This year, I’m delighted that Chris of Calmgrove, an Arthurian scholar and frequent Witch Week contributor, agreed to give his personal perspective on Arthurian literature, a genre that has sometimes annoyed him with its forays into bad history and bad fiction — but has also given him much pleasure, especially in the more adventurous “freestyle” treatments of the legend that attempt to take us out of our comfort zones. In his survey of some of the 20th century titles he finds worth reading (and a few he doesn’t), he’s named some fascinating-sounding books I’ve never heard of, and I can’t wait to try to track them down. Read on, and see what treasures you will find.
by Chris Lovegrove
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, 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.
First come novels about a historical Arthur. There has been no end of bad retellings of Dark Age Britain, full of anachronisms and false premises, but I have great respect for early exponents of this subgenre, such as Rosemary Sutcliff in her Sword at Sunset (1963) and Henry Treece in The Great Captains (1956). I also liked the latter’s The Green Man (1966), an interesting attempt to meld the barbaric lives of Arthur and the Danish hero Amleth (better known to us as Hamlet). Meanwhile, the legend of the sleeping king is a particularly fecund source for fantasy, for example Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Bringamen (1960), William Mayne’s Earthfasts (1966) and Jane Louise Curry’s The Sleepers (1969). Lest you think I’m stuck in the sixties I should mention a notable freestyle rex futurus in Mike W Barr and Brian Bolland’s graphic novel Camelot 3000 (1982-4) which transposed Arthur and his revived medieval warriors into an SF future.
Merlin frequently gets a wake-up call too. C S Lewis’ science fantasy novel That Hideous Strength (1945, revised 1955) has the redivivus wizard fighting evil forces, while Peter Dickinson’s The Changes Trilogy (1969-70) ascribes disturbances in modern Britain to Merlin himself. Álvaro Cunqueiro’s gentle 1955 novel, translated as Merlin and Company in 1996, sets Merlin in rural Galicia, in a part of Spain with historical links to insular Celtic lands. Like the king, Merlin often gets the speculative fiction treatment, though my memory of Andre Norton’s Merlin’s Mirror (1975) is that the fantasy and the SF didn’t gel too well.
When we come to the Grail treatments of the object become even more imaginative. Arthur Machen’s novella The Great Return (1915) put the relic in an authentically Welsh setting, contrasting with Chuck Dixon’s so-so graphic novel Batman: The Chalice (1999) where the cup is sent to Bruce Wayne’s Gotham City mansion because the playboy is descended from Sir Gawain. Religious associations remained in Charles Williams’ War in Heaven (1930), but by the sixties native paganism had asserted itself, as in Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965) and Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone (also 1965).
I have to say though that my favourites among all this re-envisioning are what I call freestyle treatments. Where to start? I’ll begin with Antal Szerb’s genre-crossing The Pendragon Legend (1934) with its nods to horror, spies, mysteries and the supernatural. Children’s authors are brilliant at riffing with Arthurian elements: take John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk (1927) with its youngster Kay Harker encountering Arthurian characters (or does he?), Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake (1981) set in an alternate history South America, or Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood (1993) and The Merlin Conspiracy (2003), both of which pluck their motifs out of context to create new and original plotlines.
As a general rule I look askance at pretentious novels that include key words like Excalibur and Camelot in their titles; I’m even more sceptical of supposedly factual publications that include the words “the real” or “the truth about” in combination with “Arthur,” king or otherwise. Not only do these “histories” contradict each other, their arguments are usually badly presented; they even fail to invite my willing suspension of disbelief, that defining characteristic of a good piece of fiction. Quite frankly I’d class these all as Bad Fiction.
I’m guessing I’ve omitted your favourite authors and titles in this short survey: apologies to lovers of, for example, T H White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, Bernard Cornwell or Gillian Bradshaw, for example. But if Arthur is to have a future I feel it is one where his triumphs and tragedies aren’t just going to be re-hashed in old familiar forms; in a changing world we need to consider what relevance Arthurian themes have for our planet, our lives and our relationships. And that will inevitably take us out of our comfort zones.
Chris Lovegrove posts photos on My New Shy, micropoetry on Zenrinji and book reviews on Calmgrove. After a career in music education he now has time to lavish on more selfish pursuits like reading and reflecting on books, including those he didn’t take the time over in his youth. He now appreciates Zappa’s heartfelt cry, “So many books, so little time.”
12 thoughts on “Witch Week Day One: Rex Futurus (Guest Post)”
This is wonderful. I especially like the phrase “If Arthur is to have a future…”
Thanks, Jeanne, I feel I’ve only scratched the surface, and that only to leave faint marks, but all those memes surrounding the Arthurian legend suggest to me that they’ve buried themselves deep in our subconscious — whatever our background and culture. Motifs likethe love triangle, the quest for an object or secret, the wise woman or absentminded professor archetypes, or the sleeper awaiting the call to action — they all lurk there, in time’s continuum and in the back of our mind.
Sorry, waxing a bit too lyrical there — comes from a longheld obsession of mine!
This post reads like a syllabus, and I mean that in a good way, Chris! I am on my first and only modern retelling, knowing more about the Arthurian tales from Medieval romances, modern films and other forms of popular culture. So I thank you for helping me to start a new tbr….I think 🙂
I am almost finished with Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and what I really appreciate about it is its lack of fantasy, unless you call her ‘history’ of the times fantasy. It reads like a historical novel of Roman Britain rather than a Medieval fantasy and that is appealing to me. I am glad to read about a different kind of Merlin, instead of the Medieval mage that permeates most of his fictional treatment. I don’t know how he fares in the rest of Stewart’s books, but this Merlin I like.
I’ve only read the crystal cave installment, but you’re right, Laurie, this novel follows the trend then current of trying to imagine what the post-Roman times were like rather than a High Medieval scenario (following Malory’s lead, mostly) that had been al the rage (Steinbeck’s rewriting of Malory could typify that).
Then along came Marion Zimmer Bradley, and the rules changed again …
I don’t know how this gap happened in my reading/education but I have very little knowledge of Arthur (which is why I didn’t volunteer for Witch Week this year). I hope that Chris and I can still be friends after that admission! But I’m glad to have all of these wonderful recommendations to try out. Of these, I’ve only read Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones (of course). Where would you recommend I start?
Of course we can still be friends, Kristen, I don’t expect friends to be nerdy about the all the same subjects as me!
As for recommendations, it’s hard to know where to start. If YA is your bag then Alan Garner’s ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ is fantasy rooted in a real landscape and includes a sleeping king and a wizard; Philip Reeve’s relatively recent novel about Arthur (I forget the precise title) tries to make the legendary aspects of Arthur and Merlin as plausible as possible. Adult? Many have recommended to me — but I’ve yet to read — US author Arthur Phillips’ ‘The Tragedy of Arthur’ which throws the text of a faux Shakespearean play into a modern ‘autobiography’.
I also quite liked Umberto Eco’s ‘Baudolino’ (2002) which sets the Grail (under a different name) in medieval Europe around the time of the later Cruusades. Historical fiction with a twist! The funniest, though unintentionally so, grail story is of course Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ based on a pseudohistory co-authored by a brief acquaintance of mine, and a bigger farrago of historical fantasy and conspiracy theories I’ve yet the misfortune to read and review.
I think I’ll pass on the Dan Brown but will definitely check out some of the others. I think I even had Baudolino around the house for a while but never got to it.
I don’t blame you for passing on Dan Brown, Kristen (though, guiltily, I did find it a giggle) — I wasn’t truly being serious about it!
What a great post, Chris. The only book you’ve mentioned here that I’ve read is Elidor, so you’ve given me lots of ideas for future reading. I have just finished Mary Stewart’s novel about Mordred, The Wicked Day, and enjoyed it – Stewart’s approach appeals to me for the reasons Laurie gives above.
Thank you, Helen, glad I’ve given you food for thought! I never did get further than the first of Stewart’s Arthurian trilogy, though that’s no commentary on her writing, I hasten to add.
So many fun titles to explore! Thanks, Chris. I might have to admit to being a little stuck in the 60s, since I love Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. But of course DWJ is the best.
Of course DWJ is the best, it goes without saying! Have you read the last of the Alan Garner Alderley Edge trilogy Boneland? I never got round to reviewing it, not for want of trying: a profound, deeply personal take updating the Weirdstone and Gomrath storyline to the 21st century. Must revisit it.