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”

Fantastic Beasts: find them here

Sea monster from Icones Animalium
Sea monster from Icones Animalium

Julia Cresswell
Legendary Beasts of Britain
Shire Publications 2013

There is a loosely connected worldwide band of dedicated enthusiasts, Fortean investigators and conspiracy theorists who call themselves cryptozoologists, hunters on the track of unknown animals. One of the best-known pioneers of this art was Bernard Heuvelmans whose book, Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées (1955), was indeed translated as On the Track of Unknown Animals. What binds these disparate devotees is the belief that ancient accounts and travellers’ tales may well have described existing or recently extinct animals that science either was ignorant of or obstinately ignores. In this group can be numbered seekers after dragons, the Loch Ness monster, alien big cats and Bigfoot or the Yeti. But modern cryptozoologists aren’t the first to give credence to bêtes ignorées — such beliefs have been going on for centuries, even millennia. Continue reading “Fantastic Beasts: find them here”

Things in our philosophies

durer
Dürer study of hands with codex

Ronald H Fritze Invented Knowledge:
False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions

Reaktion Books 2011

Are there more things in
our philosophies than in
heaven, Horatio…?

I read a first-hand account by a reputable historian who was appalled by a comment he heard after watching the film of The Da Vinci Code: “It makes you think, doesn’t it?” He wanted to scream, that such banale make-believe based on allegations of ‘hidden’ history concocted by conspiracy theorists should be given any credence or even entertained. The many case-histories presented in Invented Knowledge may well induce similar paroxysms in rationalists, and could well warrant a health warning on the cover.

This is a study of examples of pseudohistory or ‘false’ history that have emerged or re-emerged in recent years, told particularly from a North American viewpoint (the author is Professor of History at Athens State University in Alabama, and currently Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences). In seven chapters (plus an introduction) it covers Continue reading “Things in our philosophies”

Neither a true nor a final discovery

King_Arthur

Chris Barber and David Pykitt
Journey to Avalon: the Final Discovery of King Arthur
Blorenge Books 1993

Many years ago F T Wainwright wrote an illuminating essay* about the relationship between the disciplines of history, archaeology and place-name studies; and when I first read Barber and Pykitt’s Arthurian theory I found it informative to use some of Wainwright’s criteria by which to judge its success.

Journey to Avalon is a handsome book co-authored by David Pykitt (who provided the bulk of the text) and Chris Barber (who supplied the copious monochrome photographs and published the book under his own imprint Blorenge Books), filled with plentiful line illustrations — mostly uncredited — and attractive maps. There is an extensive bibliography, several appendices and generous acknowledgement of sources of information and general help (including from this reviewer). The main theme of the book is the identification of Arthur as not only a 7th-century Welshman, one Athrwys ap Meurig, but also the 6th-century Breton saint Armel. The result is nearly 200 pages of close-packed argument in which the authors present the conclusions of years of research.

However, when we come to examine the details of the their hypothesis (with its title deliberately contradicting Geoffrey Ashe’s 1985 The Discovery of King Arthur) we find that the scaffolding surrounding their construct is decidedly rickety. Continue reading “Neither a true nor a final discovery”

The Ark, the Grail and the dog’s dinner

ark_of_the_covenant

Graham Hancock The Sign and the Seal
Mandarin 1993 (1992)

I experienced a sense of déjà vu when I first picked up this paperback: black cover, red titles, a yellow band with the legend “the explosively controversial international bestseller” emblazoned across the front. Back home I realised why. The design was a rip-off of (or, if you prefer, a loving homage to) The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent et al from a decade before. Oh dear – more hype and more tripe, I sensed, for Holy Blood, Holy Grail was a real dog’s dinner of a few facts, a lot of fiction and huge dollops of sensationalist speculation.

In essence the book is, as it subtitle proclaims, “a quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant”. This artefact, popularised by the first of the Indiana Jones films, was ordered by Moses to be built near Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. Modelled on Egyptian royal furniture, it functioned both as a container for the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and as the seat of the invisible Israelite god Yahweh. Ensuring victory in battles for the Promised Land, it was placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem around the middle of the 10th century BC. And, after some subsequent references in the Old Testament, it simply disappears.

It is at this point that most crank theories begin. Continue reading “The Ark, the Grail and the dog’s dinner”

Surprisingly out of date

Dark Ages made even darker
Dark Ages made even darker

Angus Konstam British Forts in the Age of Arthur
Illustrated by Peter Dennis
Osprey 2008

“When the Romans left Britain around AD 410, the unconquered native peoples of modern Scotland, Ireland and Wales were presented with the opportunity to pillage what remained of Roman Britain,” runs the blurb, repeating the time-honoured scenario of “Post-Roman Britons [doing] their best to defend themselves”. This they largely did, suggests this book, by refurbishing Iron Age hillforts in the west of Britannia, and British Forts in the Age of Arthur focuses on “key sites” such as Dinas Powys, Cadbury-Congresbury and Castell Deganwy, as well as the more famous Tintagel and South Cadbury.

The first thing to be said is that this is an attractively illustrated 64-page paperback, largely in colour, with maps, photos and original reconstructions by Peter Dennis of the sites of Tintagel, Wroxeter, Dinas Emrys, South Cadbury, Birdoswald and Bamburgh. The second thing to be noted, however, Continue reading “Surprisingly out of date”

The evolution of Merlin

Beardsley's Merlin
Beardsley’s Merlin

Geoffrey Ashe Merlin:
the Prophet and His History

The History Press 2008

Ashe produced his first book on the Arthurian legends – King Arthur’s Avalon – in 1957, and over half a century later he still returns to the Matter of Britain, most recently in this overview of Merlin (first published in 2006 as a hardback by Sutton, now subsumed into The History Press).

In his own words Ashe “traces the evolution of the legend, the growth of Merlin as a character, his possible historical aspect, and the principal treatments of him in literature,” and adds a supplementary list of modern transformations. There is a select group of illustrations which reflect different aspects of Merlin’s developing story, and a useful bibliography (would, however, that it had been divided up into fiction and non-fiction).

Ashe was famously described as a “middlebrow” author, Continue reading “The evolution of Merlin”

A not too unwieldy ready reference

rackham
Richard White
King Arthur in Legend and History
Routledge 1998

In the 1930s a scholar such as E K Chambers could bring out a study of Arthurian matters and, while inter alia translating or paraphrasing key passages in his discussion, would quote the original medieval texts in Latin on the supposition that his readers would be able to read and understand them. Nearly a century on a knowledge of Latin is not, if you pardon the irony, a sine qua non of the average reader, so we must all be grateful to Richard White for including not just a translation of most of Chambers’ extracts but of a large number of other key Arthurian texts, not all of them in Latin. Continue reading “A not too unwieldy ready reference”

A mind traveller’s vademecum

Baedeker 1937 Great Britain guide (Wikipedia Commons)
Baedeker 1937 Great Britain guide (Wikipedia Commons)

Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi
The Dictionary of Imaginary Places
Macmillan 1980 (1987, 1999)

I fell upon this book when it was first published like a punter attacking an ice-cream during the interval in an over-hot theatre. Just the title had me drooling, and once inside the book I was in seventh heaven. First of all it took places described in a range of literary works as literally true by giving each a Baedeker-style travel guide entry. Then, like any good Baedeker it provided maps and charts giving visual aids to familiar and unfamiliar locations. There have been at least two revised editions since 1980 but this was the first attempt to give an overview of dystopias, utopias, fantasy worlds and comic geographies from different cultures, languages and centuries. The mock-seriousness is sometimes leavened with equally tongue-in-cheek humour though I found that at times the terseness of some entries could be wearing.

Just a few examples of entries, almost at random, may give you a flavour. Continue reading “A mind traveller’s vademecum”

Aspirations and anxieties

landscape
Alan Lupack
The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
Oxford University Press 2007

In the late sixties studying the significance of the Arthurian legends become surprisingly mainstream both in academic circles and in popular culture, spawning a library fit for a modern-day Tower of Babel. Alan Lupack’s Guide is the kind of vademecum that many students like me yearned for in those early days.

This massive survey (nearly 500 pages in the 2007 paperback edition) aims to introduce the general reader to a study of the Arthurian legends. Continue reading “Aspirations and anxieties”

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”

An unappetising mishmash

wingedWyvern, or biped dragon

Richard Freeman Explore Dragons Heart of Albion Press 2006

There is a universal fascination for dragons that is hard to quantify: they seem to appeal to folklorists, fantasy fans and fossil hunters alike. C S Lewis famously wrote a short piece of alliterative verse which neatly encapsulates the kind of reaction that discussion of dragons can give rise to:

We were talking of DRAGONS, Tolkien and I | In a Berkshire bar. The big workman | Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe | All the evening, from his empty mug | With gleaming eye glanced towards us: | “I seen ’em myself!” he said fiercely.

Whether you’ve seen ’em or not, you will no doubt have something to say about them, whether they exist, let alone existed, what size or colour they were, whether they breathed fire or merely had a poisonous bite, if they had wings. And any book about dragons therefore raises expectations in all of us; will Explore Dragons fulfil those expectations for anyone? Continue reading “An unappetising mishmash”

A seminal work

tor

Geoffrey Ashe King Arthur’s Avalon:
the story of Glastonbury
Collins 1958

First published in 1957, this is the post-war book that really re-invigorated interest in King Arthur and the Dark Ages by focusing on the medieval notion that he was buried in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. On the surface all the omens were good: archaeologically there was evidence that there was an ancient cemetery here – in the early sixties a prominent archaeologist, Ralegh Radford, would even pinpoint where 12th-century monks dug for the supposed grave of Arthur – legends placed Dark Age saints here, the medieval abbey was one of the richest (if not the richest) monastic foundation in the country, and many people in recent times have been attracted by the supposed aura of the place. Certainly Ashe, a Catholic, believes there is something special here, and that the legends, even if not true, have a significance beyond the claimed facts; and he has lived on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor for many decades now, a vindication of the magic of this small Somerset town. Continue reading “A seminal work”

Nostalgia for the sixties zeitgeist

camelot

Geoffrey Ashe ed The Quest for Arthur’s Britain
Pall Mall 1968

The 60s saw a rapid rise in interest in all things Arthurian, spurred on by a New Age zeitgeist which embraced all forms of fantasy from Tolkien to comics and by other aspects of popular culture, including musicals like Camelot. In the middle of it all a more archaeological approach to the little-understood post-Roman period in Britain was emerging which sought to throw light on what was popularly known as the Dark Ages; and the epitome of this approach was the five-year investigation (from 1966 to 1970) of the Somerset hillfort of South Cadbury Castle by the provocatively-named Camelot Research Committee. Perhaps as a direct result of the publicity surrounding the excavations the 1967 film of Camelot actually featured a map which placed the court roughly where the hillfort was situated. Continue reading “Nostalgia for the sixties zeitgeist”

A treasure chest of relics

By Christophe.Finot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Round Table in the Grand Hall, Winchester, by Christophe Finot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Rouse, Cory Rushton:
The Medieval Quest for Arthur
The History Press 2005

Nowadays, a book possibly entitled The Invention of King Arthur might imply subterfuge and forgery. Several centuries ago, when “to invent” would simply mean “to chance upon”, it would instead imply a re-discovery of what already existed. Nowadays we are rightly wary of Arthurian relics such as Arthur’s Tomb at Glastonbury, Arthur’s Seal, Gawain’s skull, Lancelot’s sword and the Winchester Round Table, as objects more likely to be “invented” in the modern sense of “made up” rather than pre-existing. In Caxton’s 15th century, with fewer critical tools at their disposal, people were more inclined to accept such chanced-upon unprovenanced evidence at face value (though then as now there were always doubters and detractors, as the wholesale destruction of saintly relics in the English Reformation was to demonstrate); however, I am of course aware that weeping stuatues and their ilk still excite the credulous in our own time.

Continue reading “A treasure chest of relics”