The Ark, the Grail and the dog’s dinner

ark_of_the_covenant

Graham Hancock The Sign and the Seal
Mandarin 1993 (1992)

I experienced a sense of déjà vu when I first picked up this paperback: black cover, red titles, a yellow band with the legend “the explosively controversial international bestseller” emblazoned across the front. Back home I realised why. The design was a rip-off of (or, if you prefer, a loving homage to) The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent et al from a decade before. Oh dear – more hype and more tripe, I sensed, for Holy Blood, Holy Grail was a real dog’s dinner of a few facts, a lot of fiction and huge dollops of sensationalist speculation.

In essence the book is, as it subtitle proclaims, “a quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant”. This artefact, popularised by the first of the Indiana Jones films, was ordered by Moses to be built near Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. Modelled on Egyptian royal furniture, it functioned both as a container for the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and as the seat of the invisible Israelite god Yahweh. Ensuring victory in battles for the Promised Land, it was placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem around the middle of the 10th century BC. And, after some subsequent references in the Old Testament, it simply disappears.

It is at this point that most crank theories begin. Continue reading “The Ark, the Grail and the dog’s dinner”

The witching hour

watch

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Watchmen
Titan Books 2007 (1986-7)

As a classical musician I’ve learned there’s a delicate balancing act between heart and mind, between emotional response and cool analysis. I’ve also learned that this balancing act is a transferable skill when it comes to other areas of human endeavour, whether art, architecture, drama or narrative. At a recent live performance of Wintereisse I was mentally transported to the bleak landscape of Schubert’s song cycle, the stark monochrome images of the poems perfectly echoed by the composer’s sparse writing and a sympathetic musical interpretation, whilst simultaneously admiring Schubert’s sustained technical mastery. I sensed the same kind of balance when reading the now classic graphic novel Watchmen, a symbiosis of writing and imagery that in some respects parallels Wintereisse.

After being rejected in love Schubert’s protagonist undertakes a solitary winter’s journey, where everything seems emblematic of his state: he’s pushed around by fate like the weathervane by the wind, showered with snow knocked off roofs by crows, joined by a raven which reminds him of death, and identifies himself with a despised itinerant hurdy-gurdy man. Watchmen has the same atmosphere of doom and gloom by being mostly set in autumn 1985, in the days leading up to All Souls Day on November 2nd, even concluding via the snowy wastes of Antarctica with the midwinter festival of Christmas. The twenty-four songs of Wintereisse are matched by Watchmen’s twelve chapters with eleven interludes and a kind of postlude. And the same themes of rejection and loneliness are present everywhere in the graphic novel. Continue reading “The witching hour”

Smuggling and skullduggery

Chesil2

J Meade Falkner Moonfleet
Puffin Classics 1994 (1898)

Chesil Beach in Dorset is a spectacular bank of pebbles stretching for nearly twenty miles along the Dorset coast, running in a north-easterly direction from south of Weymouth. Behind it for part of its length is a freshwater lagoon called the Fleet. I have happy memories camping near Fleet village with my young son in the early nineties, exploring the area and visiting Portland Bill and Weymouth. But it hasn’t always been known solely as a holiday area: in the 18th century smuggling was rife, as elsewhere on the British coast, and Moonfleet portrays — with only a little romanticism — the kind of activities in which smugglers were involved in this part of Dorset.

Written fifteen years after Treasure Island Moonfleet superficially resembles that earlier adventure story: both are set in the 18th century, both have a young protagonist falling under the spell of a charismatic father-figure, both involve a search for ill-gotten treasure — the location of which is indicated by the chance discovery of a document — and feature an inn and an overseas voyage, though one features pirates and the other smugglers. But there are differences: Continue reading “Smuggling and skullduggery”

No mercy for Clemency?

Audley End

Julia Lee The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth
Oxford University Press 2013

November 1958. As the cabin door opened on a grey autumnal evening at Heathrow I had a Proustian moment – not that my ten-year-old self would have described it thus: in wafted November mists, with highlights of leaf mould, coal fires and, possibly, paraffin heating. I hadn’t experienced these scents since Coronation year, the intervening period and my previous early years having been spent in Hong Kong. These awakened memories — coming so soon after so long in a humid climate — were enough to disorientate me, a confusion that remained for quite some months afterwards.

I was thus able to appreciate the disorientation that young heroine Clemency Wrigglesworth felt after a lifetime in Victorian (or possibly Edwardian) India when she eventually fetched up in England, disembarking from a P&O liner in Southampton. At least I didn’t have the added disadvantages of being a recently-bereft eleven-year-old orphan with nothing to their name except a single ticket to England, inadequate clothing and some tantalising correspondence. Continue reading “No mercy for Clemency?”

A commendable compendium

King Arthur by Julia Margaret Cameron
Nineteenth-century photographic study for a portrait of King Arthur, by Julia Margaret Cameron

The New Arthurian Encyclopedia
Edited by Norris J Lacy et al
Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1996

With the publication of The Arthurian Encyclopedia in 1986 students were able to access, in one volume, academic discussion on a range of Arthurian topics — art, history, literature, fiction, drama, music and cinema for example — across space and time, all listed in alphabetical order. In 1991 an updated hardback edition was published as — naturally — The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, followed by a paperback edition in 1996 which was itself supplemented by an addendum detailing video games and new fiction that had appeared in the intervening years.

Anybody remotely interested in Arthurian matters should own or at least have regular access to this last volume, despite a desperate need for it to be updated yet again some two decades on from its last publication. Continue reading “A commendable compendium”

Enter at your peril

Leading to Cwm Cerwyn, where King Arthur battled Twrch Trwyth
Leading to Cwm Cerwyn, where King Arthur battled Twrch Trwyth

Robert Holdstock: Gate of Ivory
Voyager 1998 (as Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn 1997)

At the heart of this fantasy is the medieval Welsh Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen, but there are also echoes of other Celtic texts including The Spoils of Annwn, motifs from classical mythology and references to more recent fiction such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Christian Huxley, like his father before him, ventures into an ancient woodland — Ryhope Wood — peopled by figures from myth and legend and emanations from dreams and imaginations, following a personal quest born in tragic circumstances. Continue reading “Enter at your peril”