The Song of the Winter King
Hair of crystal and hands of ice –
The snow sieves down above him,
He shakes in his palm two silver dice,
And whoever sees him loves him.
Now one of the dice is marked with a cross,
The other is marked with a ring –
And the cross is the seal of paradise
Where the holy angels sing,
But the ring is the seal of the fairy queen,
Queen Morgan is her name,
Who dresses in red and elfin green
And rules all fair Elfhame.
She and her train come riding by
In cloaks as red as blood:
She lashes her seamed and grunting sow
With a switch of elder wood:
Find what the chance shall be!’
He shakes them once, he shakes them twice,
He shakes them three times three –
O silver, silver fall the moon
And golden fall the sun –
The nine bright planets in the sky
Leaped as Queen Morgan won.
Hair of crystal, hands of ice,
The white snow falls about him.
He drops from his palm the silver dice:
Queen Morgan cannot doubt him.
Over the Seven Days,
Where toothed heads grin from every pool
And quickfire beacons blaze,
Under the hill, the hollow hill,
The peaty darkness waits:
She leads him down the fairy road
Behind the narrow gates,
She seats him by a dropping pool
Where ghostly fishes glide:
‘And here you’ll stay for evermore
By the dark fountain side.’
Hair of crystal and hands of ice,
He counts the fishes’ scales,
He strokes their armoured, slimy sides,
Tickles their filmy tails.
Now Mary Queen of Paradise
One day came riding by
Her robe was made of fine new wool
Bright as a summer sky.
Light as a loaf she sat upon
A milky-mouthed young lamb
As big as any dappled horse
That pulls the plough for man.
She saw the double land lie warm
Under the standing sun –
All the white spires of Castle Cloud
In the blue distance shone.
Long, long the heath before her stretched,
The clear miles shook with heat,
Anemones like drops of blood
Sprang up beneath her feet,
And where she passed, the grinning heads
Plopped back into the water.
Said she, ‘I would the Queen of Fays
Were one of Heaven’s daughters!’
And all the harebells rang for her:
She left the lamb to graze,
Went strolling on the hollow hills
Behind the Seven Days
And spied the dice like burning ice,
Smoking where they lay.
Swift through the golden grate she steps
And down the golden stair:
All the white daisies craned their necks
To see her enter there;
Under the hollow hills she passed
And called the young king’s name.
Before the echoes copied her,
The fairy challenge came:
Queen Morgan as a cloud of bees –
Then a red bitch, but lame –
Last as a lady tall and proud
To rival Mary’s fame.
‘Why have you come, you Queen of Heaven
Within this land of mine?
You may not steal the silver king,
For he is none of thine.
‘He shook the dice and fell to me:
Body and life and soul,
And here he’ll sit for evermore
By the dark fountain’s bowl.
‘He shook the dice and fell to me:
I won the winter king.
He shall be mine for evermore,
Till these dumb fishes sing.’
‘You won his life but not his soul,’
Tall Mary answered free,
‘For that was bought with iron cold
Upon a hawthorn tree.
‘Keep what you can, but for my part,
What I can do, I will’ –
Shakes in her hand the crossways dice
Thrice, thrice beneath the hill –
And shadows fly, and blazing light
Leaps for the young king’s sake:
‘Until the fishes sing, you sleep –
But then you shall awake.’
Hair of crystal, hands of ice
The snow sieves down above him.
Stone in the crystal cave he lies,
And nobody sees or loves him,
And he dreams no dream, but the fishes dream
Of the day they will wake the king –
When they poke their red snouts out of the pool
And open their mouths and sing.
© Katherine Langrish
Knight in pen and ink by Aubrey Beardsley, illustration from the Morte d'Arthur, 1909, V&A
Other illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley: facsimile edition of his Morte d'Arthur, Dent 1990.