William Henry Babcock and Cian of the Chariots

William Henry Babcock and Cian of the Chariots

13 February 2014

One of the great joys of teaching a course on Arthurian romance is taking on the pleasantly ridiculous task of trying to read everything ever written by someone bitten by the King Arthur bug. As always, I began with the nineteenth century, since it has always been my window into Arthurian romance, from my first Dover editions of Andrew Lang to my book on Lady Charlotte Guest. This time, I tried William Henry Babcock's Cian of the Chariots. Cited by Alan and Barbara Lupack as the first American historical Arthurian novel, it remains surprisingly readable, despite its distinctly nineteenth-century patina.

Arthur led his mounted lances and battle-axes...

It is a rousing tale whose historically authentic battle scenes rival in detail those of Geoffrey of Monmouth. (Illustrations by George Foster Barnes, 1869-1914, from the book's first edition.)

These battle scenes are offset by several romances, both happily and tragically resolved, including a triangle among Cian, the queenly Aurelia, and, briefly, Arthur, that creates a clear counterpoint to the unhappy triangle among Arthur, Guinevere and the Welsh Maelgwn (Lancelot).

Aurelia drew near doubtfully

Born in St. Louis in 1849, Babcock trained as a lawyer, and practiced law in the Washington, D.C. area for most of his life. But he was also a keen, if romantically-inclined, amateur historian, penning such works as Legendary Islands of the Atlantic and The Two Lost Centuries of Britain, in addition to at least three other novels. One of these, Kent Fort Manor, sheds a particularly interesting light on the professional discussions within the U.S. Patent office, where Babcock worked - for Babcock claims in his preface to have first heard of the concept of inherited memory from his superior there. There is no word as to whether this occurred in the context of a patent application or simply as water cooler chit-chat.

Babcock was also a poet, publishing at least three volumes of verse. Admittedly, critics such as The Cambridge Review were less than enthusiastic, remarking on Lord Stirling's Stand, and Other Poems:

There is hardly a sufficiency of rhyme here, and some of the lines of the first stanza are rather hard to read; but this is the chief weakness of Mr. Babcock's poetry, a weakness in form. Form is not everything; indeed, it is little, where imagination is lacking, but its absence greatly weakens the effect of verse. There is a constant progress in this respect visible in the series of poems, but something still remains to be done.

Babcock's poetic tastes are more happily realized in Cian of the Chariots, where he makes the historical Welsh bards Llywarch and Cian the heroes of his Arthurian epic, painting them both as warrior-priests, as quick with a sword as an englyn - or a prophecy.

Cian's right wheel struck and shattered...

The bard/warrior Llywarch is based on a more or less genuine historical figure, Llywarch hen, or Llywarch the Old, who was said to have fought along with Geraint at the Battle of Llongborth. After that, Llywarch established himself at the court of Urien (also often associated with the legendary bard Taliesin), where he "lived bravely, clothed himself sumptuously, did not spare the ale and mead, and was blessed with 24 sons." When Urien fell in battle, Llywarch was charged with returning Urien's severed head to Rheged. After that, Llywarch found himself friendless and destitute, sustained by nothing but the milk from a single cow. Supposedly, he ended his days in a hut alone with his harp, until a monk converted him and witnessed his death in the bosom of the church.

Cian suggests a much happier fate for the bard. In Babcock's version, Llywarch, along with the fairy prince, Dynan, go to the Scaur, where the pagan refugees from Isurium dwell in cliff caves. There, Llywarch meets and marries Sanawg, the semi-supernatural daughter of the magician Gwydion, who created her out of flowers. Gwydion and his flower-maiden are characters Babcock poaches cheerfully from the Mabinogion. But at the same he provides his reader with the following meticulous scholarly footnote:

The Scaur. [Page 208.] The Victoria caverns of the King's Scaur were first adequately explored and described by Professor Boyd Dawkins, author of "Cave-Hunting." The relics in them show that refugees from ruined northern cities, like Isurium, at one time took refuge there; this occupancy lasting until civilization was in part worn away, or until they made room for more barbarous successors.

Dynan, Llwarch's companion, is destined for a less happy fate. A faery prince, he is known as "Dynan of the Three Shouts" because:

In such a country as this dwelt Dynan's mother's mother's mother, I know not how remote in ancestry. One day, passing through the meadows to bathe, as was her custom, in a secret pool fed by undying springs under curtaining boughs, she heard a faint cavern-muffled call from before her, and was minded to return. But coming a little nearer, she found the place quite vacant, save for dipping ouzels and water-rats that went gliding away. Having waited a while, she laid aside her garments, and stepped in through the shallows. Then again out swelled the cry, but now deep-throated, vehement, exultant, and very near, seeming to heave up the water before some bodily presence. It thrilled and wrapped and all but overcame her; yet she sprang away, snatching her clothing, and wrapping it around her as she ran. And, running thus, she heard yet a third time that voice of the under-world, but now sent after her in accents of more than human despair. Yet she had seen no form at all; and the Three Shouts was the only name she could ever give, or which might be given.

Eventually Dynan blows his elvish horn to summon the faery host to save Arthur's army, despite the fact that enables the Sidhe to carry him off to his destined faery bride and away from Llywarch's sister Freur forever. Dynan's story is obviously an amalgam of many common themes in folklore - the most prominent among them that of the faery lover. However, I have yet to trace this tale to a specific character in Welsh history or legend, and suspect that the fact the name Dynan simply means "little person" in Welsh points to his being a simple composite.

The historicity of Babcock's hero Cian, is almost as murky as Dynan's. Nennius (ca. 800), mentions him as a poet that flourished during the late sixth century: "Then Talhaearn Tad Awen gained renown in poetry, and (A)neirin and Taliesin and Blwchfardd and Cian who is called Gwenith Gwawd gained renown together at the same time in British poetry." But there are no further details in the historical record, nor are there any works attributed to Cian - beyond "The Song of Cian" that Babcock himself composed.

Where is the woodland city,
The city beside the sea,
White from her ramparts towering,
Queen of the Andred lea?

The Lupacks suggest, somewhat unkindly, that "The Song of Cian" sounds more like Edgar Allan Poe than any Welsh bard (so perhaps it's no coincidence that the final poem in Babcock's Legends of the New World; is titled "Edgar Poe's Grave.") Perhaps because he had some of Llywarch's own poetry to use as a model, Babcock's "Song of Llywarch" does better. An englyn, it does manage to match the original Welsh form's repetitive, incremental structure in passages such as:

White was the great steed under him,
White was the gleam of mailed limb-
Swift as the warrior seraphim!

White was the steed, but dashed with red,
White were the locks that blew outspread,
White was the sword-hilt overhead.

White as the sea-wave's flower of foam!
One shout for Britain, Christ, and Rome!
Horseman and horse went shattering home.

Just as Babcock's poetry strives to recreate the voices of these lost bards, Babcock's faeries, magicians, druids and flower-maidens give flesh to the pagan culture that was lost beneath the rising tide of Christianity - an invasion that Babcock paints as more disastrous than the Romans and Saxons combined. Granted, Babcock's version of this world does not stint on High Druidry.

Druids bore tokens with them, and charms...

But Babcock's focusing his story on Arthur's fatal gesture of removing the head of Bran the Blessed from the White Tower of London, where it had defended Britain since the Age of Legends, casts the long tradition of King Arthur as the perfect Christian monarch in a very different light. No longer is Arthur the one betrayed; indeed, the romance between Maelgwn and Guinevere fades into near-irrelevance. Instead, Britain is betrayed by Arthur's arrogance in insisting that only the Christian god must protect his country, in a novel that offers a very American - and surprisingly modern - call for tolerance and diversity.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird