Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Below are some thoughts on the Arthurian legends. Kevin Crossley Holland’s Seeing Stone trilogy (The Seeing Stone, At the Crossing Places and King of the Middlemarch) is the retelling that has excited me most in recent years. These books are full of poetry and horror, optimism and despair. They are steeped in history but never lose sight of individual humanity.
The legends of King Arthur began as oral story telling. The King may or may not have actually existed, but his lifespan as a legendary leader seems unquenchable. Fourth Century bards began to develop the stories through verse and song, each teller taking up the tale, and adding something of their own. That process of telling and retelling continues to this day.
I have a battered copy of a book called The Adventures of King Arthur, by Eleanor C. Price. It is one of those old pre-war children’s books with cardboard covers and a canvas spine, the yellowing pages soft and thick as blotting paper. There are illustrations; six colour plates, printed on shiny white paper, which made it easier to pick them out when flicking through the book. The pictures show ruddy-faced knights in full armour, riding or battling across green fields and forests, typical British countryside, beneath a sky that threatens rain. They have titles such as “Sir Beaumains smote the other on the helm” and “‘Knight, thou hast done thyself great folly’”. On the frontispiece my grandmother has written “To David, with love from Mummie, Xmas 1933.” David is my dad. The book found its way onto my bookshelves when I was a boy, and I added my own name, in a vast, pencil scrawl, by way, I suppose, of cementing my claim to second-generation ownership. The text is dense and very far from an easy read. It contains passages such as “ ‘Alas,’ she said, ‘thou weenest thou hast done doughtily, but that is not so.’” I only ever looked at the pictures, which captivated me, utterly. I recently asked my dad about the book.
Me - “Did you ever actually read it, when you were a boy?”
Dad - “No, I just looked at the pictures.”
Nevertheless, he knew the stories well, and it was he who told me them first, extemporising the tale of the sword grasped by a ghostly hand emerging from the lake. He took me to see the Disney version of The Sword In The Stone, and the film of the King Arthur musical (!) Camelot, with Richard Harris in the role of the king. More retellings. As a teenager I read T. H.White’s The Once and Future King, at the recommendation of my older sister Pat, and, in the school library I was excited to discover a book called Sword at Sunset, by Rosemary Sutcliff, which was the first time I encountered an attempt to tell the story of Arthur as if he were a real Fourth Century Romo-British war leader, putting the Saxons to flight at Baden Hill. This retelling is currently out of print but can be picked up second hand.
My interest in the King Arthur legends has continued into adulthood. The stories seem to stand infinite retellings. There is, of course, a troubling strand of medieval misogyny that runs through the tales (e.g. the innate passivity of female characters like Guinivere and Elaine, and the wickedness of Margawse and Morgan, and the way their infidelities are seen as tools of destruction, and how the men involved are exonerated of all blame etc.). But even this flaw can be seized upon and turned around, as in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Forest House series, an achievement that reveals such pernicious details as, to some extent, mere impostors.
Michael Morpugo makes a good job of distilling the mighty sweep of the legends into one book, Arthur, High King of Britain. If you can find it, a slim volume called Tales of Arthur by John Matthews and Bob Stewart is also very good, presenting versions of the stories as they might have first been told, sixteen hundred years ago.
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