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”

“Very great and most tragic”

Kullervo, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)
Kullervo, statue by C E Sjöstrand, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)

J R R Tolkien The Story of Kullervo
Edited by Verlyn Flieger
HarperCollins 2015 (2010)

Tolkien’s reputation rests on two parallel streams of his work. First, and the more renowned of the two, is his creative work, his fiction, much of it founded on his secondary world of Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and so on. The second stream is what was his day job, so to speak, his work as a scholar, the academic who specialised in languages and literatures and was well regarded by his peers and students.

Less well known, except to a host of die-cast fans and Tolkien scholars, is his work in which those two streams — the creative and the academic — co-mingle. His fascination with mythologies and folktales and legends led him to recast disparate ancient materials into what he must have hoped were coherent wholes, though none of it was published in his lifetime. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) was his reconfiguring of the Northern myths that were to famously inspire Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings, while The Fall of Arthur (2013) dealt with the Matter of Britain, tidying up plot inconsistencies through his own verses inspired by Old English alliterative verse. The latest Tolkien re-envisioning (ironically one of the first he attempted) is The Story of Kullervo, which first appeared in Tolkien Studies VII in 2010, and then in an expanded form by HarperCollins in 2015.

Continue reading ““Very great and most tragic””

Hayley and the Mythosphere

Halley's Comet, 1910

Diana Wynne Jones The Game Puffin Books 2007

virgoThe concept of the mythosphere is a wonderful thing, typical of Diana Wynne Jones and full of creative potential. It is the place we go to in dreams, the realm of the Collective Unconscious, the landscape where mythical archetypes roam and Jungian symbols are to be encountered, collected and treasured.

Young Hayley gets drawn into the mythosphere when she is sent by her grandparents to stay with relatives in Ireland, who have invented a pastime called The Game where they have to fetch back mythical objects against the clock. However, there are repercussions which not only put her in danger but also reveal who she really is and the nature of her large extended family. A clue comes from her name which, as in many of Jones’ books, has a significance beyond it being a girl’s name chosen at random: it is a closet reference to Edmond Halley who identified the periodicity of the comet that bears his name and whose surname is popularly pronounced as in the girl’s forename. Hayley, like the comet, has the capacity to blaze away in the heavens… Continue reading “Hayley and the Mythosphere”

Midgard myths re-mixed

Sigurd fights the dragon
Sigurd fights the dragon

J R R Tolkien The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún 
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
HarperCollins 2010 (2009)

Middle Earth author | resets ancient Norse sagas | in Modern English.

One of the best-known heroes in Norse mythology, Sigurd is better known as Siegfried from German versions of the legends, and his exploits and interactions – from killing a dragon and re-forging a mighty sword, say, to his relationships with his wife Gudrún, with warrior princess Brynhild and with a host of other personages – characterise him as much as they echo the exploits and interactions of other heroes in other times and cultures. Here Tolkien attempts a harmonisation of the various early tales, particularly those in the Poetic Edda, and versifies them in English as ‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’ (in ten parts) and ‘The New Lay of Gudrún’, using forms and alliteration modelled on those early originals.

This posthumous publication ought by rights to appeal to a wide range of readers, from hobbit-fanciers to Wagnerites, from poets to psychologists, and from medieval literature specialists to mythologists, but I suspect it will end up satisfying only those whose interests overlap a number of these categories; for any single one of those categories of readers it may well end up a disappointment. Continue reading “Midgard myths re-mixed”

Contextualising the evidence

Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy
Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy

Thomas Green Concepts of Arthur The History Press Ltd 2008

Tom Green’s excellent study follows a growing scholarly trend to treat the hypothesis of an historical Arthur seriously, even if it means ultimately demolishing the case for a genuine hero of the same name. Nick Higham’s King Arthur: myth-making and history, for example, showed how the 9th-century Historia Brittonum (attributed to Nennius) was put together with a contemporary political agenda in mind, meaning it must not be relied on to accurately reconstruct post-Roman British history.

Unlike Higham, who accepted that there might possibly have been some Arthur-type warlord at the core of the Nennian construct, Green, I think persuasively, argues from the available documentary evidence that there never was such a prototype historical figure. Instead, the earliest sources (some contemporary with and others predating Nennius) make it clear that, first, Arthur was a mythological figure, defender of Britain from giants, monsters, witches and the like; and, secondly, that it is Nennius (or rather his anonymous source) who first historicizes Arthur. Nennius does this by pitting him against human adversaries (namely, the Angles and the Saxons) and attributing to him a selection of both mythological and genuinely historical battles. Those critics who instinctively felt that Arthur was more an archetypal hero than a flesh-and-blood warrior may now feel more vindicated; those who believe that there was a real king called Arthur will vehemently disagree. Continue reading “Contextualising the evidence”

Myths and therapy

Morgan le FayBrendan McMahon The Princess Who Ate People:
the Psychology of Celtic Myths

Heart of Albion Press 2006

First, I have to say this is a wonderful title for a book, encouraging the reader to delve inside the covers. The author here looks primarily at Irish and Welsh mythical narratives with his psychotherapist’s eye, seeking for ways in which these old tales can help modern patients make sense of their own dilemmas and help restore integrity and identity. Continue reading “Myths and therapy”

A heady brew

compass roseStuart McHardy On the Trail of the Holy Grail
Luath Press Ltd 2006

Another of this author’s Arthurian titles (his 2001 The Quest for Arthur was also published by Luath Press) takes him on a quest from the pages of medieval writers to places in the Scottish landscape, and from the early medieval period back into the mists of time. Along the way he encounters folklore and legend, Dark Age warriors and Goddess worship, Pictish symbol stones and natural wonders. It’s all a bit contentious, especially his insistence that every crucial aspect of the Arthurian legend, from Arthur himself to the location of Avalon, is to be firmly set in Scotland, and McHardy flits in a gossipy style from one discipline to another, taking a nugget from one or another scholar and linking it indiscriminately to antiquarian speculation. In fact, despite describing himself as a ‘cultural ecologist’ McHardy is actually a typical speculative antiquarian, mixing fact and fancy in a heady brew that leaves you with a hangover. Continue reading “A heady brew”