Monday, 8 October 2012

In Search of Macsen Fallo (Part 3)

Part one of the story can be found here and part two is here.

Ian Martin

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In Search of Macsen Fallo (Part 3)

by Elin Mynach
12th of Ash, Rigantona 12


After some time, the nurse re-entered the room and declared that our interview would soon have to end, so I asked my final question, regarding Fallo's political views. To be frank, I had asked the question only with some trepidation, lest the old gentleman think me an impertinent young woman, but to my surprise, he responded by unleashing a deathly rattling sound from his throat that I eventually deciphered as a laugh. Cledwyn Fallo, at least, had been no more political than he had been a poet.

While this in itself was perhaps a point of note, the Exegesis was the next piece of the puzzle, and by my continuing good fortune, the old tutor permitted me to bring it back to Caerafon to study at my leisure. Saint Macsen was naturally an important figure in the early Sarffi church, although bulk of his adherents have traditionally been confined to the Eastern Principalities and The Martyrdom of Saint Macsen remains to this day a seldom-read text in the lowlands.

In the popular legend, of course, Saint Macsen was a prince of the East who took arms on behalf of the Goddess against a heathen neighbour, only to be betrayed by his treacherous cousin on the night before the final battle. He is interesting to scholars because he is an unusually early example of what modern religious historians refer to as a Type 3 saint. The Type 1 saints, of course, were primarily sailors, reflecting the Goddess' maritime origins, while the Type 2 saints were largely pilgrims, bringing word of her merciful deeds to the Sarffi hinterland. Type 3 saints were the kings and war leaders who unified Ynys Sarff under one spiritual ruler, if not yet a corporeal one.

The early sections of the story, often known as The Nine Sins of Saint Macsen, deal with the young prince’s rambunctious early life. Among them is the famous tale of how he seduced the beautiful virgin daughter of the Duke of Carreg Aethnen by climbing up the tower in which she had been imprisoned by her jealous father, and escaping his paternal wrath disguised as a chambermaid -- a story that has become a staple of the vulgar musical theatre that flourishes west of the river.

Another popular tale is of the young Macsen's wager with Celyn Quickhand, where he gambled his firstborn child against the famous enchanter's magic box of secrets. Expecting the young prince to select a challenge by strength or skill at arms -- challenges that Celyn, despite his withered frame, always won -- the old wizard was surprised when Macsen instead suggested a game of dice.

Of course, Macsen cheated and won easily, claiming the box and making off before Celyn had time to discover his opponent's trick. Flying into a rage, Celyn summoned an army of phantoms and besieged the prince's castle, where his young bride had just given birth to a baby boy, demanding he be given both box and child lest he tear down the walls stone by stone and rip the child from the mother's dead hands.

After three days and nights with no word from within, the gates finally opened and Macsen emerged leading twenty women, each bringing with them a child of varying ages. The prince then calmly explained that his firstborn could be any of these children, for he had been slipping it to all of these women at one time or another. When Celyn asked in dismay how he could know which was truly the prince's child, Macsen offered to sell Celyn back his box of secrets in exchange for all the enchanter's lands so that he could ask it himself.

At this, Celyn flew into another rage, and cursed the box so that the only secret it would ever reveal to the inquisitive soul who opened it would be the manner of their own death.

Some versions go on to tell that at that very moment, the young princess herself, unknowing of what it was, opened the box and learned that she would die through her husband's selfishness and betrayal, whereupon she threw herself from the window of the castle keep in despair.

Of course the latter part of the story of St. Macsen deals with the more familiar tale of how he was visited by the Goddess, who appeared to him on a mountaintop in her winged form -- as was common in many of the Eastern Principalities' traditional tales -- and made him renounce his degenerate ways. After this, so the tale says, Prince Macsen devoted himself to spreading word of the Goddess within both his own lands and eventually the neighbouring principalities, right up until his eventual betrayal and death.

Despite the obvious attraction that the young Prince Macsen's wanton ways might have had for his now namesake, it was at first glance hard to see what attraction this otherwise fairly conventional tale of the sinner redeemed by the love of the Goddess would have had, and it was with this thought in mind that I turned to the dusty old Exegesis.

As I can attest from my own religious instruction, the traditional reading of St. Macsen's story is as a tale of how the love of the Goddess can overcome the wickedness of men and turn them to a life of good deeds, and I must confess that despite myself, I was perhaps a little disappointed that the roguish Cledwyn Fallo could have been so easily influenced by a tale with such a respectable teaching at its heart. However, Alwyn of Argoed's reading of the story proved rather more intriguing.

It is easy to imagine the kind of monk Alwyn was. Argoed was one of Ynys Sarff's foremost brewery monasteries, and is perhaps best known as the home of the notoriously potent Bragawd Fflam pale ale. Monasteries of this caste were famously idiosyncratic in their pronouncements, with many  a curious or radical notion lost in the avalanche of competing theories, spared the oppressive scrutiny of Lunaean religious scholars, but also denied the acclaim or infamy that often emerged from the passionate, frequently inflammatory scientific and literary debates of the age.

And so it was in the permissive and typically intoxicated atmosphere of Argoed, amid the gushing river of religious theories destined to be published, absorbed, mused over, adopted, abandoned and forgotten, that Alwyn decided that St. Macsen had reached his enlightenment through his dissolute behaviour rather than despite it.

Alwyn's Exegesis focussed in large part on the Nine Sins part of the story, detailing how by his self-absorption, gorging himself on transient pleasures at the expense of other people, Macsen had purged his mind and soul of the compromises and negotiations that comprise the human world, allowing him to accept enlightenment with a clear heart. To Alwyn's mind, it was this purity that made Macsen such a powerful servant to the Goddess, just as it was the dimming of this purity -- in this case Macsen's sentimental devotion to his cousin and former sword brother -- that was his downfall.

In this way, we can see in the Macsen Fallo that left for the army that day a picture of a young man, fresh from a year of travels, buoyed by a new, mystically inclined bent to his individualistic hedonism.

And yet this is still not the Macsen Fallo, burning with a mixture of righteous anger and bawdy pub humour, that we know from his stories, so the question we must now ask is what happened? How can we reconcile the man who wrote with such intensity and detail of the powerful and deeply-rooted bonds shared by men, and sometimes of women, with the self-centred philosophy espoused by Alwyn of Argoed? 

My first instinct was that his family's misfortunes had uncovered in him stronger bonds than he had expected to the ever-tantalising, part-consummated human world, and I determined to seek out what clues I could find of Fallo's military record that might help me learn if and when any such change in his character had occurred.

This proved difficult. The Ministry of War has never been in the habit of releasing the military records of its servicemen to members of the public, least of all reporters, and therefore I was forced to resort to subterfuge. Though it would be immodest to recount precisely how, let it suffice to say that I learned the records of Lieutenant Cledwyn Fallo had been lost -- or more likely destroyed -- many years previously, after having been requested by Gwydion Brutus himself, by then ennobled as Lord Penllew and sitting in the Senedd as Minister of War. Powerful forces indeed had been roused to concern by the affairs of the man who called himself Macsen Fallo.

Having hit this dead end, the next step in my quest was to search places frequented by war veterans and military hospital out-pensioners in the hope of tracing men who might have served with Fallo.

The banks of the Afon are home to numerous drinking establishments of both good and ill repute.

The veterans of the war are a group of men much celebrated in the popular literature and press of our empire, and yet they are paradoxically little seen in the flesh. They have been called the empire's Hidden Heroes by some, although that term itself is guilty of painting its own sordid romantic gloss over the reality of their existence.

Gathering in taverns, doss-houses and black drop dens, there is an underclass of former servicemen haunted and perhaps irreparably damaged by their experiences, whose scars run far deeper than the crippling physical wounds that many still carry -- men who escape their nightmares by retreating into the comforting embrace of the dream pipe or simply annihilate their treacherous minds each night by drowning themselves in gwirod and ale.

While Ynys Sarff and The High City glared at each other across the sound, down the barrels of our great cannons, these men fought through the dust and mud of distant lands, shedding their blood on foreign soil for the glory of the empire. It would be unfair to say that our island itself was untouched by the years of struggle -- too many of us lost family members, and all of us suffered through the fear and want of those straitened times -- but we can perhaps say that as a people we were insulated from the true reality of the war.

To walk among the out-pensioners and veterans is to see the characters of Autumn of Blood in their own later years, shattered and broken by the war, their stories discarded, rewritten into heroic tales by journalists, novelists and historians alike. The reality of their existence is an unwelcome intrusion into the fantasy that we tell ourselves and our children, just as Fallo's stories must have been to the politicians and generals on whose behalf these men prosecuted that bloody conflict.

Among these run down dens in the Caerafon's forgotten underbelly I heard many blood-curdling tales of the war; the men to whom I spoke seemed to take a delight in competing with each other to shock me. One man in particular, an artilleryman who had lost a leg and an eye in Joyahon, spoke with tremendous glee of a certain incident whose details I will spare you but which he claims was single handedly responsible for the introduction of the army's current cannon safety guidelines. Another man, a cavalry officer, told through laughter and sobs of how he had commandeered digs in a native village and woken up to find the tendons in his horse's legs had been cut during the night. The soldiers had lined up and bayonetted every man in the village one by one, and when none confessed, they had started on the women. Three of his comrades had taken their own lives in the months that followed, while others had gone on to commit even greater crimes. He himself had put a bullet through the head of his crippled horse. Even before they had left, the surviving villagers had started stripping its flesh for food.

Through hearing the tales of these former soldiers, one curious feature of Fallo's writing came to my attention. It had troubled me for some time how the religious interests of the young up country man could have so thoroughly disappeared from the work of the writer whose work I knew so well, but as these veterans talked, something seemed to click into place.

While a follower of the Goddess might see them as rather irreligious works, there is perhaps another spiritual presence in Her place. Particularly in Fallo's early works like Autumn of Blood and The Cursed Treasure of Yuna Mette, the ruined temples and monumental statues and structures that litter the Joyahon deserts, jungles and mountains are a constant presence -- ancient eyes watching over the petty, ant-like, scurrying of the human participants. Could it be that what began in Alwyn of Argoed's Exegesis of The Martyrdom of St. Macsen had been transmuted into something else by Fallo's contact with the ancient magic of the West?

To be continued...

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