In the scene, Arthur’s knights have all just assembled following their victories over the last barbarian tribes still opposing them. It’s a heady moment for the knights, because it marks the culmination of all their endeavours to unite Britain under a single king --- Arthur --- and bring an end to the bloody chaos and barbarism ensuing for centuries in Britain after the Romans withdrew their legions and stabilizing influence. So, knights being knights --- i.e. a little rough around the edges --- their exuberance overflows. Just a tad. And Merlin, Arthur’s wizard and seer extraordinaire, gets jostled around. Just a bit. Which is probably not the smartest thing the aforesaid knights could do. (J.R.R Tolkien has a character in The Lord of the Rings dispense this little pithy gem of advice about wizards to Frodo: ‘do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.’ Oh, yeah. Indeed.)
So in line with that, Boorman’s Merlin does not take kindly to this jostling. He sends a jet of flame roaring from the tip of his staff and swings it menacingly ‘round the circle of overexcited knights, warning them to shut the hell up and pay attention. Or words to that effect. This is what he actually says:
STAND BACK! Be silent! Be still!... That's it... and look upon this moment. Savour it! Rejoice with great gladness! Great gladness! Remember it always… for you are joined by it. You are One… under the stars. Remember it well, then... this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, 'I was there… that night… with Arthur… the King!' For it is the doom of men that they forget.
Nice little speech, delivered with great panache by Nicol Williamson, who played Merlin. And that last line is truly great. It’s almost a throwaway, but if you pay close attention to it, I think you’ll agree, it’s a gem.
For it is the doom of men that they forget.
Yesterday was November 11th, which in Canada is Remembrance Day. In the USA, it’s Veterans’ Day. In the UK, it’s Armistice Day. And so on. In all cases, it’s a day when we remember the end of that terrible conflict, the First World War. (And, of course, later on we tacked on the Second World War. And Korea. And… sigh. Our propensity to add to the list seems woefully endless.)
The young man poised confidently --- perhaps even jauntily --- in the picture above for the camera, is my maternal grandfather, Robert Francis Clews. He was a corporal in the Royal Artillery, and was a professional soldier… not a conscript who enlisted in the first heady days of the Great War, as the 1914-18 conflict came to be known. He was in the first wave of British troops dispatched to France after war broke out in August of 1914… a war that left many politicians (…and civilians… and soldiers…) scratching their heads over just how the assassination of the heir to the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire could ignite a conflagration that would engulf not just continental Europe, but many countries in the rest of the world as well.
Those first British soldiers who traversed the English Channel in August 1914 were called the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), although the German Kaiser Wilhelm had another name for them: he called them ‘that contemptible little army,’ a name the survivors proudly adopted, as veterans of the BEF called themselves ‘the Old Contemptibles.’
I never actually knew my grandfather very well. He and my grandmother came over to Canada to visit us twice, if memory serves, the first time when I was four and the second when I was nine, and we visited them in England once when I was 11. Then he died, very suddenly and unexpectedly, a couple of years later. What I chiefly remember about him is a rather stern old man who was not particularly easy to talk to as a young child, and I regret that, because I’m sure it would have been very rewarding to have gotten better acquainted with him. However, I do remember him. Especially on November 11th. I look at the two World War One medals of his I inherited, hanging in their frame on the wall of our family room, and I look at the picture of the young man at the top of this entry, and I wonder what was going through his mind when the picture was taken. And I remember.
So why do we remember? Because we need to. Because it is the doom of men that they forget… and they shouldn’t. They mustn’t. Because, to quote the famous philosopher George Santayana, ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ 100 years after the First World War, and only 73 years after its much more terrible younger sibling, the Second World War, we’re seeing so many of the awful ideas and beliefs and populist dogmas that caused those conflicts springing up yet again. It’s like we’ve already forgotten.
So we remember. We must. We cannot forget.
Or we’re truly doomed.