The Magician of Brittonia

Merlin and Company
by Álvaro Cunqueiro.
Merlín e familia i outras historias (1955)
translated by Colin Smith.
J M Dent / Everyman 1996.

Don Merlin, the Magician of Brittonia and King Arthur’s counsellor, has retired to Galicia in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula. Here, with Queen Guinevere, at a mansion called Miranda, he is visited by both high and low from the Old World for magical advice, dispensed spells and medical solutions. Surrounded by his books and furnace, well served by his household, he has a path beaten to his door even though it’s a rare occasion when he himself does travel a little further afield.

How do we know all this? Old Felipe the ferryman recalls his time as Merlin’s young page in a series of anecdotes and personal recollections collected together in 1955 by the esteemed Galician writer Cunqueiro, along with later additions published in 1969 included in this translation.

Told in an unadorned and rather rustic fashion, Felipe’s memoir may appear superficially whimsical; but its gentle tales of human hopes and anxieties are touching as well as enchanting, and they fit well into a long oral tradition of stories within stories, like The Arabian Nights, The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.

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Other lands

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, ‘St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall’, engraved by J Stephenson (1836)

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.

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Quest for the Saloop

‘And did he — by any chance — let fall the cause — er, that’s to say, the regime, nostrum, jorum, physic, diet, whatever it is he does or takes — to which he attributes his great number of years?’ — Roy Twite to his niece, chapter 5

The so-called Matter of Britain — la matière de Bretagne — permeates Joan Aiken’s marvellous Wolves Chronicles. The term comes from the prologue of the Chanson des Saisnes (“song of the Saxons”) by Jean Bodel (d 1210) in which he distinguishes three thematic strands suitable for epics: the myths and legends of Rome; the stories arising from the heroic Carolingian period in France; and the Arthurian and Celtic romance tradition associated with Britain and Brittany.

The Arthurian strand has continued to thread through literature since it emerged in the pseudohistorical History of the Kings of Britain by the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth. Joan Aiken somehow couldn’t help but introduce Arthurian motifs into her fiction, whether Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur for younger readers or several times in the series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

She’d previously included Welsh Arthurian motifs such as the Hunt of the Giant Boar in The Whispering Mountain and the Return of King Arthur in The Stolen Lake. In Is Underground (Is in the UK) one particular Arthurian legend comes to the fore — that of the Holy Grail, sometimes called the Sangreal — but, as we’ll see in due course, it isn’t the only recurring Chronicles theme that we will meet in these pages.

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The mirror not yet crack’d

A woman stands in front of an oval mirror. She is seeing if a shawl she is trying on suits her. She has been standing there for more than a century — since 1910 in fact. And I too have stood for a long time looking at her looking at the looking glass, in which I wasn’t reflected.

The Mackerel Shawl was painted by Algernon Talmage (1871–1939) and has been hanging in Bristol Museum & Art Gallery since it was acquired in 1913. Whenever I visit the gallery I am often drawn to it, but have not really thought why. Until now.

For it has stories to tell, and I want to tell you what it has told me.

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A book of delights

The Box of Delights (prop for the TV series: https://www.flickr.com/photos/danacea/491582034)

John Masefield: The Box of Delights
Illustrated by Judith Masefield
Mammoth 2000 (1935)

Imagine a child whose parents have separately died in tragic circumstances; a child who up to the age of ten is home-schooled, living with guardians who limit his reading so that he largely has recourse to just his own imagination; a child who has returned from his first term among strangers at boarding school, able to retreat back into that fantasy world of his own making.

Then imagine that child several decades later, successful in what he really wanted to do — to use his imagination in creative ways — looking back to that childhood. How would he recapture that wonder, the sense of play and the closet anxieties without turning his writing into autobiography?

Perhaps the way forward for John Masefield — given the accolade of Poet Laureate in 1930 — was to turn his past history on its head and make the dreamworld he’d conjured up more real than reality. This he appeared to have done in 1927 with The Midnight Folk, and this too is what he may have also done in 1935 with The Box of Delights.

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Upright people and witches

Nighttime
WordPress Free Photo Library

John Masefield: The Midnight Folk Mammoth 2000 (1927)

“You must be the master in your own house. Don’t let a witch take the charge of Seekings. This is a house where upright people have lived. Let’s have no Endorings nor Jezebellings in Seekings.” — Grandmamma Harker’s message to Kay.

In 1885 orphan Kay Harker finds himself under the guardianship of the insensitive Sir Theopompous and the stern tutelage of an unnamed governess. His former companions, a collection of stuffed toys, have evidently been removed, their place taken by the declension of Latin adjectives for ‘sharp’, and by exercises in French, Divinity and the like.

When freed from lessons he quietly explores and investigates the surroundings of his ancestral home of Seekings, uncovering a nefarious plot to steal some long-lost treasure. He is therefore following family tradition and living up to the family name: the Harker shield displays three oreilles couped proper (that is, three disembodied flesh-coloured ears). So, true to form, Kay eavesdrops, harkening to conversations and learning from what he overhears.

Young Kay (whom we may imagine as around seven) inhabits a magic realist world midway between dreams, imagination and daily life, one inhabited by a combination of guardians and governesses, servants and smugglers, wild animals and witches, knights and toys, ancestors and archvillains.

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Wings over Wales

Llywelyn Vaughan, Cadwaladr Gough et al.
‘Pterosaurs in Late Jurassic Wales.’
Mesozoica Cambrensis Vol IV No 1, 2019

In this interesting monograph from the academic journal Mesozoica Cambrensis the authors describe initial research into two pterosaurs from the Late Jurassic period (200 to 145 million years ago) recently uncovered from the Snowdonia eminence known as Dinas Emrys.

The Mesozoic period, roughly 252 to 66 million years ago, is the era we associate with dinosaurs but the flying creatures known as pterosaurs (“flying lizards”) mostly existed during the Jurassic years, some surviving through the Cretaceous until the extinction event about 65myo. What distinguishes the Dinas Emrys pterosaurs is that they appear to belong to two distinct classifications and, unusually, appear in close proximity.

I’m no geologist or palaeobiologist but what I understand is that Snowdonia has multiple layers or strata — Llanberis Slates from 400 million years ago under gritstones, mudstones, siltstones and volcanic ashes, all covered over by more slate beds, then contorted over eons by tremendous geological forces.

Into a remnant of sedimentary layers on Dinas Emrys, as though part of a dried-up pool, were deposited the intertwined fossils of the pterosaurs, almost as if locked in combat. What is fascinating about these two specimens is that, contrary to popular dinosaur belief, they weren’t cold-blooded or scaley but warm-blooded and covered in fur. Extraordinary to relate, traces of pigment were even found.

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Whistling in the dark

sunset
Sunset in the west

Geoffrey Ashe in association with Debrett’s Peerage:
The Discovery of King Arthur
Debrett’s Peerage 1985

Humans make history, and histories about individual humans are particularly fascinating if not always fashionable among scholars. Occasionally popular and scholarly tastes overlap, as we have seen in the case of the discovery of Richard III’s body under a car park in Leicester. But if anybody’s hoping in similar fashion to discover the body of King Arthur they might just be whistling in the dark.

Why? Well, frankly the historical documentation for Arthur is, to put it mildly, very sparse, some might say non-existent.

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Reading about Wales

As I’ve previously posted here, Paula Bardell-Hedley of Book Jotter is introducing the first Wales Readathon, Dewithon19 for the month of March. The first day of March is of course the feast day of Wales’ patron St David, also familiarly known as Dewi. With just one month to go, I’ve been giving thought to how I shall approach the readathon.

Firstly, I’ve been drawing up a list of books to consider reading (and subsequently review); this include titles by Welsh authors and books set in or about Wales and about Welsh culture. Here is my initial shortlist, though I may add to or remove some of these works:

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Magic? It’s mostly ideas

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto (ca. 1502-1555). Fitzwilliam Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Diana Wynne Jones: A Sudden Wild Magic
Avon Books 1994 (1992)

Magic is mostly ideas — they’re the strongest thing there is!
— Gladys, X/2

The fantasies of Diana Wynne Jones are the epitome of wild magic, as other commentators have previously noted. You can guess what ‘wild magic’ is — uncontrolled flights of powerful fancy spiralling off in unexpected directions, or some such will-o’-the-wisp definition — and virtually every writing of this much missed author is replete with it. A novel entitled A Sudden Wild Magic is naturally going to include rather a lot of it.

The novel’s premise is easily summarised. A neighbouring universe has been harvesting ideas and inventions from our world without our knowledge — not such a fantastic notion these days — but has also been experimentally interfering with our lives, introducing global warming and epidemics for example to see how we cope with disasters on this scale. A UK-based group of magical guardians decide to infiltrate a crack team of female adepts, their mission being to disrupt this covert action conducted by male mages by introducing magical viruses; the novel switches back and forth from Earth to this parallel world as it follows the ups and downs of this team and those monitoring progress. Being a Diana Wynne Jones fantasy things are not always as they seem, however.

It’s almost pointless to outline the intricacies of the plot narrative in a straightforward review: there is so much going on, so many strands, such a varied cast, so many distinctive individuals. It’s a novel of its time, of course: issues current in the 1990s have assumed different perspectives a quarter of a century later — AIDS-HIV and global warming, for example — and we might baulk at their semi-humorous treatment both from a retrospective viewpoint and because they are matters warranting serious consideration. But it can be argued that humour used as a means of drawing attention to the misuse of power — from issues concerning exploitation and gender to technology used irresponsibly and child abuse — deserves its place in fiction.

Instead then of discussing the narrative’s twists and turns, I want here to indicate some of the ways the author’s own wild magic operates, how she takes ideas from here and there and allows them to follow their own courses.

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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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