Last July, I spent a few good hours wandering around Chateau Gaillard – that is, whatever ruins remain of it – located in Les Andelys (Normandy). Settled on top of a grass-covered hill, it offers an incredible view – but an even more incredible history. It’s one of my favourite pastimes: to walk where princesses and knights once walked, and to discover the rich stories of places and people otherwise long forgotten.
And yet, when I was there, an unfamiliar feeling of dissolution crept upon me.
It’s sad, I caught myself thinking, as I climbed over crumbled walls and descended via unreliable stairs. Sad how this castle, once so high and mighty, so strong and resistant, so indestructible, has been reduced to barely more than a couple of misplaced stones.
Despite my initial excitement at the prospect of visiting the mediaeval ruins, something felt off about walking through grass where once strong stones laid, offering a supportive foundation to those wishing to roam the majestic halls. Something felt off about looking into the distance at spots where thick walls once stood resurrected, proudly protecting its residents from stormy weather and dedicated destructors of peace.
I later realised that there had been more to my melancholy than I knew at the time. At the heart of it lies a question that had unconsciously occupied my mind every other time that I had visited any castle ruins: If even castles don’t last forever, does anything?
If even castles, designed and constructed to last forever, do not live up to their legacies, how can I?
I think I’m not the only one when I admit that secretly, I’ve always wanted to be something, do something, create something, that would last forever. That would prove that I didn’t waste my time, and that what I did mattered. That I mattered.
But when I walk where a castle once stood, I get overwhelmed by the realisation that that wish might just be impossible, that it is idealistic, and unrealistic, to think that I can do what even the grand architects of history’s most impressive buildings could not do.
Yet a significant number of castles are still there, albeit in ruins. They still occupy space, are visited and celebrated. Their walls are decorated with countless holes and their towers have fallen over and they have been reduced from legendary strongholds to sites of ruinous destruction… and they have not been forgotten.
In a beautifully, bizarre way, they have lasted forever.
Perhaps it’s not the thing itself that needs to survive centuries and centuries of imposing circumstances. Perhaps it’s the thought, the recognition, the acknowledgement that once there was. Perhaps I don’t need to come up with an idea, a theory, a thought, or an act, that will last throughout the centuries to come. Perhaps I should just live my life, make myself smile, make others smile, and then maybe, just maybe, at some point in the future someone else will smile, remembering that I was.
I’m not sure if anything can last forever, tangible or not. I’m not even sure if anything should. I know that I’ll ask myself the same question next time I visit a castle, which I might very well be doing at the moment that this article gets published, given that today it’s National Castle Day. Maybe someday I’ll be able to answer it. Maybe not. The only way to find out – and I say this with much less regret than it might seem – is by visiting castles and castle ruins, again, and again, and again.
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