Long ago, well before this time, but when the world was even then already old, there was an ancient college high up on a mountain peak, well away from any city or village. It was a college of Druids. Some called them Alchemists and some called them Healers, some called them Seers and many called them Philosophers and indeed they were all of these things. They also acted as Judges when called upon to do so.
It was here that the Bards studied and received their training.
As some of you may already know the studies of the Druids are very long indeed and so it is with the Bards. This tale is about a young man, Alwyn, who had spent nineteen years in his studies to become a Bard.
He learned the natural sciences, logic, philosophy, mathematics, geometry, music, grammar and syntax, oratory, history, astronomy and navigation.
After ten years of these general studies he began to memorise the key features all of the known myths and much poetry and the arts of storytelling and all of the forms of poetry as well as the twenty four ancient forms and their uses and the secrets of Taliesin’s work and the truths of The Matter of Britain. He had learned how to make his own poetry sing with internal beauty and how to hurl a curse so fearful that it could stop an enemy in his tracks.
As you can tell he really had to work hard but he was happy to do so. A Bard was free to tell a tale and say what he liked in free speech wherever he went in those days. He was also a welcome messenger carrying news of what went on in the land. Alwyn regarded it all as a great privilege. He wanted to be nothing else and was aware that there is no end to learning.
So, time passed and after another nine years he had the ability to spin a myth into a good tale to speak with a fine harp accompaniment or to play a music to which no feet could be still at a village dance and compose a fine verse on demand, and beautiful poetry from his own heart and from seeing the essence of nature. He then was set a task, a question, to deepen his understanding of story and to send him journeying, out in the world.
He was to be a travelling Bard. He was too young, inexperienced and unknown to be a great Bard in a great Court for by then he was only six and twenty years on this earth. He was a Bard for the people. He was given a harp as the tool of his craft, a pair of good strong boots and a blue cloak against the cold.
When he set off it was autumn, just as it is now. He carried little, just a small bag of the most necessary things and a hip flask of mead. He took up his harp and slung it onto his shoulder and began his journey of a year and a day..
He descended the rocky path into the woods below. All the leaves on the trees shone with orange and gold and the woods were full of sounds as the creatures bustled about preparing their winter stores.
He thought of the myths and stories he knew and none seemed to fully answer…… ”What is honour?”
The young Bard realised that for all his studies he had less than he thought in his own store for he knew little of the outside world, least of all, about the question he had been asked and was, at that moment, pondering.
A year and a day to answer a question.
”What is honour?” —- the words turned over and over in his mind. He had entered the shelter of the college aged seven. He knew he was himself not qualified to answer the question so he resolved to ask where he could, as indeed he had been instructed to do.
He gathered food here and there as he walked and drank the fresh sparkling water of the mountain springs and composed a new tune in his head as he walked. The words for a song came to him easily but the nature of honour eluded him.
As the sun was beginning to sink he had reached a valley and in the soft curve at the bottom of the valley a small well kept cottage was nestled, by a still grey lake fringed with reeds. There were sheep in a nearby enclosure, bought in for safe keeping at dusk.
A small boy, unafraid, ran out of the cottage door to meet him. The young boy knew a Bard when he saw one and was excited at the prospect of a tale. The boy was soon followed by his father and mother who were friendly, open hearted folk who invited the young Bard to share their supper in return for a tale or two and they all soon sat down by the fire for a bowl of mutton stew.
The Bard introduced himself as Alwyn and told them many tales that night, tales chosen with care to suit his audience, tales that made them cry a little and laugh a lot. He understood his audience well enough from his studies and even more by watching the firelight and delight or sorrow in their eyes, falling or fading and flaring up just as the flames did in the hearth.
They all grew tired, and the boy was long asleep, lulled by the sound of the harp, so they gave Alwyn a bed for the night and in the morning, as he broke the nights fast with them he asked his question. The farmer looked ponderous but the boy swiftly and brightly piped up with an answer.
”If you have honour you don’t steal from your mother or father because they are the people who care for you most and gave you life.”
His mother and father nodded and smiled but his father, looking thoughtful, added,
”Aye but what if you’re starving and ain’t got no coin? then you can steal but from only the rich. I’d steal the kings rabbits out of the wood and mind I don’t get caught and still keep my honour I reckon. He would kill me for it if I was caught though. Remember that my boy! But he should not have let you starve in the first place, I say. Where is the honour in starving folk? Good question it is and I have answered with all I know of it. High born folk will have another opinion of honour i suppose but I think i am as honourable as they. I just know we have been lucky and not had to think about honour too much.”
The Mother spoke then.
” I say it’s being true to the people you love and giving kindness to strangers. If you don’t do that it doesn’t matter if you are honourable in some fine way or not! If you don’t do those two things you are just plain bad!”
Alwyn thanked them for their hospitality and he took up his harp and slung it onto his shoulder and travelled on his way.
He told many stories in his travels and asked the question many times but felt himself no nearer to any certain truth of the nature of honour at all and had formed no opinion of his own, except that it had something to do with kindness and honesty.
Time was passing swiftly.
One day Alwyn reached the walls of a town. The gate stood wide open, for this was a peaceful time, but it was still always guarded by men at arms. Alwyn noticed that a few of them, off duty, were sitting around a fire and he wandered over to ask if he might warm himself and tell them a tale.
He told them tales of glory and battles and heroism and of the crafty schemes of merchants and the witty jests of village landlords in taverns which delighted them. Then he asked them ”What is honour?”
They all answered much the same.
”I serve the Lord of this land and he serves the King. I made a vow to do so. I took an oath and to keep that oath is a matter of honour for me.”
”And what if he commands you to do something you think is clearly wrong?” asked Alwyn.
The most outspoken soldier paused in polishing his sword and answered, with a tone of annoyance, ”I must obey whether I like it or not. I took an oath. I am not an oath breaker! A man who breaks a seriously taken oath is a liar and a cheat and has no honour at all! My Lord must also keep his oath to the King. We are equal in that.”
”And the King? Does he take an oath?” Alwyn asked.
”Of course!” said the Knight. ”He makes an oath to God!”
”He must claim to know very precisely Gods Will?”
The Knight gave the Bard a narrow eyed look and said, ‘I don’t question that. It’s not my place. I know what honour is and I live by mine.”
”You make it seem so simple” said Alwyn, with a smile, ‘Thank you.”
If Alwyn had not safe passage and free speech by right in the land it might have gone ill for him to be asking such a question about the King, but, as always, he took up his harp and slung it onto his shoulder and travelled on his way.
One day, as the first snows were beginning to fall and the red berries shone out against the dark leaves of the holly, he met an old man with a donkey, sheltering at the side of the road, huddled up against the chill air and stirring a pot of thin soup. He invited Alwyn to share his meagre meal which had a wonderful scent of herbs about it, rising in steam in the frosty air.
Alwyn felt sure, that being older in years than other people he had asked, this man might have a good answer. When he heard the question the old man nodded sagely and admitted it was by no means an easy question.
”I wrote a verse of my own about this,” he said. ”It does not answer your question but it does warn of Honour’s most dangerous companion …..
”Honour’s not without grave risks, you will see,
Since close beside Honour’s throne sits Pride;
And Pride’s self-gazing shatters love inside
The soul, thus leaving naught but echoed “Me!”
So heed my paltry lines I write: Stand tall
When called before the crowd, a hero’s crown
Receiving. Wait, when you take it for your own
and know, Pride goes forth before a fall.”
At this moment a younger man came out of a nearby wood, attracted by the fire. He was simply dressed but he had a very fine horse and the horse wore armour and its reins were held by a squire. The man was very polite in his manner. His hair was turning just a little grey and he looked tired and care worn. The old man stood and bowed stiffly and invited him to rest at the fire. Alwyn greeted him with a smile.
”I could not help but overhear your verse” said the Knight, for such he was. He took a seat on a moss covered stone near the fire.
”We were discussing the nature of honour Sir” said Alwyn, passing the Knight and the old man a cup each of mead from his flask. ”May we have your own opinion?”
”Indeed” said the Knight,, ”for honour is the core at the heart of my life. It’s a continuous reaching for a better version of ourselves, and encouraging others to reach for that also. It’s a way of relating to others that places them not only higher than ourselves, but higher than they might think of themselves. It is a standard that we must reach, or die trying, because anything less would be a failure of character.”
”A very interesting answer Sir,” said Alwyn, thinking it the best answer he had received so far and that it seemed to fit well with what the farmers wife had said.
Wrapping his blue wool cloak close around him and bidding them farewell with blessings Alwyn slung his harp on his back and travelled on, thinking of the Knights words about having a better self. What was this better self we much reach for?
The end of Alywn’s journey had arrived and he was still pondering this question as he arrived back at the door of the college. The year and a day was over and even before he had unslung his harp from his back he was called to his teachers chamber to give his own answer and this is what he said,
”I asked many people and everyone answered me in accordance with their view of the world and their own heart. It seems there always has to be a judgement made about what is honourable and what is not. Opinion may change with experience but you have to make these judgements every day of your life, even in the simplest act. I think it is a question with no certain answer and this is not a matter for dogma, for each mans life is his own responsibility. I think one aspect is based on kindness, for we all live in community, but one man spoke of his ‘better self’, a higher version of his self, and this I think is the clue. This higher self is the soul. Perhaps honour is the way we protect our own soul in all our own actions and sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed but the honour is in the trying to care for our own soul. It is our soul that demands honour.”
The Druid smiled and told Alwyn to go and rest but Alwyn was still curious.
”Did I answer rightly?”
”Let your own soul answer that question and soon we will set you another for your next journey. Those who ponder on such questions as what is honour, what is truth and what is love and think with an open heart and mind are well begun in the journey of learning that will one day leads them to wisdom. Always take care of your soul. You will continue to travel. Your studies progress well enough.”