A lot of events occurred in Jerusalem’s “Rough Sleepers” chapter. Moore’s nature of time, at least with regards to Northampton and the Burroughs had been revealed as eternalism: as space and time existing simultaneously in a multifaceted fashion not unlike the metaphysics inherent in Watchmen or even Providence. But it is in “X Marks the Spot” that we get to see Alan Moore’s psychogeographical narrative from another perspective.
Enter Brother Peter. He used to be Aegburth of “Helpstun near to Peterboro” but became a monk in Medeshamstede. He is also called Le Canal, or “channel,” by the French: which is appropriate given that he has to cross a bridge over a river, the various supernatural events that he encounters, and how his quest is communicated through him. As “X Marks the Spot” begins we find now that Peter has been on a long pilgrimage “in the dazed wake of Charlemagne,” through Spain, and even all the way to Jerusalem. He is back in England now, in King Offa’s Mercia, operating under a command to deliver an object to “the centre of your land.”
“Is this the centre?” is a question that Peter constantly asks himself and, sometimes, even out loud.
Peter thinks that Mercia is the centre of England. And it almost goes without saying that if Mercia is the centre then the centre of the land of Mercia is a place called … Hamtun.
Funny, isn’t it? What is even more interesting is that this place, this Hamtun, has stories about it: as though it had always existed even independently of the Roman Empire that vanished from England one day. Actually, that is just it: there are very few stories, in Peter’s time, of Hamtun and only rumours.
But someone or something has tasked Peter with bringing an object to Hamtun, or a specific place in Hamtun. For some reason, Hamtun supposedly being the centre of Peter’s land and bearing a significance as such, even with its lack of stories at this point, reminds me of Humansville, Missouri in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and how it possesses a “negative sacredness.” Peter even thinks about Hamtun being defined as being something of a chalk outline and not by what is necessarily perceived within it.
However, while Neil Gaiman’s “center of America” seems divested of magic and natural energy, Alan Moore’s “centre of England” has some layers of mythology and ritual that are lost to time, and sometimes resurface. Even Peter sees that Hamtun is something of a living, organic being that is constantly changing. Gods, monsters, and spirits – living myths and legends – might not lose their powers in Hamtun if they exist, but they would change along with it.
Of course, there are other references in this chapter as well. Peter has a dream of entering Hamtun across a bridge where the spectre of an old woman asks him if he brought what he needed to be taken to Hamtun. It reminds me of the “Hob’s Hog” chapter in Voice of the Fire where it’s revealed that the remains of a woman have been tied under a bridge in order to bind her spirit into making the structure easier to traverse. While it is tempting to think of this woman as that spirit, what is more likely here is Peter’s perception of the dream: that the old woman is Hamtun personified and attempting to play with his mind, or lead him to where he needs to be.
As Peter travels through Hamtun and attempts to gain more of a geographical understanding of the place so he can find its centre, he across tanning and more leather and shoe-making. It seems as though Hamtun’s industry hadn’t changed for a while, even from this chapter’s time period in the Middle Ages. Aside from the fact that this chapter hearkens right back to “A Host of Angles” with regards to shoes, there is also the fact that Peter is undertaking this final part of his pilgrimage during the Vernal Equinox. There is that word again. Vernal. It is a word referring back to the Vernall family back in “Work in Progress” and “A Host of Angles” yet again. While it doesn’t say much about the family, as far as I can see anyway, it does show us that Peter’s pilgrimage is a thing of immense importance, of transition and change, to this part of Jerusalem’s narrative.
Then there is also the fact that Peter gains a bird’s eye view of Hamtun not unlike the shamans, or hobs of Olun’s line in Voice of the Fire’s “The Cremation Fields” and complete with a description of dye and dye-making that went on in the region. Peter also talks about the dangers of mercury poisoning in a well where he thinks he finds the water diluted by dye that is definitely reminiscent of the Roman inspector’s observations in Voice of the Fire’s “The Head of Diocletian.”
I know I am comparing Jerusalem and Voice of the Fire quite a bit, especially in this entry. Both are set in Northampton, or in that area. Both works are narratives that tell the land’s story. Overlap between the two texts is inevitable. Yet the parallel that really intrigues me is Peter’s story in “X Marks the Spot” in comparison and contrast to Lord Simon of “Limping to Jerusalem – Post AD 1100” in Voice of the Fire. Both are separated by centuries, yet both – at least superficially – travel to distant lands and the Middle-East for religious purposes. Both men also encounter a relic that irrevocably changes their perspectives, and in doing so affects the land of Northampton. Brother Peter and Lord Simon bring something back to England, and into Northampton yet they are different ideologies and legacies entirely.
It is at this point where the similarities end and differences truly begin. Lord Simon is a mean-tempered man, even by feudal standards, who only goes to the Middle-East for glory and power under the command of Pope Urban. It’s there that he meets the nascent Knights Templar and actually witnesses their now-fabled treasure. It is the revelation of this treasure that ultimately destroys any faith he has in religion or the afterlife. He comes back from the Middle-East, having never even made it to his destination of Jerusalem, broken and disease-ridden: with only the construction of a rounded church in honour of the Knights Templar and the promise of their rising political power to give him some measure of comfort. The relic he witnesses in the possession of the Templar is the severed, ancient head of Jesus Christ: its literal existence and sign of death a symbol that everything Christendom believes in is a lie.
This is an incredible contrast to Brother Peter in “X Marks the Spot.” He is a monk that exists during the 700s. He takes his vows and religious duties seriously. And while he and Simon both have a dim view of other cultures and religions, in a lot of ways Peter is more forgiving. Peter sees pagan cultures as attempting to understand the same phenomena of God and creation through different symbols. He is aware of that Christianity has changed over the years and had to incorporate early symbols to get others to subscribe to it. Of course he and Lord Simon believe Christianity is closer to the truth, or at least Lord Simon did at one point in his life, and wish to educate others in their homeland of this but while Lord Simon makes his Templar church – and only does so to impose more of his hollow sense of glory on his people – Peter keeps his opinions to himself.
In fact, one major fact he has hidden from the rest of the Benedictine Order of which he is a part, is that he doesn’t take Judeo-Christian theology literally. He sees it, Jesus, and angels as ideals. He thinks that belief is no different than a child hearing a tale that they take seriously one day and then disregard and forget the next as they grow older. Peter thinks that Christianity and God are ideals to be aspired towards with a clear and studious mind and that faith is something to be undertaken with a rational mind. It isn’t unlike the mentality of Dante who would write about a similar notion centuries later.
Brother Peter , for his time, is fairly open-minded. He is not quick to discount the power of dreams or visions, or even the existence of a spirit of the land in the form of the old lady from his dream like most of his contemporaries might have done. Moreover, when he meets Freddy Allen – which we also saw happen back in “Rough Sleepers” — he accepts the existence of ghosts as restless spirits. Even before this, he feels a sense of déjà vu in his journey and seems to almost understand the eternalist reality in which he, Freddy, and so many others actually exist.
Peter also encounters the angel from “A Host of Angles” who is more clearly revealed to be the Master Builder Mighty Mike from “Rough Sleepers.” It is revealed that this angel was the one that gave Peter his quest to bring the object he retrieved, seemingly from Jerusalem, to what turns out to be Saint Gregory’s in Hamtun. The artifact is “the hand-span of a man and half again across in both directions, roughly hewn from brownish stone that it was too heavy to be lifted easy in one hand.” Peter has been carrying this in a jute-cloth bag for a long time, to the point where he’s developed a callous on the shoulder he’s been holding it on.
This unfortunately this is all that is revealed to us, as the years of journey take their toll on Peter. While Lord Simon seems to go insane towards the end of his chapter in Voice in the Fire, Peter suffers a heart-attack and dies on the grounds of Saint Gregory’s church: having actually succeeded in his mission. However, unlike Lord Simon, he dies with a sense of knowledge of his fate and the understanding that he has completed his task. He doesn’t think he will become worms and rot like the other man, and knows there is much more to Hamtun, and everything.
I also wonder if Lord Simon attempted to make his Templar church in a similar spot to the old temple near Saint Peter’s that Peter finds on his journey “to the centre” of Hamtun. But what is the artifact that Peter brought from Jerusalem? Is it the physical Jerusalem, or a name representing something more metaphysical? In the end, we will just have to see if these ideas will continue to translate into the “Modern Times” chapter of Jerusalem.