Mon
Aug 17 2009 11:55am

Cow of Legend: The Story of St. Endelienta

When I started writing full time, I never believed that I would ever want a holiday. After all, writing was my dream job—a wish come true. It seemed almost ungrateful to tear myself away from the notebooks and the computer, when I was making a living out of crafting new worlds.

And that is still perfectly true—I love writing as much as I ever did. But I’ve also realised that sometimes, you need a couple of weeks away to recharge the imagination.

So, for two weeks at the end of July, I was away in the lush depths of Cornwall, in the South West of England, singing away at the St Endellion Summer Music Festival. Hardly relaxing—we in the chorus rehearsed for up to six hours a day, and slept for far fewer hours at night—but worth it in so many ways.

If you haven’t been to Cornwall, all I can say is that the writer Patrick Gale summed it up perfectly: “Cornwall is not part of England—it is an island, joined to England by a land-bridge.” It’s beautifully remote—and a wonderful place for a fantasy writer to visit, even one so city-bound as me. It is a place that seems to breed legends, one of the parts of Britain where you can still picture dragons lying in wait.

Even the church where this rather excellent music festival takes place is touched by myth—it is the church of St Endelienta, who has one of the oddest saint’s legends I have ever heard.

Endelienta was a woman of noble birth, but not particularly wealthy. In fact, in the manner of all chaste and pure young women in fairy tales, her greatest friend was an animal. In this case—a cow.

But one day, her cow strayed onto the land of the cruel Lord Trentinny who, in a fit of anger at seeing the strange cow eating his crops, slew the beloved beast.

However, unbeknownst to Lord Trentinny—Endelienta’s godfather was in the vicinity. Hearing his goddaughter’s cries of horror, he rode up, and struck Lord Trentinny dead with a single blow from Excalibur.

Oh yes, didn’t I mention? Her godfather was King Arthur.

Fortunately, Endelienta was filled with remorse, and prayed that God should show mercy on Trentinny. And sure enough, he and her cow were both restored to life.

Let me say that again—her first holy miracle involved resurrecting a cow.

Her later legends are similarly quirky (let’s just say that her third and final miracle involved a spontaneously transforming piece of jewelery). And yet she was elevated to sainthood. It was not as if the medieval church needed any more saints—they had hundreds. And her legend was hardly the most bizarre—St. Thomas Aquinas was canonised thanks to something called “the miracle of the pilchards.”

But what fascinates me about all of this is how powerful legends can be. No matter how strange they are, legends have something about them that make you want to believe. St Endelienta has King Arthur, a figure so woven into British national consciousness that we feel as though he had to have existed, in some form. Every now and again we point out that he was probably a Briton warrior chief, or a lost Roman soldier, or an Anglo-Saxon tyrant, to comfort ourselves with something that feels more “real.” And yet, somehow he will always have a sword, and a faithless wife, and a round table. He endures, somewhere in the consciousness, as an eternal figure

This is hardly unique to the British—look at the Greek myths. Ancient Greeks never really worshipped their gods as beings of perfection, sacrifices were more like a protection racket: “Got a nice field of crops here, be such a shame if a thunderstorm ruined it… you know where to leave the goats.” And yet Greek legends are known the world over, because who doesn’t recognise that a young woman can be destroyed by the love of a powerful man, or a great warrior may have one, tiny, weakness. They may have started as the legends of Semele (Burned alive by Zeus’s divine form) and Achilles (with his vulnerable heel), but for all the fantastic trappings, something in them feels right, and familiar.

Which I think is Endelienta’s saving grace. There is something wonderfully human about her story. The pettiness of Trentinny, the disproportionate anger of Arthur—the absent uncle who overcompensates when he visits. We feel that these everyday interactions deserve to be raised to the level of myth, and back in the days when every village was isolated, with only their own local stories, Endelienta was a symbol of forgiveness and holiness for the people of North Cornwall. It’s a touching tale. You can even almost forget the cow.

Almost.

[Image of St. Endellion church by Ben Nicholson, cc-licensed.]


David Whitley is British, and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford. His first novel is The Midnight Charter, a fantasy adventure for young adults which, to his complete astonishment, has sold on five continents in thirteen languages. The first of a trilogy, it will be published in the US by Roaring Brook in September.

2 comments
P.G. Holyfield
1. pgholyfield
This was a wonderful story/essay. Great last line/word. :)
David Whitley
2. DavidWhitley
Thank you pgholyfield! Glad you enjoyed it.

Particularly the last word.

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