A skein of tales

Celtic head, Newport church, Pembrokeshire © C A Lovegrove

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi:
Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi
by Sioned Davies.
Gomer Press, 1993.

Four medieval native tales from Wales, known collectively as the Mabinogi, have rather remarkably survived for a millennium in two codices compiled somewhat later. Each tale in the quartet is known as a bough or branch (keinc, in Modern Welsh cainc) suggesting they derive from a common narrative tradition.

Sioned Davies, who was later to provide a readable  English translation of The Mabinogion, long established as the extended collection of medieval Welsh tales, offered us here a translation and adaptation of her 1989 Welsh essay on the Four Branches; it proves, for those whose familiarity with Welsh — such as myself — is as best very rusty, an extremely useful companion.

What are the tales about? Why should they still be read? And who wrote them? These and a few more exercise the minds of many, whether or not they are Welsh speakers, scholars, or merely lovers of story. Having long studied medieval narrative Dr Davies is in a good position to offer some solutions, but as any academic knows we can never give definitive answers, not while there is more research to do.

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Jane and Charlotte

The doorway at High Sunderland Hall, Halifax in 1913, known to the Brontës (image public domain)

Juliet Gardiner’s illustrated biography The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth (Collins & Brown 1992) is a kind of companion to Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘My Dear Cassandra’: Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen (1990) issued by the same publishers a year or two before.

The two titles to me recall Charlotte’s reported antipathy to Austen. It’s clear that Charlotte may have overreacted to gauche comments on the passion in her novels, but it’s nevertheless possible to identify in some of Charlotte’s more considered (if still lukewarm) assessments a sneaking admiration for her older contemporary, who died when Charlotte was only one year old.

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Contemplating the Narniad

Ptolemaicsystem
The spheres of above the Earth: Luna, Mercurius, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jove, Saturn, the Stars and the Empyrean

Planet Narnia:
the seven heavens in the imagination of C S Lewis
by Michael Ward.
Oxford University Press 2008

It is of supreme importance [in the construction of the human person] that children hear good fables and not bad. — Plato The Republic

I have been on the look-out for Michael Ward’s study of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia ever since his 2009 BBC TV documentary The Narnia Code (also the title of a condensed version of Planet Narnia published in 2010). The seven titles of the so-called Narniad have garnered praise and criticism in almost equal part, frequently fixated on the author’s Christian subtext. Sometimes there have been attempts to ascertain Lewis’ grand design for the Chronicles: why seven? Does each have a distinct theme? Is there a hidden meaning other than that obvious subtext?

Michael Ward has come up with a closely-argued and fully-referenced proposition that Lewis, long enamoured with classical and medieval literary traditions, fashioned his sevenfold book series according to the seven pre-Copernican heavens, each ruled by a ‘planet’. The Narniad (as the sequence is sometimes known) “was a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planet Suite; each one of the seven heavens gave the key to a different Chronicle” (page 251). Above the earth in the pre-Copernican universe were a set of concentric spheres: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above that were the stars, the Primum Mobile and the Abode of God.

Each book of the Narniad is based on the mood, atmosphere and characteristics of one of these bodies as personified in pagan mythology and appropriated by medieval Christianity. Lewis, so Ward suggests, wanted to suffuse each book with those planetary aspects that he had assigned to them, such as joviality, saturninity, mercurialness and so on.

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Ring cycles

© C A Lovegrove

As I proceed on my journey through Frodo’s Middle-earth — currently well into The Two Towers — it’s time to take up the metaphorical pen again as part of my #TalkingTolkien series in this, my sixth reread of The Lord of the Rings. As I approach the halfway mark — the end of Book 3 which signals the midway point of the second volume — a few more things strike me about how Tolkien paces and structures his work.

I’ve talked before about Portals, about Crossing Places and Stopping Places signposting significant points in the narrative. At some stage I want to talk about landscapes in more detail, for example how each book so far includes a mysterious woodland or forest at its heart with its odd denizens: Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in the Old Forest, Galadriel and Celeborn in Lothlórien, and Treebeard in Fangorn.

But right now I want to consider how The Lord of the Rings appears to incorporate a number of so-called basic plots; while the author’s use of interlacing stories offer a kind of covering garment, archetypal plots appear to provide the scaffolding on which the fabric hangs.

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Echoes and anticipations

Detail from Sutton Hoo helmet © C A Lovegrove

Yet the apparently casual form of the interlace is deceptive; it actually has a very subtle kind of cohesion. No part of the narrative can be removed without damage to the whole, for within any given section there are echoes of previous parts and anticipations of later ones.

Richard C West, ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘.

As I start The Two Towers in my latest reread of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings I come to the fact that a fellowship of nine — consisting of hobbits, men, wizard, elf and dwarf — which the author has so carefully put together and taken through various vicissitudes, is now scattered almost literally to the four winds.

Why, a third of the way through his epic fantasy, does he deliberately unravel a plait that he has woven together out of various strands, the timelines of our nine individuals? Is it because, as we will soon intuit, he wants to replait these threads into a bigger whole?

An interpretation which has increasingly won favour in recent years — that Tolkien structured his narrative using interlace technique — serves us well enough in considering the apparent splintering of the plotline, and why any dismay felt by the innocent reader only makes sense when seen as part of a bigger plan.

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A moralising purpose

Engraving by Thomas Bewick

Jane Austen and the Clergy
by Irene Collins.
The Hambledon Press 2002 (1994).

There’s a neat correspondence between a study examining Jane Austen’s models for fictional clergy, notably the snobby Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and the fact that such a study was undertaken by a scholar by the name of Collins. But this work is more than just a discussion of Mr Collins, Mr Tilney, Mr Elton, Dr Grant, Mr Bennet and others: it underlines how important Jane’s own clerical background was in forming the bedrock of not only her fiction but also her life.

Originally published in 1994, Jane Austen and the Clergy appeared just in time for the reignition of Austen mania brought about by the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for television in 1995, making the late Irene Collins (she died in 2015) a bit of a celebrity for Austen fans. Ever since I began reading Austen for myself I’ve been delving into this volume bit by bit till I now feel able to make some assessment of its undoubted worth.

In fact this study feels like a labour of love for the author. At times it’s unclear whom it’s aimed at: is it other literary scholars, the general public, Austen fans, or church historians? But, approached with care and attention by the reasonably intelligent reader it is undoubtedly enlightening on all fronts and an excellent commentary for those embarking on a reread of Jane’s published oeuvres.

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When two wrongs make a right

I’ve now resumed my reread of The Lord of the Rings with Book II in The Fellowship of the Ring and it’s time to talk about another aspect of the saga: morality. Not in a theological sense, however, but related to Latin mores (in the sense of social norms) — and then I want to link everything to the so-called just world hypothesis or, if you prefer, the just world fallacy.

As I will try to argue, the narrative in The Lord of the Rings can be seen to operate on these two levels: from the viewpoint of the hobbits different social norms (or the lack of them) apply to the different peoples of Middle-earth, but Tolkien also implies that his secondary world is also a just world, chiefly through the sayings and counsels of individuals like Gandalf and Elrond but also in the way that events pan out.

As is fitting I shall be referencing some established scholars who’ve covered this ground before me, but will also attempt to give my own spin on it all; whether I’ll have anything really new to say remains to be seen.

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Crossing places

© C A Lovegrove

River fords are hugely symbolic as crossing places. Think of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt or equally the River Jordan into the Promised Land. Though the crossing may sometimes be done without getting one’s feet wet — by boat or over a bridge — the physical act of wading through on foot or on horseback often holds a psychological significance.

The end of Book I of The Fellowship of the Ring has Frodo fording the River Bruinen, not only putting distance between him and the Black Riders but marking the prelude to them being swept away, rather like Pharaoh’s army by the Red Sea waters. Such crossings by the hobbits are frequent in The Lord of the Rings, whether the Water on which Hobbiton sits, or the ferry across the Brandywine, or tricksy streams like the Withywindle; they almost always signify passing the point of no return as well as an attempt to leave some danger behind.

In this post, the latest of of my Talking Tolkien discussions for my sixth LOTR reread, I want to look at how Tolkien begins to structure Frodo’s journey and quest. This will only be a partial examination of course because the little party has so far just come a sixth of the way through the narrative.

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To cut a tale short

Collections of short stories are, I’ve found, tricky things to review compared to a solid novel or longish novella. The reasons are as various as the pieces in the collection can be:

  1. there may be too many individual stories to cover them all in any detail;
  2. mere listing of the contents doesn’t, in my view, constitute a review but often that seems to be main option, which is a disservice to those hoping to decide whether to read the volume;
  3. the selection may be uneven in quality with any poor specimens bringing down the standard of the collection and thus one’s overall assessment;
  4. the variety in terms of subject matter, tone, length and order also make an overall assessment difficult.

But without reviews how is one to tread the labyrinth of the Library of Brief Narratives? I have a number of such collections in my purview waiting for my perusal and assessment so I have those paths to follow.

In the meantime, here is an overview of some of the collections I have reviewed, with brief commentary, for those (like, I think, Cath Humphries) hoping for signposts to new pastures. For this first of two posts I look at collections with a realist slant (links are to my reviews).

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A jug of wine, and thou

ساقی| Cup bearer (Saghi)

The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam
translated by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah.
Appendix: Edward Fitzgerald translation.
Penguin Books 1972 (1967)

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
— Fitzgerald, 11 (1859 edition)

The collection of quatrains, or rubaiyat, attributed to Omar Khayaam (‘Omar the tentmaker’) have been made famous by Edward Fitzgerald’s English version, published in the middle of the nineteenth century, so much so that his rendition is what English-speakers usually think of whenever Rubaiyyat is mentioned. But it has long had a controversial aspect as misrepresenting what the poet is supposed to have both written and indeed meant.

And there is more. Fitzgerald, who wasn’t a Persian scholar but largely taught himself, working from dictionaries to produce the work associated with him, wasn’t as assiduous in conveying the sense of the quatrains as he may have been, and mixed and matched texts as suited his tastes, even stitching together lines from different quatrains. And when he couldn’t understand a word or phrase, he liberally interpreted it.

In the middle of the twentieth century the poet Robert Graves and the Sufi Omar Ali-Shah (Graves had worked with his brother Idries Shah) produced this annotated text in English, claiming it to not only present the original more accurately to an English-speaking audience but also to restore the poet’s Sufic credentials. Have they been successful?

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Allegorical narratives

Maria Sachiko Cecire: Re-Enchanted.
The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century
University of Minnesota Press 2019

Described on the back cover blurb as a new genealogy for medievalist fantasy Maria Sachiko Cecire’s study is important for recalibrating — in literature, in other media, in philosophical outlooks — the assumptions of many of us admirers of this genre. Focusing on five areas, namely childhood reading, the Oxford University English syllabus, the fabricated enchantment of Christmas, so-called ’empires of the mind’, and developments in the 21st century, Cecire takes apart the foundations of 20th-century fantasy, examines them, finds what’s wanting but then also points out what remains of real worth.

She starts with her own childhood realisation that, as an American of Japanese-Italian descent she “would never grow up to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fairy-tale princess”; she later learnt that her experience of “racialized self-alienation [was] far from unique.” Re-Enchanted thus became a project searching for the origins of Anglo-American fantasy and, as she puts it, “its special relationship to ideas about childhood, modernity, and the raced, gendered self.”

I can’t emphasise how important this study is in helping not just academics but also a wider public to understand how white European medievalist fantasies adopted an imperialist and colonialist stance, one which has held sway for too long — but one which may yet have the capacity to evolve and change to suit 21st-century sensibilities, particularly where race and gender and culture are concerned. Tempting though it may be to quote extensively from the text (Cecire makes her points both succinctly and in depth, paradoxical though that may seem) I shall try to resist the urge — while simultaneously hoping my paraphrasing doesn’t misrepresent her argument.

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My brother’s keeper

Charlotte Brontë: The Story of Willie Ellin (1853)
in Unfinished Novels
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

This will be less in the nature of a review and more in the manner of a musing as I look over Charlotte Brontë’s several attempts at either rewriting or beginning a novel in the handful of years before her untimely death.

As I contemplate these five fragments called The Story of Willie Ellin I wonder at their cohesiveness or lack of it, their relationship to the then as yet unpublished The Professor, and their parallels with themes in Shirley, a novel which had already appeared in 1849.

And finally I discuss how Charlotte’s obsessions with sibling relationships and fairytale seem to coalesce in her various writings, as seems to be revealed in what remains of Willie Ellin’s tale.

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Thunk

WordPress Free Photo Library

Social-distancing and now self-isolating has given me lots of time to think, and so I’ve been doing some thinking.

And having thunk I have had some vague thoughts. Then, having turned them into a hypothesis — I won’t grace it with the label ‘theory’ — I thought I’d share that with you.

I can’t claim it’ll be anything new (because I’ve no doubt that it’s old hat to philosophers) but in view of the C-word that we all know about, and what with social media being awash with information and misinformation in equal measure, I offer this post as a public service.

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Step by step

Durer’s Knight

Anne Wilson: The Magical Quest.
The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance
Manchester University Press 1988

This book, though seeming of the mystical camp popular in the 70s and 80s, is rather more academic though nonetheless exciting for all that. It asks the question ‘Why are there so many apparent contradictions in medieval Arthurian romances?’

The answer is that the authors use traditional plots. And the rationale of these plots, like the closely-related fairytales, is that of a different order to that of so-called realistic novels. What, then is this rationale?

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Time is. Time was. Time is past.

Medieval manticore

“… a continual reminder of the consequences that can follow a single action.”

The Deptford Trilogy is my first — but not my last – foray into the world of Robertson Davies. How have I not been aware of his work up to now? Like many another convert to his writing I’m recommending him to anyone who will listen, and our household has now invested in two further trilogies of his. Yet how to explain his appeal in a few paragraphs when every page, sometimes every paragraph, offers some new delight?

The basic premise is easily told. This series introduces us to the lives of three men from rural Ontario over some seven decades, through the first world war, the interwar years and on into a Europe at peace. Fifth Business is recounted by one of the author’s alter egos, Dunstan Ramsay, who sees his life through the prism of a childhood incident when a woman gives premature birth because she has been hit by a stone inside a snowball. The Manticore, another first person account, narrates the story of the son of the boy who threw the snowball, as told to a Swiss psychoanalyst. With World of Wonders we’re back with Ramsay, who now reports the conversations which Paul Dempster – the boy born prematurely sixty years before but now, as Magnus Eisengrim, a world-famous illusionist – has with BBC personnel making a drama documentary, in which he plays the role of another great illusionist from history.

The problem the reader has is deciding when a narrator is being unreliable, which could well be most of the time. Reported speech is given in great detail which, if these were genuine memoirs, would require prodigious feats of memory. Nevertheless, such is the author’s skill and stylistic legerdemain we mostly buy into what is being spun, this despite the fact that Davies gives so many untrustworthy clues. In The Manticore David Staunton describes Ramsay’s creed: “history is the mass of observable or recorded fact, but myth is the abstract or essence of it.” This encourages us to doubt Ramsay’s account in Fifth Business, for how can we innocent readers distinguish between what is historical and what is mythical in what Ramsay tells us?

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