June 22nd, 2007

The Glass Island

My friend seraphimsigrist has interesting things to say about the Glastonbury legend of St Collen. Cue poem. But before I give you the poem let's noodle a bit.  I first came across the story  in a pamphlet written by a Victorian Prebendary of Wells - and how I came by the pamphlet I really don't remember. I guess I must have picked it up in one of those second hand bookshops I used to frequent, or maybe some friend or parishioner- knowing I was a Glastonbury nut- gave it me. One of things the pamphlet reveals is just how sparse the legendary history of Glastonbury was before the 20th century mythomanes- headed by Dion Fortune- moved in. No Chalice Well, no ritual mazes on the Tor, no zodiac, no sleeping dragons, no landscape shaped like the body of the Goddess- just the Arthur thing and the Collen thing.  The Collen thing- in spite of being the only truly authentic piece of folklore attached to the place- tends not to feature in New Age books- probably because the Christian guy wins. 

Or does he?

The poem is a straight retelling. My version differs from Seraphim's in one or two points-  his characters indulge in added banter and  his uniforms are red and white, not red and blue- but otherwise we're in agreement. I was coming out of Christianity when I wrote it and (in my private opinions) rather furiously pagan but I'm pleased to find that my handling of the characters (in deference to my source) is remarkably even-handed. Collen's victory- the victory of the new faith- is inevitable and even to be desired- but a loss has been incurred. The link to the ancestors has been severed. The confrontation between Collen and Gwyn has about it all the sadness of civil war. Perhaps, as Seraphim suggests, there will be a reconciliation somewhere down the line.

In our own times, perhaps....

                                    THE GLASS ISLAND


                                    Three times they banged at the door,

                                    The messengers of Gwyn ab Nud.

                                    "Gwyn, Chief of the Glass Island,

                                    Summons Collen to speak with him."


                                    So Christian Collen, the interloper,

                                    Slipped the bottle into his blouse

                                    And climbed above his cell to where

                                    A strange new castle gleamed on the hill,


                                    With pillars on it remembering Rome.

                                    The watch dogs whinged, and young dancers

                                    Drifted out of his path.  He strode

                                    The full length of the sunny hall


                                    To stop before the dais where

                                    The god drank from a great carved bowl.

                                    Silencing the fiddlers, Gwyn

                                    Fingered his red-gold beard and spoke


                                    Like a kind uncle. "Collen, my boy,

                                    You're here at last.  You've pained us so,

                                    Building that damn chapel of yours

                                    Disrespectfully close to our gates.


                                    Why?  What have we done to you?

                                    Can you not see these dancers are

                                    The happy dead of your own house?

                                    Are they not fine in their red and blue?"


                                    And Gwyn, smiling, proffered his bowl.

                                    "Fine of their kind," said Collen. "Still

                                    This red of yours is eternal fire;

                                    This blue of yours eternal ice."


                                    And he flung the holy water in

                                    A hissing arc.  The summer sky

                                    Broke through the walls.  The god became

                                    A great grey thistle rocked by the wind.