The Invasion

Simon Armitage

translated from ‘The Alliterative Morte Arthure’

King Arthur was on his mighty boat with many men,
enclosed in a cabin among copious equipment.
And while resting on a richly arrayed bed
he was soothed to sleep by the swaying of the sea.
And he dreamed of a dragon dreadful to behold
that came droning and driving from across the deep,
arrowing directly from the regions of the West,
swooping with menace over the sea’s wide span.
His head and neck were hooded all over
with shimmering azure, enamelled in bright shades.
His shoulders were shawled in shining silver
so the serpent was shielded by steely scales.
His wings and his womb were wondrously coloured
and in his marvellous mail he mounted the heavens.
His tail was tasselled with bladed tongues
so what fellows he touched were fatally felled.
His feet were furred in the finest sable
and his cruel claws were encased in pure gold.
So furious were the flames which flowed from his lips
that the sea itself seemed to seethe with fire.
Then out of the East, to oppose him head on,
from above the clouds came a brutish black bear,
huge paws and pads on the pillars of his legs,
with pinion-sharp claws that appeared curved.
Hateful and hideous were his hairs and everything:
his legs were bandy and lagged with bushy bristles,
all muddy and matted, and he foamed at the mouth,
the foulest figure that was ever formed.
He went barrelling about with a bellicose look,
preparing those raking claws for the clash.
He let rip with such a roar that the whole earth reeled,
striking out bloodily as he bullocked into battle.
Then the dragon in the distance dived straight for him,
and chased him through the sky with his challenges and charges,
flying and fighting with the focus of a falcon.
He attacked with both fire and talons in tandem,
but the bear grew bigger and bolder in battle,
gouging his flesh with his fearful fangs.
He caused such cuts with those cruel claws
that his breast and belly poured with blood,
and his blows were so crashing they cracked the earth’s crust
and rivers ran red with crimson rain.
His strength alone might have laid low that lizard
were it not for the flames which he fired in defence.
The serpent ascended to the sky’s ceiling
then stooped steeply through the clouds and struck,
attacked with his talons and tore his back
which was ten foot in length from top to tail,
till the last living breath was beaten from that bear –
let him fall in the flood and float where it flows.

In his cabin, so disturbed was the king by those creatures
he nearly burst with the burden on the bed where he lay.