Sunday, April 9, 2017

My Arthurian Renaissance

Picture, if you will, a time, long long ago, when there were no such things as personal computers, kindles or other e-readers.  Picture the time of 'the book".

Many, many years ago, I was in a reading cycle - meaning, I would light upon a subject and read only books relevant to it until I had all be exhausted everything on the library shelf.  Thus I embarked upon epic reading journey encompassing the likes of crime fiction (Christie, Conan-Doyle, Marsh, Hammett etc); historical biographies (from anywhere and any time); Irish political history (my forte - having devoted much  of my earlier writing to politics), which lead me onto Celtic mythology and history (Berresford Ellis, Markale, Squire) and finally the Mythological Cycles (Mabinogian, Irish Mythological Cycles) and Arthurian Romances (de Troyes, MaloryTennyson) - and any novel that fell within that reading extensive parameter (Marion Zimmer Bradley, Diana Paxon, Kenneth Flint, Morgan Llywellyn to name but a few).  Many of the books that I initially read have found aplace on my own personal library.

Which leads me to my current renaissance and my journey of rediscovering not only the mythological texts but the historical texts covering the Arthurian cycle. So here's the condensed version.

An eminent historian and Arthurian scholar, who offered us the location of Cadbury castle and Camelot, and was most noted for his books "The Quest for Arthur's Britain" (slightly dated now but was one of the go-to books of its day) and "The Discovery of King Arthur" (using the Chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth as his starting point, Ashe goes on to prove through literary & historical sources, that Riothamus, an actual 5th-century British monarch, is the historical Arthur).  Ashe also was a contributor to "The Arthurian Encyclopedia" by Norris J. Lacy.

A Professor of Archaeology, Alcock undertook a major excavation of Cadbury castle - the supposed site of camelot.  His "Arthur's Britain History and Archaeology AD 367–634" was the pre-eminent scholarly tome on Britain in the 4th to 7th centuries, using many sources including archaeology, historical sources and providing a critical analysis of the evidence.  It is still regarded today.
See: obituary in the Telegraph and the Guardian

Moffat has written not only on Arthur but extensively on Scottish history which no doubt lead to his book "Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms".  Here Moffat  "rewrites the legend of King Arthur, radically relocating Camelot and the sites of his brilliant victories" - and by relocating, we mean further north towards Scotland, and that rather than a king, he was a cavalry general!

Senior lecturer in Ancient History at University College London, and founder and first editor of Past and Present, his work "The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650"  was widely criticised by contemporary scholars for the lack of sources, which were published 4yrs after his death.  Like all books of the day, it has been superseded by other well-researched tomes.  This has place on my Arthurian bookshelf.  It is a comprehensive work (over 600pages) on the political, social, economic, religious and cultural history in Britain from the fourth to the seventh century. 

Christina Hardyment
A Senior Associate Member of St Anthony's College, Christina Hardyment has brought forth a captivating study of Sir Thomas Malory, author of "Le Morte d'Arthur. Known as both "Malory: The Knight Who Became King Arthur's Chronicler" and "Malory: The Life And Times Of King Arthur's Chronicler", Hardyment uses evidence from new historical research and deductions from the only known manuscript copy of Malory's celebrated work, and cleverly resolves the contradictions about an extraordinary man and a life marked equally by great achievement and devastating disgrace.
Review by Richard Barber (author of King Arthur: Hero & Legend ) @ the Guardian

Founder of Boydell Press and a noted historian who has written extensively on British history as well as Arthurian legends, most notably "King Arthur: Hero and Legend", "The Arthurian Legends", and "The Legends of Arthur".

British archaeologist more recently known for his appearances on the TV show Time Team, Pryor has written a number of books, included "Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons".  Here he digs into historical and literary sources and archaeological research, to create an original, lively and illuminating account of Arthur.  A scholarly work that for those whom history and archaeology is not their fotre, may find a little "dry".  To be read in conjunction with this first in the series, "Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans".
Pryor's Blog - In The Long Run

Now we come to my two most recent reads:

An author and journalist, who from a discovery of an ancient Latin text in the British Library (Nennius' Historia Brittonum and the Annales cambraie) that listed the twelve battles of King Arthur, believes he has convincingly found the locations for all of Arthur’s battles.  "King Arthur's Battle For Britain" is the result.  Walmsley himself states that he has "attempted to flesh-out the bare skeleton of Nennius' battle-list in the style of a war correspondent's report from the battle-front, covering the action of friend and foe alike."

I found it an interesting and plausible read that attempted to assign each of the battles to specific locations.  The accounts of the battles are Walmsley's own sytylised version - and he's upfront about that from the start. The only contention for the true scholar is the lack of sources - he is not a historian as such, but has spent some considerable time in researching his work.

John Matthews and Caitl√≠n Matthews
"The Complete King Arthur: Many Faces, One Hero".  Where was this book 20 years ago??  This is one work that uses all the historical records, scholarly research (both past and present), and the epic poems to strip away the fog that has surrounded Britain during the time directly following the Roman departure.

The authors between them have written over 150 works mainly steeped in Arthurian substance and this is the culmination of 40 years of research.  The Matthews write convincingly, exploring all known works (oral and written) and seeing how they fit with the Arthur of legend.  Taking known research and analysis of the social, cultural and military histories, they build up a realistic portrait of the man at the centre of the myth - a man with many faces.

The authors also take an in-depth look into the sources themselves, and discuss how an oral tradition was extended and added to each time it came into contact with other cultures - and nowhere is this more apparent than in the cycle of the great traditional Arthurian romances of Chretian de Troyes, Robert de Boron, Ambrose Firman-Didot's "Fisher King" stories, Gottfried von Strassburg's epic "Tristan" stories, through to Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur", Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queen" down to Tennyson's "Idylls of the King".  Even today, Arthur and his knights hold a spell over writers, judging by the prolific works (fact and fiction) dedicated to him.

I am mentally exhausted - in a good way - after reading this book.  There was just so much information to absorb, and I now want to now go back and read everything Arthurian I can lay my hands (novels, poems, epic sagas, the histories).  The seed in my mind has begun to germinate and it needs tending.  I have no hesitation in recommending this work - I will be adding it to my own personal library.

See also: King Arthur: Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero by John Matthews (nice entry level introduction into the Arthurian mythos).

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