Ingenious genre-crossing

snowscape

Jill Rowan The Legacy Snowbooks 2011

Folktales and ballads often recount the fantasy of a fairy abduction or visit to the Otherworld where both reality and time are suspended until the human visitor returns to their own world. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court gave this trope a time-travel twist by using the story as a means of satirising contemporary mores, perceptions and attitudes. Jill Rowan has given this by now well-worn motif a further twist: her protagonist, Fallady Galbraith, visits a kind of fairyland (the late 18th century), leading her to re-appraise her personal philosophy, her perceptions of life lived then and her attitudes to class, gender issues, education and love. How she copes with the possibility that she mayn’t return to 2008 while yet enamoured of her ‘fairy lover’, a country parson, is the mainspring of the plot and the conflict she has to resolve. Continue reading “Ingenious genre-crossing”

Don’t pass it on: pass on it

barcodeMax Barry Jennifer Government
Abacus 2004 (2002)

Jennifer Government is a novel that tries to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand it is an obvious satire on corporate power and greed and the inability of states to control these wayward creatures, on the other hand the story highlights individuals who by either opposing or aspiring to be major players in this selfish corporatism quite frequently espouse the self-same macho values that got corporatism where it is. While castigating the whole set-up Max Barry also revels in the rogue survivalist attitudes and actions that many of the characters display. Is it irony, or is he hedging his bets? Continue reading “Don’t pass it on: pass on it”

Not academic but accessible

Original artwork by Simon Rouse for the Journal of the Pendragon Society
Original artwork by Simon Rouse for the Journal of the Pendragon Society

Ronan Coghlan The Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
Element Books 1992

Often plundered and even plagiarised – frequently online and most notably in print by Mike Dixon-Kennedy in his Arthurian Myth and Legend: an A-Z of People and Places (1996) – this was the first really accessible dictionary of Arthurian personages, locales and other miscellanea. While not an academic publication the Encyclopaedia at least references most of its entries (unlike its main rival, mentioned above) while still striving to be user-friendly. This original edition Continue reading “Not academic but accessible”

To boldly conceive

robot

Mark Brake, Neil Hook FutureWorld
Boxtree/Science Museum 2008

FutureWorld is a popular account of the interaction between science fiction and pure science, published in association with the Science Museum in London and aimed at a general audience. Structured by division into four broad themes — space, time, machine and monster — the book’s main thesis is that bold imaginative concepts have to precede insights into real science, and that science fiction, of whatever period and whatever label, both stimulates scientific investigation and the developments of technologies while itself being stimulated in its turn by science and technology.

This being a Science Museum publication, it is primarily designed to communicate science to the public in an entertaining way without literally blinding them with science, and what better way to hook that public than with themes from popular culture. To that end there is no end of references to popular SF books, films, TV shows and games, with one hundred short entries broken up by wittily-captioned photos and illustrations.

The whole builds on the increasing realisation that Continue reading “To boldly conceive”

The original Elizabeth Bennet? Update

A letter from Jane, which explains itself:
“I am a Bennet – directly descended from the Bennet’s of Widcombe Manor of Bath. My 4 x Great Grandfather was best pals with with Ralph Allen of Prior Park. Bennets are buried in a Tomb next door to Widcombe Manor – Church of St Thomas a Becket. It is very probably that the Bennet reference in Jane Austen’s book was related to my ancestors – they were wealthy and prominent in Bath at the time. Bennett Street in Bath is named after them, albeit the current spelling is correct – only 1 x t in the name. I don’t know of the Benet on the monument – I have extensive information on my ancestors but of course, there could be a connection that I have missed.”

Calmgrove

Elizabeth Benet

Visiting Bath Abbey in April this year I chanced on this curious memorial on the east wall of the south transept.

Close inspection revealed the name of one Elizabeth Benet

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Humoresque and the picturesque

Pyrenees

Tony Hawks A Piano in the Pyrenees:
the Ups and Downs of an Englishman in the French Mountains
Ebury Press 2006

How can this book fail for me? I’m a pianist, I’ve walked in the French Pyrenees and skied on the Spanish side, plus I passed a crew about to shoot location sequences for the film of Tony Hawks’ Round Ireland with a Fridge (in West Wales — where else?). So I couldn’t pass up on reading this humorous account of the comedian/musician/writer buying a house near the border with Spain and building a swimming pool, honing his pianistic skills and performing music, making new friends and seeking true love.

Hawks’ story starts a little slowly but settles, literally, once he is living in his new Pyrenean home and interacting with the locals. Continue reading “Humoresque and the picturesque”

Surprisingly out of date

Dark Ages made even darker
Dark Ages made even darker

Angus Konstam British Forts in the Age of Arthur
Illustrated by Peter Dennis
Osprey 2008

“When the Romans left Britain around AD 410, the unconquered native peoples of modern Scotland, Ireland and Wales were presented with the opportunity to pillage what remained of Roman Britain,” runs the blurb, repeating the time-honoured scenario of “Post-Roman Britons [doing] their best to defend themselves”. This they largely did, suggests this book, by refurbishing Iron Age hillforts in the west of Britannia, and British Forts in the Age of Arthur focuses on “key sites” such as Dinas Powys, Cadbury-Congresbury and Castell Deganwy, as well as the more famous Tintagel and South Cadbury.

The first thing to be said is that this is an attractively illustrated 64-page paperback, largely in colour, with maps, photos and original reconstructions by Peter Dennis of the sites of Tintagel, Wroxeter, Dinas Emrys, South Cadbury, Birdoswald and Bamburgh. The second thing to be noted, however, Continue reading “Surprisingly out of date”

Deserving of more fantasy fans

knot

Diana Wynne Jones
The Spellcoats
Dalemark Quartet

OUP 2005 (1979)

A young girl, who has little idea that she has a talent for weaving magical spells into garments, has to abandon home along with her orphan siblings when they are all suspected of colluding with invaders with whom they happen to share physical characteristics. Thus begins a journey downriver to the sea and then back again up to its source before the causes of the conflict can start to be addressed.

The Spellcoats has a markedly different feel compared to the middle two Dalemark tales. As well as being set in an earlier period, this story is recounted by the young weaver Tanaqui (an approach unlike that in the other three books which are third-person narratives). We also find that the story is being told through her weaving of the tale into the titular Spellcoats, a wonderful metaphor for how stories are often described as being told. We finally discover (in both an epilogue and in the helpful glossary that is supplied at the end of the book) that the boundaries between myth and factual truth are not as clear-cut as at first seems, a fascinating exercise in the layering of meaning and reality. It’s what might be called metafiction (defined as fiction about fiction, or ‘fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself’), a term which had only been coined in 1970, nine years before The Spellcoats was first published. Continue reading “Deserving of more fantasy fans”

Plastering over the cracks

Oliver Tobias Arthur of the Britons, broadcast by HTV in 1972
Oliver Tobias in Arthur of the Britons, HTV series first broadcast in the UK in 1972

John Morris The Age of Arthur:
a History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1973

The sixties and early seventies were an exciting time for those interested in that transitional period between the removal of Roman troops from Britain and the lowland’s transformation into England, the ‘land of the Angles’ (and Saxons, of course). Long disparaged as the ‘Dark Ages’ or the ‘lost centuries’, this Cinderella period was then becoming more acceptable to scholars to study under alternative, less romantic labels: post-Roman, Early Medieval, Late Celtic, Early Christian, Late Antiquity or Anglo-Saxon, depending on your point of view or your specialisation.

The sixties also saw the rise of popular interest in archaeology, Continue reading “Plastering over the cracks”