Tag Archives: medievalism

High Adventure – The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

Yesterday, my wife and I celebrated Fake Christmas. This is because on Real Christmas, we’ll be in Canada, and we don’t wish to haul our presents across the Atlantic and back. So we exchanged them early. Also, she cooked a chicken named George, and it was excellent!

As usual, my presents included a bit of High Adventure, in the form of The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt and The Fall of Arthur by J R R Tolkien. I have been reading The Letter for the King in earnest and am now about halfway through it.

I recommend this book to you wholeheartedly so far. I imagine I will do so after the second half is through. It is a Dutch children’s classic from 1962, first translated into English in 2013. I am amazed we Anglophone readers have gone so long without this book — a tale not only, as I say, of High Adventure but also of chivalry and knights and castles and, save for pirates, everything I loved most as a kid.

And maybe pirates will turn up in the second half! (Unlikely.)

The Letter for the King is the kind of fantasy we need more of these days, I think. It is the tale of young Tiuri who, on the eve of his knighting, is caught up in mysterious doings and charged with the delivery of a sealed letter to King Unauwen, the noble and just king of the neighbouring kingdom (this is, I believe, called a MacGuffin). So off he goes.

Of course, he is on the far eastern edge of his home kingdom, and King Unauwen lives on the western side of his own kingdom. And there is a mountain range in the middle (fact: mountain ranges are more natural cultural, linguistic, and political barriers than rivers). So there is much adventuring to be had between home and Tiuri’s destination. Basically, your old-fashioned Quest narrative or journey motif. Along the way, various characters are met, some of whom are wicked, some of whom are good, some of whom just are.There’s even a hermit.

I like Quest narratives, frankly. When we were kids, we had 12 acres to wander about, so my siblings and I naturally crafted wooden swords and shields and marauded throughout them on various Quests against the forces of evil. Reading this book, then, is like rediscovering 10-year-old Matthew.

One of the themes running throughout this book is the chivalric ideal — a knight isn’t just a wealthy warrior with a horse and a sword. He is a man who is trained in the just treatment of those he meets, whether friend or foe. He is to seek to uphold the good and protect the vulnerable, to do literal battle with evil men. He is to be courageous and merciful, sagacious and pious, skilled on a horse and quick with a sword.

Obviously, not every knight can aspire to this — else there would be no villains!

But the idea, the ideal, is worth holding forth.

Even if the human manifestation of such ideals of righteousness is never fully realised in this life, the cynical rejection of them and creation of worlds where every single person, action, and ideal is grey shading to black is a cancer that can eat away at the soul. There is right, even if we’re not always sure if we’ve achieved it.

Stories like these mediaeval-style tales of High Adventure remind us of this.

Also, this one in particular happens to be rollicking good fun. Even without pirates.


For Christmas, I received a copy of the interesting and pleasant-to-read C. S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid. When I noted a copy lying about my PhD supervisor’s office, he remarked that he’s not sure it’s how he would translate the Aeneid. Indeed, neither am I.

But the thing I remarked is a very remarkable thing. Lewis’ translation, if you go through the various bits of introductory material provided by the editors, tries to stand in the same tradition as earlier, mediaeval translations of Classical literature. Lewis did not believe in trying to reproduce for the modern reader a similar effect as for the ancients — it was unattainable. He also believed firmly in rhythmic poetry, rhyme-schemes, and traditional English effects — neither foisting upon English a foreign poetry nor foisting upon ancient poetry modernist poetry.

Lewis was a medievalist of a sort that barely exists anymore. I don’t mean simply that he was an academic medievalist who sought to interpret and communicate medieval history, arts, and culture for today’s world, as several persons of my acquaintance are. I mean, rather, that he created new art inspired by and, at times, modelled on the arts and worldview of the medievals.

He was not alone.

Rossetti, 'The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Paradise'

Dorothy L. Sayers, one of Lewis’ friends (learn more about her here), translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into rhythmic, rhyming verse, something many modern translators would shudder at. Yet in so doing, she produced for the modern English reader a version of Dante that bears Dante’s content and communicates the beauty and force of the Comedy‘s poetry.

J. R. R. Tolkien, another of Lewis’ friends, created his world-famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is a modern novel that, I believe, draws much of its inspiration from the sagas and romances of the western Middle Ages — in a way, it is a mediaeval romance for moderns. One of his posthumous works, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (I’ve blogged about it here and here) takes the disparate bits of mediaeval Norse legend and puts them together in a coherent whole — not as a novel, as perhaps I would go about it, but as two narrative poems written in Old English versification (but in modern English), as well as a third that’s actually in Old English.

Another contemporary of Lewis, Tolkien, and Sayers was (is?) Pauline Baynes, the illustrator of Narnia, who Lewis felt drew too prettily for her own good. Her art is self-consciously mediaeval, modelling itself upon the aesthetic of Anglo-Saxon and Persian manuscripts — a good example of what she can do with a broad canvas is her colourfully-illustrated Nicene Creed, I Believe.

In the years before these Oxbridge scholars were producing their novels and translations, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was creating art consciously in opposition to the trends of much of the high arts of the day, seeking to imitate the style and use of colour predominant in older, Late Medieval art.

Morris & Co Wallpaper

William Morris, a contemporary and friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, was a founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement; his company designed wallpapers, tapestries, objects, furnishings, textiles, and stained glass, much of which was inspired by a more ‘mediaeval’ aesthetic. Not only did he hire ‘mediaevalising’ Pre-Raphaelites as stained-glass designers for his company, he even produced Arthurian and chivalric poetry in old-fashioned English verse.

While much of today’s stained glass feels hopelessly (post)modern, Victorian and early-twentieth-century stained glass feels beautifully mediaeval. I recommended testing this hypothesis in any church old enough.

Beardsley, yet another Victorian, produced his masterful woodcuts for Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, clearly inspired by mediaeval illuminations.

A Beardsley Woodcut

Another example of Victorian mediaevalism was the decision to hold a tournament. But, being Victorians and not real mediaevals, they cancelled it due to rain. I hear that one can find images of them in their mediaeval garb with umbrellas over their heads.

What do we get? Who tries to produce contemporary art that wishes to be imbued by the spirit of a bygone age? Modern stained glass is helplessly modern. Illustration turns to my beloved Quentin Blake, which is fine, but why not have a Pauline Baynes in the ranks alongside him? Where has metrical verse gone? Or the wild rumpus of medieval romance? The true Romance of romance!

Alas, have we seen the last of such artistic practitioners in the ranks of the Inklings?

I hope not.

Since writing this post a couple of months ago, but being unable to post until now, I have read Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur, his modern English version of The Alliterative Morte Arthur, a Middle English alliterative poem. His translation is also in alliterative verse, and it brought joy and hope to my heart.