As you may remember, a few years back I co-wrote a book called The Trials of Arthur, about an eccentric English biker who changed his name to Arthur Pendragon, and who has been living the life of a contemporary King Arthur ever since. The co-writer was Arthur Pendragon himself. It’s a true story.
What appealed to me at the time was that the man, Arthur, didn’t seek to adapt his lifestyle to suit his new name. He was a biker before and a biker after. He just assumed that, as he was Arthur, whatever he did was what Arthur did.
And indeed, in the process of researching the book, I discovered that he was exactly right. There were several different Arthurs in the historical literature, constructed to serve a number of different purposes, but the earliest Arthur, the Welsh Arthur - as discovered in the Lives of the Saints, The Mabinogion and The Welsh Triads - grubby and fierce and only half-tamed as he was, would have been completely at home on a biker roustabout, and bore more than a passing resemblance to the rough-riding ex-Hell’s Angel that I was working with.
Coincidence? Well maybe. But it makes you wonder what is going on here.
Arthur himself is convinced that he is the reincarnation of the historical Arthur, but in the process of writing the book I was careful to avoid this assertion, mainly because it is too easy to make, too commonplace, and, in the end, too mundane. It is impossible to prove, impossible to disprove, and therefore completely useless as an explanation for anything.
As I said in the book, if reincarnation exists, then we are all reincarnated beings. But what does that tell us? Only that we are capable of making the same mistakes over and over again. And, in any case, while I may indeed have more than one life, there’s only one Christopher James Stone, born of Mary and Eddy Stone in Birmingham in 1953, and once he is dead and gone he is dead and gone forever, never to return. In this sense, however many lives I may have had or hope to have, there is only one that matters: the one I am living right now.
The problem with reincarnation is that everyone with a claim to it always remembers themselves as some exalted being: as Cleopatra, or Napoleon or Admiral Lord Nelson, say (or as King Arthur Pendragon) never as an anonymous Mrs Mop, or a factory worker or a drudge. Which implies that in the past the world was completely populated by aristocrats and heroes, and not one ordinary working person. This is reincarnation as fantasy, of course, and is easily dismissed.
However, I must admit, being surrounded by a bunch of oddballs and crazies as I was while writing the book - all of whom claimed some historical precedence for their current existence - I did find myself fantasising about my own role in history.
This is what I came up with, one very drunken night in Glastonbury. I was Chretien de Troyes, I decided, the first poet to write about King Arthur in the medieval period, and the man who popularised the concept of the Holy Grail. I had never met Arthur in the past, but only written about him. Now I was meeting him for the first time and writing about him as well.
I was lying on a bed at the time of the revelation, in a drunken spin, while everyone else was upstairs, still partying. In Chretien the Holy Grail is not one object, but four, called “the Four Hallows of the Holy Grail”: namely, a grail-cup, a platter, a sword and a wand or spear, and as I burst into the upstairs room, wildly excited at my self-discovery, I looked about me, and there indeed, were the Four Hallows of the Holy Grail, leaning against the walls, or resting on tables, or in the hands of my drinking friends, marking out the four quarters. Arthur’s sword, a chalice cup, a circular silver tray full of wine glasses, and a wooden stave propped up against the wall.
It was a Druid household, and these are the paraphernalia of their spiritual practice, so it was not unnatural to find them in that room; but at the time it struck me as awesomely significant, and I fell on my knees and had Arthur knight me there and then, as the reincarnated chronicler of ancient Arthurian legend.
People said that my name should be Sir Cretin de Birmingham, marking both my mental state and my place of birth. Which will do.
The following day - ouch! - I might have regretted my drunken excesses, but the funny thing about me - and Arthur for that matter - is that we can both believe these things while disbelieving them at the same time. In any case, as the writer of a modern book about a modern-day King Arthur, that’s exactly what I understood myself to be: if not the actual reincarnated chronicler of Arthurian legend, then a contemporary version of the same thing. Not Chretien this time, but Chris.
Later, however, I went even further, and came up with a list of other names that I have been in past lives, including John Bunyan, Hans Christian Anderson and George Orwell. All writers, you will note. All men. Which only goes to show how unimaginative I am when considering these things.
Orwell died in 1950, which means that his soul must have been hanging round in the ether for quite a while before it entered me. Either that or there was a short interval life which only lasted three years. As for the others, it has something to do with the quality of their writing and their subject matter. In other words, is this really a literary exercise, with me merely picking out writers I admire? And doesn’t this illustrate what I was saying earlier, about reincarnation as fantasy?
Well yes. But then, what’s the harm in it? And the fact is, even if I wasn’t about in a past life, someone like me was.
I may not have been John Bunyan or Chretien or Hans Christian Anderson or George Orwell – who knows? - but all of them were mortal and human like me.
In the end, what does it matter? We live. We die. Life goes on. That’s all anyone can say.
The Trials of Arthur
King Arthur Pendragon
Christopher James Stone
Published Price: £12.99
Published By: Element Books
Publication Date: 02 June 2003
Format: Paperback, 256 pages, 23.4cm height, Ill.