The essence of good storytelling

Philip Reeve Here Lies Arthur Scholastic 2007

glastonbury_crossMy 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.

In a note the author reminds us Continue reading “The essence of good storytelling”

Throwing cold water on a legend

Arthur-and-Guinevere

N J Higham King Arthur: myth-making and history Routledge 2002

King Arthur. How this short phrase stimulates a knee-jerk reaction: from amateur historians who want to convince the public that their vision of the fabled monarch is true, and from hard-bitten historians who deny not only his existence but irascibly inveigh in print against what they regard as the lunatic fringe. Now this is not one of those academic books that castigates and berates that fringe while simultaneously feeding from the hand it bites, but it nevertheless very definitely takes a minimalist view of the existence of Arthur, king or otherwise. Nick Higham is well-placed to authoritatively examine the historical contexts in which the Arthurian legend grew, and does so in very great detail; a short review can only highlight one or two of the original contributions this study makes to the literature.

Continue reading “Throwing cold water on a legend”

A fascinating study of a fantastical building

Edward III's tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey
Edward III’s tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey (Wikipedia Commons)

Julian Munby, Richard Barber, Richard Brown
Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor:
the House of the Round Table and
the Windsor Festival of 1344

Boydell Press 2007

Historical re-enactments have always been popular, especially in the late 20th century, from the Society for Creative Anachronism in America, through English Civil War society The Sealed Knot and Dark Age re-enactment group Britannia in more recent years, to the 500th anniversary of the last great tournament in Wales (which was celebrated at Carew Castle in West Wales in May 2007). Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a supporter of Henry Tudor before he became king, marked his admission to the Order of the Garter with what became known as the Great Carew Tournament of 1507, and appropriately enough his family’s poet, Rhys Nanmor, compared Carew Castle to King Arthur’s palace.

But the enthusiasm for historical re-enactment goes back much further back than this, Continue reading “A fascinating study of a fantastical building”

A fishy tale

Zodiac Window (c.1220): Pisces

Avril Plaisantin The Salmon of Wisdom
March Hare Publications 2014

A few years ago I was crossing a car park with an acquaintance of mine. It was late evening; we’d just been at a convivial meeting discussing matters Arthurian and were in good spirits; and we just happened to glance to the north when we were virtually struck speechless, rooted to the spot. What we saw in the night sky was an inexplicably regular array of lights, moving extremely slowly west to east. They were equidistant from each other – about three fingers apart when I held my hand up – forming a network, a reticulation of about twenty-four points of light, not winking like stars but shining steadily like bright planets. We watched for about five minutes, saying little but the obvious, comparing notes, and then set off on our journey. We never spoke of it again. Well, would you?

I was reminded of this again when thinking about The Salmon of Wisdom, a strange little publication with some Arthurian detail which I recently came across. Confusingly written – it jumps around from point to point, as these self-published booklet often do – it contained a number of ideas, many of which I’d previously come across, plus a number of assertions, which frankly I would find argument with.

The author starts with a discussion of the Four-and-Twenty Knights at the Court of King Arthur, Pedwar marchog ar Hugain Llys Arthur as the original 15th-century Welsh has it, who each had “an innate peculiarity of achievement beyond other people”. She also cites older Welsh Triads which list Three Enchanter Knights and Three Skilful Bards, the latter of which include the poet Taliesin. She then embarks on a long discourse about the 16th-century Hanes Taliesin, translated into English by Lady Guest in the middle years of the 19th century. Here King Maelgwn asks Taliesin what he is and whence he came, and Taliesin tells him: “My original country is the region of the summer stars … I have been in the firmament with Mary Magdalene.” And so on and on, a boastful curriculum vitae similar to those which other bards, equally inspired, bigged themselves up. So far, so good.

Then the author sets sail on her main thesis, which is that Arthur and his contemporaries came, not from Wales or Northern Britain, but from “the region of the summer stars”. In other words Continue reading “A fishy tale”

Curious and convoluted

Pendragon design by Nick Bristow / Chris Bristow

Antal Szerb The Pendragon Legend
Pushkin Press 2006

Szerb’s novel is a curious hybrid, a mix of murder mystery and ghost story, romantic comedy and Gothic chiller, social commentary and humour. While the whole is never more than the sum of its parts (the resolution, for example, doesn’t convincingly meld these disparate genres) this is still an impressive first novel, self-assured and wittily expressed.

According to the helpful Afterword, Antal Szerb was a polyglot academic who diverted some of his scholarly interests, along with other more unorthodox delvings, into fiction. He was very well regarded as a scholar until his anti-fascist stance led to an untimely and brutal death in a labour camp in 1944. The Pendragon Legend resulted from a year he spent researching and people watching in Britain, and was published in Hungarian in 1934.

The reluctant hero, Janos Bátky, is a Hungarian Continue reading “Curious and convoluted”

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”

Not very magical

battersea shield

Molly Cochran The Third Magic
Saint Martin’s Griffin 2003

Molly Cochran’s third Arthurian novel is both exciting and exasperating – exciting in the passages set in modern-day North America, exasperating when the action shifts to Dark Age or prehistoric Britain. In the descriptions of the young reincarnated Arthur living in the American Midwest, and the characters he encounters and the situations which develop, Cochran has that sure touch that comes from following the advice that all debutant writers are given: write about what you know. Within the thriller genre that she utilises, these episodes work well, with reasonably complex characterisation and hugely enjoyable edge-of-the-seat action.

Cochran’s Dark Age Britain is not one that I even vaguely recognise, however. Continue reading “Not very magical”

A commendable compendium

King Arthur by Julia Margaret Cameron
Nineteenth-century photographic study for a portrait of King Arthur, by Julia Margaret Cameron

The New Arthurian Encyclopedia
Edited by Norris J Lacy et al
Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1996

With the publication of The Arthurian Encyclopedia in 1986 students were able to access, in one volume, academic discussion on a range of Arthurian topics — art, history, literature, fiction, drama, music and cinema for example — across space and time, all listed in alphabetical order. In 1991 an updated hardback edition was published as — naturally — The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, followed by a paperback edition in 1996 which was itself supplemented by an addendum detailing video games and new fiction that had appeared in the intervening years.

Anybody remotely interested in Arthurian matters should own or at least have regular access to this last volume, despite a desperate need for it to be updated yet again some two decades on from its last publication. Continue reading “A commendable compendium”

Not academic but accessible

Original artwork by Simon Rouse for the Journal of the Pendragon Society
Original artwork by Simon Rouse for the Journal of the Pendragon Society

Ronan Coghlan The Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
Element Books 1992

Often plundered and even plagiarised – frequently online and most notably in print by Mike Dixon-Kennedy in his Arthurian Myth and Legend: an A-Z of People and Places (1996) – this was the first really accessible dictionary of Arthurian personages, locales and other miscellanea. While not an academic publication the Encyclopaedia at least references most of its entries (unlike its main rival, mentioned above) while still striving to be user-friendly. This original edition Continue reading “Not academic but accessible”

Plastering over the cracks

Oliver Tobias Arthur of the Britons, broadcast by HTV in 1972
Oliver Tobias in Arthur of the Britons, HTV series first broadcast in the UK in 1972

John Morris The Age of Arthur:
a History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1973

The sixties and early seventies were an exciting time for those interested in that transitional period between the removal of Roman troops from Britain and the lowland’s transformation into England, the ‘land of the Angles’ (and Saxons, of course). Long disparaged as the ‘Dark Ages’ or the ‘lost centuries’, this Cinderella period was then becoming more acceptable to scholars to study under alternative, less romantic labels: post-Roman, Early Medieval, Late Celtic, Early Christian, Late Antiquity or Anglo-Saxon, depending on your point of view or your specialisation.

The sixties also saw the rise of popular interest in archaeology, Continue reading “Plastering over the cracks”

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”

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”

Contextualising the evidence

Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy
Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy

Thomas Green Concepts of Arthur The History Press Ltd 2008

Tom Green’s excellent study follows a growing scholarly trend to treat the hypothesis of an historical Arthur seriously, even if it means ultimately demolishing the case for a genuine hero of the same name. Nick Higham’s King Arthur: myth-making and history, for example, showed how the 9th-century Historia Brittonum (attributed to Nennius) was put together with a contemporary political agenda in mind, meaning it must not be relied on to accurately reconstruct post-Roman British history.

Unlike Higham, who accepted that there might possibly have been some Arthur-type warlord at the core of the Nennian construct, Green, I think persuasively, argues from the available documentary evidence that there never was such a prototype historical figure. Instead, the earliest sources (some contemporary with and others predating Nennius) make it clear that, first, Arthur was a mythological figure, defender of Britain from giants, monsters, witches and the like; and, secondly, that it is Nennius (or rather his anonymous source) who first historicizes Arthur. Nennius does this by pitting him against human adversaries (namely, the Angles and the Saxons) and attributing to him a selection of both mythological and genuinely historical battles. Those critics who instinctively felt that Arthur was more an archetypal hero than a flesh-and-blood warrior may now feel more vindicated; those who believe that there was a real king called Arthur will vehemently disagree. Continue reading “Contextualising the evidence”

Disturbing visions

gatehouse

Neil Gaiman:
Coraline and Other Stories
Bloomsbury Publishing 2009

This is a collection of eleven Gaiman short stories (and one poem) repackaged for the young reader market. The novella Coraline is added to Bloomsbury’s earlier Gaiman collection M for Magic, while M for Magic was itself a throwing together of disparate tales, some from the adult collection Smoke and Mirrors, some from other publications, all deemed suitable to send a chill down pre-teen, teen and, of course, adult readers. So the moral is, if you already have these titles in your library you may want to pass on this ‘new’ title.

Or then again, you might not. This is a good place to include the almost flawless Coraline together with the other chillers about the fears and bogeys that haunt the childish and not so childish imagination, deliciously presented in a volume with pages that are black-edged and including Dave McKean’s original nightmarish illustrations for Coraline. This story about a girl (don’t call her ‘Caroline’) who finds a way into a parallel house where her mother has been replaced by a sinister figure with buttons for eyes is both a terrifying and yet satisfying modern equivalent of all those Grimm fairytales, such as Hansel and Gretel, with their bewitching and unspeakable devouring figures.

Outstanding are the pieces that bring horror (and sometimes humour) rather too close to home; Troll Bridge, Don’t Ask Jack, Chivalry, The Price and The Witch’s Headstone, whether set in the UK or the States, all remind the reader that the veil separating reality and the supernatural may be awfully thin. Less engaging but just as skilfully written are the more alien, fantastic or futuristic stories such as How to Sell the Ponti Bridge and Sunbird; these are more for those who have leanings towards genre fiction, but they are still rooted in a rich Western cultural heritage.

Gaiman is a master at bringing the unexpected to the seemingly banal; don’t read this if you don’t ever want to have his disturbing visions floating up to your consciousness unbidden.