A message from Father Nick 80

Caerleon Roman Amphitheatre – a round table?

The plight of today’s refugees touches our hearts, and it is right that we should respond to their need. But they remind us too of our own complicated background. We are all the product of many migrations of people.

Sometimes those people can seem to be with us still. The writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947), who was born in Caerleon, retained a special feeling for his native town. He said that he could always feel the presence of the Romans and Silurian Britons who had lived there long before him.

It was in this “city of the legion”, that the third century martyrs, Julius and Aaron were killed (they, with St Alban, are the only known martyrs of Roman Britain). And many traces of its ancient past remain. The monk “historian” Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1095 – c.1155) may have been Breton by origin (following the Battle of Hastings, Monmouth was in the hands of governors). But he too was impressed by Caerleon’s Roman remains – enough to make them a setting for his stories of King Arthur. We are closely linked with one of the world’s great cycles of stories.

Arthur was “mediaevalised”, and his story given a French code of knightliness. The “round table” came to stand for aspirational, abstract values (in Chaucer’s words, Chivalrie, trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisie). Such values resonate with us today.

By contrast, our Anglo-Saxon records show a robust physicality. Courage and strength are conveyed by words like mod and hond – heart and hand. The Anglo-Saxons too were deeply religious, and many of their homilies survive, but their poems evoke for us a world of dark, threatening forces: the world of Beowulf and Grendel, of the lonely “Seafarer” and the “Wanderer”.

One poem especially, retells for us the great central drama of our faith. It is known as the Dream of the Rood and may date from the late seventh or early eighth century (part of it is carved on a stone cross of that era). Certainly, it reflects a time of warlike values, in which Jesus as a young hero overcomes his enemies. The “Rood”, of course, is the Cross, and the dreamer who sees it is offering us a vision of salvation.

The vision alternates. At first, the dreamer sees a cross covered with gold and gems, a symbol of triumph. Then it begins to run with blood and shows itself to be a gallows. Then the cross itself begins to speak, describing how it was once a tree cut down to be re-erected as an instrument of death. As such, it witnessed Jesus going to his death like an Anglo-Saxon warrior going into battle – an Action rather than a Passion:

Ongyrede hine tha geong haeleth, thaet waes God aelmihtig,
strang and stithmod; gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhthe, thaet he wolde mancyn lysan.

In modern English:

Then he stripped himself, the young hero, who was God almighty.
Strong and firm-hearted, he ascended the high gallows.
Brave in the sight of many, that he might free humankind.

Of course, Christ’s death is followed by his resurrection, and the cross describes a cosmic panorama of judgment and redemption. This is a wonderfully original poem – and, like so many things that come to us from strangers, it is a precious gift to be gratefully shared.

The Ruthwell Cross, 8th century.