Joan Aiken and King Arthur

Sugar Loaf (Y Fâl / Mynydd Pen-y-fâl) at an elevation of nearly 600 metres in the Black Mountains

Joan Aiken’s award-winning novel The Whispering Mountain is chockfull of Arthurian allusions, some of which I’ve adverted to in previous posts. Here is where I bring these and other relevant themes together to point out how thoroughly this book is soaked in what used to be called the Matter of Britain. The usual caveat applies in this as in all my other discussions of the James III sequence: spoilers, minor and major, are more than likely.

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Pendragonry?

The very phrase “King Arthur” — perhaps with the addition of “and his knights of the Round Table” — is enough to get many people excited, be they romantics, conspiracy theorists or sceptical historians. Many of you may know about my longtime interest in matters Arthuriana (which you may have noticed in the section Arthuriana in the pop-down menu of this blog) and will have spotted the occasional review of fiction or non-fiction with an Arthurian theme.

For some months I’ve been thinking about republishing various essays I’ve written for magazines many decades past, the result of which is the debut of a new WP blog called Pendragonry. Why Pendragonry? Easy choice: ‘pen’ for writing, ‘dragon’ for fantastical, ‘Pendragon’ because I was sometime editor of the journal of the Pendragon Society and ‘-ry’ because this emphasises the European dimension of Arthurian history and legend (as in boulangerie, charcuterie, papeterie or librairie).

Intrigued? Want to know more? Do go have a look at this newly started blog where I hope to post maybe every ten days or so, and feel free to comment, criticise or croon over the opinions expressed there! https://pendragonry.wordpress.com/

Infinite space

Medieval walled garden

Sarah Singleton: The Poison Garden
Simon and Schuster 2009

The ultimate origin of Paradise is a walled enclosure, an enclosed space where one can cultivate plants and enjoy the delights of running water. Since its Iranian beginnings five or six centuries before the birth of Christ it has accumulated so much symbolism, associations and expectations but that image of the walled garden has remained a constant, whether in the guise of parkland or as the smallest suburban plot. How much do we all, gardeners or not, see it as a place of peace, of repose, as a piece of heaven on earth!

But that walled garden concept is never so tightly bounded as by the confines of our own skull, within the folds of our brains: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” as Hamlet said, and that idea of a garden at once expansive and yet contained is at the heart of Sarah Singleton’s haunting novel.

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Rex Futurus

King Arthur by Julia Margaret Cameron

I have a confession: I’m not a fan of Arthurian fiction.

There, I’ve said it. Why so? It comes from a half century of involvement in Arthurian matters, from archaeological research to editing a society journal, during which I came into forced contact with innumerable theories about ‘rex quondam’ in fiction, in non-fiction and creative non-fiction. Some were plausible, most were speculative, and whole libraries of them were, frankly, preposterous. So in a way I’m the last person to be enthusiastic about this particular literary genre.

And yet, there are aspects I delight in. In amongst the many servings of clichéd tropes (many even falling far short of Steinbeck’s 1976 Malory-inspired The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights) there are gems that catch the eye. Three overlapping areas I’ve noticed concern the King himself, Merlin and the Grail, so I shall divide this discussion into these three sections. Also, along the spectrum shading from history to legend is another axis taking us from an imagined past to a future via a notional ‘present’. To keep things a little focused I shall confine myself to the 20th century; needless to say this is neither a comprehensive survey nor an impersonal one.

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A dark tale for a dark age

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
Faber & Faber 2016 (2015)

It’s extraordinary that for a book with this title the only real mention of a burial place for such a fearsome creature comes very late in the book, and yet the reader gets the feeling that this novel is not really about this giant but another, one which is undefined, amorphous. Then there is the inkling, occasioning a little brow-wrinkling, that what the book itself is about is also shapeless and unclear. And hard on that thought’s heels comes the unbidden suspicion — is The Buried Giant a literary case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Is the author, just newly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, offering us something of no real substance, stringing us a line, pulling the wool over our eyes?

This is an ignoble thought, and yet one that must have struck many a reader puzzled over the point of this novel. Yes, there are a few obvious themes — about ageing, about faithful love, about communal forgetfulness and a pathological hatred of outsiders — but as these are explicitly described can there be deeper meanings that elude us? And if there aren’t, is this tale then just an extended parable with no inherent merit?

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Children of Silence

The Children of Silence: map diagrammatic, not to scale

I apologise for the length of this post: do please skip it if you want, I won’t be offended! And I apologise for neglecting recent posts from blogs I follow, I’ve got a bit behind because of ‘stuff’ cropping up — nothing bad, I hasten to add.


In a series of posts I’ve been exploring the country of New Cumbria and its capital of Bath Regis. You won’t find these on conventional maps because they appear in one of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken’s series of alternate history novels set in a 19th century where Britain is stilled ruled by the Stuarts. The Stolen Lake places the young heroine Dido in an alternative South America, part of which is ruled by a mysterious Queen Ginevra. I’ve previously looked at the main personages (the ‘who’) and the timeline of the narrative (the ‘when’), and following three posts on New Cumbria’s geography (the ‘where’) I’d like now to examine some of the themes that permeate the novel (the ‘what’) — but that also requires us to consider a bit more of the geography of this Andean landscape.

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Miss Pittikin Pattikin and others

Capriccio with a British man-o-war(c) Essex County Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
John Thomas Serres (1759–1825) Capriccio with a British man-o-war (© Essex County Council; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Another post looking at the background to Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake (1981) with its wonderful amalgam of history, alternate history, legend and whimsy. This one will look at the persons mentioned in the novel, saying who they are, what they do and, in some cases, why they may have been given the names they have; discussion follows below.

As I’ve found, Joan’s whimsical-looking names aren’t always what they appear, and there’s often a logical reason for why they’re applied to a particular character.

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