King Arthur: The True Story
by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman.
Arrow Books 1993
In this book we are invited first to look at the traditional evidence for the existence of King Arthur. And what a ragbag it is, as any researcher knows. At the centre is a yawning black hole, sucking in the unwary. A sensible approach therefore to the historical problem of who Arthur might have been is to fix, by logical deduction, the time and place in which he might have flourished. The time suggested is the late 5th/early 6th century. This seems uncontroversial, so no Brythonic god, first-century Roman, Sutton Hoo warrior or Atlantean avatar here, it would seem.
The first half of the book sifts through Romantic preconceptions through to the ghost chronology dimly perceived from the difficult documentary evidence we possess. Thus far, there is little to quibble about.
But now the authors make a leap into the dark, and the ‘possible’, the ‘probable’, the ‘could be’ and the ‘surely’ all rear their several heads.
The cover blurb gives it away: Is the Holy Grail buried at Glastonbury, or something much darker? Well, of course, you know the answer to that, because this would otherwise be a rather tame young adult novel.
Townies Marco and Rosa find themselves separately set down in Somerset, both saddled with parents who don’t seem to understand them and set about both by bullies and by strange and very unsettling psychic experiences.
Pretty soon they find themselves thrown together and flung into a claustrophobic labyrinth under Glastonbury itself (reminiscent of the endings of both Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) in a narrative that is hard to put down and preferably not to be read at night. Well, not by adults anyway.
King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend
by Rodney Castleden.
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.
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.
Another post looking at the landscape of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) — a previous piece looked at places in the fictional Wetlands, the equivalent of the real life Somerset Levels, famed in legend — and now I want not only to wrap up places I omitted before but also to allude to the climactic and moving scenes in the fantasy.
As usual Joan takes aspects of history, legend and literature and shuffles them together before laying out her cards, so I hope to identify, somewhat tentatively, what she’s displayed for our edification and amusement.
Of course, the usual strictures about spoilers apply hereon in — but you knew that.
Anne Wilson: The Magical Quest. The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance
Manchester University Press 1988
This book, though seeming of the mystical camp popular in the 70s and 80s, is rather more academic though nonetheless exciting for all that. It asks the question ‘Why are there so many apparent contradictions in medieval Arthurian romances?’
The answer is that the authors use traditional plots. And the rationale of these plots, like the closely-related fairytales, is that of a different order to that of so-called realistic novels. What, then is this rationale?
Bernard O’Donoghue transl Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Simon Armitage transl Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Faber and Faber 2007
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most magical of Arthurian tales: a jolly green giant who intrudes into King Arthur’s Christmas court at Camelot invites Gawain to chop off his head on condition that Gawain allows the return blow one year hence; the year up, Gawain then travels through Wales to northwest England to face his doom. Has he bitten off more than he can chew or will he acquit himself well and bring honour to king and court? Continue reading “Gawain and the jolly green giant”→
Richard Barber: Myths and Legends of the British Isles.
This splendid volume collects together nearly forty different stories from Britain and Ireland, from the Roman period to the Middle Ages.
The first section includes origin tales of Scotland, Ireland and England built on a mythic history already developing long before the monk Nennius was busily compiling away in the early 9th century. Then follows a section on the Early History of Britain which includes the tales from Geoffrey of Monmouth plus Lludd and Llefelys and The Dream of Maxen Wledig (from The Mabinogion) and, not so oddly, Saxo Grammaticus’ version of the story of Amleth or Hamlet (translated by Peter Fisher).
The Marvels and Magic section includes bits from Nennius, the whole of the early Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen, Neil Wright’s translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin and Lady Charlotte Guest’s Taliesen. This is followed by the Heroes and Saints section with a Breton version of Arthur’s career, the whole of Beowulf in Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation, The Deeds of Cuchulain adapted from Lady Gregory’s retelling, and all four branches of the Mabinogi proper, together with a selection of saints’ lives (Brendan, Cadog, Joseph of Arimathea, George and Helena) from early and later medieval sources.
Finally History and Romance features less accessible tales of, for example, King Horn and Havelok the Dane as well as stories of more familiar figures such as Robin Hood, Macbeth and Lady Godiva.
I’ve given a fairly substantial list of the contents so as to illustrate the breadth and richness of this selection, so reminiscent of a medieval hall hung with detailed tapestries (or even the cunning designs on Hamlet’s shield, as the Amleth tale describes). With Barber’s own translations or adaptations, and with brief introductions placing each text in context, the whole volume is designed with the needs of the modern novel reader in mind – readability and stimulation – whilst awakening them to the wealth of material contained in the corpus of traditional national narratives.
If you want an authoritative modern collection with informed commentary to replace all those cheap reprints of Victorian and Edwardian retellings (with their often dubious scholarship and idiosyncratic paraphrasing) then this is it; and if you want a one-volume mythic history of Britain that’s more authentic than Tolkien’s marvellous attempt to create one of his own, you probably won’t do better than this.
4/5 reposts of reviews to mark five years of Calmgrove; this first appeared online on November 24th, 2012 following its printed appearance in 1999 in the Journal of the Pendragon Society
Norris J Lacy and Joan Tasker Grimbert (editors) A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes
D S Brewer 2008
We have a lot to be thankful to Chrétien de Troyes for: without him there would be no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail; he virtually kickstarted the romance tradition through his use of a vernacular language, French; and of the six surviving texts ascribed to him five have — to a greater or lesser extent — an Arthurian background. So, one of the great literary what-ifs must hinge on whether Arthurian literature, both medieval and modern, would have been what it is now if not for Chrétien. Continue reading “Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail”→
Brian John The Bluestone Enigma:
Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age
Greencroft Books 2008
Ancient man didn’t
transport stones hundreds of miles.
And nor did Merlin.
Brian John, who lives in Pembrokeshire (where much of this study is set), has had a long interest in this whole subject area. A Geography graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to obtain a D Phil there for a study of the Ice Age in Wales. Among other occupations he was a field scientist in Antarctica and a Geography Lecturer in Durham University, and is currently a publisher and the author of a number of articles, university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies, tourist guides, titles on local folklore and traditions, plus books from popular science to local jokes. His credentials are self-evident when it comes to discussing Stonehenge.
One of the strongest modern myths about Stonehenge to have taken root is that the less monumental but no less impressive so-called bluestones were physically brought by prehistoric peoples from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Wiltshire. The second strongest modern myth is that the whole saga was somehow remembered over a hundred or more generations to be documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century as a feat of Merlin. In this self-published title Dr John examines these and other myths and finds them wanting in terms of echoing reality. Continue reading “Stonehenge’s mythic history”→
Neil Fairbairn A Traveller’s Guide to the Kingdoms of Arthur
Evans Brothers Ltd 1983
Geoffrey Ashe The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain
Gothic Image 1997
Neil Fairbairn’s 1983 Traveller’s Guide inevitably invited comparisons with Geoffrey Ashe’s A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain (1980 and 1983, confusingly reissued as The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain in 1997). This would be unfortunate as the two are different animals, each with its own particular strengths and weaknesses, though both include illustrations and maps.
Derek Brewer and Ernest Frankl Arthur’s Britain: the Land and the Legend
Guild Publishing 1986 (1985)
This illustrated gazetteer has an authoritative introductory essay by the late Derek Brewer, a distinguished academic and publisher who died in 2008. The illustrations which accompany the introduction all come from late medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and show how their techniques and purposes changed from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The photographs in the gazetteer proper are by Ernest Frankl, with accompanying maps drawn by Carmen Frankl; I’m guessing that both Ernest and Carmen have since passed away as Trinity Hall Cambridge has an Ernest and Carmen Frankl Memorial Fund to cover travel for educational purposes.
Anne Berthelot King Arthur: Chivalry and Legend Arthur et la Table ronde: La force d’une legende translated by Ruth Sharman
Thames and Hudson 1997 (1996)
First published by Gallimard in 1996, this English version is part of Thames and Hudson’s New Horizons series and follows a similar format: a well-illustrated chronological survey of the chosen subject, followed by extracts from select documents, bibliography, credits and index. The author was Professor of Medieval French Literature — and now of French & Medieval Studies — at the University of Connecticut (does that make her a Connecticut Frank at the court of King Arthur, perhaps?) and so her discussion of developments in Arthurian literature, from Wace and Layamon up to 20th-century cinema, is authoritative and thought-provoking. For instance, she clearly charts how the Matter of Britain moved from chronicle format to poetry(eg Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace’s Brut) and then back to chronicle style, and how this reflected shifts in taste from pseudohistory to the flowering of chivalry and courtly love and then returning to the burgeoning nationalistic stance in England, as evidenced by Malory.
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.
My expectations for a historical-fiction Arthur-type character are rather specific. I don’t rate at all highly any back-projections of Malory, Tennyson or even Geoffrey of Monmouth into a sub-Roman context, with medieval concepts of round tables, grails and swords embedded in stones appearing anachronistically in Late Antiquity. And so my heart sank when I began reading a scenario involving a Lady in a Lake in this young adult fiction book.
But, dedicated Arthurian that I am, I persisted, and am very glad to have done so. For the essence of every good story-teller (and Philip Reeve is one of these) includes the gift of using such motifs sensitively. What we have presented here is a tale within a tale, where Reeve weaves a story of how Myrddin embroiders narratives around the exploits of a minor warlord, so that we almost believe that this was the way the Arthurian legends could have come about: with pagan mythology and imagination hijacked by a bard to boost the reputation of a barbarian chieftain.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.