The saddest line in all of Western literature is at the end of Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur. The divinely blessed Round Table has been destroyed, betrayed and sabotaged by the very knights who had been charged with its protection. King Arthur has been utterly defeated by jealous, power hungry hordes whipped into fury by his own kinsman, Sir Mordred. Sir Bedivere, Arthur’s only remaining faithful knight, assists the dying king onto an otherworldly barge that will disappear into the dawn. All is ruined, lost, abandoned, betrayed. Britain has been left to savage, godless men. As he watches the king disappear, Bedivere cries out, “Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies?”
This line seems particularly apt today. Bedivere’s lonely cry of sorrow has become a dull roar. It seems clear that we are caught up in the rapid decay of Western civilization itself, and the darkness and godlessness of the wreckage is far too close. The perpetrators of the current chaos are—almost to a man—many of those charged with the protection and defense of our civil and religious institutions. Like Mordred, they ransack and lay waste, seeking out the last bastions of stability, orthodoxy, morality, tradition. They seek to destroy that which God has blessed in our own era. And we are sick at heart, alone among our enemies.
As the world as we have known it tears itself ever more frantically apart, I have found it strangely consoling to remember that this is not actually abnormal. J.R.R. Tolkien, while still a student at Oxford, struggled to cope with the outbreak of the First World War—one of the first major tremors of the civilizational earthquake bringing our epoch to what appears to be its end. He asked one of his Catholic professors for guidance. The old don told him to look at history: peace, prosperity, health, even widely-held religious orthodoxy and harmony are bright, brief flashes in the long account of humanity’s struggle in the Vale of Tears.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The good news is, as history shows, a new era and a renewed civilization will rise up from the wreckage of our own. When ancient Rome’s glory faded and barbarian hordes swept across Europe, many people despaired as they saw civilization itself perish. There were ugly days, harsh men, sacking of churches, martyring of the faithful. When the Byzantine Empire crumbled, there was despair as her beauty was crushed by the ideological boot of Islamic power. But that was not the end for Western civilization, nor was it the end of the Church. In every historical cataclysm that ends an epoch, there is a time of darkness and struggle before, eventually, the destroyers fail and the builders reassert themselves and create anew.
The Church, no matter how ugly we have made her, will experience true, widespread reform and shine again in splendor. She has suffered defeats aplenty throughout history. There have been evil popes, power-hungry laity, wide-spread heresies of every shape and size. But just like Western civilization, the Church will muddle through the bad days and worse men until better men rise up and rebuild what is falling into ruin. The bad news is, if history is our guide, it might be after you and I are long gone. So how are we to act? What shall become of me, of you?
What became of Sir Bedivere? One of Tolkien’s childhood friends, Geoffrey Bache Smith, took up Bedivere’s story in a poem he worked on amid the bombs and rats and poison gas in the trenches of the First World War. The lonely knight stumbles upon a hermitage where he discovers Arthur’s own bishop, now in hiding. The two are shortly joined by the penitent Sir Lancelot, who had been Arthur’s greatest friend before committing adultery with Queen Guinevere, leaving Camelot vulnerable to attack.
Together, the ever-faithful Bedivere, the repentant sinner Lancelot, and the holy, persecuted cleric hold a light to the darkness around them. Together, they remain faithful in a faithless world, holding fast to the beauty and goodness of the past for the sake of a future when they know Arthur will return and beat back Britain’s foes.
So too must we. Western civilization and the Church have survived destruction over these many millennia because of the Bediveres and Lancelots and their bishops who chose to be faithful to the truth, to preserve the beauty, and to hold on to the good that had made the better days worthy, no matter how badly the odds were against them. Geoffrey Bache Smith did not live to see the end of the war or the brief peace it restored. But he went to his death in No Man’s Land believing strongly that all was not lost forever. His final poem, titled “So we lay down the Pen,” speaks to this hope:
So we lay down the pen,
So we forbear the building of the rime,
And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time
Till ends the strife, and then,
When the New Age is verily begun,
God grant that we may do the things undone.
Now, like then, is the time to steel our hearts and commit ourselves to the hard task of keeping a little light flickering in the gales of hatred, destruction, and the constant temptation to despair. A friend of mine loves to repeat Dostoevsky’s phrase, “beauty will save the world.” But if that is to happen, we have to save beauty for the world.
Our ancestors hid their glorious icons from the iconoclastic hordes—often commanded by prelates—who came to smash and burn them in a fit of misguided zeal. Our ancestors hid their chalices and illuminated manuscripts from opportunistic pillagers at the cost of their own homes and bodies. Our ancestors hid priests in holes, whispered the Mass behind bushes and in barns, though it meant financial ruin, social disgrace, and even death. Our ancestors remained faithful in the darkness when civilization came crashing down, time and again, around them. They remained faithful because they knew that their shattered times were not the end of the story. Like Bedivere, they preserved and conserved, waiting for better days, even if they knew they would never see them themselves.
And always remember King Arthur’s final injunction to Sir Bedivere in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s beautiful rendition of the Death of Arthur: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice rise like a fountain…night and day.”
[Image: William Henry Margetson’s illustration for Legends of King Arthur and His Knights by Janet MacDonald (1914): “Sir Bedivere put King Arthur gently into the barge.”]