Corbels and the Raven King

corbel grotesque
Corbel in the form of a grotesque, Quakers Friars, Broadmead, Bristol

Wandering among Words No 2: Corvid

You will often find them if you glance above you in a medieval church, high up on nave or chancel walls. Corbels are those stone brackets that project from the wall; they were designed to support a cornice, or more often the springing of an arch that rises like a slender tree trunk, curving and sprouting liernes to join other stone ribs so as to form a tracery of slender branches, supporting in their turn the distant vault.

They’re the counterpart of the capitals on freestanding pillars, those stone approximations of mighty trees; the capitals are sometimes plain (like Doric capitals) or abstract (like the ‘eyes’ on Ionic capitals) or even representational (as with the foliage on Corinthian capitals). Romanesque masons had fun carving shapes out of them: amongst them we might observe a grotesque face or an acrobatic exhibitionist, a shiela-na-gig or an angel, maybe even a foliate head or Green Man.

kilpeck corbelThe name however comes via French (corbeau means crow) from the Latin corvellus, a little raven. Supposedly the corbel’s shape resembles a crow, raven or even a beak, but I don’t see it myself; and in a quick scan of my books on Romanesque sculpture and online I’ve come across precious few beaked carvings (Kilpeck church in Herefordshire has one such, a splendid beaked monster).

Be that as it may, the Latin corvus has supplied the collective term for the crow family: corvid. In Britain this family is represented by the raven, the carrion crow, the rook, the chough and the jackdaw — all predominantly black — while the magpie and the jay each have a more motley plumage. All have fascinating stories to tell.

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Beyond superlative

Detail of raven from a print by Alison Fennell: “Constellation Raven”

Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Bloomsbury 2007 (2005)

Here is a homage to Regency literature that surpasses mere pastiche. Here is an alternate history that makes one doubt the history one knows. Here too is a fantasy for those who hate fantasy. Here, in short, is great literature — involving as well as immersive, and above all beautifully written. It certainly deserves its accolades, both public and individual.

This is a story about the revival of English magic in the early 19th century brought about by the foremost magicians of the age. This is also a story about the dangers attached to re-awakening dormant forces that one may not understand, let alone control. All those Arabian Nights stories about the perils of letting the genie out of the bottle or of unwittingly killing the genie’s son by carelessly discarding date stones are reminders that fairy folk and their peers are not to be trifled with unless you know what you’re letting yourself in for. So it proves for Gilbert Norrell and for his pupil Jonathan Strange.

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A Faerie primer

The Three Graces from Botticelli’s Primavera (circa 1482) in the Uffizi, Florence

Susanna Clarke The Ladies of Grace Adieu
Illustrated by Charles Vess
Bloomsbury 2007 (2006)

I have quite a few illustrated reprints of 19th- and early 20th-century folk- and fairy-tale collections on my shelves, some even facsimiles of the originals, and so this collection of short stories by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in many ways seemed familiar. Not only were the Charles Vess illustrations deliberately reminiscent of those of Arthur Rackham and his ilk, but the writing often recalled antiquarian texts with the occasional scholarly footnotes. In fact I was often reminded of the ghost stories of M R James in that they seemed as if written by an earlier avatar of that academic.

Above all, of course, the style was unmistakably that of Susanna Clarke’s own magnificent debut novel with its Regency aesthetic and period spelling — and no worse for that. That this collection has been compared unfavourably with that doorstopper of a fantasy is unfortunate since it should be judged solely as a group of short fictions: as such it is much more successful than many an uneven selection of miscellaneous tales, even those by a single author.

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