An idiosyncratic reading of Arthurian origins

Howard Reid Arthur, The Dragon King:
the Barbaric Roots Of Britain’s Greatest Legend

Headline 2001

Howard Reid apparently has all the right academic credentials – an unpublished PhD thesis in anthropology based on research among hunter-gatherers in Brazil – and, as well as practical experience from living with Tuaregs in North Africa, he has made documentaries about ancient civilisations for the BBC, Channel 4 and the Public Broadcasting Service in the USA. So you would expect him not only to declaim knowledgeably with his Indiana Jones hat on but also to discuss with scholarly rigour wearing his mortar board.

Not a bit of it. Continue reading “An idiosyncratic reading of Arthurian origins”

Plots worth digging over

plotsChristopher Booker
The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories
Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd 2005

I was attracted to this book for a number of reasons, not least by the fact that its title told you exactly what it was about, reinforced by the witty cover by photographer Jonathan Ring showing a pile of books reflected in a metal film canister. And I was predisposed to like this because of the mix of stimulating ideas that books, both fiction and non-fiction, promise the reader. (Mind you, I tend to read anything, from cereal packets to greetings cards, so it may not take much to stimulate my negligible intellect.)

Booker’s identification of the principal narrative structures underlying the best examples of stories, novels, plays and films is attractive and, viewed retrospectively, intuitively right. Those seven plots Continue reading “Plots worth digging over”

A magisterial and elegant summary

Rubin vase illusion http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png
Rubin vase illusion
http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png

Juliette Wood Eternal Chalice:
the Enduring Legend of the Holy Grail

I B Tauris Publishers 2008

As a journalistic metaphor for the ultimate or the unattainable, the Holy Grail is, well, the holy grail of metaphors. For the general public there may be a sense of it being the object of a quest, usually the cup of the Last Supper, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. For New Agers and pseudohistorians, it is a ineffable object with mystical powers, for academics a keyword for research into literature, art and cultural history, for scientists maybe an acronym for investigating the moon’s gravity. In other words, it is all things to all people, and therefore any attempt to pin it down could well be doomed to failure. But that hasn’t stopped the plethora of titles being published year on year. Continue reading “A magisterial and elegant summary”

Fantastic Beasts: find them here

Sea monster from Icones Animalium
Sea monster from Icones Animalium

Julia Cresswell
Legendary Beasts of Britain
Shire Publications 2013

There is a loosely connected worldwide band of dedicated enthusiasts, Fortean investigators and conspiracy theorists who call themselves cryptozoologists, hunters on the track of unknown animals. One of the best-known pioneers of this art was Bernard Heuvelmans whose book, Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées (1955), was indeed translated as On the Track of Unknown Animals. What binds these disparate devotees is the belief that ancient accounts and travellers’ tales may well have described existing or recently extinct animals that science either was ignorant of or obstinately ignores. In this group can be numbered seekers after dragons, the Loch Ness monster, alien big cats and Bigfoot or the Yeti. But modern cryptozoologists aren’t the first to give credence to bêtes ignorées — such beliefs have been going on for centuries, even millennia. Continue reading “Fantastic Beasts: find them here”

Traditional and other lore

Victorian Christmas Mummers Play
Victorian Christmas Mummers Play

Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud
A Dictionary of English Folklore

Oxford University Press 2001 (2000)

For me the best reference books are those which not only provide a entry matching your initial query but which also encourage you to browse and read other not always related entries. This Oxford Dictionary does it for me on both counts: authoritativeness and readability. Folklore here is rightly interpreted as including aspects of modern popular culture as well as topics beloved of antiquarians.

Authored by two stalwarts of the Folklore Society — who should then know what they are talking about — the Dictionary contains over 1250 entries covering a wide range of topics including seasonal customs, traditional tales, superstitions and beliefs. Key figures involved in the recording of lore are noted here, and evidence presented that folklore is part of a continually evolving process. What makes this book particularly worthwhile is that not all so-called traditional lore is accorded uncritical acceptance, a plus for any truth-seeker when Victorian speculation about origins and meaning often became spurious fact.

For those wanting more there are relevant references and a bibliography, and in common with many in this Oxford reference series, pretty pictures are excluded in favour of more text. Sometimes this is a disadvantage but in this case I’d rather have more entries than a limited number of select and maybe unrepresentative illustrations. (Having said which, I include a curious photo of 19th-century mummers acting out their seasonal play.)

A commendable compendium

King Arthur by Julia Margaret Cameron
Nineteenth-century photographic study for a portrait of King Arthur, by Julia Margaret Cameron

The New Arthurian Encyclopedia
Edited by Norris J Lacy et al
Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1996

With the publication of The Arthurian Encyclopedia in 1986 students were able to access, in one volume, academic discussion on a range of Arthurian topics — art, history, literature, fiction, drama, music and cinema for example — across space and time, all listed in alphabetical order. In 1991 an updated hardback edition was published as — naturally — The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, followed by a paperback edition in 1996 which was itself supplemented by an addendum detailing video games and new fiction that had appeared in the intervening years.

Anybody remotely interested in Arthurian matters should own or at least have regular access to this last volume, despite a desperate need for it to be updated yet again some two decades on from its last publication. Continue reading “A commendable compendium”

Enter at your peril

Leading to Cwm Cerwyn, where King Arthur battled Twrch Trwyth
Leading to Cwm Cerwyn, where King Arthur battled Twrch Trwyth

Robert Holdstock Gate of Ivory
Voyager 1998 (as Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn 1997)

At the heart of this fantasy is the medieval Welsh Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen, but there are also echoes of other Celtic texts including The Spoils of Annwn, motifs from classical mythology and references to more recent fiction such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian Huxley, like his father before him, ventures into an ancient woodland — Ryhope Wood — peopled by figures from myth and legend and emanations from dreams and imaginations, following a personal quest born in tragic circumstances. Continue reading “Enter at your peril”

Not academic but accessible

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

Ronan Coghlan The Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
Element Books 1992

Often plundered and even plagiarised – frequently online and most notably in print by Mike Dixon-Kennedy in his Arthurian Myth and Legend: an A-Z of People and Places (1996) – this was the first really accessible dictionary of Arthurian personages, locales and other miscellanea. While not an academic publication the Encyclopaedia at least references most of its entries (unlike its main rival, mentioned above) while still striving to be user-friendly. This original edition Continue reading “Not academic but accessible”

The evolution of Merlin

Beardsley's Merlin
Beardsley’s Merlin

Geoffrey Ashe Merlin:
the Prophet and His History

The History Press 2008

Ashe produced his first book on the Arthurian legends – King Arthur’s Avalon – in 1957, and over half a century later he still returns to the Matter of Britain, most recently in this overview of Merlin (first published in 2006 as a hardback by Sutton, now subsumed into The History Press).

In his own words Ashe “traces the evolution of the legend, the growth of Merlin as a character, his possible historical aspect, and the principal treatments of him in literature,” and adds a supplementary list of modern transformations. There is a select group of illustrations which reflect different aspects of Merlin’s developing story, and a useful bibliography (would, however, that it had been divided up into fiction and non-fiction).

Ashe was famously described as a “middlebrow” author, Continue reading “The evolution of Merlin”

A not too unwieldy ready reference

rackham
Richard White
King Arthur in Legend and History
Routledge 1998

In the 1930s a scholar such as E K Chambers could bring out a study of Arthurian matters and, while inter alia translating or paraphrasing key passages in his discussion, would quote the original medieval texts in Latin on the supposition that his readers would be able to read and understand them. Nearly a century on a knowledge of Latin is not, if you pardon the irony, a sine qua non of the average reader, so we must all be grateful to Richard White for including not just a translation of most of Chambers’ extracts but of a large number of other key Arthurian texts, not all of them in Latin. Continue reading “A not too unwieldy ready reference”

Meddling in Nature’s domain

Robert Holdstock: The Fetch
Time Warner Paperbacks 1992

Adopted boy gains |
gift of fetching gifts; travels |
through time and space too.

The Fetch (the US title, Unknown Regions, is taken from a subtitle of Holdstock’s Lavondyss) revisits one of Holdstock’s favourite tropes, the wood as gateway to other times, places and parallel worlds (as in the Mythago Wood series) but on this occasion the tale is set within the undergrowth which has grown up in a disused chalk quarry on the English south coast. The action revolves around the boy Michael, adopted by a middle-class professional couple, who brings with him a maelstrom of psychic activity, changing their lives forever.

Holdstock’s starting point is the three meanings of ‘fetch'(the act of retrieving, a spirit doppelganger and a dialect word meaning ‘fetish’) and interweaves these into a narrative that also draws in archaeology, folklore, ritual, ESP, scientific ethics and a dysfunctional family. As with many Holdstock stories there is a sense of escalating claustrophobia and menace, unleavened by any humour but told with a profound love of words, sense of place and concern over human meddling in Nature’s domain. Continue reading “Meddling in Nature’s domain”