Lost beneath the sea

Mevagissey in the 1960s

Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper.
The Dark Is Rising sequence 3,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Puffin 2019 (1974)

This is a book with magic in its pages, its phrases, its words. There were moments when my neck hairs rose, especially during the making of the Greenwitch, and times when I was transported by the sheer poetry within a paragraph or passage. If this short novel in Susan Cooper’s five-book fantasy sequence occasionally feels poised between revelation and resolution, that’s no doubt because it’s the middle book in the series: it’s here where earlier strands become more intertwined but where we can’t yet see the whole picture. But to me it’s the quality of the writing which holds the attention, and because Greenwitch is virtually a novella in length I think its brevity works in its favour, making the story more intense.

As the novel opens we realise it’s the Easter after the events in Over Sea, Under Stone (published in 1965), with news of the theft of the so-called Trewissick grail from the British Museum where it had been donated by its finders the Drew children Simon, Jane and Barney. Before they can get too het up over the relic’s disappearance relatives get in touch offering them a holiday break in south Cornwall, at the fishing village where their adventures had all begun.

Coincidentally — or perhaps it isn’t a matter of coincidence — young Will Stanton, whom we met in The Dark is Rising (1973) and who is more than he at first seems, is invited by Merriman Lyon, the Drew children’s great uncle, to take the next step in the conflict against the Dark, which of course will take them down to that Cornish village where the Drews are now already ensconced. Naturally their hackles are raised by the appearance of a strange boy, especially one who doesn’t appear to mind their natural suspicion or quiet antagonism. But soon all will have their attention focused on the strange artist at work down by the harbour.

Continue reading “Lost beneath the sea”

A Grail quest in Catalonia

Joseph Goering:
The Virgin and the Grail;
Origins of a Legend
Yale University Press 2005

South of the high peaks of the Pyrenees and bounded by Aragon to the west and Andorra to the east lies a corner of Catalonia that offers an unexpected but strangely satisfying explanation for the literary Grail’s medieval antecedents.

Continue reading “A Grail quest in Catalonia”

When legend becomes fact

Crickhowell Castle, 1831

Leonardo Olschki: The Grail Castle and its Mysteries
Translated from the Italian by J A Scott
Edited, with a foreword, by Eugène Vinaver

Manchester University Press 1966

Graal: “scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda in qua preciosae dapes divitibus solent apponi gradatim, unus morsellus post alium in diversis ordinibus” (a wide and deep saucer, in which precious food is ceremoniously presented, one piece at a time in sundry rows)
Helinand de Froidmont (early 13th century)

If you were thinking the mysteries of the grail castle were to do with long-lost holy relics, Last Supper chalices, magical stones, Celtic cauldrons, secret occult societies, witches, extraterrestrial visitors or even the blood of Christ you will need to look elsewhere. (There are whole libraries in Babel to cater for each and every taste in such mysteries.)¹

First published in 1961 as ‘Il castello del Re Pescatore e i suoi misteri nel Conte del Graal di Chrétien de Troyes’ (The Castle of the Fisher King and its mysteries in Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail) this is not a publication aimed at a popular market: with a foreword by a foremost Arthurian scholar, key extracts from the medieval romance in the original French, and furnished with footnotes, endnotes and a select bibliography, this monograph (less than a hundred pages) is very much a closely argued academic paper from someone very familiar with the literature and theology of the period in question. The author also effectively — though very politely — demolishes alternative theories from his fellow scholars as to the nature of those mysteries.

Continue reading “When legend becomes fact”

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.

Continue reading “Rex Futurus”

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.

Continue reading “Wishing wells and votive offerings”

The Phoenix and the Fossil

archaeopteryx
Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://fcit.usf.edu/

Phoenix-like, from stone
it rises, wings raised, renewed,
the stuff of legend

Paul Chambers
Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals
John Murray Publishers Ltd 2002

A few years ago I had a notion about the legend of the grail as it appeared in medieval Germany. The Bavarian poet Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail (grâl or graal he called it) by the strange term lapsit exillis, by which he meant a stone rather than the more familiar dish or chalice. Wolfram has his own conceit about this object:

By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix [moult] and change its plumage, which afterwards is bright and shining and as lovely as before.*

When reading this I had a sudden vision of the deceased phoenix on its stone as an archaeopteryx fossil, the first of which had been discovered in Bavaria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Checking the map I later discovered that Wolfram’s home town, now re-named Wolframs-Eschenbach in his honour, is not that far distant from the Altmühltal, a river valley where the limestone quarries that first revealed these winged and feathered creatures are situated. Was it possible that this medieval poet had seen a now vanished archaeopteryx fossil, that it too reminded him of the legend of the phoenix, and that he subsequently co-opted that legend for his version of the wondrous quest object?

I included this notion in a short story I wrote, and passed the hypothesis by the odd mildly intrigued expert, but it remains mere speculation, however much I’d like to believe it may be true. And there it stayed until this account of archaeopteryx (from the Greek for ‘ancient’ and ‘wing’) by palaeontologist Paul Chambers started me wondering about it again. Continue reading “The Phoenix and the Fossil”

The hand of the poet

Hereford's Mappa Mundi (public domain)
Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (public domain)

Owen Sheers Resistance
Faber and Faber 2008 (2007)

‘What is it?’ she asked.

Albrecht’s voice came from behind her, out of the darkness. ‘The world,’ he said. ‘Or at least an idea of it.’

Maps and journeys dominate this novel. Historic maps of the medieval world. A route across southern England. The cul-de-sac that is an isolated valley in the Welsh Marches. The pathways of human memories. The unmapped future when one steps off the end of the known world. The past as it might have been if history had taken a different direction.

All fictions could be said to be alternative histories, in that they describe people who may not have existed and events that may never have happened in our own physical world. Resistance however sits firmly in the alternate history genre given that it envisages what might have happened if Nazi Germany had finally triumphed; it’s a popular theme, explored for example in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In Sheers’ novel Hitler’s armies have seen success both on the Eastern Front and in Western Europe, and have begun their successful invasion of Britain in autumn 1944. The novel’s action focuses on the Olchon valley, an isolated location north of Abergavenny, and it is here that a group of German soldiers are sent on a clandestine mission by Himmler and where they mysteriously encounter an all-female community.

Foregrounded are the German officer, Albrecht Wolfram, and Sarah Lewis, the farmer abandoned by her husband Tom; the latter, we surmise, has joined a covert Auxiliary Unit manned by insurgents — as the Germans call them — to maintain resistance against the occupiers. Sarah and the other women (Maggie, Mary, Menna and Bethan) are completely in the dark as to why their men have left, but with winter approaching they have no choice but to get on as best they can with the demands of hill farming. It comes as a complete shock when Captain Wolfram and his men appear. What do they want, and why are they here?

Continue reading “The hand of the poet”

Treasure at Trewissick

mevagissey 1960s
Mevagissey harbour in the 1960s (picture: http://mevagisseymuseum.co.uk/)

Susan Cooper Over Sea, Under Stone
Illustrated by Margery Gill
Puffin Books 1968 (1965)

Simon, Jane and Barney Drew go to the attractive Cornish fishing village of Trewissick for the summer holidays, where their Great Uncle Merry has secured a holiday home for them and their parents. Attractions include a busy harbour, beaches, walks and a carnival featuring Trewissick’s famous Floral Dance. There’s even a resident dog, Rufus, to add to the fun. The signs are promising for the Drew children to have a wonderful break.

But the signs are not to be trusted: why is the boy whom they encounter on the harbour quay so horrible? Are the nice Norman and Polly Withers all they seem? Why should Jane be wary of the vicar Mr Hastings? Is Mrs Molly Palk the housekeeper as friendly as she appears? And why does Great Uncle Merry keep disappearing?

Continue reading “Treasure at Trewissick”

Crusader with a cape

batmanchalice

Chuck Dixon Batman: The Chalice
Illustrated by John Van Fleet
DC Comics 1999

Into Bruce Wayne’s hands is entrusted an object for safekeeping. Once sought and guarded by his medieval ancestors, the house of Gevain, the Holy Grail — for this is it, a relic missing since the time of the Crusades — proves a dangerous legacy for Wayne to guard, even when he is in his guise of Gotham City’s finest, Batman. Shall I list those who also seek the cup for its power? Ra’s al Ghul, the Penguin, Catwoman, Ubu, the Brotherhood of the Merivingians [sic] for a start. Lined up on the caped crusader’s side are Alfred, Azrael, the Oracle and Commissioner Gordon, but will they be enough to hold off the dark forces that hanker after the sacred receptacle? Or will Bruce be forced to call upon a more superior being to spirit it away. Continue reading “Crusader with a cape”

Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail

Norris J Lacy and Joan Tasker Grimbert (editors)
A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes
D S Brewer 2008

We have a lot to be thankful to Chrétien de Troyes for: without him there would be no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail; he virtually kickstarted the romance tradition through his use of a vernacular language, French; and of the six surviving texts ascribed to him five have — to a greater or lesser extent — an Arthurian background. So, one of the great literary what-ifs must hinge on whether Arthurian literature, both medieval and modern, would have been what it is now if not for Chrétien. Continue reading “Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail”

An illusory Questing Beast

durer

Lev Grossman Codex Arrow 2005

In that this is a tale of a modern quest for a medieval book that purports to be about the Quest for the Holy Grail, Codex is undoubtedly an Arthurian novel. We are treated to circumstantial details about a medieval codex, A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians by Gervase of Langford, and much about encoded messages, bookbinding and medieval manuscripts. This reveals the author’s intention to impress us with the depth of his research, and I have to say that some of the detail is fascinating, and as an Arthurian I thought the conceit of a hitherto unknown manuscript about the Matter of Britain promising.

Less promising are the details of a virtual reality game that the hero simultaneously gets drawn into, which are meant to impress us with the breadth of Grossman’s online experience; the novel is set in the middle of the noughties and so it becomes less hard as time goes on to say how that this may not stand up as a plot device while real-life technology overtakes his scenario. Continue reading “An illusory Questing Beast”

Ripping yarn, religious myth

Frampton_The-Passage-of-the-Holy-Grail-to-Sarras
Edward Reginald Frampton The Passage of the Holy Grail to Sarras http://www.wikigallery.org

Nigel Bryant compiler and translator
The Legend of the Grail
D S Brewer 2004 Arthurian Studies LVIII

While many readers assume that Thomas Malory’s famous epic is the epitome of Arthurian romance, fewer realise that what this author did was to extract the meat from several earlier French stories and serve them up not only in English but in a strong narrative arc that we know under the title Caxton gave it, Le Morte d’Arthur. In The Legend of the Grail Nigel Bryant imagines what a monkish redactor or scribe in, say, the 1240s would have done when confronted with the many different French versions of the Perceval romance. Would he not have done something similar to what Malory achieved more than two centuries later and prune, conflate and effect consistency?

This, then, is what Bryant himself undertakes to do. He takes “eight great French romances” composed during a period spanning half a century — Robert de Boron’s prose Joseph of Arimathea, Chrétien’s unfinished poem Perceval, the four mostly independent continuations of Perceval (two anonymous and one each by Gerbert and Manessier), the Glastonbury-linked Perlesvaus and the prose tale Quest of the Holy Grail (the last two also anonymous). He then re-forges them into a continuous narrative, as if they were the pieces of a broken sword, and presents them as the medieval legend of this mysterious object. The Whole Book of the Holy Grail, as it might be if Malory had attempted the project.

Does it work? Continue reading “Ripping yarn, religious myth”

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”

Two Grail studies

The Ace of Cups from an early printed Tarot pack

Despite some inevitable overlap, these two studies take rather different routes through the Sargasso Sea of grail research. At journey’s end each study certainly conveys a sense of great navigation and exploration, but, perhaps in keeping with the nature of their subject, there is no triumphant flag-planting ceremony on dry newfound land. Instead, we can be allowed a little satisfaction that some sea-mists have been dispelled and fog-bound sand-banks have been avoided. Continue reading “Two Grail studies”

Historical whodunit not for the po-faced

Templecombe
Templar Head of Christ displayed in Templecombe church, Somerset

 

Michael Clynes The Grail Murders Headline Books 1993

It is 1522 and Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham has just been beheaded for treason. Soon afterwards Cardinal Wolsey’s spies start to be bumped off one by one, apparently in revenge for Buckingham’s execution. Buckingham himself was searching for two objects in darkest Somerset and seems to have been in cahoots with a powerful secret society, supposedly disbanded for two centuries. Under pain of execution two investigators, Benjamin Daunbey and Roger Shallot, are ordered by Henry VIII to find these two missing relics — the Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, and Excalibur, the fabled sword of King Arthur — and foil the Templar plot against the Tudors. Along the way there is a lot of intrigue and action before matters are finally resolved. Or not.

First, the good news. Continue reading “Historical whodunit not for the po-faced”