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Review: Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

Worlds of ArthurWorlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you read one ‘historical King Arthur book’, make it this one. Halsall gives us the lay of the land, providing sophisticated analysis of what little documentary evidence exists for ‘Arthur’ as well as thorough discussions of the archaeology of late and post-Roman Britain. I admit that, since archaeology is not my strong suit, I do not always follow the arguments in that regard (in fact, sometimes I skim them by accident, which doesn’t help), but when I could keep the details about the different types of artefacts in my mind, the archaeological portions seemed sound and plausible, even if not the only available solution.

That last sentence is why I doubt very few people of this book’s target audience — non-academic readers who like King Arthur — will find this book satisfying. The history of post-Roman Britain is extremely poorly documented, and what few documents we do have (Gildas, Bede, welsh Annals, ‘Nennius’, the Life of Germanus of Auxerre) can provide different reconstructions of events. Archaeology, of course, is very much a matter of the most plausible vision of the given material. Those who want to sit down and read a book that tells the story of a Romano-British warlord fighting Anglo-Saxons will be sorely disappointed.

Instead, what Halsall gives us is actually more exciting and interesting. This whole book is, in fact, a good entry into the history and archaeology of late and post-Roman Britain through the sources themselves. Most of what is discussed is, properly speaking, historiography — how we know (or don’t know) what history says. First, Halsall gives us the traditional account of Arthur and post-Roman Britain as based upon our textual sources. I was pleased and interested to know that the ‘Paschal chronicle’ that Elizabeth Jenkins mentions in The Mystery of King Arthur is actually the Welsh Annals and not a paschal chronicle of any sort; Jenkins was working from older historiographical assumptions about the origins of chronicles that Burgess and Kulikowski have recently proven entirely false in Mosaics of Time Vol. 1. The Welsh Annals, with their mention of Mt Badon and Camlann are, thus, not a sixth-century paschal chronicle but eleventh-century, and any material they gain from earlier sources is likely to be ninth-century texts such as ‘Nennius’.

After discussing the traditional narrative from textual sources, Halsall sets it out for us from archaeology. Then he goes into greater depth, applying the scrutiny of the professional historian to this evidence and asking how far we can trust it and whether it actually tells the story we think it tells. By the end of Part III, he has set out for the reader the current scholarly assessment of the evidence c. 2012. Along the way, he deals with many of the myths and falsehoods purveyed by ‘pseudo-histories’ and why we cannot trust them.

Part IV is Halsall’s own reconstruction of post-Roman Britain, itself an interesting read. It is definitely plausible and well-argued, but my own acquaintance with many of the sources comes mostly from his own work, so I am not yet in a strong enough position to critique any of its weaknesses. What he does that I think is vital to post-Roman Britain, and something I hope other historians of the island and period begin to do as well, is make comparisons with the continent in the same period, thus adding nuance to the arguments and showing where the traditional narrative need not be the only approach.

One important aspect of his approach to material culture is something he discussed earlier in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, which is the fact that a material cultural horizon need not mean that everyone within it is biologically related. People can change ethnicity, especially in the Roman and post-Roman worlds. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ artefacts need not always be evidence of newcomers from the continent. Another important reassessment he used in his earlier work and here applies to the British situation is the interpretation of furnished burials as evidence for local struggles for power, since such burials would be a way to reinforce the power of the deceased’s family.

All in all, this is an excellent book. It could be used by the interested reader to learn the methods and tools of the professional historian, shedding light on how history is itself constructed and not simply the story we tell in the history books. It is also a refreshing corrective to many of the crazy King Arthur theories that are so confident about theories in which we can place no confidence.

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The Quest of the Holy Grail – a spiritual, mediaeval romance

The Quest of the Holy GrailThe Quest of the Holy Grail by Anonymous

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading The Mystery of King Arthur, I was in the mood for more of the Matter of Britain, so I read this volume, one I’d received for Christmas from my brother Michael some years ago.

The Quest of the Holy Grail is excellent. Matarasso’s 20-page introduction is definitely worth the read — she gives enough information and context for one to enjoy the book, but it doesn’t feel weighed down or unbearable the way some introductions do. The key to understanding this text, as Matarasso observes, is that it is not simply a plain adventure (although there is a lot of that!). Instead, this is a spiritual text — but not properly allegorical. Rather, The Quest of the Holy Grail turns courtly love on his head, placing Christian perfection in its place.

Thus, Lancelot is taken from the heights and plunged to the depths where he must undergo penance for his full-on embrace of the worldly ideal of the knight and, especially, his full-on embrace of Queen Guenevere. Gawain, the second-greatest of Arthur’s knights, is ever on the outside in this quest, finding few adventures, and running afoul of everyone he meets — the sinner who says he’ll repent but then goes and accidentally kills a friend without remorse.

Besides the two sinners — one, a penitent, the other the kind who gets what he deserves — we have the three Grail Companions: Sir Galahad, Sir Perceval, and Sir Bors. The first two are virgins, the third a chaste penitent who once had relations with a woman but now lives in purity. If the Knights of the Round Table weren’t perpetually in their early 20s, I wonder if a faithful married man would have been able to find the Grail! Here, instead, we have the mediaeval ascetic ideal of virginity upheld as one of the greatest virtues a noble can have.

Galahad is, of course, the noblest and least sinful of the knights. He, Perceval, and Bors meet with various test and temptations, but — unlike Gawain, for example — fall into no sin. They are the model warriors; not only are they the best in a tournament, they rescue the weak and protect women; they resist sexual temptation; they live simply, eating only bread and water; they hear Mass and attend Vespers regularly; they heed the advice of the hermits, monks, and nuns they meet along the way.

Throughout the book the knights enact their own allegories, which is kind of weird but kind of fun. The meanings of the enacted allegories or allegorical dreams are unveiled to them by the various hermits and monks they meet. It seems most of England is populated by hermits and monks. Sometimes a castle. Nary a farmer in sight.

Finally, from various persons encountered by different knights as they quest, we learn throughout the book the story of the Grail and its guardians, from Joseph of Arimathea to King Pelles and Castle Corbenic.

The translation is written in a timeless English prose that, while it may feel archaic, moves with a speed and vivacity befitting the tale told herein. I highly recommend this book.

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Review: The Mystery of King Arthur by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Mystery of King ArthurThe Mystery of King Arthur by Elizabeth Jenkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a Christmas present this year from my brother Michael who remembers well my long obsession with King Arthur as a child and adolescent. By the title, you might think that this a ‘historical King Arthur’ book, but it’s not. This book is an overview of the Matter of Britain — or, as Jenkins calls it, the Matter of Arthur. It is an overview of the entire body of legend and literature surrounding Merlin, Arthur, the Round Table, the Grail, Tristan, etc, et al.

The volume begins with a brief description of pre-Arthurian Britain, expressing beliefs in great psychic powers of the people who built Stonehenge. This chapter is to be read with great caution, and not because of Jenkins’ dancing a little too closely romanticised Celticism for my increasingly cynical tastes but because of a few slips concerning Roman history (e.g. Constantine the Great was the first emperor of that name, not the third!) and the departure of the Romans from Britain.

Nevertheless, the book moves along swiftly into a second chapter, ‘Fact and Legend’, where we meet what Jenkins considers the only two historically verifiable facts about King Arthur, taken from a Paschal Chronicle of the 1100s (but believed to date from the 800s — I am still not sure why we should believe something from the 800s for the history of the 500s) — he defeated the Saxons and Mt Badon, and he and Mordred both died in battle at Camlann.

However, throughout the rest of the book, various other tidbits of the Matter of Britain are assumed to be based on some sort of fact because of their verisimilitude. I have become a cautious historian at the ripe old age of 32, and would probably have included far more, ‘maybe’s, ‘perhaps’es, ‘might be’s, and ‘could have been somebody else but got attached to Arthur maybe at some point’ and similar statements to that.

Anyway, the book is very good, nonetheless. Jenkins gives a chronological run-through of the legends and literature of King Arthur, from some of the weird and wonderful tales from Welsh lore (remember that time King Arthur had to capture a hairbrush from between the ears of a magical boar? Neither did I!) to the now-standard versions from the French Vulgate Cycle immortalised by Malory and Tennyson. Most of the expected authors/works are there — Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Layamon, Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gottfried von Strassburg, and so forth.* The literature is dealt with very well, sometimes giving synopses of the most important and/or famous stories, pieces of literature, including helpful quotations, and sometimes simply stating their place in the overall journey from post-Roman Britain to the Pre-Raphaelites.

An interesting facet of this book that I did have expected was Jenkins’ setting the political and social stage for each era of the legends’ growth and transformation. These chapters and asides were generally helpful, although sometimes hard to connect with the literature. They were also overly focussed on England, when you consider how much Arthurian literature is French (and from elsewhere on the Continent) — my Latin prof from undergrad (an expert on Old French) says, ‘All the best Arthurian literature is French.’

One odd facet was Jenkins’ psychologising of things. She writes on occasion that some images look like a dreamscape, and that aspects of the legendary bits of Arthur undoubtedly have their origins in the human psyche. She also refers to the psychic powers of the Celts.

One final criticism that is not of this book in particular but of a lot of similar volumes is that no mediaeval writer seems capable of imagination in Jenkins’ estimation. Almost every development of the story, even in the absence of evidence, is assumed to derive from oral tradition, or to be borrowed from elsewhere, or from real history, or Celtic legend, or whatever. I, on the other hand, am a firm believer in the fecundity of the mediaeval imagination.

One final commendation: The book is profusely illustrated with manuscript images, photographs of sites associated with Arthur, a few Early Modern items, and the glories of the Pre-Raphaelites and Aubrey Beardsley.

In sum: This is a good book with some errors and oddities, but I would heartily recommend it as an introduction to Arthurian literature and themes, as almost every major work is treated in this volume and usually receives a fair amount of justice.

*Notably missing: Beroul and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

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High Adventure: The Fall of Arthur

The second piece of High Adventure my wife gave me for Christmas 2014 is J R R Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur. I recommend it — here’s my Goodreads review.

The Fall of ArthurThe Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Someone mentioned to me that Christopher Tolkien must be scraping the bottom of the barrel by now — if The Fall of Arthur were any good, surely it would have been published 20 years ago! My cynicism runs slightly differently — if The Fall of Arthur were destined to make a lot of cash, it would certainly have been published 20 years ago. It isn’t, so it wasn’t. But it is still worth reading.

So why only three stars, if I recommend it?

If I were judging merely J R R Tolkien’s poem, I would give it four, maybe even five, stars. However, the poem is only 40 pages of this book. The rest is Christopher’s explanatory notes and appendices. Most of these I am glad for, but some I am not, as you shall see.

My second ‘warning’, if you will, is that this poem is not for the faint of heart. It’s probably not for anyone who doesn’t like Old and Middle English literature or who is unacquainted with Arthurian legend. The explanatory notes do help clear up some of the oblique references in the poem, so if you’d like to try your hand at reading mediaevalesque narrative poetry, this is as good a place as any to begin — with the benefit that this poem is shorter than the contents of The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún (I think).

But I do, I really do want to recommend this book. Because I really like it. When I read the aforelinked Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, I learned that modern English has so similar a natural cadence to Old English that one can write poetry in modern English using Old English meters and alliteration. This is what Tolkien did in Sigurd, and that’s what he does here. And it works.

The poem begins:

Arthur eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on the wild marches,
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.

This is not the time to discuss the niceties of versification, but I find this Old English meter works for narrative poetry. I like it. Combined with Tolkien’s word choice and imagery, it is here moody and evocative, full of depth and power.

Tolkien here tells the tale of Arthur from his departure to engage in war on the Continent up to the battle at the beach upon his return to wrest his kingdom back from Mordred’s hands. The poem stops abruptly, unfinished. But here is the melancholy tale of the sundered Round Table, of chivalry lost, of doom, death, and deceit.

Such gloom, such moodiness, does not, from what I’ve read, tend to weight heavily upon the Arthur story as told. It does, however, weigh upon Old English literature — a literature that never knew Arthur, yet whose moods lend themselves to this fatal clash of uncle and nephew, father and son, king and regent, right and might.

One of the themes of much Anglo-Saxon poetry is exile — whether from the perspective of the exile, or of the wanderer, or (as in ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’) the wife left behind. Canto III of The Fall of Arthur gives us this with great pathos, bringing the narrative to Benwick and Lancelot, where the tale of Lancelot’s exile from Camelot is told allusively. And Lancelot wishes to be reconciled with his liege, awaiting Arthur’s summons at any moment.

It is a summons that never comes. Lancelot is not at Camelon fighting Mordred.

The main knight in this tale is Gawain, likened by Tolkien time and again to light and brilliance. He leads the knights in Europe and the ships back to Britain. He is all glory and power. Tolkien has found a way to reconcile two Arthurian traditions, one which favours Lancelot, the other which favours Gawain, without compromising the characters of the two knights.

As you can see, I really do like this poem.

Following the poem, Christopher provides some very helpful notes on it, which I recommend you keep your finger amongst, or at least a second bookmark. After the notes on the text are three appendices (these Tolkiens like their appendices): The Poem in the Arthurian Tradition, The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion, and The Evolution of the Poem.

The first of these appendices will be especially helpful to those unacquainted with the wider tradition of Arthurian literature. I was glad to read it, although I skimmed some of the long extracts from Mallory and completely skipped some of the Middle English verse Christopher quotes.

The second is also very interesting. Here selections of continuations of the poem drawn from Tolkien’s notes are presented with some commentary and questions of where the poem may go from there. Then a long and involved discussion of the relationship of the unwritten poem’s Avalon to Númenor and The Silmarillion ensues. I’ve not read The Silmarillion, and am far more interested in Avalon than in Númenor, but I’m certain other fans will relish every word.

The third appendix I didn’t read, frankly. I skimmed over it and set it aside. I’m sure other people will find the textual criticism of Professor Tolkien’s notes of interest — I do not.

Finally, there is an appendix on Old English Verse that repeats material from The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

All in all, I really like this book, even if not all of Christopher’s material is to my taste. It’s a shame J R R Tolkien never finished the poem.

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