After studying the news reports over the last 48 hours or so, it seems that many people in many nations around the world were left baffled by certain details of the staggering opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. If you are one of that number, allow me to try to throw some light on the opening 15 minutes with the addition of numerous links that you’re free to follow if you choose. A word of caution before we proceed, however; if you’re looking for a 30 second summary or some other variant of Info-Lite, you’d be better off stopping now and looking elsewhere.
So, you may have wondered what the odd, terraced hill was, which dominated one end of the stadium and upon which the national flags of all the competing nations were placed. This hill was a representation of Glastonbury Tor in the west of England and it is arguably the single most important place of its kind in the British Isles.
The word ‘tor’ is a regional name for a hill of this broad description, but Glastonbury Tor is unique. It is a natural formation, but the curious terraces on its sides have led many to suppose that it was manmade, while it seems perfectly possible that these terraces are extremely ancient trackways, ceremonial paths to the summit or some form of Neolithic labyrinth.
Glastonbury Tor dominates the physical landscape, but it also dominates British history and culture. It once formed the heart of an island, which came to be known in later times as the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was said to have been buried. It was also believed that Glastonbury Tor was an entrance to Annwn, the Celtic underworld, ruled over by a deity known as Gwyn ap Nudd, who later came to be known as the King of the Fairies, or the Fair Folk.
In addition to this, numerous legends relate that Jesus visited the West of England as a young man, while other legends specify that he not only stayed at Glastonbury, but built a structure there in honour of his mother Mary. Many of the legends speak of Jesus being accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea and of the same Joseph returning to this place after the crucifixion. The British Isles are not short of mesmerising locations, with other holy islands such as Lindisfarne, Iona and Anglesey, for example, along with structures such as Stonehenge and Tintagel Castle. However, given its associations with Jesus, King Arthur and the Celtic Lord of the Underworld, not to mention its size, appearance and history, I think that few would argue that if any one location in Britain were to be replicated in the opening ceremony of the Olympic games, it should be Glastonbury Tor, pictured below by permission of Josep Renalias.
As you’ll see, the real Glastonbury Tor in Somerset is surmounted by the remains of a mediaeval church, but the replica in the Olympic stadium in London was topped by an oak, a tree that is synonymous with Britain and which was sacred to the ancient Druids, according to the Roman writer Pliny.
Otherwise, after the orchestra had opened with Elgar’s Nimrod, there was a short film tracing the route to the stadium from the source of the River Thames, which eventually flows through London on its way to the North Sea. This short film opened with a stone inscribed with the words “Isles of Wonder” being seen at the source of the Thames – I’m not sure that these words exist on the real stone, but it’s something I’ll return to later in this piece. Be that as it may, after the Olympic Bell was struck by Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, a soloist from a children’s choir sang the first verse of William Blake’s Jerusalem, of which more shortly.
After this first verse, there followed a film showing a choir of children from Northern Ireland standing on the Giant’s Causeway singing a verse of Danny Boy. Then we saw a children’s choir in Scotland singing Flower of Scotland, followed by a Welsh children’s choir singing Cwm Rhondda and after each performance by each choir, there was a brief clip of a tries being scored in a rugby game, the toughest sport on the planet.
As Cwm Rhondda drew to a close, we saw a horse-drawn carriage arriving in the stadium, from which emerged the figure of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, played by the actor Kenneth Branagh. Brunel looked around in wonderment, then wandered to the foot of ‘Glastonbury Tor’ before reciting the following lines from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest:
“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”
The words “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises…” are inscribed on the Olympic Bell that was rung by Bradley Wiggins, while they were almost certainly a reference to the tumult that was to follow later in the ceremony, provided by the drummers throughout and by the musical sections. It’s doubtless no coincidence that The Tempest contains more music and songs than any other play by Shakespeare, while it’s also set on a remote, magical island.
This in turn brings to mind the inscription “Isles of Wonder” on the stone at the source of the Thames at the start of the aforementioned film clip. The British Isles were renowned as “Isles of Wonder” or something very similar as far back as 55BC, when Caesar’s invading legions were initially too terrified to step ashore from their boats on account of the strange tales they’d heard of this place that lay beyond the North Wind, at the furthermost fringes of the northern Roman Empire.
Glastonbury itself was long thought to be the location of the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was taken to die, but there’s a lot more than just this to the idea of Glastonbury as an ‘isle of wonder’. In 597 AD or thereabouts, St Augustine of Canterbury wrote to Pope Gregory to tell him about Glastonbury, saying:
“In the western confines of Britain there is a certain royal island of large extent, surrounded by water, abounding in all the beauties of nature and necessaries of life. In it the first neophytes of Catholic law, God beforehand acquainting them, found a church constructed by no human art, but by the hands of Christ himself, for the salvation of his people. The Almighty has made it manifest by many miracles and mysterious visitations that he continues to watch over it as sacred to himself and to Mary, the Mother of God “.
If this is all new to you, then you might understandably be mystified as to why a huge, terraced hill should play such a prominent part in the Olympic opening ceremony, even if it does have some interesting legends attached to it. My point, I suppose, is that these legends live on and play a very real part in our lives.
For instance, Joseph of Arimathea was said to have returned to Glastonbury after the crucifixion, then planted his staff at a place called Wearyall Hill, which then miraculously bloomed into what’s long been known as the Glastonbury Thorn. There has been a tradition of sending cuttings from this tree to the British monarch ever since the days of King James I (1566 – 1625) and this tradition is very much alive today.
Furthermore, in 1965, Queen Elizabeth II left a wooden cross at Glastonbury inscribed with the following words: “The cross, the symbol of our faith, the gift of Queen Elizabeth II, marks a Christian sanctuary so ancient that only legend can record its origin.” This is the same Queen Elizabeth who recently met the Amesbury and Stonehenge Druids as part of her recent Jubilee celebrations, and the same Queen Elizabeth who parachuted out a helicopter with James Bond over the Olympic stadium, so this appreciation of ancient legends and ancient places is very much something of the present and the future, not just the past.
As if any further proof were needed that Britain’s past is alive, well, and inextricably entwined in the present and future, we can now look to the song performed by the children’s choir at the start of the opening ceremony. In 1804, the aforementioned William Blake wrote a poem entitled “And did those feet in ancient time?“, the first verse of which reads as follows:
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
As such, it’s the most famous reflection of the legends of Jesus visiting Britain as a young man, as the ‘Holy Lamb of God‘ can only refer to Christ himself, while the same principle applies to the ‘Countenance Divine’. The words were put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 and the resulting composition has long been Britain’s most popular patriotic song and unofficial national anthem. Its popularity is such that it is sung at weddings, funerals and sporting events, while it’s also the highlight of the Last Night of the Proms.
As you can see, Blake describes England’s mountains as green and he also describes England’s pastures as pleasant, but the words “England’s green and pleasant land” appear in the last line of the second verse (below), which is where “Green and Pleasant”, the title of the first part of the opening ceremony came from.
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land!
If anyone’s wondering why Danny Boyle didn’t simply echo Blake’s poem and call the first part of the ceremony “England’s green and pleasant land”, then the finer details are spelled out with admirable clarity in the political definition section on this Wikipedia link.
Amazingly enough, even though the concept’s literally spelled out in the words of the opening verse, it seems that very few British people have the faintest idea of what they’re singing, so it’s perfectly understandable if the rest of the world was baffled as well. I personally think that when Blake wrote of ‘dark, satanic mills’, he was referring to Stonehenge and other such places in Britain, and there’s some evidence to support this. Others, however, take this as a reference to the Industrial Revolution, hence the emergence of the monstrous towers belching smoke in the early part of the opening ceremony, but if you’d like to read more about this, there’s an excellent study here, where I’m honoured to have been quoted alongside Billy Bragg.
This is only the small tip of a very large iceberg and I’ve barely covered a few elements of the opening 12 minutes of the ceremony. I know from experience that it’s perfectly possible to spend years looking into this exotic and relatively unknown subject matter, while I was so fascinated by it all that, a few years ago, I wrote a book about it.
So, if you were at all confused by the opening sequence of the opening ceremony, I hope I’ve made matters slightly clearer and I’ve provided numerous links for you to follow if the inclination takes you to explore the subject matter further. If nothing else, you’ll now know what the strange, terraced hill represented at one end of the stadium and why it occupies such an important place in British history, culture and folklore.
As for the rest of the ceremony, there’s an excellent article with many fine pictures in this feature from the Mail Online, while I have to say that I was stunned to learn that Akram Khan’s performance was cut from the coverage in the USA.
What did I think of the opening ceremony? I watched it from start to finish, enthralled, and I thought it was a work of pure genius – legend, music, magic, poetry, passion and spectacle combined to the most stunning and memorable effect. I enjoyed every part of it, but I particularly liked the pride that was shown in our National Health Service and the recognition of the contribution that Britain’s made to children’s literature. And apart from all the other wonders, there was also present the one person in the world I would most want to meet, Mr Muhammad Ali.
I could continue for hours in this vein, but that would be to defeat the object of publishing this post, so I just hope that if anyone reading this was confused by the strange hill and by the songs at the beginning of this stunning ceremony, they’re now more aware of the significance of Glastonbury Tor, William Blake and the legends of the West of England. If you feel prompted to explore these matters further, either on this site or elsewhere, then all the better and I hope you derive the same enjoyment from your studies as I’ve experienced over the years.
My thanks to Yvonne Whiteman for the above photograph of another enchanted spot in the West Country. Here’s the full-length version of the opening ceremony, but I suspect it’s limited to people living in the UK. Satellite image of Great Britain courtesy of NASA.