A tall story about devilry

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (1563), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

That Hideous Strength
by C S Lewis.
Pan Books 1955 (1945).

“Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said”

C S Lewis, ‘The New York Times Book Review’, 18th November, 1956

Composed during the war years, when That Hideous Strength was finally published in 1945 it was subtitled ‘A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups’. In his original preface Lewis declared that he “called this a ‘fairy tale’ in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled,” before finally characterising it as “a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”

The following year when Lewis abridged it for a new edition it was retitled The Tortured Planet, presumably to make clear its association with Out of the Silent Planet and Voyage to Venus. When that same abridgement then appeared in a new 1955 paperback edition it had resumed its original title and included another preface by the author in which he confessed:

In reducing the original story to a length suitable for this edition, I believe I have altered nothing but the tempo and the manner. I myself prefer the more leisurely pace — I would not wish even ‘War and Peace’ or ‘The Faerie Queene’ any shorter — but some critics may well think this abridgment is also an improvement.

All of which is noted as a preamble to saying that the transformations the novel went through in its first few years are as nothing compared to the complexity that C S Lewis aimed to incorporate in his “fairy-tale for grown-ups”. It contains moralising, it’s true, but it’s also a thriller, a science fantasy, and a repository of ancient myths and legends.

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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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Beginnings

Oliver Tobias Arthur of the Britons, broadcast by HTV in 1972

“Never judge a book by its cover, except if it’s a Jeffrey Archer”
— Traditional saying

If, when looking for a good read, we have already been attracted by a title or author or blurb, then that first opening sentence is crucial — especially in an age of channel-hopping, soundbites and eight-second attention spans. Have you switched off yet?

As with all specialist literature, Arthurian prose literature should predispose the sympathetic reader to read on, not move on. Here, for that reader, is the beginning of the classic example of that literature, from the fifteenth century:

Hit befel in the dayes of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned, that there was a myghty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil
(Thomas Malory, in Vinaver 1954).

How did that grab you? Are you on the edge of your seat? Or are you yawning already? And do 20th century re-tellings of Malory follow that pattern?

In the old days, as it is told, there was a king in Britain named Uther Pendragon (Picard 1955).

This is clearly a literary descendant of Malory, but some concession has been made for a juvenile readership in that it is shorter and punchier without losing its poetic, almost biblical cadences.

Here is another opening:

After wicked King Vortigern had first invited the Saxons to settle in Britain and help him to fight the Picts and Scots, the land was never long at peace (Green 1953).

A lot of information is offered, and assumptions made about prior historical knowledge. For this version, the author’s principle is that “the great legends, like the best of the fairy tales, must be retold from age to age: there is always something new to be found in them, and each retelling brings them freshly and more vividly before a new generation” (Green 1953, 13). There are some value judgements here, aren’t there? Malory is not vivid enough for us moderns; and Retellings are always fresh. In some instances there may be an element of truth in these assumptions. Here now is the beginning of T H White’s re-casting of Malory:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology (White 1958).

There is nothing here initially to suggest an Arthurian setting, but the combination of whimsy and exactitude may be sufficiently intriguing to draw a non-Arthurian further into the book. This is certainly both a vivid and a fresher approach to the Matter. How have other Arthurian authors approached their craft?

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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/

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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A touch of H P Lovecraft

sunset

Clayton Clifford Bye
The Sorcerer’s Key
Chase Enterprises 2005

Fantasy is a tough genre for some readers who find it difficult to suspend their disbelief enough to accept magic as a sine qua non of this type of fiction. Once you accept it then the story proceeds as normal, providing of course that you also get the narrative and characters and setting that all good fiction requires. Clayton Bye’s The Sorcerer’s Key certainly has a narrative that draws you on and characters that are believable and distinctive. The young hero of the tale, Jack Lightfoot, has been brought up with a magical heritage while living in a small town in Ontario (coincidentally the author’s hometown of Kenora). He finds himself trailed by a shady character and his previously humdrum life (as humdrum as it can be with clandestine magical training from his parents) gets turned upside down as he gets drawn into conflict with a powerful sorcerer from another world, meets new friends and gains new insights into his abilities.

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Modern Arthuriana: a bibliography

Original artwork by Simon Rouse for the Journal of the Pendragon Society
Original artwork by Simon Rouse for the Journal of the Pendragon Society

Ann F Howey and Stephen R Reimer editors
A Bibliography of Modern Arthuriana (1500-2000)
D S Brewer 2006

What is Arthuriana? The authors choose to define it as “the Arthurian legend in modern English-language fiction”, and include such manifestations as literary (but not non-fictional) texts, audio-visual media (film, television, radio, audio-books) and aspects of popular culture such as graphic novels and games. Aimed at students (the general public as well as scholars), collectors and librarians, this compilation is ideal both as a reference work and as a treasure chest to dip into. Continue reading “Modern Arthuriana: a bibliography”