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”