The reader in the midst of the action

sperm-whale

Nathaniel Philbrick:
In the Heart of the Sea
HarperCollins 2001

This is one of those rare non-fiction books that encourages you to continue reading in the same way that a good novel keeps you glued to the page. All the more remarkable, then, that this study gives the background to a true-life saga that inspired one of the great but arguably most difficult novels, Moby-Dick, a work that I’ve always struggled to complete.

In the Heart of the Sea (the title inspired by an extract from Melville’s book, as the end of the epilogue makes clear) has now made me all the more determined to tackle Moby-Dick again, but this time with more understanding, appreciation and stamina.

Continue reading “The reader in the midst of the action”

A Grail quest in Catalonia

Joseph Goering:
The Virgin and the Grail;
Origins of a Legend
Yale University Press 2005

South of the high peaks of the Pyrenees and bounded by Aragon to the west and Andorra to the east lies a corner of Catalonia that offers an unexpected but strangely satisfying explanation for the literary Grail’s medieval antecedents.

Continue reading “A Grail quest in Catalonia”

A remarkable narrator

gwenllian

Andrew Breeze:
The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’
Gracewing Publishing 2009

Four medieval stories in Welsh — Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, Manawydan Son of Llŷr and Math Son of Mathonwy — form a unique cycle of tales drawing in characters, motifs and tale-types from Celtic mythology and folktale, all set in the recognisable medieval landscape of Wales and adjacent parts of England. If they didn’t exist our understanding of Celtic myth and legend would be immeasurably the poorer, but our knowledge of the circumstances of this unique retelling and, very importantly, the author and their motivations for setting it all down are severely hampered by lacunae, scholarly suppositions and sometimes wild speculations.

The premise of this book is easily told.

Continue reading “A remarkable narrator”

Passant on a green and white field

winged
Wyvern (“the Western Squat Dragon”) by Edward Topsell
Welsh
Flag of Wales (credit: wallpapertree.com)

Carl Lofmark (G A Wells, editor):
A History of the Red Dragon
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch (No 4 Welsh Heritage Series)

In 1959 the Queen sanctioned the flying of the now familiar Welsh flag on Government buildings in Wales and in London, whenever “appropriate”, officially recognising a national symbol that has had a long but mixed history. In this booklet by the late Carl Lofmark the convoluted story of its origins, use and development is traced to the point where the dragon and the colour red is ubiquitous on March 1st, the feast of St David, patron saint of Wales. Why a dragon? And why is it red?

Continue reading “Passant on a green and white field”

Whistling in the dark

sunset
Sunset in the west

Geoffrey Ashe in association with Debrett’s Peerage:
The Discovery of King Arthur
Debrett’s Peerage 1985

Humans make history, and histories about individual humans are particularly fascinating if not always fashionable among scholars. Occasionally popular and scholarly tastes overlap, as we have seen in the case of the discovery of Richard III’s body under a car park in Leicester. But if anybody’s hoping in similar fashion to discover the body of King Arthur they might just be whistling in the dark.

Why? Well, frankly the historical documentation for Arthur is, to put it mildly, very sparse, some might say non-existent.

Continue reading “Whistling in the dark”

Parallels

Cover art Chris Lovegrove for Pendragon: Journal of the Pendragon Society XIV/3 1981

Geoffrey Ashe: “A Certain Very Ancient Book”;
Traces of an Arthurian Source in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History.
Speculum 56, 2: 1981

Geoffrey Ashe
in association with Debrett’s Peerage
The Discovery of King Arthur
Debrett’s Peerage Limited 1985

A recent guest post by Katie Wilkins of Doing Dewey on Lory Hess’s blog Emerald City Book Review introduced a 1985 publication that stimulated some discussion. It prompted me to look up some reviews I penned of Geoffrey Ashe’s book at the time, plus one of the academic papers that preceded it.

Below is the slightly edited texts of those reviews with some linking commentary, for those who like to muse on the historical origins of the Arthurian legends. The Speculum review is from Pendragon XIV/3, summer 1981, and the book review appeared in Pendragon XVII/4, autumn 1984 (published February 1986). Of necessity the arguments are involved and rather complex — I hope it all has a little more than just historical curiosity!

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Regency murders

ratcliffe_poster

P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

Faber & Faber 2010

I deliberately began reading The Maul and the Pear Tree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.

Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.

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Castelophiles only

Part of Cardiff Castle, its facade a mix of medieval, Georgian and Victorian Gothic Revival

Gerald Morgan Castles in Wales: A Handbook
Y Lolfa 2008

It’s often claimed that, per square mile, Wales has the largest number of castles in the world.¹ Whether it’s the Welsh bigging themselves up or one of those memes that’s just accepted, it’s certainly true that the country has over 600 examples. As Wales is over 8000 square miles — nearly 20,800 square kilometres — in area,² this means there is a castle for every 13 sq miles (35 sq km) of land. Nowadays that works out at around one castle for every 5000 head of population, whereas in the Middle Ages, when the inhabitants of Wales may have fluctuated between 150K and 300K, each castle was on average meant to overawe between 250 and 500 Welshmen and -women. That’s some comment on the fears of the mostly Norman and Plantagent overlords who built them and on the rightfully bolshie attitudes of the native peoples.

When we imagine castles it’s odds-on we picture something like Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, partly modelled on the 19th-century castle at Neuschwanstein, or perhaps one of the French chateaux of the Loire. The fact is that castles come in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of function. Gerald Morgan makes this point very clearly in his introduction to this Welsh castle handbook: while the simplest definition could be ‘a medieval European fortified stronghold’ (thus excluding prehistoric earthworks, Roman camps and Victorian follies and fancies, for example) it can include everything from ringworks and motte-and-bailey structures to fortified manor houses and walled palaces, as well as the great military showpieces that typify the Welsh castle in the popular mind.

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Cryptic inscriptions

The Catamanus Stone, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)
Detail from the Catamanus Stone, Llangadwaladr, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)

Living in Wales means living in a landscape where the past is never too far away — eloquent place names, ancient monuments, local legends and folklore. A particular class of monuments are those so-called Dark Age memorial stones inscribed with words, runes, pictograms and abstract patterns that litter the countryside, not just here in Wales but around the north and west of Britain. This repost of a review (it first appeared online in May 2014) looks at one man’s interpretation of what some of these enigmatic inscriptions might mean.

Charles Thomas
Christian Celts: Messages & Images
Tempus Publishing 1998

This is a book that is worth persevering with. Despite its often complex arguments it is shot through with Thomas’ dry wit and apposite asides, and — coming as it does from an acknowledged expert in the field of church history and archaeology — it is also worth taking seriously. He introduces the historical, educative and commemorative contexts that post-Roman inscriptions fitted into; he discusses the insular background in the Celtic-speaking regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall; and he also delves into the religious implications of some of the texts. But he does more than just give an overview of these enigmatic messages.

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Fact and fiction

Robinson Crusoe, from the first edition 1719
Robinson Crusoe, from the first edition 1719; Defoe’s novel is partly based on the life of Alexander Selkirk, marooned from 1704 to 1709

Robert Carse The Castaways:
A Narrative History of Some Survivors from the Dangers of the Sea

Ronald Whiting & Wheaton 1967 (1966)

I don’t usually start reviews with a biographical note, but since I knew nothing about Robert Carse I felt it was only fair to find out what constrained him to write this rather curious narrative history. I discovered that he was a pulp fiction author whose first effort was published in 1928, with stories appearing frequently in Argosy magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. Born in 1902 (he died in 1971) he became a sailor on the Great Lakes at seventeen, later becoming chief mate at sea. Having extensively sailed the world’s ocean he then embarked on a career as a maritime historian: it’s said that Carse claimed to have spent half of his life on water, and must have spent the other half writing about it, some of his work drawing on his experiences as a merchant seaman during the war.

With a back catalogue of short stories, serials, articles and books, both fiction and non-fiction, Carse’s output was aimed variously at children and adults. Thus The Castaways could as easily appeal to young adults as to older readers. His nine chapters include nine men who went ashore in foreign parts and one woman, and they include stories ranging from the Tudor period to the 19th century. With such a wide experience of seafaring and of being published Carse should have come up with a Narrative History that both impresses and convinces. But I found that this was a tantalising and not totally satisfying read.

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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”

A mountain to climb

John Keay The Great Arc:
the dramatic tale of how India was mapped
and Everest was named

HarperCollins 2001 (2000)

At the edge of the Welsh town of Crickhowell in the Black Mountains of Wales lies the Georgian manor house of Gwernvale, now a hotel. It was built by Greenwich solicitor William Tristram Everest, and local lore claims that his eldest son George was born here: his baptismal certificate attests that he was born on the 4th July 1790, but there’s no supporting evidence as to where. As it was not till several months later that he was baptised at St Alphage church, Greenwich — on 27th January 1791 — the legend appears plausible until one considers the likelihood that the present building was only constructed between 1797 and 1803. Be that as it may, there is a neatness about George Everest’s possible connections with the Black Mountains and the mountain named after him in 1865, with the added irony that he never actually set eyes on the world’s highest summit.

Lieutenant, later Colonel, George Everest — the name should be pronounced Eve-rest, by the way, not as three-syllabic Ever-est — succeeded William Lambton as principal surveyor of the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, which in time became the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. The Arc closely followed the meridian 78° east of Greenwich, spreading its triangulated tentacles east and west in its effort to accurately map the whole of British India, from Cape Comorin in the south to the Himalayan foothills in the north and beyond. The rate of attrition for the army of surveyors, their assistants and support was equivalent to the decimation of an army over its half-century of existence; malaria, fevers, animal attacks and sheer exhaustion exacted a heavy price for the inch-perfect survey.

The epic story of Lambton, Everest, their assistants and successors as told by John Keay is one of slow but steady success despite Continue reading “A mountain to climb”

A Vitruvian guide to England

Old College, University of Wales, Aberystwyth http://wp.me/s36La9-turrets
Old College, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Wales (http://wp.me/s36La9-turrets) showing this Victorian Gothic Revival building’s Neo-Gothic features

Philip Wilkinson
The Pocket Guide to English Architecture
Remember When / Pen & Sword Books 2009

This is one of those books the title of which says it all: a guide that you can carry around with you when visiting towns, cities or country houses to view the buildings of England. (And it really does mean only England, not the other currently constituent countries of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, though much of the information here is transferable to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.)

Explicitly excluded from the notion of custom-designed architecture — except for a brief mention of building materials — are all those examples of fine vernacular structures, whether thatched cottages, terraced houses or tithe barns, though I suspect the last-mentioned cathedral-like storehouses may well have been planned by the same individuals who directed the building of the associated abbeys.

The book is simply structured, starting with a timeline taking in twenty-two broad stylistic categories — from Saxon and Norman to Modernism and Art Deco — and covering the period 600 to 1939. This is then followed, after a short introduction, by chapters summarising the principal features of all those styles, with occasional ‘interludes’ to discuss changing tastes or available materials. Before the final index there are useful appendices illustrating diagnostic details to aid identification of periods: pillars, windows, doors, arches, vaults and towers.

According to his blog the author has written “The English Buildings Book, England’s Abbeys, Restoration, the book of Adam Hart-Davis’s series What the Romans Did For Us, other books about architecture and buildings, and various books on other subjects, including Dorling Kindersley’s handbooks on Mythology (written with Neil Philip) and Religions.” So he definitely knows whereof he speaks.

An added attraction of this unpretentious and accessible guide is the inclusion of vintage illustrations, from the line drawings of Colen Campbell’s 1715 Vitruvius Britannicus and Victorian reference books to historic postcard photographs. The picture research was done by Fiona Shoop who had access to the postcard collection of the Estate of Stanley Shoop, and they add greatly to the character of this 136-page guide.

Repost of review first published in April 2014

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”