A spinner of tales

Alice Jane Taylor at 16, around Penelope's age at story's end http://www.alisonuttley.co.uk/album/slides/alison16.html
Alice Jane Taylor at 16, around Penelope’s age at story’s end
http://www.alisonuttley.co.uk/album/slides/alison16.html

Alison Uttley
A Traveller in Time
Puffin Books 1977 (1939)

Alison Uttley is best known for her Little Grey Rabbit books — beginning with The Squirrel, The Hare and The Little Grey Rabbit (1929) — publication of which continued for nearly fifty years, with charming illustrations by Margaret Tempest (latterly Katherine Wigglesworth). They were part of a story-telling tradition that stretched from Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit to Jane Pilgrim’s Blackberry Farm series, a tradition featuring anthropomorphic creatures and describing a rural life that has now largely disappeared.

A Traveller in Time is rather different. Continue reading “A spinner of tales”

Cymbeline, Act V

The model for Belarius? Horatius Cocles (Wikipedia Commons)
The model for Belarius? Horatius Cocles (Wikipedia Commons)

William Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act V in five scenes

Before we cut to the chase, Shakespeare presents us with a stupendous battle between the Britons and Romans. Unhistorical though it is, we may imagine this as happening in the 30s of the 1st century CE, when Cunobelinus was indeed a mighty king of Britain. The place isn’t specified, but it’s implied that this notional battle is near Milford Haven. Though it was well known as a deep-water harbour — George Owen, a local man, called it “the most famous port of Christendom” in 1603 — in choosing this port Shakespeare may have had in mind Henry Tudor: the future Henry VII, who landed here in 1485, mustering more troops on his way to Bosworth Field before taking the crown from Richard III. The outcome here, however, is rather different.

This is a complex plot, made more so because we have several individuals who are not as they seem. Shall I list them all? Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act V”

The geography of Cymbeline

Roman Britain according to Ptolemy c. 90--168
Roman Britain according to Ptolemy c. 90 — 168

The first thing to remember is that The Tragedie of Cymbeline is, despite its published title, a comedy. It’s certainly not a Shakespearean ‘history’ so we mustn’t expect any degree of accuracy or verisimilitude. If anything it belongs to a genre we’d nowadays happily accept as Fantasy if it was to be written up in modern language. And its sources, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth’s so-called History of the Kings of Britain, were pure fantasy, in the broadest sense, albeit with some authentic pieces like nuts or fruit included in the baking of a cake.

The map I’ve used is a Renaissance edition of Roman geographer Ptolemy’s great work, mapping the world as known at the time. Everything appears distorted but at least north is to the top instead of to the left as in most medieval maps. I’ve marked in Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire near where most of the later action takes place. I’ve made the assumption that Cymbeline’s palace is in Lud’s-town or London, on the walls of which Cloten promises to raise Posthumus’ severed head on a pole (and where medieval traitor’s heads were similarly displayed). Sadly for Cloten he doesn’t get to keep his promise. The historical Cunobelinus, the original Cymbeline (Cynfelyn in Welsh) actually had his ‘capital’ at Colchester in Essex, then called Camulodunum; incidentally, the latter site, named after the god Camulos, may have inspired the choice of ‘Camelot’ as Arthur’s capital.

The Roman fleet came from Gallia, but probably Shakespeare imagines it coming from a Breton port up the western seaways. The overland route taken by Imogen and Cloten west over the river Severn and the Welsh mountains to Milford is marked in green, mostly following the Roman roads that Ptolemy’s map marks out. This rather ‘squeezed’ depiction of Britain allows relatively quick movement from east to west since the chronology of Cymbeline is also particularly squeezed. Modern road or rail routes cut journey times but all Imogen, say, could manage was a score of miles a day on horseback, and to get from London to Milford at this rate would have required a fortnight’s travel (if indeed London was Cymbeline’s capital).

However, in the confines of Shakespeare’s great ‘wooden O’ such considerations were irrelevant. And 450 years ago today — or thereabouts — such considerations were inconceivable to the newborn William about to cry his lungs out.

Cymbeline, Act IV

skyline
Rocky tor on Preseli Hills skyline  (author’s photo)

William Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act IV in four scenes

I’ll say this for Will: he knows how to lead you to sometimes expect the expected but then takes an unexpected turn which, in retrospect, you could also have expected. For example, in Act IV a certain villain gets their hoped-for come-uppance, but not in the manner that we might have imagined — and while that comes as a bit of a shock it is entirely appropriate.

The action is still switching between Cymbeline’s court (in London, one assumes, as Lud’s-town gets a couple of mentions) and the cave where Belarius and his two young wards, Guiderius and Arviragus, reside under assumed names — on a mountain near Milford Haven, which I’ve suggested could be the Preseli Hills (highest point: 1760 feet). Cloten has arrived hotfoot on the trail of Imogen, following directions reluctantly given by Pisanio, and while in Posthumus’ garb is still fixated on her insult comparing him to underpants, working himself up mightily to fulfil his bloodthirsty boasts. Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act IV”

A quintessential hero

robinhoodRonan Coghlan
The Robin Hood Companion
Xiphos Books 2003

Along with King Arthur there was a flurry of interest about a decade ago in Robin Hood, another quintessential hero of insular tradition that has, as far as popular culture goes, transplanted abroad rather well. But though it may superficially appear that Robin, Marian, Little john and Friar Tuck complement the figures of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin, there really is no fit.

However, this thoroughly researched volume — which includes a delightfully idiosyncratic A-Z dictionary reflecting the legend’s broad chronological spectrum, a useful bibliography and a modern rendition of A Little Gest of Robin Hood — provides plenty of excuses for the amateur cultural historian to dip into its pages. Modern novelised, filmed and televised versions of Robin’s legends even draw in Arthur, Merlin and the Round Table, for a start. The origins of the outlaw, like the once and future king, are shrouded by uncertainty, a state of affairs which has not stopped but indeed encouraged numerous imaginative hypotheses, some of which are detailed here. (One of my favourites, though not noted by Coghlan, is that our hero’s name derives from Ra-Benu, the phoenix form of the Egyptian god Ra.) And the mystery surrounding Robin’s death and burial place is not a little reminiscent of Arthur.

This vademecum is a delight to peruse, taking the reader into the byways of the embellished legend. Popular culture is especially explored — TV, comics, fiction, folklore as well as ‘fakelore’ — showing that the stories continue to evolve. Ronan Coghlan’s Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends itself successfully metamorphosed into a popular illustrated edition; sadly the same hasn’t happened for this self-published title. As an broad introduction to Robin Hood this is very good, but for more detailed scholarly analysis of the origins of the legends I prefer the classic The Outlaws of Medieval Legend by Maurice Keen or J C Holt’s Robin Hood.

Cymbeline, Act III

Hoopoe
Hoopoe: clipart courtesy Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

William Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act III in seven scenes

The story so far
Imogen’s story is that of the Calumniated or Slandered Wife, whereby she is wrongly accused of being unfaithful to her husband. This results from Shakespeare’s use of the folktale motif of the Wager on the Wife’s Chastity, linked to the theme of the supposed lover — here played by Iachimo — hidden in a chest in the heroine’s bedchamber. The tale Imogen was reading before retiring to bed was from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and concerned the Thracian tyrant Tereus. His Athenian wife Procne asks Tereus to allow her to see her own sister Philomela. Tereus, seized with lust, rapes Philomela, and cuts out her tongue to stop her reporting his violence. However, Philomela weaves a tapestry which reveals the rape and sends it to her sister. Procne metes out a bloody revenge on her unfaithful husband before she and Philomel turn into birds, Procne becoming a swallow and Philomel a nightingale. Tereus also transforms into a bird, the hoopoe, which laments with a distinctive cry while wearing a distinctive crest to mark it out. Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act III”

Cymbeline, Act II

cowslipsWilliam Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act II in five scenes

“… On her left breast
A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I’ the bottom of a cowslip …”

— Cymbeline II ii

Most of the principal characters having been introduced in Act I, Act II settles down to working out some of the scenarios that have been triggered: so the mystery of the chest supposedly filled with treasures for the Roman emperor is now revealed, and Iachimo’s trap is sprung. The Queen’s son, Cloten, who has been revealed as a strutting coxcomb in Act I, continues to display what a complete clot he is: having heard that an ‘Italian’ (Iachimo from Rome) is newly arrived, he expresses his intentions to beat him, perhaps cheat him, in some game or other. Though he never gets to meet Iachimo, we don’t doubt the outcome of that match. It is in the next scene, in Imogen’s bedchamber that the apparent ‘tragedie’ of the drama is played out. Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act II”

From whimsy to saga

winged

J R R Tolkien:
The Hobbit
George Allen & Unwin (3rd edition 1972)

Wizard at the door?
Twelve dwarves too? You’ll be telling
me a dragon’s next!
I must have spent my childhood and adolescence skim-reading most of the literature I was introduced to, gaining impressionist pictures of those works but missing much of the subtlety of language, characterisation and narrative. Having taken it on myself in recent years to begin re-reading those books with more attentiveness The Hobbit seemed a natural choice. Rather than merely summarising what must be one of the most familiar tales in modern fantasy I’ve opted to discuss the personal insights that this re-reading suggested to me.

The first insight I got is that Tolkien’s prose changes from whimsical to saga-like over the course Bilbo’s journey there and back again. Despite the revisions he made to two subsequent editions (I read the most common 1966 third edition), the avuncular approach he takes at the opening, very reminiscent of the tone of the posthumously published The Father Christmas Letters, sits ill at ease with descriptions of casualities in battle and the more serious and earnest language at the end; revisions clearly haven’t reconciled the two approaches.

The next insight was Continue reading “From whimsy to saga”

Cymbeline, Act I

Ely House portrait
Shakespeare: the Ely Palace portrait, probably 19th-century — before 1864, when it first appeared

William Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act I in six scenes

The Medieval and Renaissance sense of the past was particularly liable to admit anachronisms, for example narrating how pre-Christian classical heroes would go to Mass before setting out on their adventures. In Cymbeline Shakespeare had no worries about anachronistic details: a story set just before the arrivals of the Romans in Britain includes for example men from France, Holland and Spain, when these countries were yet to come into existence, and its curious mix of Welsh, Italian and Latin-sounding names is quite disconcerting. But the author cares not a jot or a tittle about this, for this is principally a fantasy about power struggles in high politics, conducted by individuals with very human failings. Like many a Shakespearean comedy (don’t be fooled by the ‘tragedie’ label of its original title) it is essentially a fairytale full of all the folktale motifs and themes that we expect from traditional stories. Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act I”

Shakespeare’s The Tragedie of Cymbeline

Scene-II-Act-IV-From-Cymbeline-By-William-Shakespeare-1564-1616
Henry Singleton Scene ii Act IV from Cymbeline http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Henry-Singleton/Scene-II-Act-IV-From-Cymbeline-By-William-Shakespeare-1564-1616.html

Shakespeare was christened on April 26th, 1564, four and a half centuries ago. To mark his birth — traditionally set on St George’s Day, feast day of England’s patron saint, though his actual birthday is not known — Lizzie Ross and I will be looking at one of his more obscure plays, The Tragedie of Cymbeline, act by act until we get to April 26th. We tweeted a similar dialogue with our views on the graphic novel Watchmen.

CymbelineAccording to IMDb a modern version of Cymbeline is due to be released as a film this year, set in New York and starring Ed Harris, Dakota Johson, Ethan Hawke and Milla Jovovich among others. This will be a far cry from either Iron Age Britain, when Cunobelinus ruled from Camulodunum — now Colchester in Essex — or from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicle The History of the Kings of Britain, which in turn supplied Cymbeline as a fantasy character to later inspire Shakespeare via Holinshed’s Chronicles.

But despite the title, this is not primarily a tale about the king — as we will no doubt see.

 

Things in our philosophies

durer
Dürer study of hands with codex

Ronald H Fritze Invented Knowledge:
False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions

Reaktion Books 2011

Are there more things in
our philosophies than in
heaven, Horatio…?

I read a first-hand account by a reputable historian who was appalled by a comment he heard after watching the film of The Da Vinci Code: “It makes you think, doesn’t it?” He wanted to scream, that such banale make-believe based on allegations of ‘hidden’ history concocted by conspiracy theorists should be given any credence or even entertained. The many case-histories presented in Invented Knowledge may well induce similar paroxysms in rationalists, and could well warrant a health warning on the cover.

This is a study of examples of pseudohistory or ‘false’ history that have emerged or re-emerged in recent years, told particularly from a North American viewpoint (the author is Professor of History at Athens State University in Alabama, and currently Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences). In seven chapters (plus an introduction) it covers Continue reading “Things in our philosophies”

Historical whodunit not for the po-faced

Templecombe
Templar Head of Christ displayed in Templecombe church, Somerset

 

Michael Clynes The Grail Murders Headline Books 1993

It is 1522 and Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham has just been beheaded for treason. Soon afterwards Cardinal Wolsey’s spies start to be bumped off one by one, apparently in revenge for Buckingham’s execution. Buckingham himself was searching for two objects in darkest Somerset and seems to have been in cahoots with a powerful secret society, supposedly disbanded for two centuries. Under pain of execution two investigators, Benjamin Daunbey and Roger Shallot, are ordered by Henry VIII to find these two missing relics — the Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, and Excalibur, the fabled sword of King Arthur — and foil the Templar plot against the Tudors. Along the way there is a lot of intrigue and action before matters are finally resolved. Or not.

First, the good news. Continue reading “Historical whodunit not for the po-faced”

Eclipse of empire

Jan Morris Hong Kong: the End of an Empire
Penguin 1990 (1989)

Even though the cover of the edition I have sports the subtitle ‘Epilogue to an Empire’, the correct subtitle to Jan Morris’ Hong Kong is ‘The End of an Empire’. The latter is a more accurate description in that even this 1990 updating still long preceded the handing over of the colony to mainland China in 1997, the date that is a truer encapsulation of the eclipse of Empire.

What this revision does do, however, is to take into account the social and cultural repercussions of the Tiananmen Square massacre which took place in the year which intervened between hardback and paperback, an inauspicious augury for the run-up to 1997 which Morris discusses in the closing pages.

I had two justifications to read this book, if any were needed. Continue reading “Eclipse of empire”

Memorable female characters

Helen Hollick The Kingmaking
Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner trilogy
Heinemann 1994

Why does the Arthurian legend attract so many women writers? Rosemary Sutcliff, Catherine Christian, Marian Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, André Norton, Vera Chapman, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken and Jane Curry (to name but a few) have all mined that rich seam, producing gems in various genres including fantasy, historical fiction and children’s literature. Does the work of another exponent, Helen Hollick, provide an answer? Continue reading “Memorable female characters”

Still underwhelmed

oxford skyline

Guillermo Martinez The Oxford Murders Abacus 2005

A series of crimes:
are they related, and are
they indeed all crimes?

With its history, architecture and unique atmosphere Oxford is a great setting for novels, films and TV series, and has appeared in works as diverse as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series. I’d have high hopes for any novel with Oxford in the title, anticipating it would have that particular mix associated with the city, blended with classy writing. This was claimed to be a clever whodunit using mathematics and symbols to create a very Borgesian mystery, and the reader would surely expect to have their brain cells on high alert for a large proportion of this murder mystery.

However, I was underwhelmed when I first read this novel a few years ago, and remained underwhelmed on a later reading. Continue reading “Still underwhelmed”