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.

Continue reading “Cryptic inscriptions”

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.

Continue reading “Fact and fiction”

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”

Stonehenge’s mythic history

Early print of Stonehenge: the bluestones are the smaller pillars surrounded by the trilithons

Brian John The Bluestone Enigma:
Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age

Greencroft Books 2008

Ancient man didn’t
transport stones hundreds of miles.
And nor did Merlin.

Brian John, who lives in Pembrokeshire (where much of this study is set), has had a long interest in this whole subject area. A Geography graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to obtain a D Phil there for a study of the Ice Age in Wales. Among other occupations he was a field scientist in Antarctica and a Geography Lecturer in Durham University, and is currently a publisher and the author of a number of articles, university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies, tourist guides, titles on local folklore and traditions, plus books from popular science to local jokes. His credentials are self-evident when it comes to discussing Stonehenge.

One of the strongest modern myths about Stonehenge to have taken root is that the less monumental but no less impressive so-called bluestones were physically brought by prehistoric peoples from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Wiltshire. The second strongest modern myth is that the whole saga was somehow remembered over a hundred or more generations to be documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century as a feat of Merlin. In this self-published title Dr John examines these and other myths and finds them wanting in terms of echoing reality. Continue reading “Stonehenge’s mythic history”