A bold but misguided exercise

King Arthur: engraving based on a 1874 photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend
by Rodney Castleden.
Routledge 1999

Rodney Castleden is well known as an investigator into prehistoric enigmas such as the Minoan civilisation, Neolithic Britons and giant hill figures, and has here turned his attention to Arthur. As expected, this is a widely researched book burrowing into scholarly literature, archaeological reports, fringe theories and texts both ancient and modern. There are photos of relevant sites and a generous helping of detailed maps, plans and figures mostly by the author himself (though, disappointingly, three illustrations by the present reviewer are uncredited and unacknowledged) and the whole is attractively laid out. There are a few typos, some of which didn’t seem to have been corrected for the paperback edition, but these don’t detract too much.

After setting the scene Castleden plunges into an examination of the nature of the available early documentation and what is known of the archaeology of post-Roman Britain; he then outlines the historical context before turning his gaze on the man himself, his possible power bases and his disappearance.

It won’t be giving too much away to say that he plumps for a West Country setting for Arthur, but that he places his demise and burial far away from Glastonbury and not at any of the expected sites.

Continue reading “A bold but misguided exercise”

Life of Python

mpfoot

Graham Chapman (Estate), John Cleese, Terry Gilliam,
Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Bob McCabe:
The Pythons’ Autobiography By The Pythons
Orion Books 2005 (2003)

All the Pythons (one from his grave) give a collective account of the career of the owner of one Flying Circus, an account made up of extracts from interviews and extracts from diaries and published memoirs.

The late Graham Chapman is represented by his own surreal recollections and comments from family members and partner, while the rest discourse freely on their early lives, education, university experiences (principally Oxbridge) and occupations as comedy writers, actors and (in the case of Terry Gilliam) cartoonist, before fame, fortune, frustration and infamy beckoned.

Continue reading “Life of Python”

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”

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.

Continue reading “Literary influences”

Regency murders

ratcliffe_poster

P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

Faber & Faber 2010

I deliberately began reading The Maul and the Pear Tree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.

Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.

Continue reading “Regency murders”

Stonehenge’s mythic history

Early print of Stonehenge: the bluestones are the smaller pillars surrounded by the trilithons

Brian John The Bluestone Enigma:
Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age

Greencroft Books 2008

Ancient man didn’t
transport stones hundreds of miles.
And nor did Merlin.

Brian John, who lives in Pembrokeshire (where much of this study is set), has had a long interest in this whole subject area. A Geography graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to obtain a D Phil there for a study of the Ice Age in Wales. Among other occupations he was a field scientist in Antarctica and a Geography Lecturer in Durham University, and is currently a publisher and the author of a number of articles, university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies, tourist guides, titles on local folklore and traditions, plus books from popular science to local jokes. His credentials are self-evident when it comes to discussing Stonehenge.

One of the strongest modern myths about Stonehenge to have taken root is that the less monumental but no less impressive so-called bluestones were physically brought by prehistoric peoples from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Wiltshire. The second strongest modern myth is that the whole saga was somehow remembered over a hundred or more generations to be documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century as a feat of Merlin. In this self-published title Dr John examines these and other myths and finds them wanting in terms of echoing reality. Continue reading “Stonehenge’s mythic history”

No Zeroes here

Willem P Gerritsen, Anthony G van Melle editors
Tanis Guest translator
A Dictionary of Medieval Heroes
Boydell Press 2000

Anglophone Arthurians should from time to time contemplate a different European perspective on the Matter of Britain and its contemporary analogues, and this Dictionary of Medieval Heroes (with the snappy subtitle Characters in Medieval Narrative Traditions and their Afterlife in Literature, Theatre and the Visual Arts) by two Dutch academics gives just such an opportunity. Here we are introduced to such figures as Aiol, Berte aux Grands Pieds, Heimbrecht, Parthonopeus of Blois and Ruodlieb, heroes and heroines certainly previously unfamiliar to this reader but popular with a significant proportion of medieval European readership, featuring in tales that certainly stand comparison with accounts of Arthur, Galahad, Gawain, Merlin or Perceval.

This is a very user-friendly edition for English-speakers: Continue reading “No Zeroes here”

Curious interpretations

arthurtomb

Anne Berthelot
King Arthur: Chivalry and Legend
Arthur et la Table ronde: La force d’une legende  translated by Ruth Sharman
Thames and Hudson 1997 (1996)

First published by Gallimard in 1996, this English version is part of Thames and Hudson’s New Horizons series and follows a similar format: a well-illustrated chronological survey of the chosen subject, followed by extracts from select documents, bibliography, credits and index. The author was Professor of Medieval French Literature — and now of French & Medieval Studies — at the University of Connecticut (does that make her a Connecticut Frank at the court of King Arthur, perhaps?) and so her discussion of developments in Arthurian literature, from Wace and Layamon up to 20th-century cinema, is authoritative and thought-provoking. For instance, she clearly charts how the Matter of Britain moved from chronicle format to poetry(eg Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace’s Brut) and then back to chronicle style, and how this reflected shifts in taste from pseudohistory to the flowering of chivalry and courtly love and then returning to the burgeoning nationalistic stance in England, as evidenced by Malory.

It is when she deals with the historical context of the legend, however, that we get some curious interpretations. Continue reading “Curious interpretations”

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”

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”

Middle Earth Ring Cycles

Ralph-Bakshi-Lord-of-the-Rings
Ralph Bakshi’s ‘JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings’

Jim Smith and J Clive Matthews
The Lord of the Rings:
the Films, the Books, the Radio Series

Virgin Books 2004

In the words of the authors, this study is “an attempt to examine the process(es) whereby Tolkien’s books have been adapted into performed drama”. By Tolkien’s books they mean principally The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; by performed drama they mean films and radio plays, though passing reference is given to Donald Swann’s song cycle The Road Goes Ever On, Leonard Nimoy’s curiosity The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins and other more or less ephemeral items selected by the authors, even if such a selection can never be comprehensive. Continue reading “Middle Earth Ring Cycles”

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”

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.

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.)

#xmasfyafilm @twitter

mantle shelf
Deck the Annie Hall with …

The hashtag #xmasfyafilm has been producing a rash of proposed seasonal re-makes of films on Twitter. Below are some of my favourites so far (asterisked entries are ones I’ve posted); I’m grateful to Sari Nichols for drawing my attention to these — the last, but not least, entry is hers. Continue reading “#xmasfyafilm @twitter”