Archives for posts with tag: King Arthur

Fantasy based on the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table seems as popular as ever, so this week I want to recommend one of the great classics of Arthurian fiction – `Le Morte D’Arthur’ (The Death of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Malory. Don’t be put off by the French title or the fact that this book was written in the 15th century. It is in English and Malory’s prose isn’t too hard to follow. The two-volume Penguin Classics edition, edited by Janet Cowen, has modernised spelling and a useful glossary. You can also download the text for free via Project Gutenberg. That’s apt because`Le Morte D’Arthur’ was one of the first books to be printed in England. William Caxton published his edition in 1485 (only two copies from this print-run survive). In his introduction to Malory’s retelling of the legend of Arthur, Caxton wrote that, `herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue and sin.’ Few modern blurbs can promise as much.

Malory was working from various French and English poems and romances about Arthur and his court. The aim seems to have been to turn these often conflicting sources into a (relatively) coherent account of the whole of Arthur’s reign.  Malory wrote his story in eight parts but Caxton sub-divided it into 21 books. I have to admit that `Le Morte D’Arthur’ is dauntingly long – a thousand pages in the Penguin edition. I daren’t suggest that you should sit down and read it from cover to cover but it is a wonderful book to dip into when you want to find out more about the great figures of Arthurian legend. Think of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ as a dusty old treasure chest full of gems. To encourage you to rummage, I’ll summarize the contents of Malory’s eight books.

Book I explains the cruel deception which led to the birth of Arthur, why he was raised away from the court of his royal father, and how he became king by drawing a sword out of an anvil. With Merlin’s help, young Arthur establishes his rule over the whole of Britain but he casts a shadow over his future by sleeping with his half-sister, the Queen of Orkney, and fathering a son, Mordred. After Arthur is given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, he marries the beautiful Guenevere against Merlin’s advice, and establishes the Round Table at Camelot. Book II deals with Arthur’s battles in Europe. Arthur himself defeats a particularly large and brutal giant in Normandy and he and his nephew, Sir Gawaine of Orkney, lead a successful invasion of Italy. In Book III Sir Launcelot du Lake proves himself the greatest knight `in all tournaments and jousts and deeds of arms’. He falls in love with Queen Guenevere but this doesn’t stop him getting entangled with various damsels in distress when he goes off to have adventures in her honour.

Book IV tells the story of another  of Arthur’s nephews, Gareth of Orkney, who comes to court in disguise and undertakes a quest to rescue a lady from the Red Knight of the Red Lands.  Book V recounts the tragic tale of how dashing Sir Tristram manages to ruin the lives of two princesses called Isoud (Isolde). In Book VI many of Arthur’s knights go in search of the Sangreal (the Holy Grail) but only three, including Launcelot’s son Galahad, are deemed worthy to see it. Book VII deals with the increasingly reckless love affair between Launcelot and Guenevere. When this affair is exposed by Mordred in Book VIII it leads to a terrible civil war in which Arthur is mortally wounded. He is taken away in a ship by a group of enchantresses  but `men say that he shall come again’.

This brief summary doesn’t include the numerous subplots about the adventures of Arthur’s knights as they encounter feisty or treacherous damsels, wise hermits, wicked knights and spooky castles.  Nor can it do justice to all the memorable characters who flit in and out of the narrative, such as Arthur’s magic-wielding half-sister, Morgan le Fay, or his grumpy foster-brother, Sir Kay, King Pellinor and his Questing Beast, Nimue, the chief Lady of the Lake, and the lovelorn Saracen knight, Sir Palomides. Fortunately, Caxton makes it easy to find the inset stories by heading each chapter with a one sentence summary of the contents. Some of these summaries are rather enticing. Who wouldn’t want to read chapters entitled How Galahad and Percival found in a castle many tombs of maidens that had bled to death or How four Queens found Launcelot sleeping and how by enchantment he was taken and led into a castle or How Sir Tor overcame the knight, and how he lost his head at the request of a lady? Warning – a lot of beheading goes on in `Le Morte D’Arthur’. There are also plenty of sword-fights, jousts and battles. When Caxton introduces a chapter with the words, Yet more of the said battle… you wonder if he thought that too much of the book was taken up with detailed descriptions of fighting, but this is one of Malory’s special skills.

Who was Sir Thomas Malory? Even after reading an entire book about him (`Malory: The Life and Times of King Arthur’s Chronicler’ by Christine Hardyment) I can’t give you a definite answer.  At least three men called Thomas Malory lived in England at around the right period but it isn’t entirely clear which of them wrote `Le Morte D’Arthur’. The most likely candidate is the Thomas Malory who came from Warwickshire. He seems to have fought in France under King Henry V and his tombstone calls him a `valiant knight’ but he was accused of theft, rape and attempted murder and spent many years in prison as an `obdurate criminal’. This fits with the fact that the author of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ refers to himself as `a knight prisoner’ and with the emphasis throughout the book on flawed heroes and heroines who struggle to live up to the code of honourable behaviour and often fail. Arthur tries to be a just ruler and a champion of the oppressed but he causes innocent children to die when he attempts to get rid of his baby son. Launcelot should be the best knight in the world but he is cruel to the mother of his child and he betrays his best friend, Arthur, by sleeping with his wife. Malory writes with great sympathy about the wronged but ultimately forgiving husband and the guilty lovers. Launcelot is described as `the kindest man that ever struck with sword’ and Guenevere as a `sinful lady’ but `a true lover’ . Malory has the gift of making these legendary figures thoroughly human.

Once you get used to Malory’s style, it becomes quite addictive and his stately dialogue is a constant delight. If you imagined Arthur and his knights as strong, silent types, think again. Malory’s characters are highly emotional and they express their feelings with candour and eloquence. `Le Morte D’Arthur’ became a very influential book and its admirers include King Henry VIII, the poets Milton and Tennyson, William Morris, C.S.Lewis, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler and Lawrence of Arabia. I’m pretty sure that being a Malory fan is the only thing I have in common with Henry VIII. I have previously recommended two 20th century Fantasy classics which owe much to Malory – T.H. White’s `The Once and Future King’ (December 2012) and Naomi Mitchison’s `To the Chapel Perilous’ (November 2014). If you are familiar with the first of these novels, you have already read some of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ because White couldn’t resist frequent quotations. So, why not go back to the original source? On his last page, Malory asked `all gentlemen and gentlewomen that readeth this book of Arthur and his knights from the beginning to the ending’ to pray for his soul. If you boldly take up this recommendation, please spare a thought for a man whose failings as a knight helped him to become a remarkable writer. Until next time…



This week I’m recommending a book which has caused some consternation in literary circles – `The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro. It only came out a few months ago, so it’s available in hardback and as an ebook but not yet in paperback. Professional reviewers tend rigidly to divide writers into `literary authors’ and `genre authors’. They don’t like it when someone who has been labelled as a `literary author’ dabbles in different genres. It was bad enough when Ishiguro attempted something approaching Science Fiction (`Never Let Me Go’) but now that he’s written an Arthurian Fantasy the critics are either throwing up their hands in horror or pretending that, even though it contains ogres, pixies, Knights of the Round Table and a dragon,`The Buried Giant’ doesn’t really count as Fantasy. Maybe the pixies were a step too far but I hope that my readers are open-minded enough to judge the story on its own merits.

`The Buried Giant’ is set in Dark Age Britain some years after the death of King Arthur, who led the Britons to victory against the invading Saxons. Now Britons and Saxons have learned  to live side by side and the country is at peace. In a small village dwell an elderly British couple known as Axl and Beatrice. Like their fellow villagers, this devoted couple are affected by a dementia-like mist of forgetfulness which it makes it impossible to remember much about the early days of their marriage and hard to keep more recent events fixed in their minds. They can’t even recall why their son lives in a different village but they feel that the time has come for them to visit him, even though the journey will be difficult and dangerous.

After a troubling encounter with a mysterious boatman, Axl and Beatrice take shelter in a Saxon village which has recently suffered an ogre-attack. A visiting Saxon warrior named Wistan kills the ogres and rescues a wounded boy but the superstitious villagers turn against the child.  Axl and Beatrice agree to take the boy with them to their son’s village but first they want to consult a holy man in a mountain monastery about Beatrice’s health. Wistan rides with them because he has a mission to fulfil in the mountains but he’s forced to disguise himself as a `half-wit mute’  in order to evade the British soldiers who are hunting him. During their journey, the group meet an aged knight who seems to recognize Axl. The knight turns out to be Sir Gawain, who tells them that long ago his uncle King Arthur entrusted him with the task of slaying the fearsome local dragon, Querig.

After a fatal fight, the group reaches the monastery but it proves to be a place of dark secrets. All four travellers are soon in danger and must flee for their lives. Wistan is determined to banish the magical mist of forgetfulness that hangs over the land. Beatrice supports him because she wants to remember all the details of her family life. Axl increasingly fears the guilt that returning memories might bring. Ending the enchantment will involve more deaths. Is that a price worth paying for justice? Or will the hero accomplishing his quest cause the innocent to suffer as much as the guilty?

Some `literary authors’ are embarrassingly ignorant of genre fiction, so when they attempt Science Fiction or Fantasy it’s like watching someone re-invent the wheel. Ishiguro seems much more knowledgeable. He likes to play with a genre and transform it for his own purposes.  The cloning-people-for-spare-parts plot of `Never Let Me Go’ was unoriginal and implausible and yet it was a truly haunting novel (and later, film). The plot of `The Buried Giant’ is largely put together from standard Fantasy elements whose origins aren’t hard to trace – various Arthurian Romances, parts of `Beowulf’ and a dash of Ingmar Bergman’s `The Seventh Seal’ – but the atmosphere of the novel is distinctive and disturbing. Have you ever had one of those nightmares in which you’re sure that you’ve done something terrible but can’t remember what and the guilt still lingers after you wake up? Well, reading `The Buried Giant’ is rather like re-living that nightmare.

The giant of the title may be a metaphor for buried truths but thankfully the journey of Axl and Beatrice is more than a simplistic allegory; it is a touching portrait of a long marriage and a gripping story in its own right. After a slow start, Ishiguro establishes a constant sense of menace; a feeling that something dreadful is about to happen or perhaps already has happened. If you like everything in a novel to be clearly explained as you go along, you won’t enjoy `The Buried Giant’, but if you are willing to surrender some control to the author and stumble along in a fog of ignorance, like Beatrice and Axl, there will be rewards. Usually when an author reworks traditional material, such as the legends of Arthur and his knights, it is still fairly obvious how the story will play out. That isn’t the case with `The Buried Giant’. The four leading characters constantly surprise the reader and themselves because, if you’ve lost most of your memories, how do you know what kind of person you are? Hero or terrorist? Peacemaker or betrayer? Loving spouse or cruel adulterer?

The plain, almost banal language which Ishiguro uses somehow makes the darker aspects of the story more chilling. `The Buried Giant’ is Horror fiction in the sense that it deals with the physical and emotional horrors which people inflict on each other – often in the name of a `higher good’. Like many of the best Fantasy authors, Ishiguro uses the conventions of the genre to explore challenging ideas and to ask difficult questions. Questions such as – Must everyone face death alone? Can there be true peace without justice? Is it ever right to hate a whole race because of the actions of its leaders? Does the concept of a forgiving god encourage people to forgive themselves for unforgivable sins? Should crimes be forgotten for the sake of the future? I’m sure you can see the contemporary relevance of some of these questions.

Ishiguro is on record as saying that he used a Fantasy setting for his story because he wanted to write about the eternal issues behind the politics of specific conflicts. It might have been better if he had used a freshly invented world since, putting aside the issue of whether Arthur ever existed, the conflict between the Britons and the Saxons was a very real one which still has consequences for British politics. For much of the book, Ishiguro seems to be using British characters for his villains – as so many Hollywood movies do – but he’s too good a novelist to do something so unsubtle. Just as he has made an utterly convincing case for one side being completely in the right, Ishiguro suddenly shows you the opposite side of the argument from the perspective of people he’s taught us to care about. `The Buried Giant’ doesn’t offer easy answers but I’ll never hear the phrase, `forgive and forget’ again without thinking about this novel. So, even if you usually avoid `literary novels’ you might want to give this one a go. Ishiguro even writes surprisingly good fight scenes. Until next time….






This week I’m recommending Joan Aiken’s `The Stolen Lake’, which is probably the only Arthurian Fantasy to be set in the Andes. Joan Aiken (1924-2004) was a daughter of the American poet, Conrad Aiken but she was born and brought up in England. `The Stolen Lake’ was first published in 1981, with murky illustrations by Pat Marriott. There are recent paperback editions and it’s also available as an ebook. Aiken wrote in many different genres for readers of all ages. `The Stolen Lake’ is part of a twelve-volume sequence of children’s novels featuring Cockney girl, Dido Twite, a heroine who was feisty long before it was fashionable. This sequence is sometimes known as `The Wolves Chronicles’ and sometimes as `The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Series’. Chronologically, `The Stolen Lake’ is the fourth of these novels but Aiken pointed out in a preface that `you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.’ I’ve chosen this book because it is my favourite of the Dido stories and the one with the strongest Fantasy element.

`The Wolves Chronicles’ are set in the early 19th century in a world in which the Ancient Romans conquered South America and the Stuart Dynasty still rules Britain. When this story opens, twelve year-old Dido has recently left North America after thwarting a dastardly Hanoverian plot against the Stuarts (see `Night Birds on Nantucket’). She is travelling home in a British warship called the `Thrush’. Dido tries to keep out of the way of crusty Captain Hughes but enjoys the company of his remarkably well-educated steward, Mr Holystone. Captain Hughes suddenly gets orders to change course for Roman America where Britain’s ally, Queen Ginevra of New Cumbria, requires assistance. Hearing that the Queen is `devotedly Fond of Young Female Children’, Captain Hughes decides to include Dido in the party from the `Thrush’ who will travel to New Cumbria’s remote capital, Bath Regis.

When Dido is kidnapped on her first day ashore, it  becomes apparent that New Cumbria is a very dangerous place, especially for young girls. She escapes and is helped to rejoin her friends by a mysterious minstrel called Bran. During the unpleasant trip to the capital, Dido and the Captain rely on the advice of Mr Holystone, who was brought up in nearby Hy Brasil, but as they approach Bath Regis, Holystone grows weak and forgetful and falls into a trance. Dido and Captain Hughes visit the revolving palace of the `White Queen’ and are told two very strange things. Firstly, the Queen claims to be thirteen hundred years old and secondly she insists that a neighbouring monarch, Mabon of Lyonesse, has stolen the sacred lake which the Cumbrians brought with them from Britain. Queen Ginevra is convinced that one day her husband Arthur, the once and future king, will return to her from Lake Arianrhod, so she will stop at nothing to get it back. She wants Dido to pretend to be King Mabon’s lost daughter and persuade him to return the stolen lake. When Captain Hughes protests he is thrown into prison, so Dido and her companions have no choice but to set out on a perilous journey through steaming quagmires and icy mountains. On the way, Dido will encounter man-eating birds, evil witches, a crazed priest and a captive princess. She will discover the terrible truth about how Ginevra has stayed alive so long, and seeing an old friend in a new light will nearly break Dido’s heart.

`The Stolen Lake’ is fast-paced enough to appeal to modern children – something thrilling or astonishing happens every few pages – but there is plenty in the novel to interest adults as well. Aiken loved to create extraordinary plots bursting with inventive details, such as the secret of how to steal a whole lake or a series of frantic messages  written on pages from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary and attached to the collars of copper-coloured cats. She threw together some elements you might expect to find in a South American setting, such as llamas, piranhas, human sacrifice and erupting volcanoes and some that you probably wouldn’t, like Roman legionaries, supernatural owls, sedan-chairs and a Snow Leopard. It could be said that all the books in `The Wolves Chronicles’ have a basic `plucky children defeat forces of evil’ plotline but thanks to the astringent qualty of the writing, they come across as being about isolated children struggling to survive in a largely wicked world. Some innocent characters meet grim deaths in `The Stolen Lake’ and even love is shown to have its dark side. Queen Ginevra/Guinevere is not a romantic figure in this story. Surrounded by spiders and shrunken heads and almost too fat to walk, she has become grotesquely unlovable by the time her Arthur returns.

Like last week’s author (Avram Davidson), Aiken had great fun rearranging history and myth to suit her own passions and prejudices. The England of her novels is inhabited by Dickensian villains and Gothic horrors, such as the packs of wolves who have entered the country through an early version of the Channel Tunnel. Aiken came up with an ingenious explanation for her Celtic kingdoms in the Andes (after all there really was a Welsh settlement in Patagonia) and boldly relocated the civilised town of Bath Spa to a chilly hollow surrounded by smoking volcanoes, and its ancient goddess Sul to a sinister mountain-top temple. The White Queen’s revolving silver palace is borrowed from Celtic myth and there is even a guest appearance by the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and the Four Oldest Creatures from `The Mabinogion’ (see my post of November 2012). Fans of Arthurian literature will enjoy spotting Aiken’s versions of the traditional characters. Truth-telling Bran, with his wooden leg, harp and cockatoo, is as wild and unpredictable as the prophet Merlin in Early Welsh legend. The puzzling stories that he tells to Dido add an extra dimension to the novel.

Much of the humour in the book comes from the contrast between the formal speech of the officers of the `Thrush’ (e.g.`Miss Twite- I must delay no longer in telling you how creditable – exceedingly creditable indeed – are the accounts of your behaviour during this expedition that I have received…) and Dido’s unconventional but colourful use of language (e.g. `Jemima! What a havey-cavey cove. He looks as if he’d sell his own ma for cats’ meat.’) There are also some pleasingly absurd situations, such as tomboy Dido (`Needle-work’s a mug’s game!’) being taught to curtsey and forced to dress like a court lady (`I don’t half look a sight’). Dido is charmingly unimpressed by wealth and grandeur; she thinks the Queen’s silver palace `looks like an outsize milk-churn.’ She’s a brave and resourceful heroine but she has a tough time in this book.  It’s not just that she keeps getting kidnapped. Dido has been carelessly brought up as an unloved youngest child in a dishonest and disfunctional family but she finally finds a suitable father-figure in the wise and kind Mr Holystone. Then a spell makes him forget all about her. Nothing is quite the same again and Dido disovers that relationships can go on causing pain long after they are broken. This  gives the story greater depth than some of the other books in the series, but  writing about `The Stolen Lake’ has made me want to reread the entire `Wolves Chronicles’.  I’ll be back in two weeks time.