The reader in the midst of the action

sperm-whale

Nathaniel Philbrick:
In the Heart of the Sea
HarperCollins 2001

This is one of those rare non-fiction books that encourages you to continue reading in the same way that a good novel keeps you glued to the page. All the more remarkable, then, that this study gives the background to a true-life saga that inspired one of the great but arguably most difficult novels, Moby-Dick, a work that I’ve always struggled to complete.

In the Heart of the Sea (the title inspired by an extract from Melville’s book, as the end of the epilogue makes clear) has now made me all the more determined to tackle Moby-Dick again, but this time with more understanding, appreciation and stamina.

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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.

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A remarkable narrator

gwenllian

Andrew Breeze:
The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’
Gracewing Publishing 2009

Four medieval stories in Welsh — Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, Manawydan Son of Llŷr and Math Son of Mathonwy — form a unique cycle of tales drawing in characters, motifs and tale-types from Celtic mythology and folktale, all set in the recognisable medieval landscape of Wales and adjacent parts of England. If they didn’t exist our understanding of Celtic myth and legend would be immeasurably the poorer, but our knowledge of the circumstances of this unique retelling and, very importantly, the author and their motivations for setting it all down are severely hampered by lacunae, scholarly suppositions and sometimes wild speculations.

The premise of this book is easily told.

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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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Living by ideas

A C Grayling: The Mystery of Things
Phoenix/Orion 2004

… so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.
King Lear

This thoroughly enjoyable as well as informative collection of over fifty essays and reviews by the philosopher A C Grayling (its title inspired by Shakespeare) perfectly illustrates both the wide range of his interests and his ability to write engagingly, in a style that neither talks down to his audience nor spares them his sometimes forthright views.

At the time of writing he is extremely active on social media decrying the disaster that is Brexit, taking British politicians to task over their wilful decisions and canvassing for a People’s Vote; but — even though you could argue this overshadows his day job — differing philosophies are actually at the heart of this make-or-break point in the UK’s history; and it’s important to distinguish between rational arguments and emotional responses, which of course is the job of the philosopher.

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Skimble-skamble stuff

Wyvern rampant: a red wyvern is attributed to Owain Glyndŵr as the crest to his coat of arms

Today celebrates Owen Glendower, or rather Owain Glyndŵr in Welsh. September 16 marks the anniversary of when, in 1400, he was proclaimed Prince of Wales in Ruthin, in opposition to the English crown’s domination of the principality. After fifteen years of warfare he disappeared to history, the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales.

Paula Bardell-Hedley’s blog Book Jotter was the stimulus for this post with her reminder of Owain Glyndŵr Day here. Just now I want to give a little bit of background, some of which may be, as Shakespeare put it, skimble-skamble stuff.

The device adopted by Owain Glyndŵr for his banner and shield

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Literary influences

As some of you know, I don’t as a matter of principle get involved in blogging awards because, being a bit of a maverick, I’d much rather be composing an original post than feeling constrained by the questions that inevitably accompany these awards.

But a recent literature-based question posted by Ola on receiving a blogging award for the Re-enchantment of the World blog rather appealed to me and had me scurrying to my bookshelves. Here then is the question, followed by my answer — even if I have no intention of nominating anybody else as I’m invited to do by the rules of the award:

Name (and, if you wish, describe) up to 11 books which influenced you the most.

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Ugly duckling to swan

“Shakespeare Droeshout 1623” by Martin Droeshout Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons http://shakespeare.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/files/2012/06/portrait-96-square.jpg

James Shapiro Contested Will:
Who Wrote Shakespeare? Faber and Faber 2010

Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James! — Ben Jonson

When I was nowt but a lad I read Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s Bacon is Shakespeare (1910) in the school library, which is when I first came across the notion that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. According to Sir Edwin the plays are full of cryptic clues asserting that Francis Bacon used Will as a mask for writing all those plays. Typical is the nonsense word in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” which Durning-Lawrence claimed was an anagram in Latin for hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi (“these plays F Bacon’s offspring preserved for the world”). For an impressionable young mind there was much to mull over, but I wasn’t gullible enough to be convinced, and especially not by that coded ‘message’ — how many other phrases or sentences, in Latin or otherwise, can be concocted from that word?

Yet the fancy that Shakespeare was too much of a country bumpkin to be capable of writing such gems was one I was to come across again and again, with a bewildering array of candidates paraded for acceptance. Where was the comprehensive and informed rebuttal which would take all the claims seriously while marshalling killer counter-arguments?

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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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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 Week in Provence

The statue of Cézanne that stands near the modern hub of Aix-en-Provence: he looks towards Mont Sainte-Victoire while nursing an empty bottle some wag has left for him

Maryse Joissains Masini et al (editors)
Les Architectes et la Ville
Livret des Journées Européennes du Patrimoine
Aix-en-Provence et Pays D’Aix

In mid-September the city of Aix-en-Provence and its hinterland hosted a long weekend dedicated to the architecture of the region, ranging from the Gaulish oppidum (the precursor to the Roman town of Aquae Sextius) to 21st-century structures that housed both people and the culture for which Aix is famous. We missed this celebration by a week but, with the help of a booklet in French produced for the occasion and aimed towards students, we were able to explore the city’s historic delights in between enjoying the modern successor to the Roman baths. Aix is most famous for Paul Cézanne but there is more to this ancient provincial capital than its most renowned inhabitant.

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Blogs I follow (5)

Fireworks [credit: Jon Sullivan, Public Domain]

We come now to the final instalment of my miniseries Blogs I follow, where you lovely people — fellow bloggers and visitors — get a view of what gets my attention on WordPress. This post represents a miscellany of weblog thingies that don’t fit either comfortably or conveniently into those categories I’ve previously examined, namely creative, book reviews, and bookish matters. So without further ado let’s jump in, with the usual caveat that there’s no ranking implied in the order they appear.

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Patronising

Durer’s St George and the Dragon. The crowned princess is lurking behind a rock. With a pig.

St George fought the dragon and killed it — or did he? Such doubt could make patriots go weak and quite giddy. Did he rescue a maiden and liberate a city like Perseus, it’s said, in ancient antiquity? Or is it a myth, a tale for the gullible from powerful leaders who claim they’re infallible?

The truth is that George has a past that is murky: perhaps Cappadocia (that’s now part of Turkey) or Palestine claims him. Yes, Christian martyr — but slayer of dragons? Well, that‘s a non-starter.

He’s patron of England, the Knights of the Garter, Teutonic Knights, Reichenau, Gozo and Malta. He’s chief saint of Portugal and also of Genoa, of Moscow and Beirut and, yes, Catalonia. God help us if they all decide to go fight, for how will George know who is wrong and who’s right?

Yet it’s the far right who often invoke him, their claims of supremacy based on pure hokum. For they would now see saintly George as outsider, a migrant or refugee, maybe Al-Qaida. To persecute him would elicit no qualms, and he’d not be received with wide open arms.


A post in rhyming couplets to mark April 23rd, St George’s Day

Towards a neurodiverse world

https://openclipart.org/detail/229515/multicolored-jigsaw-puzzle-pieces
https://openclipart.org/detail/229515/multicolored-jigsaw-puzzle-pieces

Steve Silberman: NeuroTribes:
the legacy of autism and how to think smarter
about people who think differently

Foreword by Oliver Sacks

Allen & Unwin 2016 (2015)

I have to admit that this wasn’t quite what I was expected when I began it. I was looking forward to an updated discussion of what autism actually is and how people not actually on the spectrum can learn to think about those who are on it. Instead I found I was reading a 500-page doorstop of a book which provided complex case histories and followed a rigid but discursive timeline down from the 18th century. Much of the time I felt that the promises contained in the title and subtitle (particularly on describing autism’s ‘legacy’) and a confused impression about the book’s targeted audience (was it the general public or those directly affected by autism?) were being lost in a catalogue of contradictory opinions, varying terminology and distressing detail.

But then I realised that there was method in this apparent madness. By examining the general public’s confused reactions to autism’s manifestations over the centuries and the conflicting diagnoses and prognoses offered when individuals exhibited the condition Silberman was able to build up a picture of what autism was not; how those with the condition presented in a multiplicity of ways; and how — after many years seen as passive victims who might or might not be ‘cured’ — a significant number of those on the spectrum have started to self-advocate and be proactive in proclaiming its potential.

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