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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