A bold but misguided exercise

King Arthur: engraving based on a 1874 photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend
by Rodney Castleden.
Routledge 1999

Rodney Castleden is well known as an investigator into prehistoric enigmas such as the Minoan civilisation, Neolithic Britons and giant hill figures, and has here turned his attention to Arthur. As expected, this is a widely researched book burrowing into scholarly literature, archaeological reports, fringe theories and texts both ancient and modern. There are photos of relevant sites and a generous helping of detailed maps, plans and figures mostly by the author himself (though, disappointingly, three illustrations by the present reviewer are uncredited and unacknowledged) and the whole is attractively laid out. There are a few typos, some of which didn’t seem to have been corrected for the paperback edition, but these don’t detract too much.

After setting the scene Castleden plunges into an examination of the nature of the available early documentation and what is known of the archaeology of post-Roman Britain; he then outlines the historical context before turning his gaze on the man himself, his possible power bases and his disappearance.

It won’t be giving too much away to say that he plumps for a West Country setting for Arthur, but that he places his demise and burial far away from Glastonbury and not at any of the expected sites.

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Now, and then

River scene (engraving by Thomas Bewick)

The River at Green Knowe
by Lucy M Boston,
illustrated by Peter Boston.
Odyssey / Harcourt Young Classics 2002 (1959)

A prosaic reader might say this is a story about three children who spend an idyllic summer at a mansion in Cambridgeshire mostly messing about on the river, and in this they wouldn’t be wrong. But this is no ordinary mansion, these are no ordinary children, and this is no ordinary river: this is Green Knowe, and these are children alive to imaginative possibilities, and this is a river where those possibilities can come true.

Mrs Oldknow, who owns the ancient Manor House of Green Knowe, has let it out for the summer to the distinguished archaeologist Dr Maud Biggin and her friend, the homely Miss Sybilla Bun. Dr Biggin promptly decides to invite her great-niece Ida and two refugee boys called Oskar and Hsu to stay for the holidays.

Ida (11), affectionately called Midget, along with Oskar Stanislawsky from Poland (also 11) and Hsu, known as Ping, who’s from China, happily get on well together and, left to their own devices, get on with enjoying lazy days and stealthy nights exploring and mapping the river. This being Green Knowe the trio soon find there is unexpected natural magic around every corner.

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Betwixt and between

Simurgh

East, West by Salman Rushdie.
Vintage 1995 (1994)

“East, West, home’s best.” — 19th-century proverb *

If one has a foot in two regions where then is home? In these nine short stories — three published for the first time in this collection — Salman Rushdie explores the disorientation that some experience when cultures collide.

These aren’t polemical essays, however, but character studies, thumbnail sketches which allow us insights into individual lives with all their comforts and dilemmas, and as such are a joy to read. They include vignettes, parodies, fables and mini-tragedies, each item with an independent life but all linked by themes, imagination and wit.

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Stories I know to be true

Some editions of Marie de France’s lais

The Lais of Marie de France,
introduction by Keith Busby,
translated by Glyn S. Burgess.
Penguin Classics 1999 (1986)

The editor and translator of Marie’s lais, leading scholars in the field of medieval French literature, have in the best tradition of Penguin Classics aimed to make their subject accessible to the general public. Translating a foreign text, especially a poetic text, is always full of difficulties, but luckily Marie’s poems, simple in expression and apparently without artifice, speak as well in translation as in the original.

A comparison with the pseudo-medieval version served up by Eugene Mason in the early 20th century is revealing for not only how tastes have changed but how many liberties were taken then with the text. For example, where Mason has Marie addressing critics with “Now let the japer, and the smiler with his knife, do me what harm they may. Verily they are in their right to speak ill of me,” Burgess offers us “But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up. They have a right to make slanderous remarks.”

The original text mentions jongleur, or entertainer, and losengier, a flatterer or liar, and I think Burgess gets closer to what the poet intended with her simpler phraseology, which might now be rendered as “it’s their right to badmouth me!”

Nel vueil mie pur ceo laissier, | se jangleür u losengier | le me vuelent a mal turner; | ceo est lur dreiz de mesparler.

For convenience the 1999 edition prints three of Marie’s shorter lais in their original French, and anybody with even just a smattering of the language can follow the gist of the tales and see how accessible the translator has made them.

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Wise but not preachy

Image of laboratory mouse by Pixabay (Pexels)

Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes.
SF Masterworks, Gollancz 2000 (1966)

We all want you to remember that you got friends here and dont you ever forget it. I said thanks Gimpy. That makes me feel good.

Its good to have friends . . .

This SF classic has lost none of its power in the sixty-odd years since its first incarnation as an award-winning short story, followed a few years later by this novel, before being adapted for television and film. Knowing that some of the science of its ‘hard SF’ approach may have dated badly I approached it with some trepidation, but I needn’t have worried because the science really was incidental to the psychological and moral aspects of this absorbing tale.

Charlie Gordon’s story, told as a series of self-penned progress reports, may form a perfect bell curve in its year-long trajectory, but rather than simply seeing its progress as triumph followed by tragedy one could argue that it works as a meditation on what constitutes the essence of being human. Whether or not Flowers for Algernon was deliberately planned to echo certain other literary classics it does share their lofty themes and ideals, posing some universal questions which continue to linger in my mind.

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The spirit of Christmas

Signed and sent Christmas postcard

Within a rustic framework sits a family consisting of a couple, their children (two with their spouses) and grandchildren, with the adults toasting the viewer.

The youngsters are tucking into the food and drink with a will, but the family aren’t forgetting their charitable duties: in the adjacent side panels individuals who are hungry and destitute are being attended to by the servants and given food and warm clothing.

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The mother of invention

The Jewel Seed by Joan Aiken,
illustrated by Peter Bailey.
Hodder Children’s Books 1998 (1997)

What is the Jewel Seed, and why are various people looking for it? These are the questions teen orphan Nonnie Smith keeps asking herself in this rumbustious fantasy novelette penned by the indefatigable Joan Aiken.

In ten action-packed chapters we discover how it is that Nonnie becomes parentless, how a twice-stolen shirt leads her into dire danger, how she comes to stay in northwest London and what befell her there. Along the way we encounter witches, a mysterious lodger and an even stranger cat, and wonder how a grandfather clock, apples, snakes, bootlaces and a three-note musical motif fit into the bigger picture.

And for those who like to rummage beneath the bubbling surface of her cauldron’s concoction there are hints as to the ingredients the author has selected to add to her rich stew.

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Monoliths: myths and legends

Sacred Stones.
The standing stones of West Wales:
their history and traditions
by Terry John. Gomer 1994

Where I currently live in Pembrokeshire [November 2014] it’s hard to escape standing stones. If I go out our gate and walk in a clockwise direction, in the course of a five-mile walk I will pass three of them, one unnamed, another two all that remains of a complex called Cornel Bach.

If I go on another clockwise four-mile road walk I’ll pass two stones, one unnamed, another — possibly not in situ –all that remains of some stones at the aptly named Temple Druid. Within a relatively short walking radius I can pass the only surviving prehistoric stone circle in the area at Gors Fawr near Mynachlogddu or another complex at Meini Gwyr near Glandy Cross in Carmarthenshire.

Up on the nearby Preseli Hills there is a stone enclosure called Bedd Arthur or Arthur’s Grave, and a pair of menhirs called Cerrig Meibion Arthur or the Stones of the Sons of Arthur. And of course the hills are where the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried — reputedly. You can hardly take a step without tripping over one.

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Witnessing complicity

Charles Bridge, Prague (1903)

Melmoth by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tail 2019 (2018)

Anyone with a certain religious upbringing, be it Catholic or Baptist for example, will know how deeply a sense of guilt can be ingrained, and how much the gleeful reminder by elders God is watching you! may reverberate down the years. Add to that the concepts behind complicity theory, which postulates that in dehumanising an out-group one shares the guilt of what is done to them by others from the in-group, and one can imagine the febrile atmosphere that Sarah Perry conjures up in this haunting — in all senses of the word — novel.

Helen Franklin, 42, is working in Prague, and we meet her in the winter of 2016 as she comes to understand what is agitating her friend Karel Pražan. Already trying to escape an as yet unknown transgression in her past, she learns from the manuscripts Karel shows her of the figure of Melmoth, Melmotka, or Melmat, a woman who becomes the personification of all that dogs Helen’s current empty existence.

Through the streets of the Czech capital, through Brentwood, Manila, Heathrow, Cairo and the Black Sea we follow the trail of this mysterious woman who witnesses man’s inhumanity to man via those rendered complicit by association. Will Helen, punishing her body with anorexia, come to redeem herself, or will she submit to despair?

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A saga retold

The Hound of Ulster
by Rosemary Sutcliff,
illustrated by Victor Ambrus.
Red Fox 1992 (1963)

Cuchulainn is the great hero of the Ulster cycle of hero tales, some dating back to at least the 7th century CE. There has been much discussion about how much they owe to historical events and how much to myth, legend and folklore. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the saga she treats the main characters as real humans with real emotions, albeit often with superhuman and even supernatural attributes.

She follows the traditional episodes of many hero cycles across many ancient cultures: conception, birth, childhood feats, weapon training, wooings, then the apogee of a career followed by the inevitable descent towards tragedy.

Throughout her version of the saga she brings her telltale skills as a storyteller — sympathy with her material, a poetic sensibility, a fine sense of pace, and the ability to delineate key personages in a huge cast and imbuing them with distinctive traits and appearances. Despite a preponderance of male warriors, druids and giants, several females make their mark, and not merely to weep for fallen warriors.

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Bittersweet symphony

Piazza (image credit: Polina Kostova /Pexels)

Nocturnes:
Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
by Kazuo Ishiguro,
Faber and Faber 2010 (2009)

This quintet of brief narratives told by different musicians and one music-lover, all told in the first person, describe relationships and acquaintances which never quite run smooth. Though ‘nocturne’ strictly describes a nighttime piece of music some of these stories have a daytime feel even when their tones can be dark.

The settings vary, moving from Venice to London, the Welsh Marches to Beverly Hills, and ending in an unnamed Italian town piazza.

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Intellect and imagination

The Secret Commonwealth:
The Book of Dust, Volume Two
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Chris Wormell.
David Fickling Books / Penguin 2019

“Dæmons don’t exist.
We might think they do; we might talk to them and hold them close and whisper our secrets to them; we might make judgements about other people whose dæmons we think we see, based on the form they seem to have and the attractiveness or repulsiveness they embody; but they don’t exist.”
— From Simon Talbot’s ‘The Constant Deceiver’

Intellect and emotion may be the dualism that governs the human condition: imagination may be the link that binds them together. In The Secret Commonwealth the rift between Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon which was brought about in The Amber Spyglass (and which became more evident in Serpentine) is now an apparently unbridgeable chasm. Lyra’s absorption with treatises and fiction dominated by intellectualism has only served to further alienate her from Pan; it doesn’t take much to push the dæmon to begin a search for Lyra’s lost imagination, and that nudge comes with Pan witnessing a murder.

Where the His Dark Materials trilogy developed into individual quests through various worlds to arrive at a resolution, and La Belle Sauvage turned into an epic voyage through flooded countryside to safeguard a one-year-old, The Secret Commonwealth combines both as we follow key players from Brytain across Europe to the Asia Minor in just one world — Lyra’s. As we follow those players, Pan, Lyra, and Malcolm (along with one other) we learn just how much danger they’re in, are given clues concerning the bigger picture, and learn about great movements of peoples in that world which not only echo contemporary events in ours but also throughout the ages.

At nearly 700 pages the middle book of Philip Pullman’s second trilogy following the career of Lyra Silvertongue is almost impossible to characterise succinctly, let alone summarise — even if that was desirable — so I shall resort to impressions: impressions of mood, of characterisation and of possible significances.

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The Beloved Child

Piranesi
by Susanna Clarke,
Bloomsbury Publishing 2020

I am the Beloved Child of the House …

How else to describe this novel than as labyrinthine? Not only is it set in a physical maze-like structure but its narrator must, like Theseus, thread a path through confusing and sometimes conflicting revelations about who he is, what he’s doing there, and why his memory seems to be faulty.

He is named Piranesi by a colleague whom he thinks of as the Other, an older male who appears occasionally — usually twice a week — for an hour or so at a time, but otherwise his curious life is bound up with the House, with the seasonal tides that wash through some of its rooms, and with his journals in which, like a good scientist, he has been recording his explorations and annotating his observations.

But all is not well in the House: it is crumbling, worn away from the tides and the storms that invade the House; and when talk turns to death and killing Piranesi starts to realise that all he has taken for granted is based on uncertain, maybe even mendacious foundations.

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In the beginning

The ruins of Charn (Pauline Baynes)

The Magician’s Nephew
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Fontana Lions 1980 (1955)

In this, the penultimate Narnian chronicle to be published, C S Lewis describes how Narnia came to be. The Magician’s Nephew is set around 1900, the heyday of Sherlock Holmes and Edith Nesbit’s Bastable family adventures, in a suburban London street perhaps similar to Nesbit’s Lewisham (the place recalling the Narnia author’s own surname). Here Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke make friends in a walled garden behind a house terrace before explorations down a secret attic passage lead them in unexpected directions.

There can be few readers who haven’t read, or at least heard of, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, even if they’ve only encountered the first (and possibly the best) instalment, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Less familiar perhaps is the genesis of this world, and The Magician’s Nephew fills in these details admirably.

Biblical imagery is mingled with motifs drawn from classical mythology (such as winged horses) and some overt moralising, all leavened with attempts at humour; but to me what comes over strongest in a second reading is a depiction of different aspects of human love.

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Please to remember

Guy Fawkes by George Cruikshank (1840)

V for Vendetta
by Alan Moore and David Lloyd,
with Steve Whitaker and Siobhan Dodds,
additional art by Tony Weare.
Vertigo / DC Comics 2005 (1988-1989)

“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”

What should one do, how should one react, under an unjust, authoritarian government? What is the correct response when faced with the evidence of a fascist state’s war on its own citizens? Should one heed St Paul’s advice to the Romans, to recompense to no man evil for evil; avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath? Or should one take the law into one’s own hands, meet force with force, fight fire with fire, and forever taint oneself with the selfsame actions that the state is accused of?

These are the dilemmas at the heart of this powerful graphic novel, when an individual known only as V — for reasons both personal and societal — makes war on the authoritarian leaders, their minions, their stooges, and the symbols of their power. His own symbol, a V enclosed in a circle, is reminiscent of the universal sign for anarchy but (as V insists) ‘anarchy’ doesn’t refer to no rule at all: it applies to an absence of legitimate government — archon refers to a ruler in ancient Greece — and this pertains in the Britain that’s depicted in V for Vendetta.

Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s Thatcher-era perspective, when individual freedoms and norms of social justice were determinedly being eroded, was an apt time to consider a narrative, a scenario in which a totalitarian Britain would be challenged by a figure from the country’s past, one whose effigy instead of being placed on a bonfire would initiate a pyre of all that was rotten in the state. Ironically, the fictional risorgimento was positioned as beginning in the year that a left-of-centre Labour government in fact won an election but which now fits a political situation three decades on from publication just like a glove.

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