Aspirations and anxieties

The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
by Alan Lupack.
Oxford University Press, 2007.

In the late sixties studying the significance of the Arthurian legends become surprisingly mainstream both in academic circles and in popular culture, spawning a library fit for a modern-day Tower of Babel. Alan Lupack’s Guide is the kind of vademecum that many students like me yearned for in those early days.

This massive survey (nearly 500 pages in the 2007 paperback edition) aims to introduce the general reader to a study of the Arthurian legends.

As well as a general bibliography of basic resources for such a study, each of its seven chapters concludes with its own more detailed bibliography. These seven chapters deal with historical approaches to Arthur from early literature through to historical novels, followed by the romance tradition inaugurated by Chrétien de Troyes. Then come specified chapters on Malory, the Holy Grail, Gawain, Merlin and, last but not least, Tristan and Isolt. As well as an indispensable index, the author includes a cross-referencing dictionary of Arthurian people, places and things, ranging from Accolon to Yvain.

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A treasure chest of relics

King Arthur’s Round Table in Winchester’s Guildhall by Christophe Finot

The Medieval Quest for Arthur
by Robert Rouse and Cory Rushton.
The History Press, 2005.

Today a book possibly entitled The Invention of King Arthur might imply subterfuge and forgery. Several centuries ago, when “to invent” would simply mean “to chance upon”, it would instead imply a re-discovery of what already existed.

Nowadays we are rightly wary of Arthurian relics such as Arthur’s Tomb at Glastonbury, Arthur’s Seal, Gawain’s skull, Lancelot’s sword and the Winchester Round Table, as objects more likely to be “invented” in the modern sense of “made up” rather than pre-existing.

In Caxton’s 15th century, with fewer critical tools at their disposal, people were more inclined to accept such chanced-upon unprovenanced evidence at face value (though then as now there were always doubters and detractors, as the wholesale destruction of saintly relics in the English Reformation was to demonstrate); however, I am of course aware that weeping stuatues and their ilk still excite the credulous in our own time.

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Passionate but not persuasive

King Arthur: photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

Arthur And The Lost Kingdoms
by Alistair Moffat.
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999.

Thank goodness these “lost” kingdoms are not “holy” kingdoms, as is claimed by conspiracy theorists from southeast Wales! At least we don’t have to suffer a rant about secret histories suppressed by the ignorant English and the arrogant establishment familiar from similar “histories”, “true” stories and “final” discoveries.

Instead, the major part of this book is given over to a study of the area between the Walls, both Antonine and Hadrianic, before, during and after the Roman occupation of Britain. Moffat, a native of the Scottish Border country, sympathetically evokes the Celtic tribes (the Damnonii, Novantae, Selgovae and Votadini) who, squeezed between Gaelic, Pictish and Anglian peoples, forged successor kingdoms in the Dark Ages.

He is clearly trying to restore a sense of forgotten history to the Lowland Scots and, several quibbles aside (such as projecting back late and post-medieval lore onto the Iron Age and early medieval period, and a lack of caution over placename evidence), I think he is largely successful in that restoration. It is, however, when we come to the association of Arthur with this area that the real problems start.

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A reliable overview

King Arthur: photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

King Arthur: Hero and Legend, by Richard Barber
Boydell Press, 2004.

Richard Barber’s classic Arthurian study was deservedly dusted off and re-issued to coincide with the film of the same name (the very curious King Arthur, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley), though there was absolutely no other connection between the two other than the title.

Its first appearance in 1961 (as Arthur of Albion), despite being presented to a middle-brow audience, by its style betrayed its origins in academic research; it still occasionally appears on second-hand bookshop shelves. Next, King Arthur in Legend and History appeared in the 70s during a boom in larger format non-fiction paperbacks; unfortunately the glued binding was poor quality and all the colour plates in my copy fell out.

The present revised and extended reincarnation is substantially the same as that which appeared in both hardback and paperback in the 80s and 90s, and this time the plates stay put and the format is more friendly.

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Modern Arthuriana: a bibliography

Original artwork by Simon Rouse for the Journal of the Pendragon Society

Ann F Howey and Stephen R Reimer (editors).
A Bibliography of Modern Arthuriana (1500-2000),
D S Brewer, 2006.

What is Arthuriana? The authors choose to define it as “the Arthurian legend in modern English-language fiction”, and include such manifestations as literary (but not non-fictional) texts, audio-visual media (film, television, radio, audio-books) and aspects of popular culture such as graphic novels and games.

Aimed at students (the general public as well as scholars), collectors and librarians, this compilation is ideal both as a reference work and as a treasure chest to dip into.

Six sections (prefixed by the letters A to F) list works under authors, performers or titles, as appropriate. The listings (literature; comics and graphic novels; film, TV and radio; music; games; fine art and graphic design) are supplemented by an index and a catalogue of Arthurian characters and themes; for most of the entries there are annotations after the publishing details, some terse, others more extended.

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An engrossing enquiry

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘The Damsel of the Sanct Grael’ (1874)

The Quest for the Grail:
Arthurian Legend in British Art, 1840-1920

by Christine Poulson.
Manchester University Press, 1999.

The author, a now moderately successful crime-writer, was at the time of writing a Fellow of the Centre for Nineteenth-century Studies at the University of Sheffield, but The Quest for the Grail is no dry-as-dust academic publication. Plentifully illustrated with fourteen colour and sixty monochrome plates, this is an engrossing enquiry into the 19th-century renaissance of the Arthurian legend in representational art, stimulated by the 1817 re-publication of Malory and by Tennyson’s later reworkings of the tales.

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Nostalgia for the sixties zeitgeist

Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘Camelot’ (detail) 1893

The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, Geoffrey Ashe editor.
Pall Mall, 1968.

The 60s saw a rapid rise in interest in all things Arthurian, spurred on by a New Age zeitgeist which embraced all forms of fantasy from Tolkien to comics and by other aspects of popular culture, including musicals like Camelot.

In the middle of it all a more archaeological approach to the little-understood post-Roman period in Britain was emerging which sought to throw light on what was popularly known as the Dark Ages; and the epitome of this approach was the five-year investigation (from 1966 to 1970) of the Somerset hillfort of South Cadbury Castle by the provocatively-named Camelot Research Committee.

Perhaps as a direct result of the publicity surrounding the excavations the 1967 film of Camelot actually featured a map which placed the court roughly where the hillfort was situated.

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