Kemp Owaine is a mythical warrior who appears in some Saxon stories, often associated with magic. The name itself is fascinating because “Kemp” is Saxon and is from the same origin as German kampfen, to fight: it means a warrior. But “Owaine” is Celtic Owen; so this mythical character is, as it were, half Saxon and half Celt and probably represents a Celtic mythical hero taken up by Saxon culture.
The first stanza here is closely based on a real surviving fragment where Kemp Owaine meets a monster who turns into a beautiful woman. The rest take the myth into modern times.
THE KEMP OWAIN SEQUENCE
Seeking a great prize not identified
The lost prince pads wet-footed from the sea
Having heard rumours of a weird thing
A ravenous monster with a hint of speech
An evil dragon crying for a mate:
Circling of gulls shows him the way to climb
They take the scraps of bloodied flesh around
The female devil growing from the tree.
The warrior has a sword well-blessed and forged
A gap in sliding clouds can now unleash
Light from the imprisoned sun to make the sword
Glint like a fire in Prince Owain’s hand.
A sign of Gods to trust the sword and strike
But though a warrior he does not strike
But stands before the long-haired nightmare thing
And hears it speak: come here, kiss me and win
The prize you cannot even know exists.
He kisses her through tangling hair and stink
Of death or sickness and the sun goes in
As if a shadow is falling. As he stares,
“Kiss me again,” she says. He is still human,
His hands not wizened or hairy, even the scar
From that old fight still itches on his chin,
But for the thing he kissed, cavernous eyes
Have filled and narrowed and the maddening breath
Smells not of death but only dangerous night.
He kisses her. The withered breasts grow young
The claws recede. “Again,” she beckons him,
But the dull day has turned to starless night.
He hesitates, gropes for his darkened sword,
Then throws it down and kisses her again.
She feels soft, the smell is sweet. “Turn round,
Pick up your sword and throw it in the sea.”
He turns and throws the holy sword away
Night becomes day, the lady’s live and lithe
Twining her hair with his beneath blue skies.
I will be good to you for half the year
For half the year I’ll need you: we will love
For half the year, but for the rest I’m gone
You cannot send a message or a gift
I will not speak, I’ll have forgotten you
Till I return in spring.
I range the seas and have no sense of land
I jump the rapids with a single aim
If I escape the bears and fishermen
I will remember land and feet and thought
And come to you again.
So Owen Kemp arrived at the Reception
Where they conducted him to a conference room
Milling with others aiming to achieve
The same great prize. Then from the highest place
A woman’s voice spoke soft and rich and clear:
“Welcome. We’re glad you could attend today.
We have devised a battery of tests,
We hope you’ll find them fun as well as right.
So Owen answered all the riddles set
Like whether he felt nervous in a crowd,
He linked the dots to make a cockatrice
Devised a way to escape the universe
After a coffee break, beat all the rest
At memory games and four-dimensional chess
He tricked the lion from its hoped-for kills
And then the wise ones called him in alone:
“Thankyou, but we were really looking for
A team-player with good networking skills.”
The man talks on his mobile phone
(A rodent hanging from his face)
He has a message to receive
An awkward meeting’s going well
But needs his word to clinch the deal
A momentary annoying thing
Speaks of the hidden and unreal
But what concern is salmon or seal?
The sea is calm, more like a lake,
And never broken by a dive
Of wandering man, has never held
A salmon that had breathed and run
All time’s cut up in hours and dates
The sea and land each know their place
Sandcastles are the only gates
The long-haired woman wails and waits.