Last year I attempted some journeywork with the otherworldly sea fortress Caer Siddi which did not go to plan. Setting out from the beach and swimming out to sea aboard my white mare, I noticed the waves becoming increasingly turbulent.
A horn blew and I saw a white sleek-prowed warship cutting through the water ahead. I recognised this as Prydwen (‘Fair Form’) the vessel of Arthur and his warriors. The horizon turned red and flashed with explosions. I saw the dark forms of other warships.
The waters rocked. At this point I knew I wasn’t getting to Caer Siddi. I turned my mare back to the beach and slipped from the otherworld dumbfounded. Reading medieval Welsh stories about Caer Siddi hadn’t prepared me for modern warships and warfare.
What did this mean? I started looking for clues in the world around me. In an entirely unrelated e-mail, a friend mentioned the sinking of the Lancastria off the French Port of St Nazaire on the 17th of July, 1940, whilst evacuating British nationals and troops from France.
At least 6,000 people (9,000 has been estimated) were aboard the Lancastria when she was bombed by a German aircraft. Three hits to the hold caused the spillage of 300 tons of oil. Twenty minutes later the ship capsized and sank. As the passengers struggled for their lives in the oily water they were strafed by machine gun fire from German planes and tracer bullets fired to set light to the oil.
2447 survivors were rescued, many of whom were shipped to Plymouth. Twice that number perished, making the sinking of the Lancastria Britain’s worst maritime disaster and the largest loss of British forces in a single engagement in World War II.
Great controversy surrounds Winston Churchill’s cover-up of this tragedy. A D-Notice prevented newspapers and broadcasters reporting it because two weeks after the Dunkirk Evacuation, British people ‘had had enough bad news’.
Since then the British government have refused to acknowledge the site of the wreck as a war grave. As the result of an extended campaign, the sinking of the Lancastria was finally marked by the government in July last year: 75 years on.
There seems to be some meaning in my vision of warships in the year the Lancastria’s sinking was acknowledged. Lines from ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ stating that of ‘three full loads of Prydwen’ that went into Caer Siddi only seven came back recall the terrible death toll of seaborne warfare.
At the same time I was led to re-reading Eternity by the Stars by Louis Auguste Blanqui. This was written in 1871 whilst he was imprisoned in the Fort Du Taureau ‘Castle of the Bull’ (a sea-fortress off the north of Morlaix in France) for his radical political beliefs during the reign of the transitional government of Adolphe Thiers.
Kept in solitary confinement as the only prisoner of the island and banned from approaching his window on pain of death, Blanqui penned a philosophical treatise that would inspire Nietzsche’s eternal return and Walter Benjamin’s critique of progress.
Some of Blanqui’s insights are hauntingly Taliesin-like. The consensus amongst scholars is that Taliesin’s time in the prison of Arianrhod and acquisition of his chair in Caer Siddi are metaphors for Bardic initiation. Taliesin’s omnipresence is connected with his imprisonment.
Blanqui’s claims are equally profound. However the voice of a lonely 19thC radical in his sea-dungeon possesses none of the bravado of the Taliesin persona:
‘The universe is eternal, the stars are perishable, and since they form all matter, every one of them has passed through billions of existences. Gravity, thanks to its resurrecting shocks, divides, blends and kneeds them incessantly to the point that every one is a compound of the dust of others. Every inch of the ground that we walk has been part of the whole universe.’
‘Every human being is eternal at every second of its existence. That which I am writing in this moment, in a dungeon of the Fort de Taureau, I have written and shall write forever, on a table, with a quill, under clothes and in entirely similar circumstances. And so it is for all of us.’
‘At heart, man’s eternity by the stars is melancholic, and even sadder this estrangement of brother-worlds caused by the inexorable barrier of space. So many identical populations come to pass without having suspected each other’s existence! Well, not really: this shared existence is discovered at last in the 19th century but who shall believe it?’
Is it mere coincidence that I’m led to Eternity by the Stars as I’m trying to work out why I didn’t get to Caer Siddi: The Fortress of the Zodiac?
My insights have led me to believe that the medieval Welsh material about Caer Siddi is not only a metaphor for the initiatory journey of bards but may have a basis in the realities of seaborne warfare and prisoners of war.
If it does not refer to historical events it perhaps originated from the efforts of people to make sense of disastrous military expeditions from which only a handful of friends and kinsmen returned and what they endured whilst imprisoned by their enemies.
The stories of Brân’s battle in Ireland, Cunedda driving the Irish out of Wales and Arthur’s theft of the cauldron of Diwrnarch Wyddel (‘the Irishman’) refer to hostilities between the Welsh and Irish that no doubt had maritime dimensions.
Initiatory experiences during periods of imprisonment are rare but the number of existing testimonies (others include Aneirin, Jean Genet and Nicholas R. Mann) demonstrate their reality and provide hope and inspiration for prisoners of today.
I didn’t get to Caer Siddi yet, blown off course, I discovered valuable stories from the modern era which sadly continue to echo the ancient themes of sea-fortresses, warships and prisoners of war.