A magisterial and elegant summary

Rubin vase illusion http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png
Rubin vase illusion http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png

Juliette Wood: Eternal Chalice:
the Enduring Legend of the Holy Grail.
I B Tauris Publishers, 2008.

As a journalistic metaphor for the ultimate or the unattainable, the Holy Grail is, well, the holy grail of metaphors. For the general public there may be a sense of it being the object of a quest, usually the cup of the Last Supper, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. For New Agers and pseudohistorians, it is an ineffable object with mystical powers, for academics a keyword for research into literature, art and cultural history, for scientists maybe an acronym for investigating the moon’s gravity. In other words, it is all things to all people, and therefore any attempt to pin it down could well be doomed to failure. But that hasn’t stopped the plethora of titles being published year on year.

Continue reading “A magisterial and elegant summary”

Two Grail studies

The Ace of Cups from an early printed Tarot pack

Despite some inevitable overlap, these two studies take rather different routes through the Sargasso Sea of grail research. At journey’s end each study certainly conveys a sense of great navigation and exploration, but, perhaps in keeping with the nature of their subject, there is no triumphant flag-planting ceremony on dry newfound land. Instead, we can be allowed a little satisfaction that some sea-mists have been dispelled and fog-bound sand-banks have been avoided. Continue reading “Two Grail studies”

Love, learning and liberty


Ursula Le Guin Powers
Orion Children’s Books 2008

Gifts, Voices and Powers, as well as being linked by shared geography and key characters, are together an exploration of what exactly constitutes magic and magical abilities. Gifts showed two individuals, Orrec and Gry, developing talents that could equally be regarded as non-magical in our own world, namely storytelling and poetry and empathy with animals. Voices focused on Memer, whose apparent gift of prophecy actually called into doubt that oracles, with their ambiguous messages, could actually foretell the future: were they not just a reflection of human attempts to make sense of gnomic utterances?

And now we come to Powers, the third and possibly the last of the Annals of the Western Shore. Continue reading “Love, learning and liberty”

Both foreign and familiar

Diocletian’s Palace, Split, Croatia

Ursula Le Guin Voices
Orion Childrens Books 2007

Le Guin has a magical gift of creating credible alternate universes peopled with characters so well drawn you feel you know them personally, suffusing them with a passionate humanism that both transforms and warms her worlds of SF and fantasy. Voices is part of another such world, set in the Lands of the Western Shore, and while linking the previous title Gifts and the sequel Powers exists equally well as a standalone novel. Continue reading “Both foreign and familiar”

A little gem


Ursula Le Guin Gifts
Orion Childrens Books 2005

Gifts is the first of a series entitled the Annals of the Western Shore by the admirable Ursula Le Guin. Best known for her Earthsea fantasies, she is also outstanding in the fields of SF, short stories, poetry, articles and reviews. The three titles that make up her Annals sequence may not have achieved the same level of appreciation as the Earthsea books (and amateur reviews generally have demonstrated a perplexity that the Annals haven’t been as epic as those earlier tales) but my feeling is that they are every bit as thoughtful despite a superficially unambitious and inauspicious start. Continue reading “A little gem”

African heirs and graces

Elmo Lincoln in Tarzan of the Apes (1918) giving his famous “cry of a great bull ape who has made a kill”; unfortunately this was a silent film so the cry has to be imagined…

Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes
Introduction by Gore Vidal, afterword by Michael Meyer
Signet Classics 2008 (1914)

Everyone must have their vision of Tarzan, whether courtesy of the two feature length animations, comics, book covers or the numerous celluloid stars who have strapped on the loincloth, from Elmo Lincoln through Johnny Weissmuller (who, when he got too old and fat, became Jungle Jim in a TV series), Gordon Scott (“my” Tarzan), Jock Mahoney, Ron Ely (TV and feature film) and Christophe Lambert (an appropriate choice as French is Tarzan’s first spoken human language). Or maybe you’ve come across him in the parody George of the Jungle, an animated TV series which aired in the 60s, spawned a feature film and now a remake to coincide with the centenary of Tarzan of the Apes first book publication. Until lack of height, physique and any practical sense told me otherwise, I’m sure I was not alone in fantasising life as an ape-man, despite the absence of a convenient jungle.

Continue reading “African heirs and graces”

Middle Earth Ring Cycles

Ralph Bakshi’s ‘JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings’

Jim Smith and J Clive Matthews
The Lord of the Rings:
the Films, the Books, the Radio Series

Virgin Books 2004

In the words of the authors, this study is “an attempt to examine the process(es) whereby Tolkien’s books have been adapted into performed drama”. By Tolkien’s books they mean principally The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; by performed drama they mean films and radio plays, though passing reference is given to Donald Swann’s song cycle The Road Goes Ever On, Leonard Nimoy’s curiosity The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins and other more or less ephemeral items selected by the authors, even if such a selection can never be comprehensive. Continue reading “Middle Earth Ring Cycles”

A fascinating study of a fantastical building

Edward III's tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey
Edward III’s tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey (Wikipedia Commons)

Julian Munby, Richard Barber, Richard Brown:
Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor:
The House of the Round Table and the Windsor Festival of 1344.
Boydell Press, 2007.

Historical re-enactments have always been popular, especially in the late 20th century, from the Society for Creative Anachronism in America, through English Civil War society The Sealed Knot and Dark Age re-enactment group Britannia in more recent years, to the 500th anniversary of the last great tournament in Wales (which was celebrated at Carew Castle in West Wales in May 2007). Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a supporter of Henry Tudor before he became king, marked his admission to the Order of the Garter with what became known as the Great Carew Tournament of 1507, and appropriately enough his family’s poet, Rhys Nanmor, compared Carew Castle to King Arthur’s palace.

But the enthusiasm for historical re-enactment goes back much further back than this, as this book (volume 68 in Boydell’s excellent Arthurian Studies series) based on detailed documentary analysis and recent archaeological excavation shows.

This fascinating study of a fantastical building takes a suitably multi-disciplinary approach, with contributors including both the head of Buildings Archaeology and a Senior Project Manager at Oxford Archaeology, plus two experienced historians with overlapping expertise on the Middle Ages, Windsor Castle and the Arthurian legends, all spurred on by a Time Team investigation.

That building was the ‘House of the Round Table’ at Windsor, built in 1344 and then abandoned for plausible reasons explored fully and very clearly in the text. This short-lived yet extraordinary circular wooden structure, at least two hundred feet across, was intended to inaugurate a Round Table Order, with tournaments recreating imagined Arthurian ideals in a fusion of literary, political, architectural and social engineering. Sadly this never-completed British Coliseum was effectively forgotten after victory at Crecy in 1346, the mammoth Round Table Order it was meant to celebrate jettisoned in favour of a slimmed-down Order of the Garter, which of course has survived more than six centuries down to the present day.

Supplemented with documentary appendices and splendid illustrations, this in-depth study explores the historical background to a modern archaeological discovery, detailing its analogues and inspirations and ultimately revealing that role-playing games are nothing new. Despite its very scholarly approach this study still retains some excitement for the layman, with hints at what might have been if circumstances had been different. As a result I find I can’t praise it enough.

Windsor Castle, from an old print
Windsor Castle, from an old print

2007 review revised May 2014

A deeply immersive world


Garth Nix Abhorsen
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2005 (2003)

This, the third of the Old Kingdom series, follows immediately on from Lirael, set about a score of years after the events in Sabriel. Young Lirael, who was still hoping to gain the gift of clear foresight that her kin the Clayr claimed as their birthright, has accepted instead that she is Abhorsen-in-waiting. Prince Sameth, relieved that he is no longer Abhorsen-in-waiting, finds that he is destined to be a Wallmaker — appropriately as he has the gift of making. These are complicated roles to understand without knowledge of the previous two volumes in the series but, bearing in mind the title of this book, an explanation is probably called for — for at least one of the roles. Continue reading “A deeply immersive world”

Not all at sea

Albrecht Dürer (?): The Ship of Fools (1494)

Terry Jones Fantastic Stories Puffin 2003 (1992)

Though unable to speak German I once acquired a modern edition of Sebastian Brandt’s 1494 satire Das Narrenschiff or Ship of Fools, mainly because it was illustrated with distinctive woodcuts, many by Albrecht Dürer. A fruitless search for my mislaid copy was prompted by the first story in this short story collection by Terry Jones (whose sobriquet seems destined to forever remain ‘former Python’): naturally this was a tale called ‘The Ship of Fools’. Medievalist that he is, author of Who Murdered Chaucer? and Chaucer’s Knight, he won’t have lightly chosen this tale to head this collection without a reason. Continue reading “Not all at sea”

The intimate stranger

Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer
Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen Of Giants:
Sex, monsters, and the Middle Ages
Medieval Cultures Volume 17
University of Minnesota Press 1999

Consider these monsters — the Titans, Goliath, Grendel, Gogmagog, Ysbaddaden, Ymir, the Giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, Harpin de la Montagne, the Green Knight, the Carl of Carlisle, Gargantua, the Brobdingnagians, the giants in Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer, King Kong, Roald Dahl’s BFG, the jolly Green Giant — which speak to us variously of terror, comedy, cannibalism, rape, sadism, dismemberment, stupidity, folk humour, folk wisdom, advertising and, usually, maleness. And, of course, size matters… What is there about these figures that simultaneously repels and attracts us?

You might suspect that any academic title with the word “sex” in the title is probably Freudian in inspiration. With Of Giants one of the jumping-off points is the psychoanalytical approach of Jacques Lacan which, as I understand it, in part reinterprets Freudian theory through linguistic criticism. In this book this approach can result in what almost seems a parody of the academic verbal jungle: “a gestalt radically estranging subjectivity from somacity… This misconstruction is a kind of teratogenesis… The giant can be perceived only synecdochically…”

Continue reading “The intimate stranger”

Fantastic Beasts: find them here

Sea monster from Icones Animalium
Sea monster from Icones Animalium

Julia Cresswell
Legendary Beasts of Britain
Shire Publications 2013

There is a loosely connected worldwide band of dedicated enthusiasts, Fortean investigators and conspiracy theorists who call themselves cryptozoologists, hunters on the track of unknown animals. One of the best-known pioneers of this art was Bernard Heuvelmans whose book, Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées (1955), was indeed translated as On the Track of Unknown Animals. What binds these disparate devotees is the belief that ancient accounts and travellers’ tales may well have described existing or recently extinct animals that science either was ignorant of or obstinately ignores. In this group can be numbered seekers after dragons, the Loch Ness monster, alien big cats and Bigfoot or the Yeti. But modern cryptozoologists aren’t the first to give credence to bêtes ignorées — such beliefs have been going on for centuries, even millennia. Continue reading “Fantastic Beasts: find them here”

Grendel’s galactic mother

Cetus, Perseus and Andromeda, from a Corinthian vase (Wikipedia Commons)
Cetus, Perseus and Andromeda, from a Corinthian vase (Wikipedia Commons)

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes
The Legacy of Heorot
Sphere Books 1988 (1987)

A recent skim through this — I first read and reviewed it in 2001 — confirms what a rich novel this was, from its maps by Alexis Walser to the apt literary quotes as chapter headings, and from its scientific premises to its broader and occasionally more dubious environmental messages. As always there is so much one could say, but a short review will have to focus on a few points that particularly intrigued me.

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