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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Dido goes south

South America 1821 (public domain: Wikimedia Commons)
South America 1821 (public domain: Wikimedia Commons)

With Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake I am continuing my exploration of Dido Twite’s voyages and the world as it was in James III’s day, during the 1830s. This is in the nature of a taster post as I shall of course be reviewing this, the fourth of the Wolves Chronicles, and discussing the geography, history, people and peculiarities of this alternate world. Joan tells us in her prefatory note

Everybody knows that the Ancient British didn’t migrate to South America when the Saxons invaded their country; this is just my idea of what it would have been like if they had. But Brazil did get its name from the old Celtic idea that there was a beautiful magic country called Breasal’s Island, Breasail, or Hy Brasil, somewhere out in the Atlantic, west of Ireland, where the sun sets.

I would only dispute that the country of Brazil derives its name from this mythical land — it’s actually from the Portuguese pau-brazil, the red brazilwood tree — but it’s true that belief in this land, downgraded now to an island, persisted until the mid-19th century.*

The note also informs us that this book “follows the adventures of Dido Twite, after she sets sail for England at the end of Night Birds on Nantucket, and before she gets there, in The Cuckoo Tree.” But Joan calms us by reminding us that this is “a separate story, and you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.”

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A quest with twists

culhwch

Fflur Dafydd The White Trail
Seren 2011

The White Trail is one of Seren Books’ New Stories from the Mabinogion, a retelling of the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. This early Arthurian story described the quest of Culhwch (pronounced Kilhookh) for Olwen, a girl he had fallen violently in love with the moment he had heard about her. But to gain her hand he has to fulfill several impossible tasks set for him by Olwen’s father, tasks he is only able to complete with the help of Arthur and his knights.

It is the longest of the native tales contained in the collection known as the Mabinogion and is a rich and complex narrative, with elements of folklore, fairytale, placename onomastics, Rabelaisian lists, black humour, grotesquery, puns and ritual all thrown in. A modern retelling will have to work very hard to include even a handful of these elements whilst also making it relevant and comprehensible to the reader. Fflur Dafydd makes a fair stab at this, to the extent that she reinterprets the action in a way that throws new light on the Dark Age tale but sensibly excises details that anchor Culhwch only to pre-modern times; on the other hand there are aspects of her narrative that for me technically don’t work, whatever genre you choose to call it.

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Christmastide in Camelot

Sir Gawain and King Arthur, with (below) the Green Knight [British Library] http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-online.html
Sir Gawain and King Arthur and (below) the Green Knight after Gawain had done the deed (British Library)
http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-online.html

This king [Arthur] lodged at Camylot over Krystmasse with many a fair lord, the best of men, those noble brothers in arms all worthily of the Round Table, fittingly with fine revelry and care-free pleasures. On very many occasions they tourneyed there; these noble knights jousted very gallantly, and afterwards rode to court to dance and sing carols. For the feast was the same there for the whole fifteen days, with all the meat and mirth that men could devise.

Such raucous fun and merriment to hear, noise by day and dancing by night, all was utmost joyousness in halls and chambers with lords and ladies as best delighted them. With all the joy in the world they abode there together, the most famed knights save Christ himself and the loveliest ladies that ever lived, and the comeliest king reigning, for all these fair folk in the hall were in the prime of their life.

The most fortunate under heaven, the king the greatest in temperament — it would now be hard to describe so sturdy a host on that hill.

• Literal translation of an extract from the 14C poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the unique manuscript of which is in the British Library.

Christmastide — which runs from Christmas Day to Epiphany (January 5th) — represents the original Twelve Days of Christmas; this traditionally marked the seasonal turnaround after the dark days of midwinter. To the medieval mind a legendary Arthurian court would naturally have celebrated it too.

Also known as Yuletide, this was a time when, in historic times, carollers would go round wassailing, wishing neighbours and drinking their health from a wassail bowl. However, unlike with this Arthurian Christmas, there wouldn’t usually be an offer from a Green Knight to chop his head off, so long as he could do the same to you a year and a day later …

In the words of the Gloucestershire Wassail I wish you, my fellow bloggers, the very best for this holiday season, with a promise to resurface sometime between Christmas and the New Year:

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.