Two societies, two cultures, two lives


Kevin Crossley-Holland Arthur: the Seeing Stone Orion Publishing 2001 (2000)

If you haven’t read this then you may be in for a treat. Following its publication in hardback it deservedly won the Smarties Prize bronze medal and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 2001. Everything that the reviewers quoted at the front of the paperback say is spot on. So why the accolades?

This Arthur is living in the Welsh Marches as the 12th century turns into the thirteenth. His life is paralleled by the young Arthur of legend, Continue reading “Two societies, two cultures, two lives”

Ripping yarn, religious myth

Edward Reginald Frampton The Passage of the Holy Grail to Sarras

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 quintessential hero

robinhoodRonan Coghlan
The Robin Hood Companion
Xiphos Books 2003

Along with King Arthur there was a flurry of interest about a decade ago in Robin Hood, another quintessential hero of insular tradition that has, as far as popular culture goes, transplanted abroad rather well. But though it may superficially appear that Robin, Marian, Little john and Friar Tuck complement the figures of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin, there really is no fit.

However, this thoroughly researched volume — which includes a delightfully idiosyncratic A-Z dictionary reflecting the legend’s broad chronological spectrum, a useful bibliography and a modern rendition of A Little Gest of Robin Hood — provides plenty of excuses for the amateur cultural historian to dip into its pages. Modern novelised, filmed and televised versions of Robin’s legends even draw in Arthur, Merlin and the Round Table, for a start. The origins of the outlaw, like the once and future king, are shrouded by uncertainty, a state of affairs which has not stopped but indeed encouraged numerous imaginative hypotheses, some of which are detailed here. (One of my favourites, though not noted by Coghlan, is that our hero’s name derives from Ra-Benu, the phoenix form of the Egyptian god Ra.) And the mystery surrounding Robin’s death and burial place is not a little reminiscent of Arthur.

This vademecum is a delight to peruse, taking the reader into the byways of the embellished legend. Popular culture is especially explored — TV, comics, fiction, folklore as well as ‘fakelore’ — showing that the stories continue to evolve. Ronan Coghlan’s Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends itself successfully metamorphosed into a popular illustrated edition; sadly the same hasn’t happened for this self-published title. As an broad introduction to Robin Hood this is very good, but for more detailed scholarly analysis of the origins of the legends I prefer the classic The Outlaws of Medieval Legend by Maurice Keen or J C Holt’s Robin Hood.