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”

No Zeroes here

Willem P Gerritsen, Anthony G van Melle editors
Tanis Guest translator
A Dictionary of Medieval Heroes
Boydell Press 2000

Anglophone Arthurians should from time to time contemplate a different European perspective on the Matter of Britain and its contemporary analogues, and this Dictionary of Medieval Heroes (with the snappy subtitle Characters in Medieval Narrative Traditions and their Afterlife in Literature, Theatre and the Visual Arts) by two Dutch academics gives just such an opportunity. Here we are introduced to such figures as Aiol, Berte aux Grands Pieds, Heimbrecht, Parthonopeus of Blois and Ruodlieb, heroes and heroines certainly previously unfamiliar to this reader but popular with a significant proportion of medieval European readership, featuring in tales that certainly stand comparison with accounts of Arthur, Galahad, Gawain, Merlin or Perceval.

This is a very user-friendly edition for English-speakers: Continue reading “No Zeroes here”

An idiosyncratic reading of Arthurian origins

Howard Reid Arthur, The Dragon King:
the Barbaric Roots Of Britain’s Greatest Legend

Headline 2001

Howard Reid apparently has all the right academic credentials – an unpublished PhD thesis in anthropology based on research among hunter-gatherers in Brazil – and, as well as practical experience from living with Tuaregs in North Africa, he has made documentaries about ancient civilisations for the BBC, Channel 4 and the Public Broadcasting Service in the USA. So you would expect him not only to declaim knowledgeably with his Indiana Jones hat on but also to discuss with scholarly rigour wearing his mortar board.

Not a bit of it. Continue reading “An idiosyncratic reading of Arthurian origins”

Plots worth digging over

plotsChristopher Booker
The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories
Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd 2005

I was attracted to this book for a number of reasons, not least by the fact that its title told you exactly what it was about, reinforced by the witty cover by photographer Jonathan Ring showing a pile of books reflected in a metal film canister. And I was predisposed to like this because of the mix of stimulating ideas that books, both fiction and non-fiction, promise the reader. (Mind you, I tend to read anything, from cereal packets to greetings cards, so it may not take much to stimulate my negligible intellect.)

Booker’s identification of the principal narrative structures underlying the best examples of stories, novels, plays and films is attractive and, viewed retrospectively, intuitively right. Those seven plots Continue reading “Plots worth digging over”

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”

Middle Earth Ring Cycles

Ralph-Bakshi-Lord-of-the-Rings
Ralph Bakshi’s ‘JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings’

Jim Smith and J Clive Matthews
The Lord of the Rings:
the Films, the Books, the Radio Series

Virgin Books 2004

In the words of the authors, this study is “an attempt to examine the process(es) whereby Tolkien’s books have been adapted into performed drama”. By Tolkien’s books they mean principally The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; by performed drama they mean films and radio plays, though passing reference is given to Donald Swann’s song cycle The Road Goes Ever On, Leonard Nimoy’s curiosity The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins and other more or less ephemeral items selected by the authors, even if such a selection can never be comprehensive. Continue reading “Middle Earth Ring Cycles”

A quintessential hero

robinhoodRonan Coghlan
The Robin Hood Companion
Xiphos Books 2003

Along with King Arthur there was a flurry of interest about a decade ago in Robin Hood, another quintessential hero of insular tradition that has, as far as popular culture goes, transplanted abroad rather well. But though it may superficially appear that Robin, Marian, Little john and Friar Tuck complement the figures of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin, there really is no fit.

However, this thoroughly researched volume — which includes a delightfully idiosyncratic A-Z dictionary reflecting the legend’s broad chronological spectrum, a useful bibliography and a modern rendition of A Little Gest of Robin Hood — provides plenty of excuses for the amateur cultural historian to dip into its pages. Modern novelised, filmed and televised versions of Robin’s legends even draw in Arthur, Merlin and the Round Table, for a start. The origins of the outlaw, like the once and future king, are shrouded by uncertainty, a state of affairs which has not stopped but indeed encouraged numerous imaginative hypotheses, some of which are detailed here. (One of my favourites, though not noted by Coghlan, is that our hero’s name derives from Ra-Benu, the phoenix form of the Egyptian god Ra.) And the mystery surrounding Robin’s death and burial place is not a little reminiscent of Arthur.

This vademecum is a delight to peruse, taking the reader into the byways of the embellished legend. Popular culture is especially explored — TV, comics, fiction, folklore as well as ‘fakelore’ — showing that the stories continue to evolve. Ronan Coghlan’s Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends itself successfully metamorphosed into a popular illustrated edition; sadly the same hasn’t happened for this self-published title. As an broad introduction to Robin Hood this is very good, but for more detailed scholarly analysis of the origins of the legends I prefer the classic The Outlaws of Medieval Legend by Maurice Keen or J C Holt’s Robin Hood.