A reliable overview of a phenomenon

julia-margaret-cameron_arthurRichard Barber
King Arthur: Hero and Legend
Boydell Press 2004

Richard Barber’s classic Arthurian study was deservedly dusted off and re-issued to coincide with the film of the same name (the very curious King Arthur, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley), though there was absolutely no other connection between the two other than the title. Its first appearance in 1961 (as Arthur of Albion), despite being presented to a middle-brow audience, by its style betrayed its origins in academic research; it still occasionally appears on second-hand bookshop shelves. Next, King Arthur in Legend and History appeared in the 70s during a boom in larger format non-fiction paperbacks; unfortunately the glued binding was poor quality and all the colour plates in my copy fell out.

The present revised and extended reincarnation is substantially the same as that which appeared in both hardback and paperback in the 80s and 90s, and this time the plates stay put and the format is more friendly. Continue reading “A reliable overview of a phenomenon”

Infectious enthusiasm

Walter Crane sword-in-stoneBarbara Tepa Lupack, Alan Lupack
Illustrating Camelot
D S Brewer (Arthurian Studies) 2008

As befits a study on Arthurian book illustrations, Illustrating Camelot has a generous helping of examples of the genre – forty in monochrome and thirty-two in colour. If a picture is worth a thousand words then we have a text automatically augmented by 72,000 words!

And what a text it is. Using thirteen named illustrators as her framework, Barbara Tepa Lupack takes us through two centuries and more of imaging the court of Arthur, commenting on the politics, mores and personalities of the times and their inter-relationship with the depiction of the Arthurian ideal. Continue reading “Infectious enthusiasm”

An unappetising mishmash

wingedWyvern, or biped dragon

Richard Freeman Explore Dragons Heart of Albion Press 2006

There is a universal fascination for dragons that is hard to quantify: they seem to appeal to folklorists, fantasy fans and fossil hunters alike. C S Lewis famously wrote a short piece of alliterative verse which neatly encapsulates the kind of reaction that discussion of dragons can give rise to:

We were talking of DRAGONS, Tolkien and I | In a Berkshire bar. The big workman | Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe | All the evening, from his empty mug | With gleaming eye glanced towards us: | “I seen ’em myself!” he said fiercely.

Whether you’ve seen ’em or not, you will no doubt have something to say about them, whether they exist, let alone existed, what size or colour they were, whether they breathed fire or merely had a poisonous bite, if they had wings. And any book about dragons therefore raises expectations in all of us; will Explore Dragons fulfil those expectations for anyone? Continue reading “An unappetising mishmash”

Winter fuel


Jonathan Elphick, John Woodward,
RSPB Pocket Birds.
Dorling Kindersley 2003

As I write this there is a female Great Spotted Woodpecker on the bird feeder, hammering away at the fat balls. I don’t hear it early morning now as it taps the bark on the dying Scots pine outside – maybe there’s no live food available, or maybe I’m not waking early enough – but it’s got bolder and no longer flies away in fright when we appear at the window, as the occasional shy jay does. The woodpecker is a sight to swell the heart, with its striking pied plumage and the bold splash of red under its tail clearly visible as it feeds.

As it’s winter now, with the first appearances of sleet and snow, it’s vital to keep the feeders replenished with mixed seed and fat balls to provide fuel for wild birds. Continue reading “Winter fuel”

Run-of-the-mill supernatural romance

19th-century Carcassonne

Kate Mosse, Labyrinth. Orion 2006

I read this before it was acclaimed The Viewers’ Choice (in a TV Book Club shortlist at the 2006 British Book Awards) but, frankly, remained unimpressed. I had high expectations for an out-of-the-ordinary modern take on the holy grail written by a successful reviewer and generous sponsor of new writing, but was deeply disappointed at the result.

Kate Mosse has mixed up a cocktail of familiar elements (Cathar heretics, reincarnation, grail, medieval history) and somehow turned it into an entirely run-of-the-mill romance-cum-fantasy-cum-thriller. I admire her research into life in the Middle Ages, her knowledge of the French Midi (she lives in the old walled city of Carcassonne, ‘restored’ to a Victorian vision of the High Middle Ages) and her attempt to make the grail a little different from the familiar holy bloodline thesis. The labyrinthine storyline seesaws between the past and the present, turning on the fulcrum of a scandalously disorganised archaeological investigation.

However, her use of Hollywood-influenced magic denouements and crude Disneyesque villains and villainesses, combined with a holier-than-thou heroine, ultimately left this reader cold and mystified. Still, back in 2006 I couldn’t argue with 70,000 presumably satisfied readers, and probably can’t even now; though its frequent appearances on charity shop bookshelves, along with The Da Vinci Code, suggests that those readers aren’t now fussed about keeping it on their bookshelves. I myself shan’t be seeking out the sequels.

A seminal work


Geoffrey Ashe King Arthur’s Avalon:
the story of Glastonbury
Collins 1958

First published in 1957, this is the post-war book that really re-invigorated interest in King Arthur and the Dark Ages by focusing on the medieval notion that he was buried in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. On the surface all the omens were good: archaeologically there was evidence that there was an ancient cemetery here – in the early sixties a prominent archaeologist, Ralegh Radford, would even pinpoint where 12th-century monks dug for the supposed grave of Arthur – legends placed Dark Age saints here, the medieval abbey was one of the richest (if not the richest) monastic foundation in the country, and many people in recent times have been attracted by the supposed aura of the place. Certainly Ashe, a Catholic, believes there is something special here, and that the legends, even if not true, have a significance beyond the claimed facts; and he has lived on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor for many decades now, a vindication of the magic of this small Somerset town. Continue reading “A seminal work”

A novel of its time

Bussard Ramjet, NASA image: Wikipedia Commons
Bussard Ramjet, NASA image: Wikipedia Commons

Poul Anderson Tau Zero
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2006 (1970)

A few centuries hence fifty specialists, twenty five of either gender, set out on a journey to the star Beta Virginis to colonise a new planet. Their transport is the Leonora Christine, an interstellar spaceship powered by a Bussard ramjet, capable of accelerating to near light speed (tau zero). Just before their halfway point, while still accelerating, disaster strikes with damage to the propulsion, meaning that the craft will continue its acceleration and not only miss its target but potentially never stop. How do the crew cope, and do they survive?

James Blish is quoted as having judged this “the ultimate hard science fiction novel”, and though we now know that much of the technology, especially the ramjet propulsion, has been either discredited or outdated since the book version was published in 1970 (it was based on Anderson’s earlier short story called To Outlive Eternity), there is certainly a lot of science in it; not surprising as Anderson was a physics graduate before he turned to fiction. More recently, Continue reading “A novel of its time”