A curate’s egg of a gazetteer

Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library)
Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library) http://medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/Arthurian_coats_of_arms

Derek Brewer and Ernest Frankl
Arthur’s Britain: the Land and the Legend
Guild Publishing 1986 (1985)

This illustrated gazetteer has an authoritative introductory essay by the late Derek Brewer, a distinguished academic and publisher who died in 2008. The illustrations which accompany the introduction all come from late medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and show how their techniques and purposes changed from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The photographs in the gazetteer proper are by Ernest Frankl, with accompanying maps drawn by Carmen Frankl; I’m guessing that both Ernest and Carmen have since passed away as Trinity Hall Cambridge has an Ernest and Carmen Frankl Memorial Fund to cover travel for educational purposes.

Part of a series of souvenir guidebooks by Pevensey Press, Arthur’s Britain consists of about seventy photographs of Arthurian sites with expert commentary. Some of the sites are not found in other such Arthurian guidebooks — for example Wandlebury Ring (perhaps Malory’s “Wandesborow Castle”) and Papworth St Agnes (the abode of a candidate for identification as the Thomas Malory) both figure I suspect because of the Cambridge associations of the book’s producers and publishers. Some of the pictures are superfluous (the reredos and wall-paintings in Winchester Cathedral) or dubious (Arthur’s Bridge over the River Alham), and while some of the photos are magnificent (Richmond Castle, Stonehenge, Trethevy Quoit) others are nondescript (Drumelzier, Camboglanna), a few are pure calendar fodder (Caergai, Loch Lomond) and a number I find technically poor (River Nyfer, Looe Pool). In fact, Cornwall in particular seems mostly to have been photographed during one of the poor summers of the early eighties.

Such criticisms aside, the book lives up to its promise to look at “the land and the legend” without necessarily being exhaustive. One gets the impression of the legend being a living tradition, not as a relic set in amber. It’s just a shame that this hardback, with pretensions to being a coffee table book, is printed on poor quality paper and with photographs looking a little washed out.

So, this Cambridgeshire publication is a bit of a curate’s egg. However, what more suitable establishment to sing Arthur’s praises than Cambridge whose university in the 15th century, “since Oxford University claimed to have been founded by King Alfred, asserted that its own founder was the even more ancient and glorious Arthur”.

Review first published 1986, here substantially revised

George du Maurier cartoon "True Humility" from Punch 1895 Right Reverend Host. "I’m afraid you've got a bad Egg, Mr. Jones!" The Curate. "Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!"
George du Maurier cartoon “True Humility” from Punch 1895
Right Reverend Host. “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad Egg, Mr. Jones!”
The Curate. “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!”

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5 thoughts on “A curate’s egg of a gazetteer

  1. Poor Cornwall, to have been photographed when it was looking its worst. (In other words, welcome to my world!)
    Richmond Castle is lovely, but how is it connected to Arthur? Is he like Robin Hood and George Washington, someone everyone claims has been through their neck of the woods, for that valuable link to elusive fame? At least George Washington actually existed.
    I’m trying to remember where I’ve heard/read the term “curate’s egg” before. Total blank! Well, at least parts of my memory are still excellent.

    1. Until I checked I had no idea of the phrase’s origins; I only knew it as part of an idiom, as in “Like a curate’s egg, good in places”. No doubt a bit of assiduous online searching will come up with the source of your remembered reference, Lizzie!

      Let me quote from Geoffrey Ashe’s A Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain, in his entry on Richmond and its castle in North Yorkshire:

      “A potter named Thompson is said to have found a tunnel here running into the hillside. He made his way along it, and came to a cavern where Arthur and a number of knights were sitting at a round table, asleep. One the table lay a sword and a horn.”

      Spooked by sleepers stirring into wakefulness, he fled, with a ghostly voice intoning the words
      Potter Thompson, Potter Thompson!
      If thou hadst drawn the sword or blown the horn,
      Thou wouldst have been the luckiest man e’er born.

      Loads of slight variants, for example here: http://www.britannia.com/history/legend/collection/legcol34.html
      At the moment I don’t know how far back this legend goes; sounds like a bit of antiquarian lore from around the 18th century, from the use of ‘hadst’ and ‘wouldst’.

      The Sleeping King/Warrior/Hero legend is found all over the place of course. Its female folklore equivalents may be Snow White and Sleeping Beauty; and of course it transferred readily to the New World, as in the Rip Van Winkle story or, more recently, the urban legend of Elvis (“The King”) Lives!

        1. Yes, Cooper too! If you can try to get hold of William Mayne’s Earthfasts (1966) about an 18th-century drummer who disappears under a castle hill looking for King Arthur — 200 years later he re-emerges. I haven’t reread this since the early 70s, but I still have my copy and will now dust it off…

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