The teardrop expounded

sunset

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
by Alan Garner.
Puffin Books revised edition 1963 (1960).

Reading this at the end of the sixties, fresh from the enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, I felt confused and slightly underwhelmed. Despite its nod to Arthurian legend (sleeping king, Wild Hunt, sage wizard) and genuine sense of menace I missed the complexity of Tolkien’s saga, with its multiple locations, characters and interweave of plots. Nor did it share the light touch of The Hobbit despite featuring two youngsters in their early teens.

Perhaps the book’s misfortune was to be of its time, partly satisfying a hunger for epic fantasy but appearing, in contrast, as a pale imitation of The Lord of the Rings. Garner, whose first novel this was – he wrote it in his mid-twenties – recognised such weaknesses by first providing a revised edition for Puffin Books and later virtually disavowing it as “a fairly bad book”.

To dismiss it, especially now, would be unfair. For all the similarity of motifs – dwarfs, elves, underground mines, wizard, evil lord, powerful talisman, trolls, a final near-hopeless battle – what strikes me more on this re-reading four decades on are the differences. This is set in a corner of Garner’s native Cheshire, not in a secondary world like Middle Earth; the names and figures draw not on an invented mythology but directly from native traditions and languages, from Welsh, Manx, Irish and Norse folklore and literature (for example Angharad, Fenodyree, Morrigan and Grimnir, respectively); the main protagonists are not adult halflings but two, as it turns out, not-so-ordinary children; and the story is set not in some faraway land many millennia ago but in a here-and-now mid-twentieth century, with trains, waterproof macs, bikes, electric torches and ramblers. Even if the past is never far away, beginning with the milk-white steeds of the legendary but unnamed king…

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A bold but misguided exercise

King Arthur: engraving based on a 1874 photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend
by Rodney Castleden.
Routledge 1999

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.

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Stories I know to be true

Some editions of Marie de France’s lais

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.

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Myths and therapy

Morgan le Fay

Brendan McMahon:
The Princess Who Ate People:
the Psychology of Celtic Myths
Heart of Albion Press 2006

First, I have to say this is a wonderful title for a book, encouraging the reader to delve inside the covers. The author here looks primarily at Irish and Welsh mythical narratives with his psychotherapist’s eye, seeking for ways in which these old tales can help modern patients make sense of their own dilemmas and help restore integrity and identity.

Though Irish tales dominate his study, native British stories put in an appearance, including some Welsh Arthurian narratives. The commentary is critical of aspects of classic Freudian analysis, and here I wish McMahon’s concluding chapter, which encapsulates his approach, had begun the book.

Some stimulating ideas are here, therefore, even for those unsympathetic with Freudian theory, so I will only mention a couple of niggles. First up are the typos – I can’t believe that there wasn’t time to proofread the text before publishing – and secondly, I was disappointed that the striking cover by Ian Brown was not really as representative of Mis, the Irish princess of the title, as I expected.

The final word must go to the author: “The fact is that the psychological complexity of the tales, with their rich interplay between the internal, interpersonal and social worlds, debars any simple reductionist interpretation, Freudian or otherwise.” Amen to that, I say.


Repost of a review first published online 25th March 2013, and before that in the Journal of the Pendragon Society, in 2006

Step by step

Durer’s Knight

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?

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Passant on a green and white field

winged
Wyvern (“the Western Squat Dragon”) by Edward Topsell
Welsh
Flag of Wales (credit: wallpapertree.com)

Carl Lofmark (G A Wells, editor):
A History of the Red Dragon
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch (No 4 Welsh Heritage Series)

In 1959 the Queen sanctioned the flying of the now familiar Welsh flag on Government buildings in Wales and in London, whenever “appropriate”, officially recognising a national symbol that has had a long but mixed history. In this booklet by the late Carl Lofmark the convoluted story of its origins, use and development is traced to the point where the dragon and the colour red is ubiquitous on March 1st, the feast of St David, patron saint of Wales. Why a dragon? And why is it red?

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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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Gawain and the jolly green giant

Winter's journey
Winter’s journey (Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, some years back)

Bernard O’Donoghue transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Penguin 2006

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”

Parallels

Cover art Chris Lovegrove for Pendragon: Journal of the Pendragon Society XIV/3 1981

Geoffrey Ashe: “A Certain Very Ancient Book”;
Traces of an Arthurian Source in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History.
Speculum 56, 2: 1981

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

A recent guest post by Katie Wilkins of Doing Dewey on Lory Hess’s blog Emerald City Book Review introduced a 1985 publication that stimulated some discussion. It prompted me to look up some reviews I penned of Geoffrey Ashe’s book at the time, plus one of the academic papers that preceded it.

Below is the slightly edited texts of those reviews with some linking commentary, for those who like to muse on the historical origins of the Arthurian legends. The Speculum review is from Pendragon XIV/3, summer 1981, and the book review appeared in Pendragon XVII/4, autumn 1984 (published February 1986). Of necessity the arguments are involved and rather complex — I hope it all has a little more than just historical curiosity!

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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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Literal rather than literary

chevalier

Three Arthurian Romances:
poems from Medieval France

Translated with an introduction and notes by Ross G Arthur
Everyman 1996

The three poems offered in translation here are Caradoc, followed by The Knight with the Sword and The Perilous Graveyard. Dating from around the first half of the thirteenth century, the language of the original poems doesn’t come across well in this English prose translation, as evidenced by clunky passages such as this one, chosen at random from Caradoc [line 10090 ff]:

This is the vow which the King made. He rose quickly and set out on his voyage at once. I tell you that he crossed the sea with a sorrowful heart, so anxious about Caradoc that his body and soul grew weak.

At least with this version, literal rather than literary, the lack of fluency may be a mark of honesty: no attempt to impose a mock High Medieval language as a Victorian or Edwardian rendering might have been tempted to offer.

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Wishing wells and votive offerings

Mammoth and capricorns from Rouffignac (image public domain)

In the Southwest of France, the town of Rouffignac boasts a ‘cave of a hundred mammoths’. Or rather representations of them drawn or engraved on the walls and ceilings. Nowadays the visitor travels one kilometre underground on a small electric train. Every now and then there are isolated mammoths on the walls and claw marks of cave bears on the ceiling; the latter, luckily, are not contemporary with the artists. Suddenly the train stops and there they are, a multitude of mammoths, horses, bison and other horned animals covering the vault of a low ceiling. One horse is about eight feet across. The artist or artists delineating it, lying on the floor about three feet below (as it then was) would not have been able to appreciate it all. It is all breathtaking, simple but effective.

Why did prehistoric people travel so far underground to create pictures they could not enjoy in their entirety? The answer is close at hand: a large, natural but uneven pit descends below the cavern’s floor. From here, no doubt, the deities of the underworld could emerge to appreciate the artistic offerings of humankind and grant the wishes that accompanied them.

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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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Stories both exciting and different

Peter Dickinson in 1999 Photo: Brian Smith
Peter Dickinson in 1999 Photo: Brian Smith (Daily Telegraph)

In my current phase (though I suspect it’ll be a permanent phase) of mixing re-reads in with titles and writers new to me it struck me that an overview of some of the authors I’m revisiting might give an indication of why I find them eminently readable. Oddly, the book I’m reading and enjoying now — The Ropemaker (shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2001 and winning the Mythopoeic Award in 2002) — is a fantasy novel by one of these writers which, even though it’s been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years, proves to be a title I hadn’t tackled before.

The Ropemaker‘s creator Peter Dickinson, who died at the age of 88 in December 2015, authored a wide range of books including children’s novels and detective stories. Rather to his disgust he was perhaps best known for The Changes Trilogy which appeared as separate children’s novels nearly fifty years ago, beginning with The Weathermonger (1968) and continuing with Heartsease (1969) and The Devil’s Children (1970). The Weathermonger, while perhaps the weakest of the three, is the most Arthurian, an aspect which attracted it to me when I first read it many years ago. In the author’s own words, “The Weathermonger sprang from a nightmare. I had lain awake retelling the dream, putting myself in charge of it, outwitting or defeating its monsters, in order to get back to sleep, but instead had spent the rest of the night finishing the story in my head.” This dream furnished the premise of the trilogy, “set in a near-future England in which use of machines is equated with witchcraft,” all brought on by the chance re-awakening of that archetypal wizard Merlin.

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