Friday, October 8, 2010

The Vita of St. Endellion

In the spring of last year, when I was madly (and, oh, that word is consciously chosen) trying to finish both the Draft Zero of The Novel Formerly Known as Linger and my dissertation, I wrote a lot of flash fiction, and posted it here. (Do a search under the label "free fiction," if you want to read them.) Mostly because I needed to write something that could be finished for my own sanity, but also because I liked to think about people reading my stories. I mean, if I didn't care about that, I'd never type them up and send them around, I'd just let them live, creatures of ink and paper, slumbering in my notebooks.

Some people have been nice, or foolish enough, to ask when I'm going to do that again. It wasn't so much that I chose to stop, but that I've been writing things at longer lengths, things that don't lend themselves well to excerpting here. But I do have a piece that's an excerpt now, that will be a longer thing sometime, that I'm happy to share.

And I normally don't do an explanatory "my inspiration, let me show you it" sort of thing, but there really was a Saint Endellion, and she really was King Arthur's goddaughter.


                        The Vita of St. Endellion (var. Endelient), Patron of Cornwall
                                    MS British Library Cotton Vitellius A.xv

            This unlikely vita is said to be written in the saint’s own hand. This claim, plus the events related, make clear this is a document of far greater interest to fabulists than scholars of either history or religion.

            I was seven the first time I picked up a sword. Picked it up, and leveled it at the throat of my cousin, Mordred, who had pulled the tail of my godfather’s dog one too many times that day. This was deemed a remarkable action only because I was a girl.
            Well, not only.
            It was my godfather’s sword I held. My godfather, Arthur. His sword, Excalibur.
            Those watching said it was a miracle, that I could hold that blade, wrought of star-iron and story, and not perish in flame. I was seven. It was a miracle that I could hold that blade, which was near as tall as I was, at all.
            Someone, Bors or Cei maybe, moved to take it from me. “Let the child be brave,” Arthur said. “Besides, I can think of no better use for my sword than to defend a friend.”
            Craven Mordred turned and ran. That evening, I would find my sheets smeared with privy filth. He was a snake in the dark even then.
Arthur smiled at me, and the smile strengthened my aching shoulders and trembling wrists. I knelt to my king as I had seen his knights do – Excalibur’s lower end on the ground, my hands on the sword’s quillion, forehead bowed to rest on the langet. By his own hand, Arthur raised me up, and from that day I served as his p[…]

The manuscript becomes illegible here. It is unclear if the damage is from the Ashburnham House fire, or some other source.

[…]nt Arthur, in a rage, slew the man.
I do not claim to understand what happened next. Arthur’s actions were justified. The cow was the only source of food in the village. The tales of the miraculous cow whose milk sustained an entire town came, as Christmas miracle, to Camelot. Fast on their heels rode the tales of the bandit lords who harassed the town, in hopes of claiming the cow for their own. Arthur gathered a small company of knights, and we rode out to protect the marvel, and the village blessed by its presence. The Lord of Trenteny had gone against all laws of man and God when he slaughtered the beast.
It was the cow I knelt down next to, laid my hands on, not the man. Not thinking of resurrection, just of compassion for the poor, dumb creature, who had lived and died a miracle, and knew it not.
But it was the man who stood, whole and hale, blinking in the light like Lazarus upon emerging from the cave.
He prostrated himself before Arthur, begged forgiveness, swore allegiance. Arthur gave the welfare of the village into his keeping, as penance.
I left Camelot, after that. Not because Arthur asked. Indeed, he was one of the few who did not draw their garments back from me in the hall, or make the sign against evil as I passed. I had bewitched Arthur, they said, into making me a knight, and now I would raise up all his enemies, create an army of the rightfully slain to stand against Camelot.
I heard Mordred’s voice in the whispers.
I asked my king, my godfather, to release me from his service, which he did. I asked him to reclaim the sword he had put into my keeping the day he gave me my knighthood. He did not. The day I took my leave of him, Arthur gave me one more thing to take with me to my hermitage, which was to be as far from Camelot as two oxen could walk in a day. A blessing most precious, the gift of a friend.
I saw my godfather again but once[…]

The remainder of the manuscript has been overwritten. On the third recto page of the palimpsest is a small drawing. It does not appear to be St. Endellion, who is, in the few extant images of her, depicted with her miraculous cow. Rather, it is of a woman in armour, with a sword in her right hand, and a large white dog standing at her left side. Her hand is on the dog’s head. This iconography is unknown outside of this manuscript, and there is no scholarly consensus as to whom this woman represents.


  1. That is...I think I'm speechless. I have always had a fascination with Aruthurian legend (I blame The Child Queen and The High Queen for that -- and Tennyson). I never formally studied it (my focus, in graduate school, was on Ted Hughes), but I tend to love all things Camelot. This is no exception.

    Your writing is very good. It draws the reader in and represents itself well. And this makes me want to read more. So, thank you for that. I promise I'm not just blowing sunshine up your existence. This was fun to read.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Arthur wasn't my focus either - too much smiting in Malory - but I love the stories.