From the Archives: A Guide to Blackstock College

Throwback Thursday is a feature of my new blog, Entering the Enchanted Castle, that allows me to take a look back at some of my favorite posts from past years on ECBR. This week I’m linking up one of my most popular posts, which was also one of the most fun to write — for reasons I think will become clear as you read on. This post originally appeared on October 31, 2015, as the kick-off post of Witch Week.

TamLinIn Tam Lin, Pamela Dean takes her college experience and mixes it with elements of the well-known sixteenth-century ballad about a young man entrapped by the Fairy Queen, who is then rescued by his mortal lover from becoming a Halloween sacrifice. It’s a wonderful novel about that time between adolescence and adulthood when the world opens up, revealing both its promise and its dangers. It’s about love and friendship and books and learning and life, and how they all intertwine in the process of growing up.

Because I attended the same school as the author — Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota — every time I reread Tam Lin I find a special pleasure in identifying and imagining the buildings, landscapes, and events that are so lovingly described in its pages. Dean says in a note that “Blackstock is not Carleton,” but really, it’s pretty darn close. For those who don’t have the advantage of having been there in person, here is a guide to help you visualize some of the geography I know and love so well.

As we approached the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication and my own graduation in 1991, it was interesting to note how much the Carleton campus has changed in that time — far more than it had changed since the setting of Tam Lin in the early seventies, which on my first reading seemed like the remote past. The core remains, though, and if you stroll the campus with book in hand you’ll still recognize much of it.

In any case, if you ever do have the chance to go to Carleton, whether for a day, a term, or the whole four years, take it. Even if the fairy queen doesn’t actually ride through the Arb on All Hallows Eve, it truly is a magical place.

Heartfelt thanks are due to Matt Ryan, Carleton’s Associate Director of Web Communications, and to the Carleton Archives for their help with obtaining the images in this post. For requests to use these images elsewhere, please contact the College.

BlackstockCampusMapA map showing the “Blackstock” names for Carleton buildings that existed in the mid 1970s, when Tam Lin is set. Keep in mind that some sizes and distances have been changed in the book, and some buildings eliminated.

Major Locations

In the text the Blackstock name is given first, and then the Carleton name (if different) in italics. Attentive readers will note that the name-pairs often have some obvious relationship — e.g. Watson becomes Holmes. I’d be grateful to anyone who can cast light on the more obscure ones (Dunbar? Murchison?).

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Ericson Hall (Nourse Hall)
Janet, our heroine, lives here with her two roommates during her freshman and senior years, having a distinct prejudice in favor of the old-fashioned style of dormitory. I liked it too, when I lived there as a freshman. There really is a Little Theater in the basement, scene of a highly charged production of The Revengers’ Tragedy in the book and of countless student productions through the years in real life. I never heard of any ghosts, though.

Eliot Hall (Evans Hall)
Janet and her friends live here during her sophomore and junior years, in Column A — the building’s oddity being that it is arranged in vertical columns rather than horizontal floors to reduce noise. In its Carleton incarnation, this unfortunately also did away with much of the floor-based socializing that sustains student life, and so it was remodeled some years ago to a more conventional floor plan. Eliot/Evans also housed Janet’s and my favorite dining hall, where one could enjoy the view across Bell Field without having to trudge all the way to the edge of campus (see Dunbar, below). Alas, that too is gone, replaced by a more central, modern facility. Still remaining is the Cave, the student hangout in the basement where Thomas (the Tam Lin character) drowns his sorrows in weak beer.

Dunbar Hall (Goodhue Hall)
Janet’s second-favorite dining hall is here, with even more spectacular view thanks to its floor-to-ceiling windows, but lower popularity due to its distance from the center of campus. That’s gone too, repurposed into an enormous “superlounge.” Proximity to the Arboretum makes it a good choice for outdoorsy types, and Janet spends a lot of time going back and forth over the bridge that links it to the main campus (as do many of the more unsavory characters).

Masters Hall (Laird Hall)
Home of the English department in Janet’s time and mine, this former science building is a proud edifice facing the center of campus, with a lofty, high-ceilinged interior. She happily spends many hours here delving into the treasures of English literature, as did I. The warren of temporary buildings behind Masters/Laird where Janet has to hunt for her advisor either never existed at Carleton or was gone before I got there, though “Laird Annex” was a computer lab where I printed out my papers using the college computers.

Library (Laurence Gould Library)
Also known as the Libe, due to the Carleton/Blackstock penchant for abbreviating everything. Janet first encounters Thomas in the stacks here, seeks clues to the identity of the Ericson ghost in the archives, and finds peace in its “padded rooms” for studying. Because it’s built into a hill, it’s much bigger than it appears from its front elevation.

Chester Hall (Old Music Hall)
In her most obvious deviation from actual Carleton architecture, Dean makes the comely but rather petite old Music building into a looming, menacing supernatural presence of considerable grandeur. I do remember a listening room and music library, but not a marble-floored hall suitable for roller skating. A significant event takes place in one of the practice rooms, but I can’t say whether that is based in reality or not.

To my loss, I never spent much time in this enormous natural preserve during my time at Carleton. Janet is wiser, and as a Blackstock faculty child she has a longstanding knowledge of its byways. Her first romantic encounter takes place here, as well as meetings of the more supernatural variety. It’s a good place to locate your fairy court, if it’s going to be attached to a midwestern college.

Janet made a ceremonial stop in the middle of the bridge. She knew this stream in all its manifestations, from cracked mud set about with slimy green rocks to the foaming mass that covered the knees of the trees and lapped at the concrete wall that separated the parking  area from the woods. Today it was about midway between those two. All the rocks were covered, and the grass that overhung the banks like combed hair drifted sideways in a mild brown current. The air was full of dusty sunlight and a slow fall of yellow elm leaves. The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, thought Janet, recalling favorite poems with a pleasurable melancholy. — Tam Lin, pp. 46-47

Minor Locations

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Taylor Hall (Burton Hall) – Janet dislikes the dungeon-like dining hall in the basement of this dormitory on the far west side of campus, which causes a rather sticky situation when she ends up uncharacteristically going there one day.

Womens Center (Cowling Gymnasium) – Site of Janet’s freshman fencing class, this smallish gym is in convenient proximity to the East side dorms where she lives.

Murchison Hall (Musser Hall), Forbes Hall (Myers Hall), and Holmes Hall (Watson Hall) – These modern dormitories get short shrift in Janet’s book, but I lived in two of them and they weren’t so bad. I was definitely glad I never had to live in Musser, though.

Appleton Hall (Boliou Hall) – The building where Janet has her first Greek class is a pleasant place to study art and art history. The fountain in front tempts Carleton students to splash in it on hot summer days.

Olin Hall – The science building that looks like a radiator doesn’t even get its own Blackstock name. It does have an open-air auditorium nearby, though, suitable for impromptu performances by Music and Drama majors.

Observatory (Goodsell Observatory) – This historic building is one of the gems of the Blackstock/Carleton campus. Janet takes astronomy just so she can learn to use the telescope, an aim with which I sympathize.

Student Union (Willis Hall) – In Janet’s time, the student union is crammed into this tiny old building with an iconic clock tower. At Carleton this function was eventually to be taken on by the repurposed Sayles-Hill Gymnasium (see Room Draw, below).

Sterne Hall (Severance Hall) – This attractive dormitory also boasts a “Tea Room” in the basement where Janet and Thomas buy greasy french fries. In my time this was just another dining hall, but we still called it the Tea Room.

Music and Drama Center – Janet frequently walks past this much-maligned modern construction but oddly never sets foot inside it, in spite of her love of music and drama.

Chapel – Janet also admires this lovely building from a distance but never goes inside, even though she must have done so at some point. At Carleton, weekly convocation gatherings in the chapel are a longstanding tradition; once they had a religious element but this has been replaced by secular lectures and presentations. Janet mentions Convocation exactly once.

She looked out the window in time to catch the best view of Blackstock, as the bus climbed the hill that led them out of the river valley the town was built in. The buildings between which she ran and bicycled and trudged laden down with books made one tight cluster, the chapel tower, the brick battlements of Taylor, the black glittering clock tower of the Student Union, the brick stack of the heating plant and the mellow sandstone of the Anthro building crammed in the center of a circle of trees, green and red and yellow. You could have put the whole thing in your pocket. — Tam Lin, pp. 138-139


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The Tunnels – The steam tunnels that so conveniently linked many buildings on the East side of campus were closed due to safety concerns after my freshman year. I don’t remember seeing Homer in Greek on the wall, but there’s a lot of other amazing graffiti down there, including a reproduction of Tenniel’s Jabberwocky, a Twister board, and the yellow brick road.

The Town (Northfield) – Janet and her friends go downtown to buy bedspreads, eat sandwiches at a diner, and pick each other up from the bus — all typical activities for students needing to get off campus for a while.

The Old Theater (Old Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis) – The theater where Janet and Thomas go to attend highly meaningful performances of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Lady’s Not For Burning was demolished in 2006, replaced by a new waterfront complex. (I’m not sure why Dean already called it the Old Theater in 1991 though. Did she have some inside information?) This article from NPR gives some historical background, along with interior and exterior photos of the theater. It also includes shots from the first and last plays to be performed on its stage: both productions of Hamlet, appropriately enough.

Schiller – In a significant early scene, Janet gets involved in a pitched battle over the bust of the German poet, which is jealously guarded by groups of students who try to steal it from one another while also making dramatic appearances at public events. Yes, this really does happen at Carleton, and there are more wacky stories about it than you can shake a stick at. The idea is to keep things fun, clever, and nonviolent, which is Carleton in a nutshell.

Room Draw – The dormitories at Carleton (and presumably Blackstock as well) are mixed, without designated dorms for upperclassmen. Rooms are assigned via a quota system, whereby in the spring each student draws a random number that allows him or her a place in line to choose from remaining rooms. Janet and her friend Molly both draw extremely low numbers for their sophomore room, which is why they are so glad that their third roommate Tina is still willing to stick with them even with a high number that might have given her a chance at a single. At Blackstock room draw and registration take place in the old gymnasium, which by my time at Carleton had been made into the new campus center.

Traying – The temptation to take trays from the dining halls and use them to sled down Bell Hill is something few Blackstock/Carleton students can resist, and Janet and Thomas are no exception.

They had made the bottom of the slide properly: instead of stopping abruptly in the hollow made by everybody’s stamping feet, the tray skimmed halfway across the huge expanse of Bell Field, slowed, and slowed, and stopped somewhere in the middle. The setting sun lined the bare branches of the trees across the stream with gold, but down here there was a blue and gray twilight. — Tam Lin, p. 285

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of the Blackstock/Carleton campus, and that if you don’t know it through either its fictional or real-life incarnations, it’s intrigued you enough to take a look!

Witch Week Day Seven: Wrap-up and 2018 Announcement

It’s been another wonderful Witch Week, and I’d like to thank everybody who made it possible: Chris, Laurie, and Katie for three fascinating guest posts; Tachyon Publications for a fabulous giveaway; and everyone who posted, linked up, and commented. You are the best!

Regarding next year, I’m sad but also somewhat relieved to say that I’ve decided not to host this event in 2018. This has become an increasingly busy time of year for me both at work and at home, and when the excitement of hosting a blog event starts to morph into dread, I think it’s time to stop.

However, I will cherish the memories of the last four years, with all the blogging connections I have made, the books we’ve read, and the fun we’ve had together. Being able to do something like this was one of the major reasons I wanted to start a blog, and from my point of view it’s been a smashing success.

For the record, here are the links for all the Master Posts from each year. If you haven’t already, do have a look through for a rich and inspiring exploration of the many faces of fantasy literature.

Thanks again to all of you for sharing this event with me, and I look forward to more reading adventures.

Witch Week Day Five: The Discovery of King Arthur (Guest Post)

Another blogger who responded to my call for Witch Week posts was Katie of Doing Dewey, who reads and reviews all kinds of books but has a particular love for nonfiction. Along with posting several book reviews from various genres every week she runs a weekly feature, Nonfiction Friday, where you can get the latest nonfiction news, share your posts about nonfiction books, and find other readers who love nonfiction. Katie is also one of my fellow co-hosts for Nonfiction November, currently taking place this month.

She offered to review The Discovery of King Arthur by Geoffrey Ashe (first published in 1985), and though she can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, it does sound like it contains many fascinating facts that invite further exploration. Read on for an intriguing preview…


The Discovery of King Arthur

By Katie Wilkins

The Arthur legend has captivated people since at least the middle ages and continues to fascinate us today. From new bookish retellings to TV shows, this is a story people tell again and again. In The Discovery of King Arthur, historian Geoffrey Ashe explores the possibility that a historical figure inspired the myth and considers what cultural factors give this myth its enduring appeal.

For me, the experience of reading this book was hit or miss — 3 of 5 stars. Sometimes the author would share a relevant snippet of history, told in narrative form. Those bits could be extremely entertaining. They read like a story and often contained delightful, absurd anecdotes that made me laugh. Other parts that focused on the dissection of old texts were too dry for me. I’d definitely not recommend this book as a first experience with nonfiction, for fear it might put people off the genre. However, if you’re willing to persevere through some dry sections to learn more about an intriguing topic, this could be the book for you.

To give you an idea of what you might expect, I’ll leave you with some of the fun facts that stuck with me from this book. No spoilers on the answer to the question of Arthur’s basis in reality 🙂

  • The same text that is the source of many key parts of the Arthur myth also inspired Shakespeare’s Lear
  • Vortigern, a villain of the Arthurian legend, did have some roots in history, although Vortigern was not a name. Rather, it is Celtic for “overking”
  • The author suggests that the Arthur legend was born out of a 5th century hope for a “world restorer’, someone who would rebuild the empire. This constant hope led one poet to write hyperbolic paeans to no fewer than 3 emperors he thought were ‘the one’ in his lifetime.
  • One of the sources referenced by the main text this book analyzes was written by a monk who wrote a little bit about history, but was mostly just grumpy about how politicians in his day were ruining everything.
  • Scholars were debating when/if Arthur lived as early as the 13th century
  • Some authors, such as T.H. White, opposed the search for a historical basis for the Arthur myth on the grounds that it would reduce a great story to a disappointing reality

And there’s more where that came from, so if you enjoyed those tidbits, consider picking up The Discovery of King Arthur to learn more!

Katie’s blog bio says, “I love reading in every genre, but my favorites lately have been nonfiction, historical fiction, and literary fiction. I’m particularly passionate about nonfiction because I feel like the genre doesn’t get enough love from readers, even though there are nonfiction books to suit any interest. When I’m not blogging, you’ll find me playing computer games with friends, going on hikes, working as a computational biologist, and doing photography.”

Witch Week Day Four: A Gallery of Arthurian Art

With so many magical and dramatic characters and scenes to explore, the Arthurian legend has long been a rich source of inspiration for artists and illustrators. To complement our literary studies, I thought it would be fun this year to look at some pictures as well. Here are a few images that caught my eye, all drawn from The Camelot Project, a great resource for anyone interested in the subject.


Arthur Rackham – How a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal


H.J. Ford – Excalibur Returns to the Mere


The High Mysterious Call – Willy Pogany


Julia Margaret Cameron – Vivien Enchants Merlin


He gave him such a buffet on the helm – W. Russell Flint


Max Harshberger – Tristan Harping


Aubrey Beardsley – How Four Queens Found Launcelot Sleeping


Edward Burne-Jones – The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon


Gustave Dore – The Enchanter and His Book


William Holman Hunt – The Lady of Shalott

Do you have favorite Arthurian artists or works of art? Please share them in the comments!

Witch Week Day Three: In Search of the Round Table (Guest Post)

When I put out a call for bloggers interested in writing a post on an Arthurian topic, Laurie from Relevant Obscurity responded saying she’d be interested in looking into the lore of the Round Table. It sounded like a terrific idea, and so it proved to be — she came up with a wealth of fascinating information about history and legend that certainly makes me think about the this seemingly prosaic object in a different way. Enjoy!


In Search of the Round Table

by Laurie Welch

Several months ago I came across an article about a group of researchers in England who were researching the Round Table of King Arthur. They claimed the Table might not have been a table at all, but instead an amphitheater abandoned by the Romans in the city of Chester. Still round and with circular seating, but not a table.

What I found was the Round Table, like all of the stories of King Arthur and Camelot, has its origins in myth, magic, religion, literature and speculative history. It is described in many ways and has associations with such diverse people and events as Merlin, the Last Supper and the court of Charlemagne!

Round Table Basics

The Round Table is first mentioned by the 12th century chronicler Wace, in Roman de Brut, which asserts the round shape prevents quarrels among the knights so no one can proclaim himself more important than another. When compared to a square table, there is a ‘head’ and seating descending further in order of importance.

In Sir Thomas Malory’s 14th century, Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin conjures the Round Table to reflect the shape of the world and the diversity of its inhabitants. Many writers use a word like ‘democratic’ to describe the equality among the knights and how the round shape of the Table supports this Arthurian knightly value.

The Siege Perilous or Perilous Seat is the empty seat set aside for the most pure of knights or the one who discovers the Holy Grail.

The shape of the Table corresponds to traditional Christian imagery that Jesus and the Apostles sat a circular table at the Last Supper.

The seating capacity of the Round Table varies from 52 to 1600, depending on the source.

Archaeological Sources

Scattered throughout Britain are numerous sites called King Arthur’s Round Table. They appear as henges (Neolithic stone circles) and amphitheaters.

The town of Caerleon in Wales was once the site of a Roman fortress, but it is so well-known in Arthurian tales if Camelot existed some say this would be its capital. It is tantalizing to imagine King Arthur and the knights planning and feasting away in the grassy oval area known as King Arthur’s Round Table!

So here we see the earliest examples of the Round Table as outdoor round stone structures, or round areas natural to the landscape. Maybe the researchers are right?

Literary Sources

Irish tales describe Celtic warriors meeting in circles to prevent fights of primacy. Wace may have known of these stories, but he certainly would have been aware of the biographies of Charlemagne that mention his round table decorated with a map of Rome. Whatever the source, Wace makes it clear that Arthur was conscious of a need for parity among his nobles and knights to prevent conflict.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin creates the Round Table and gives it to Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father. At his death it is passed to Guenever’s father King Leodegrance, who gives it to Arthur at their marriage with a complimentary 150 knights. “I shall give him the Table Round, which Uther Pendragon gave me, and when it is complete, there is an hundred knights and fifty.” The fact that both of their fathers were in possession of the fabled table is an interesting twist. Is this a symbol of the legitimacy of the union of the two houses?

The poet Layamon in his early 13th century work, Brut, an adapted version of Wace’s work written in Middle English, describes a great quarrel among the knights at a Yuletide feast which led to the construction of an enormous round table to keep the peace among equals. It is intriguing to note in light of the large amount of knights mentioned in the sources, the Cornish carpenter who made this table made it transportable!

Literary accounts of the Round Table differ on its size according to which author is describing it. I am assuming, though perhaps wrongly, that the number 1600 is a way to say there are “a lot of knights.” But if the researchers are correct about the Round Table being an amphitheater, then this number has some basis in truth.

The Siege Perilous

 In each literary iteration of the Round Table, there is a special seat designated for an unnamed knight. The French poet, Robert de Boron, in a late 12th century work called, Didot-Perceval says Merlin reserves the seat for the knight who finds the Holy Grail and because the seat can tell who is in it, anyone else will be swallowed up by the earth. Other sources say Jesus designates the seat for Joseph of Arimathea when he is given charge of the Christian community at his death.

Legends have Merlin setting aside this seat for the one true and pure knight. In other stories, the seat is designated specifically first for Perceval, then later for Sir Galahad. All stories make it clear, however, that to sit in this seat without proper sanction, is fatal.

The Last Supper and the Holy Grail

In Robert de Boron’s other Arthurian tale, Merlin, written in the 1190s, Merlin creates the Round Table in imitation of the Last Supper and of Joseph of Arimathea’s Holy Grail table. At this table, there is seating for only 12 with an additional empty one to mark Judas’s seat.

The 13th century Old French, La Queste del Saint Graal, shows Merlin’s creation of the Round Table meaning more than that of a table. The Round Table refers to the knights themselves, the flesh and blood men in all their variety devoted to Arthur:

“The table is called the Round Table because it symbolizes rightfully the whole world. For you can also see that the knights come to that Table from every land where chivalry is practiced, be it Christian or pagan practice. And when God has granted them the right to be a companion of the Round Table, they consider themselves more honored than if they had conquered the whole world.”

The notion of Christians and non-Christians in brotherhood at this time is remarkable.

Finally, in the Didot-Perceval, a supernatural connection exists between the Round Table, the table where Jesus holds the Last Supper, and the table on which Joseph of Arimathea places the Holy Grail. Together they symbolize the Trinity.

Round Tables in History and Popular Culture

In the Middle Ages ‘Round Tables’ were events of entertainment produced throughout Europe in imitation of Arthur’s court, with those attending taking on the personae of the knights and ladies that made up the original Round Table nobility. The events mimicked the court of Camelot and featured dancing, jousting and feasting.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the classic and heroic values associated with the court at Camelot were seen as ideals for a boys’ organization. Called the Knights of King Arthur, the roundness of Arthur’s table reflected the ethics of equality and democracy made concrete.

In the present day, we keep alive the Round Table and its principles of democracy and dialogue when we have ‘round table discussions,’ with the understanding that each participant has the right to speak and will get equal time to present their point. We use this phrase and its concepts even if the actual table is not round, as in ‘round table talks.’


My post is by no means exhaustive. There are centuries’ worth of legends and stories of King Arthur, his knights and their exploits; over a millennium if you count the archaeological sites. And an almost equal amount of interpretation. It is certain there will always be new discoveries by researchers, archaeologists, historians and others who will whet our appetite on the location of Camelot, the many quests of Arthur and his knights and certainly in the mysteries of the Round Table.

As we go through Witch Week, please let me know in the comments below what other mentions and configurations of the Round Table you have found in your readings.


Historians locate King Arthur’s Round Table

Ashe, Geoffrey. King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.

Biddle, Martin. King Arthur’s Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation. UK: The Boydell Press, 2000.

de Briel, Henri, and Manuel Herrmann. King Arthur’s Knights and the Myths of the Round Table: A New Approach to the French Lancelot in Prose. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck, 1972.

How to Set Up a Knights of King Arthur for Boys, 1915

The literary works can be found online:

Robert Wace, Roman de Brut

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

Layamon, Brut

Robert de Boron, Dido-Perceval and Merlin

Author unknown, La Queste del Saint Graal

In her blog bio, Laurie says, “I love old books, especially the classics of 19th and early 20th century Britain and the US…I live in Huntington Beach, California with my trusty canine companion, Jess. I love to ride along the Santa Ana River snapping photos of the waterbirds along the way and trail walk in the nearby mountains. I am a Sunday drive enthusiast, an old movies maven and a vegan gastronome reveling in the diverse cuisines of Southern California.”

Witch Week Day Two: Giveaway Day

This year, I’m excited to present a double giveaway — two books, in two different formats, thanks to Tachyon Publications.

The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen, due to be released next week, is a master storyteller’s riff on various well-known tales including The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and of course the Arthurian legend. Three Arthurian stories are included, of which my favorite is the novella Evian Steel, a striking re-imagining of the forging of Arthur’s sword in connection with the power of women’s magic. If only Yolen had been able to fulfill her intention of making this the central portion of a novel … perhaps one day she will?

A new introduction by Holly Black gives a tribute to Yolen by the next generation of fantasy writers, and each story has an endnote about its creation and original publication, paired with a thematically related poem — quite a unique feature!

As if this weren’t enough, the lucky winner will also receive a copy of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, a fantasy classic in a lovely new edition (click on the link for my recent review).

To enter to win one of each of these magical books, please use the Rafflecopter widgets below, with options for paperback copies (US only) and e-book versions (International).

US entrants may enter both giveaways but cannot win both. The winner for the paperback giveaway will be drawn first, and will be disqualified for the e-book giveaway.

Good luck!


a Rafflecopter giveaway

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Witch Week Day One: Rex Futurus (Guest Post)

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.


Rex Futurus

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.”

What are your favorite Arthurian books? (with readalong poll)

As Witch Week 2017 approaches, with this year’s theme of Dreams of Arthur, I want to ask for recommendations of your favorite Arthurian literature. Whether ballad or epic poem, fantasy or historical fiction, humorous or tragic, what version of the legend of Arthur and his knights has caught your imagination? Which authors have you found most successful at transforming it into something new and original?

In my own reading life The Dark Is Rising series made a strong impression on me as a child, though the Arthurian legend is not really in the foreground. The character of Merriman Lyon (Merlin) definitely stood out for me, as a figure of mystery and magic, along with the highly atmospheric, historically rich settings in England and Wales.

A very different version of Merlin is found in The Once and Future King. I loved it as a child as well, but recently I tried to reread it and couldn’t get much past The Sword in the Stone (which was still wonderful). Anyone else have this experience?

Historical novelists continue to ring changes on the legend, bringing it into a more realistic mode. Stewart’s Merlin series, starting with The Crystal Cave gives a rational explanation for much of the magic in the tales; and Elizabeth Wein’s alternative view of Arthur’s family, particularly Mordred (no Merlin in this version) goes into a very unusual direction in The Winter Prince and its sequels.

Glimpses of Arthur can be found even in more contemporary settings, as in The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies, which centers around the rediscovery of an Arthurian opera by Henry Purcell, and the intrusion of its age-old themes into a modern Canadian university. In his 1930 “supernatural thriller” War in Heaven, Charles Williams places a search for the Grail in a small English parish and surrounds it with a bizarre mixture of good and evil characters.

From the acerbic satire of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which skewers both the romanticized past and the prosaic present, to the mind-bending fantasy of Diana Wynne Jones’s Hexwood, in which other worlds collide with our own — truly, this is a legend that can fit seemingly any number of interpretations.

What else should be on our reading list this year? From October 31 to November 6, all are welcome to post about the theme and link up here at ECBR, or just visit to see what others are reading and writing about. As in previous years, November 5 is readalong day — please vote in the poll below to determine what book we should read together. I’m listing several titles I personally have not read and would like to, but feel free to add others using the write-in option.

Thanks for your suggestions!



Witch Week 2016: Wrap-up and Preview

It’s been another amazing Witch Week here at ECBR! Once again, I’d like to thank the many people who made it possible:

And YOU, for your interest and support. Whether you were an old friend or a new visitor, I’m so glad you could join us.

witch-week-2017-3As usual, I’m already looking forward to next year…and I’ve selected the theme Dreams of Arthur, to focus on the many different ways fantasy and historical fiction writers have engaged with the Arthurian mythos. From Susan Cooper to Elizabeth Wein, T.H. White to Mary Stewart, so many of my formative reading experiences have been spent with these stories. What would you like to read from this genre? Do you have any favorites to recommend? What questions or topics would you be interested in discussing?

I hope you’ll share your feedback about this year, as well as any suggestions for the next, in the comments. Till next Halloween, I wish you a year of magical reading!

Witch Week Day Three: Giveaway Day

WITCH WEEK 2016-200

What would Witch Week be without a great giveaway? This year, I have two fabulous sets of books that you can enter to win, all in keeping with the Made in America theme. And one giveaway is international – so read on!

US entrants can win three gorgeous hardcovers from some of the most exciting new voices in American fantasy and science fiction: Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, a variation on Tam Lin set in a New Hampshire artists’ colony; All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, in which a scientific genius and a magical prodigy get together in San Francisco to save the world; and Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente, an alternate-history space-opera mystery that takes us from Hollywood to the moon, and beyond.



And everyone, regardless of location, can enter to win a set of three e-books from the sublimely quirky New England publisher Small Beer Press: Stranger Things Happen by the modern queen of weird stories, Kelly Link; The Fires Beneath the Sea by Lydia Millet, first in a trilogy of Cape Cod environmental fantasies; and Couch by Benjamin Parzybok, about a magical piece of furniture in Portland, Oregon (where else?) These e-books are DRM-free, and will be sent in your choice of EPUB or MOBI format.


Use the two separate Rafflecopter widgets below to enter. You can enter either or both, as determined by your geographical location. Good luck!

For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

a Rafflecopter giveaway