise. It lingered for but a brief second before vanishing into the depths of the lake, the sword along with it. Thereafter Sir Bedivere returned to his king and reported what he had seen this time.
“Thank you, Bedivere,” replied Arthur.
“Did you have a good nap, my lord?”
Arthur smiled. The sunlight was dying away with every passing minute. The shadows of the woods were growing, reaching out towards the spot where they were, beckoning. The wind was benevolent. Its whispers reverberated across the grounds, the leaves circling and falling.
“Take me to the water,” he said, raising his arm, which Bedivere caught. Pulling the king onto his back, Bedivere straightened himself and began to trudge upon the path, a trail of blood trickling behind.
“Why do you not set me on the horse?” asked Arthur quietly, after a while.
“My apologies if I am transgressing,” said Bedivere between breaths and steps. “But I would like to take you there on my own.”
There was a chuckle amidst the deep coughing.
“Why are you always apologising?”
Bedivere felt his eyes grow hot. Was it the strain from carrying the king? Bedivere was not the strongest amongst the round table knights, in fact strength had never been his forte. He had a slimmer physique than most, and this walk towards the lake was certainly taking a much longer time than before. It was a shame that it should be so. Surely it would have been effortless for the likes of Gawain and Lancelot.
“I’m sorry sire,” his face looking away from the golden light. “I am not strong enough. I do not deserve to serve you.”
Arthur laughed again. The king had not been this at ease in a long time. “I am glad that you are here, Bedivere… therefore apologise no more. You do not owe me anything.”
“I owe you my life, sire,” said Bedivere. “Both Sir Lucan and myself. We have yet to repay you. And… all those times in court, I could have spoken up against Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred. I could have spoken more with Sir Lancelot and helped to stop him before it was too late…”
There was a pause. Their armour clunked as Bedivere pressed on.
His heart skipped a beat.
“… Mmm,” muttered Arthur. “I was just thinking about the dream I had…”
“What kind of a dream was it?”
“There was a pair of kingfishers, a parent and child. They were flying… the little one was new to it, and it gave its all…”
The path was widening as they approached the water. A rose-coloured hue had been painted across the horizons. There was a little barge by the shore, with four hooded figures by its side. Somehow, Bedivere knew that was where they were bound. He could feel his legs becoming lighter.
“…but it could not catch up with its parent and fell behind…”
“We’re almost there, my lord,” said Bedivere, his voice shaking somewhat. There seemed to be a thin, white veil descending upon his vision.
“…by then it had savoured the feeling of flight that it kept going… until it was too tired and dropped, injuring itself…”
Bedivere’s steps came to a stop. The hooded figures were tall, fair maidens who were smiling serenely.
“Ah,” said Arthur finally. “I see my ride is here.”
With the help from the four maidens, Bedivere laid the king carefully into the little barge brimming with flowers. Although there were only the few of them there, a hymning was echoing round the lake, as though the woods themselves had begun to sing. Or was it the maidens? With each harmony, the surrounding air seemed to cool.
“I think I’m quite ready,” muttered Arthur.
Bedivere held onto Arthur’s hand.
“My lord, can’t – can’t I go with you?”
Arthur chuckled. Now that Bedivere looked at him again, it was as though Arthur had become younger, the beauty and vitality of his earlier days restored. The blood had vanished, and though Bedivere was unsure when it happened, Arthur was now clothed in robes, his armour nowhere to be seen. If anything, he seemed radiant even, and something about him now felt soothing; every breath he drew coaxed the air round them. The wind had been reduced to a faint breeze, and the waters were still.
“It is not yet your time, my friend,” said Arthur, his voice as steady as Bedivere remembered before Camlann. “I’m afraid this time my slumber shall last for a very long time… perhaps I will be dreaming the dream that I had my whole life.”
“But… there’s no one left. And what shall become of me, and of us all?”
The ethereal voices in the wind crooned on. Arthur reached out his hand and gave a pat on Bedivere’s shoulder.
“When the dream ends, the sleeper has to awaken,” said Arthur. “From here on it is your journey. You are worthy, remember that.”
The maidens stepped onto the little barge and looked towards the sunset. So did Arthur, who was now humming softly to the emanating harmony. They seemed to be waiting for something. It was then, from beyond the lake, came a faint strum of a harp.
“Live on,” said Arthur, as Bedivere gradually let go of his hands. The little barge began to drift as the waves returned, moving ahead without oars. “This is my final order to you, as a king. And my last request, as a friend.”
“This is farewell, at least for now.”
Arthur smiled. Once it left the bay, the little barge continued to glide silently across the lake towards the sundown.
Bedivere stood there and watched until it reached the very end of the golden horizon, where suddenly the skies became the waters that it was sailing on. At which point, he could see the silhouette of an island rising from the distant skies towards the earth. The lake waters remained relatively still and turned deep azure, as thousands of fireflies emerged, their twinkling in consonance with the fading song. The amber glow reminiscent of the days that were, as though nature itself was celebrating the union of the once and future king and his promised utopia. The good knight lingered for a great deal, enchanted by what he beheld with his eyes, until the heavens darkened. The mirage departed, he turned his back against the lake and looked behind no more.
This short story expands on the sparsely outlined episode of King Arthur’s final moments in “The Death of Arthur” chapter. Bedivere and Arthur are given more characterisation, and the mood of the story is enhanced by playing with the setting and the inclusion of popular medieval motifs such as the prophetic dream and the harp (a nod to the Arthurian legend’s distant Celtic origins). The back-and-forth motions of Bedivere trying to carry out his king’s order and holding back are conflated with memories of the Round Table, which captures the nostalgia for the once-golden age and the bittersweetness towards its end and immortalisation.
[Featured Image] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bedivere