Not Getting to Caer Siddi: Sea Fortresses, Warships and Prisoners of War

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.

The_Sinking_of_the_Cunard_Liner_Ss_Lancastria_Off_St_Nazaire_HU3325
Sinking of the Lancastria, Wikipedia Commons

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.

1280px-Chateau_du_Taureau
Chateaux du Taureau, Wikipedia Commons

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.

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “Not Getting to Caer Siddi: Sea Fortresses, Warships and Prisoners of War

  1. Chilling war story about the sinking of this British vessel. And yes, imprisonment has led to many creative, cultural breakthrough. The most influential text on the Middle Ages, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” was written by Boethius while in prison awaiting his execution. Didn’t Gandhi also write a lot in prison? Guess there’s not much else to do there…..:-)

  2. For reasons you’ll understand I find it quite hard to look at that photograph of the Lancastria. I can’t do so without wondering where my father was at that moment …

  3. I’m not sure about the specific parallels you draw between that shipwreck and Arthur’s journey in Prydwen. But it might be useful to think about this in terms of parallel mythic structures. It is often noted that the episode in the mabinogi of Branwen, which narrates a journey to Ireland and involves a cauldron, is thematically parallel to the journey to the Otherworld in Preiddeu Annwn : one transposed to the other. What is often not noticed is that there is a similar parallel contained within the Third Branch itself as those few who return from Ireland then do go to the Otherworld. This (among other things) is a sort of ‘tag’ to the story, re-stating its mythic content. Looking at things in this way means understanding how mythic narratives are related to ‘secular’ narratives. In our own times the most common way of writing imaginatively is through the use of metaphor (*that* as if *this*), but mythic writing in the past more often employed metonomy (*that* and *this*) to draw parallels between different things or events, neither given primacy but one simply echoing the other. So things happening in Thisworld and things happening in the Otherworld are perceived of as simultaneous events rather than one illustrating the other. The Mabinogi is full of examples where a story here and a story there seem to be the same story in a different context. To get to Faery we might say it is not necessary to move physically from where you are. The journey, if conceived of metaphorically, is an imaginative journey. But in fact in can help to make a physical journey to enact the journey to Faery: visit a sacred place, go to an evocative portal, even move to another room where certain special objects are. One journey enacts the other. When Myrddin retires to become a wild man in the forest, there is a narrative supplying a reason for this in terms of a battle in Thisworld. But it is also a journey that takes him out of Thisworld. Orfeo, after Heroudis is taken into Faery, also goes off to the forest as a wild man, and that is how he finds her, so this is also a journey to Faery, though Heroudis herself got there simply by going to sleep under the grafted apple tree. In the Greek story of Orpheus it is perhaps significant that before going to the Land of the Dead for Eurydice, he had been one of the Argonauts. In another Greek story I’m currently re-visiting, many men go to Troy, but fewer return, and one of them, Athena’s favourite Odysseus, comes back by a circuitous route including enchanted islands and the Underworld. For him the journey to Troy and back is also a journey through otherworlds.

    So it may be that to get to Caer Siddi you do need first to enact a parallel journey, or imaginatively inhabit a parallel event such as the one you describe. Just maybe.

    1. I think I was seeing thematic links rather than parallels between Arthur’s conflict and loss of his men and the Lancastria and between Blanqui and earlier ‘exalted’ prisoners. And I guess these can be found throughout myth and history if we’re open to them, although some seem to come together for different people at different times. I’m intrigued by your revisiting of Odysseus’ journey and will look forward to hearing about that 🙂

  4. I can’t help but think about this in the context of Gordon White’s Star.Ships (which you should read if you have the chance). The story-echoes are there for those with ears to hear them.

  5. Reblogged this on History, Archaeology, Folklore and so on and commented:
    Not Getting to Caer Siddi: Sea Fortresses, Warships and Prisoners of War
    Posted on March 5, 2016 by lornasmithers
    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.

  6. And Rosa Luxemburg wrote much in prison, well she was there a lot! Maybe the memories of the sea are like feelings, you can’t ignore them, they will make themselves known somehow. Especially when sidelined or ignored. You listen. They come flooding to you. A journey home. Recognition they know you will give them.

    1. I do like the notion of ‘the memories of the sea’ and their flooding in when one is open and listens and is prepared to give recognition. Thanks for that 🙂

  7. This is very powerful. Thank you. Thank you. Reading your post I was immediately transported – not to the photographs of my father’s warship in WW2 – but to a shamanic story I recently heard.

    A contemporary Shaman in the US had been trying to set up a workshop in Colorado some years ago. All was going pretty well with preparations, when, at the last minute, the project fell through : everyone pulled out at the last minute. She set up another workshop the following year. Same thing – all was going smoothly and then at the last minute, everyone cancelled once more. The third year she called together several people who truly wanted to do this workshop, and she asked them to journey together on what was happening. How could it be that in such a beautiful region, close to the mountains, all these workshops got cancelled ? And moreover, how, in this amazing region close to the Rockies and such beautiful powerful nature, could there be so many bizarre killings and shoot outs, which plagued Colorado at the time ? The answer came from a Shamanic journey, in which they discovered that in this region, many years before, a native Indian Shaman had been working to keep the white settlers from the their territory. In the process of his work, the Shaman had been killed. From that time onwards there had been disruption and chaos. The Shaman organizing the workshop explained that as the original Shamanic work had been interrupted, and when the dead are not enabled to make their transition in the appropriate way, they continue to inhabit the land and a kind of chaos reigns. Only by working with the dead and the departed, can we heal the land, and indeed the sea. I’m working with a very troubled piece of land at the moment, and I am realizing that the issues here are much deeper than meet the eye.

  8. I find it so interesting how historic events can create disturbances in the Otherworld, a kind of ongoing reciprocity, I guess.
    I’ve got to read Blanqui!

  9. Caer Siddi was the poetic name given to a Cistercian abbey on mountain land in Connacht called Sliabh Seana-thuath in Irish, meaning ‘the mountain of the old tuatha, – tuatha meaning ‘tribes’. The reference is to pre-historic tribes who inhabited the region. The allusion to tuatha in this mountain-land name evoked the Tuatha De Danann in the poet’s mind, these latter having been pre-historic and pre-goidelic invaders of Ireland in Irish mythology. According to that mythology these Tuatha, when defeated by the next wave of invaders of Ireland, supposedly went into the mountains (literally) and there they lived on as the ‘fairies’. In the poet’s mind the monks who built their abbey on this particular mountain imitated these pre-historic ‘fairies’, and so he called their abbey Caer Siddi, this being Welsh for Cathair Sidhe, meaning ‘the stone fort of the fairies’.

Comments are closed.