The Phoenix and the Fossil

archaeopteryx
Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://fcit.usf.edu/

Phoenix-like, from stone
it rises, wings raised, renewed,
the stuff of legend

Paul Chambers
Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals
John Murray Publishers Ltd 2002

A few years ago I had a notion about the legend of the grail as it appeared in medieval Germany. The Bavarian poet Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail (grâl or graal he called it) by the strange term lapsit exillis, by which he meant a stone rather than the more familiar dish or chalice. Wolfram has his own conceit about this object:

By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix [moult] and change its plumage, which afterwards is bright and shining and as lovely as before.*

When reading this I had a sudden vision of the deceased phoenix on its stone as an archaeopteryx fossil, the first of which had been discovered in Bavaria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Checking the map I later discovered that Wolfram’s home town, now re-named Wolframs-Eschenbach in his honour, is not that far distant from the Altmühltal, a river valley where the limestone quarries that first revealed these winged and feathered creatures are situated. Was it possible that this medieval poet had seen a now vanished archaeopteryx fossil, that it too reminded him of the legend of the phoenix, and that he subsequently co-opted that legend for his version of the wondrous quest object?

I included this notion in a short story I wrote, and passed the hypothesis by the odd mildly intrigued expert, but it remains mere speculation, however much I’d like to believe it may be true. And there it stayed until this account of archaeopteryx (from the Greek for ‘ancient’ and ‘wing’) by palaeontologist Paul Chambers started me wondering about it again. Continue reading “The Phoenix and the Fossil”

Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail

Norris J Lacy and Joan Tasker Grimbert (editors)
A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes
D S Brewer 2008

We have a lot to be thankful to Chrétien de Troyes for: without him there would be no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail; he virtually kickstarted the romance tradition through his use of a vernacular language, French; and of the six surviving texts ascribed to him five have — to a greater or lesser extent — an Arthurian background. So, one of the great literary what-ifs must hinge on whether Arthurian literature, both medieval and modern, would have been what it is now if not for Chrétien. Continue reading “Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail”

An illusory Questing Beast

durer

Lev Grossman Codex Arrow 2005

In that this is a tale of a modern quest for a medieval book that purports to be about the Quest for the Holy Grail, Codex is undoubtedly an Arthurian novel. We are treated to circumstantial details about a medieval codex, A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians by Gervase of Langford, and much about encoded messages, bookbinding and medieval manuscripts. This reveals the author’s intention to impress us with the depth of his research, and I have to say that some of the detail is fascinating, and as an Arthurian I thought the conceit of a hitherto unknown manuscript about the Matter of Britain promising.

Less promising are the details of a virtual reality game that the hero simultaneously gets drawn into, which are meant to impress us with the breadth of Grossman’s online experience; the novel is set in the middle of the noughties and so it becomes less hard as time goes on to say how that this may not stand up as a plot device while real-life technology overtakes his scenario. Continue reading “An illusory Questing Beast”

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 a 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”

Aspirations and anxieties

landscape
Alan Lupack
The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
Oxford University Press 2007

In the late sixties studying the significance of the Arthurian legends become surprisingly mainstream both in academic circles and in popular culture, spawning a library fit for a modern-day Tower of Babel. Alan Lupack’s Guide is the kind of vademecum that many students like me yearned for in those early days.

This massive survey (nearly 500 pages in the 2007 paperback edition) aims to introduce the general reader to a study of the Arthurian legends. Continue reading “Aspirations and anxieties”

Disturbing visions

Tower
Neil Gaiman Coraline and Other Stories Bloomsbury Publishing 2009

This is a collection of eleven Gaiman short stories (and one poem) repackaged for the young reader market. The novella Coraline is added to Bloomsbury’s earlier Gaiman collection M for Magic, while M for Magic was itself a throwing together of disparate tales, some from the adult collection Smoke and Mirrors, some from other publications, all deemed suitable to send a chill down pre-teen, teen and, of course, adult readers. So the moral is, if you already have these titles in your library you may want to pass on this ‘new’ title.

Or then again, you might not. This is a good place to include the almost flawless Coraline together with the other chillers about the fears and bogeys that haunt the childish and not so childish imagination, deliciously presented in a volume with pages that are black-edged and including Dave McKean’s original nightmarish illustrations for Coraline. This story about a girl (don’t call her ‘Caroline’) who finds a way into a parallel house where her mother has been replaced by a sinister figure with buttons for eyes is both a terrifying and yet satisfying modern equivalent of all those Grimm fairytales, such as Hansel and Gretel, with their bewitching and unspeakable devouring figures. Continue reading “Disturbing visions”