The Sixty Day War
(A ramble through history...)
By Helen Fayle
© June 2001
Every year, in a far-off land, a great tournament is held to determine the bravest, strongest, most worthy knights in all the land, who will win the right, at the end of sixty days of combat, to become the guardians of a sacred chalice for the next year. These knights contest most fiercely for this honour, from the month of the Spring Equinox, until the time of the Summer Solstice. Or as close to those times as makes no odds.
At the start of each contest they line up, six of the men from each side, to dedicate themselves to the task ahead. After the battle is over, they shake hands. If any knight transgresses on the field of combat and breaks the rules of engagement, he is imprisoned for a short duration in a glass cage, where all assembled can witness his feeling of shame.
They are knights sworn to the element of water - jousting with poles as tall as they, at great speed and with great skill and endurance. It may sound like a story from the Middle Ages, but in fact, it takes place every year, in North America and Canada.
We call it "Ice Hockey".
But of course, nobody believes in the Champions, Quests, or the Holy Grail anymore. Like the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus, sooner or later you learn it's all just another bedtime story. (Except that no-one has ever yet caught their father dressed up in long black robes or four centuries out-of-date plate armour carrying a battered silver goblet around the house. At least, if they have, no one's come forward to say so. Can't think why…)
But what, apart from a facetious description for the sake of a dramatic opening, does ice hockey have to do with knights of old and the Holy Grail?
Well, let's start not quite in the realms of fantasy, but in History. 1348 to be exact. Once upon a time there was a great king, and one night at a ball, a beautiful maiden (okay, this is Joan the Fair Maid of Kent we're talking about, the original good time had by all and that's just from the sheer volume of husbands of her own that she had - a kind of Mediaeval Liz Taylor… so "maiden" probably not the right word here, but we'll go with it for now.) A beautiful maiden drops her garter belt on the floor in front of the king. History doesn't tell us if she stood there with a fixed smile on her face and walked away carefully trying to make sure her stocking didn't fall down.
Being a decent sort of chap, the story goes, he picks it up, tut tuts and wags his finger at the sniggering guests who are making scurrilous comments about the lady's virtue (or lack thereof) and spouts something in French whilst buckling on the item in question. ("Honi soit qui mal y pense" was the exact phrase. Loosely translated: "Feel shame, you perverts.") We won't pass comment here on the peculiarities of the Royal Family over the centuries. Frankly, I'd be amazed if cross-dressing were the least of his vices. Sometime later, he adopts this device as the badge of a newly created order of knighthood, the Order of the Garter. An elite little group, just twenty-four knights and the sovereign and his heir. History tells us that they were rather keen on the knights of the Round Table back then (well, Mallory's "Morte D'Arthur wasn't even written yet, but the story was still a hot number around the dinner table on cold winter nights. Especially the French versions with all the sex scandals left in. Some things never change.)
History, however, doesn't always tell you everything.
Take, for example, the incident in question. A Garter has been an occult symbol for centuries, and many observers have remarked that by picking up the Garter in the manner he did, Edward (for this was the king's name), was taking Britain's pagan orders under his wing. There's also the matter of the numbers of knights in the order - two sets of thirteen. Or in other words, two full covens. The commentators are kind of missing the real point though.
The garter is blue, for the element of water and yet the order is dedicated to Saint George the dragonslayer, dragons being normally associated with either air or fire, occasionally with earth, very rarely with water. Except in the very earliest of myths: Tiamat, primal goddess of the world encircling waters… Take a look at the Garter itself sometime - it's always shown as buckled in the shape of a circle, with the tongue protruding - not altogether unlike a depiction of the Norse world-serpent Jormungandr, the ouroboros. A world-encircling dragon of the waters.
But they had to keep the symbolism reasonably deniable in the eyes of the church. St George at least gave them the excuse to have a dragon on their crest somewhere. And the Red Dragon of the original Knights of the Round Table would have been a bit of a give-away.
Dear old Edward, of course, in addition to creating his order of knights, had about four years previously begun construction of a great hall to house a new Round Table, at Windsor Castle. Windsor, of course, or rather, St George's Chapel, is now the "home" of the Order of the Garter. One of only a handful of orders to last until the present day, and this new order of chivalry is important to our story.
At this point in our tale, we have knights, a king, a fair maiden in some distress (have you ever tried to hold a loose stocking up without losing your dignity?), a round table, a castle - but no grail. I'm afraid the cup doesn't really enter into it until much later.
1892 to be exact.
What we do have for now is an order of Knighthood consisting of several prominent men, closely allied with the royal family. An order that seems to have at its heart, a fascination with ancient symbols of the Great Goddess of the waters, and with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Many names recur over the history of the order: one of these is the family of "Stanley", better known as the Earls of Derby in later years, and most of whom have been Garter Knights over the centuries. The first Earl was said to have deserted Richard III at Bosworth, and later placed the crown on Henry's head after that battle. We'll hear more about him later.
The Earls of Derby also held the title of "Kings of Man" for 350 years. Now Man - or Mona - "Ellan Vannin" to its inhabitants - is a small island off the West Coast of Britain. It is said that from the top of Mount Snaefell, at the heart of the island, on a clear day, you can see five kingdoms - England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Man.
There have been some suggestions that Mona - a name also given to Anglesea, the final home of Britain's druids - was also synonymous with "Avalon", where Arthur was rowed to be laid to rest. Given that Avalon, like Man, was said to continually shrouded in mist, this seems like a fair assumption to make.
Now Grail lore is a tangled tree: one thing is certain, however - the item in question is not a Christian artefact. It is in fact much older. It belongs to a time when women held religious power, in the name of the goddess, wherever she might be found, whatever name she be given in any locale. Some claim that the Grail King from the legends stole the grail from the maidens who guarded it, and as a result, the land failed and died, until a true, good knight restored the grail to its rightful home. Others, that the grail was never returned, but that an arrangement was made for a group of knights to guard the grail from harm, at the behest of the priestesses of the Goddess.
In this light, Joan's fortuitous hosiery emergency looks less like Edward extending his protect to her, and more like her giving him the mandate he needed to form his company of knights to protect both priestess and grail.
Which suggests that the Earls of Derby constantly turning up in the rolls of the order might not be simply a matter of royal favour for putting a crown onto a royal head after all. It's interesting to note that Sir John Stanley, First King of Man of that name, was given the title in 1403 when the then incumbent, Henry Percy (another Garter family, and Garter Knight himself) was killed in rebellion against his king at Shrewsbury. Sir John was invested K.G. in 1404. (The suggestion that the grail was actually located on the island has never been officially made, but one has to wonder, in light of these events. And, of course, there's the little matter of King Arthur's last resting place. )
We'll skip a few years now, down to 1892. Frederick Arthur Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby, Governor General of Canada, and a bit of an ice hockey fan, decides to award a trophy to the best team in Canada. It's a simple little thing, silver, with a gold interior. The story goes that it only cost $48.67 Canadian.
(Actually, that was the cost of recasting a lovely little piece of antique Sumerian silverware, but you won't find that titbit on the NHL website.)
Interestingly enough, in the early years of the Stanley Cup, although awarded to the best team in the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada, it could be challenged for at any time. Nowadays of course, it's the trophy awarded at the end of the post-season to the overall victor of the National Hockey League's playoff series.
At this point the reader will be shaking his head and saying "what's that got to do with knights in armour questing for a mystical wotsit?" Well, let's be honest here - in this day and age - and even by 1892 - the idea of the bravest knights in the land jousting for the right to guard the sacred grail would be a bit silly. Just look at the Sealed Knot for example - no one takes them seriously, for god's sake. Besides, they'd also be a bit conspicuous, plate armour having gone out of fashion round about the last time a king got insistent on his divine rights and someone decided to call his bluff and call for a sacred sacrifice. (Except that they called it the will of Parliament and said they wanted to do without kings. Funny how that didn't last long… But I digress.)
The best way to hide anything, as any wise man will tell you, is not to put it inside an elaborate system of lakes, mountains, nests, boxes, ducks and eggs, but to put it right out in the open, where everyone can see it. That way, they normally don't think they're looking at anything special. The Americans have known this for years - put it in the National Enquirer, and you're guaranteed that no one will take a story seriously. There are rumours that the Fortean Times sometimes gets the overflow.
So you want to hide a big silver chalice, and you also need people to protect it. With the powers of the aristocracy waning as the Twentieth Century loomed and the concept of democracy takes over from feudal rights and privileges, a new approach was needed. What better way, then, than to make the chalice a sporting trophy? Not only that, but one contended for by men who take part in the fastest, hardest, most brutal team sport on the planet.
It's interesting to note at this point the similarities between ice hockey teams and regiments of old. Both have names and histories going back over a century in some cases. Teams wear their logo to mark their allegiance to their particular "regiment", in the manner of heraldic devices. Both display the banners and battle honours of their campaigns in their halls. And where once a knight would wear his lady's favour into battle, most hockey players will sport the logo of their corporate sponsors. And yes, nowadays they wear a considerable amount of armour as well. "Olde Time Hockey" indeed.
Lord Stanley received his investiture into the Order of the Garter in 1897, five years after his inspired donation. Interestingly, new Companions are admitted to the order on St George's day, which falls on the 23rd of April: slap bang in the middle of the NHL playoffs. One has to admire the organisation's subtle homage here.
So there you have it: The Stanley Cup. The oldest (if only they knew…), most prestigious sporting trophy in existence. The most sought after, they say - and the hardest to win. (It should be noted by sceptics at this point, that the slogan for the 2001 play-off series was "The Quest for the Cup".) A cup so revered that captains will only give the most cursory touch to the League or Conference trophies, because it's the Big One they want. The cup that's now smaller than the pedestal it sits on (containing the list of all those who ever won it - the name of every player on every team. (Or, if you prefer: every guardian for over one hundred years has had his name appended to the chalice). Some say that the Captains will not touch the lesser cups for fear of either turning away fortune from their cause, or because they do not wish to be tainted by contact with these pretenders when the time comes for them to pay homage to the true Grail.
It's the only cup that every player on the winning team is allowed to take home with him for a day, to spend how he wishes. He can take it to the beach, feed his dog out of it, use it as a jelly mould or sink it at the bottom of his swimming pool if he so wishes.
After all, for a day, he is the guardian of The Holy Grail. The job has to have some perks.
Of course, there is one other little fact to bring to light: no British player has ever won the Stanley Cup. Not one, in over one hundred years. Which means of course that the Cup has never in all that time returned to our shores.
One can't help but wonder what would happen if it ever did…
Author's note: The facts in this piece are verifiable. Certain liberties have, however, been taken with the links between them...
Return to Homepage?