Naomi and Nicola cause a stir

Victorian stained glass portrait of the 7th-century abbess and politician Hilda of Whitby
Victorian stained glass portrait of the 7th-century abbess and politician Hilda of Whitby

This weekend, I lost what was happening in the rest of my world because I was immersed in the first Historical Fictions Research Network conference, in Cambridge at Anglia Ruskin University. The CFP for the second one, in February 2017 at the National Maritime Museum in London, will be sent out in the next week or so. There are conferences for historical novelists, but until now, there has been nothing for researchers studying how fictions and history work together. Science fiction professor Farah Mendlesohn and the Royal Holloway classicist Nick Lowe set it up with a team of postgraduate students and Anglia Ruskin colleagues, and I did my bit by running out to buy the biscuits. Next year I hope to be working on the new scholarly journal that the network is planning.

Normally at academic research conferences I bail out for one session, conferenced-out by too much earnest density in the papers. Show-off point scoring in the questions is also damned irritating. None of that happened this weekend. High points were:

  • Nick Lowe’s revelation that far more historical fiction is written about Ancient Rome than Ancient Greece
  • Abi Hunt’s recovery of the forgotten agricultural work of Lincolnshire women and children, refuting the post-Second World War fiction from local history that they never worked on the land at all
  • Victoria Whitworth‘s detective work tracing influences from the Book of Kells in an obscure roadside memorial plaque above Loch Ness
  • Debbie Challis’s unpeeling of Flinders Petrie’s Victorian fictions about ancient Egyptian pharoah Akhenaten
  • Jerome de Groot’s energetic attack on history, calling it an absence of the past, and a traumatic experience of seeing a void
  • Rowan Ramsey’s creation of Agincourt, Iowa: the Mid-West town that never was, but whose history and structures are built every year by North Dakota architecture students
  • Greer Gilman’s spectacular reconstruction of Ben Jonson’s world in Exit, Pursued by a Bear

There was also my paper, about how Naomi Mitchison and Nicola Griffith both use science and scientific research methods to give women characters agency in their historical novels. Cultural differences caused a minor kerfuffle in the questions afterwards, over the apparent marginalisation of men in these novels (which is not what I had said at all), and so a few people have asked me to post the paper as a pdf. Here it is: K Macdonald on N Mitchison and N Griffith


T H White’s The Once and Future King

White 1In this Really Like This Book podcast script catch-up from the King Arthur mini-series, I’m going to pause briefly to remind you that Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur is the main source for modern retellings of the stories about King Arthur. The best twentieth-century retelling, in my considered opinion, is the tetralogy by T H White called The Once and Future King. White has recently had unexpected publicity for one of his least accessible works, The Goshawk, on which Helen Macdonald draws extensively in her tremendously successful H is For Hawk.

White first Arthurian novel was published in 1939, The Sword in the Stone. It tells the story of the boy Arthur’s childhood and training under the tuition of Merlin. This is the most famous of the novels in the tetralogy, and was made into a musical called Camelot in the 1960s, and a 1970s Disney cartoon that I loved as a child. Its charm is that Merlin turns Arthur into things so that he can learn what a king needs to know: he experiences life as a fish, and as a bird, and lives with Robin Hood, watches a joust, gets captured by a giant, and hunts boar.

White 2
cover art by Alan Lee

Finally, he goes to London with Sir Ector and Kay, pulls the sword out of the stone, and becomes, to his great confusion, king. The basic story comes from the Malorian sources, except for magical twists by White, including all the animal parts. Most imaginatively, in White’s version of the Arthur story, Merlin is living his life backwards, When Merlin meets Arthur as a small boy, that is the last time he will see him, because he has already observed all of Arthur’s life, and knows what will happen in Arthur’s future. This explains, beautifully and neatly, how second sight works. White writes in a gloriously anachronistic style, mixing up Latin, medieval lore, the irritated precision of a Cambridge don, and comments to the reader about what we need to understand about medieval life. When he stops making intellectual jokes, White’s prose is very beautiful, and direct. His style is engaging, and makes the characters as real as you or I, rather than cardboard cut-outs speaking an archaic language. For this he owes a lot to Naomi Mitchison’s experiments in writing historical fiction in purified modern language.

White 3The Sword in the Stone ends at Arthur’s crowning, but White continued to think about Arthur, why this king had become a symbol for knightly perfection, and what power and restraint meant for humanity. This thinking continued all the way through the Second World War (which White spent living in exile in rural southern Ireland, working through powerful feelings about pacifism, which were part of his philosophical crisis about manifestations of power). By the 1950s White had written three more novels about how Arthur grew into kingship, and how the fatal strands of his story evolved. The Sword in the Stone was not so much rewritten as shaken up a bit, with some episodes removed to be used elsewhere, and new ones inserted because they were needed to make The Sword in the Stone part of a larger whole.

White 5So, in the tetralogy proper, The Sword in the Stone was still about the boy Arthur growing up, and was followed by its new sequel, The Queen of Air and Darkness (or, The Witch in the Wood). This was about the childhood and early manhood of the Lothian family, the knights Gawain, Gareth, Agravain and Gaheris. They were the sons of Morgause, the Queen of Orkney and wife of King Lot, and Arthur’s half-sister, though nobody knows this except Merlyn, who has forgotten to tell Arthur, and Morgause herself, who is a witch. This is a very dark novel, where hopeful characters are disappointed, and the weather is usually cold and wet. It begins with an agonising scene of the children’s love for their mother, who ignores them, and a cold vignette of her boiling a cat alive to find the magic bone that will render her invisible when placed in the mouth. None of the bones work. The lives of the Lothians are centred about the draughty heathlands about their cold, primitive and tumbledown tower, until they go south with their father to fight Arthur, after which they will join Arthur’s company. The novel ends with the critical moment in the Aristotelian tragedy that is the story of Arthur: he sleeps with his half-sister without knowing it, and the boy who is born will be his death.

White 6Novel number three is The Ill-Made Knight, which is all about Sir Launcelot, a miserable man who cannot help being the best of Arthur’s knights, and Sir Galahad, who is perfection and cannot help that either. This novel is also very sad, because Arthur’s hopeful plan to stop war and violence and brutality by inventing the Round Table, has been knocked sideways by the simple facts of human nature. The women also begin to gain importance, with Guinevere and Elaine competing for Lancelot’s affections, and end up by being hated by him, even though he loves them hopelessly. As a man suffering compelling psychiatric disorders, poor T H White wrote a lot of himself into the suffering masochist Lancelot. His loathing of his own mother also comes across hot and strong in this novel: women really don’t do well in this story, despite their stronger presence, but they don’t do well in the whole Arthurian saga. The feminist rewriting of Arthur would have to wait until Marion Zimmer Bradley and her ground-breaking but painfully gushing The Mists of Avalon, in the 1980s.

White 7The last novel of the tetralogy is The Candle in the Wind, which brings in Mordred to the story, the betrayal of Arthur, and break-up of the Round Table. We read, painfully, of the fulfilment of many destinies on the field of battle, and of magical foresight as well. The novel ends with a charming invention by White, of the old king Arthur on the eve of his last battle talking to a young and frightened page, who is called young Tom Malory. But this is not the end of the story. After White’s death, a fifth novel was found in his papers, which turns the tetralogy into a pentalogy.

This last, posthumous novel was published in the 1980s as The Book of Merlyn, and is a return to all that White’s admirers loved best about The Sword in the Stone, when Arthur goes to live among the animals to understand better what it is to be human. Arthur is now an old man with much experience behind him, and his encounters with animals are desperately sad. He goes to live with the geese, and falls in love with a female goose, because bird love is pure, eternally loyal, and uncomplicated. (This episode had already appeared in, I think, the revised Sword In The Stone. He did keep moving sections about.) But just as Arthur has realised what love, acceptance and peaceful contentment actually feel like, he is dragged away by Merlyn to return to the badger’s sett.

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cover art by Alan Lee

Here he must sit in council with the animals to understand why homo sapiens (wise man) has turned into homo ferox (ferocious man). Arthur is a king, so he accepts this abrupt and heartbreaking rejection of being in love, but it is a painful transition, saying much about the responsibilities of leadership and sacrifice of personal feelings. His next trip is to an ant-hill, a vision of a totalitarian society, clearly influenced by the fascist dictatorships attempting to take over the world in the war. White wrote a seriously frightening episode of science fiction here, with the ants’ instructions picked up by their pheromones in a horrific vision out of Orwell’s 1984, Just as Arthur rebels against the incessant instructions in his head, and turns to prevent ant war, expecting to be torn apart by his fellow workers, Merlyn picks him out of the ant-hill and brings him back again to the sett.

Arthur’s last visit is to a hedgehog in the woods outside, who represents the common man, ignorant man, or (as we now might see it) man viewed with more than a touch of patrician condescension by White, writing against his times in the rebellious 1960s. He had tremendous difficulties with class and women all his life, and could not stop being a product of Cambridge and a teacher in the public school system in the 1920s. The hedgehog episode ends with a rendition of Jerusalem which breaks me up every time I read it. The Book of Merlyn comes to no conclusions about how man should be reclassified in the animal phylae because it ends with Arthur’s kingly rejection of theory and discussion, believing that with love he can only do his best. The novel ends with the movement of a snake in the grass, as Mordred and Arthur stand staring at each other at the heads of their armies, and someone draws a sword to kill it.

White was an erratic and wayward genius, an eccentric writer but a brilliant one. This evocation of the story of Arthur is the most serious that I know of, since it digs deeper than just jousts and chivalry and the eternal tragic love triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur. This is probably because White was not really interested in love between men and women, but was traumatised by the power that (he thought) women employ to control men. He wrote fiction to work out ideas and to teach people, to educate and to show by example. He was a strange and forceful persuader, intemperate and uncontrolled in so many areas of his life, and a violent perfectionist in writing. He applied a unique vision to this most English of myths, producing five powerful, marvellous novels.


Mark Twain’s A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Twain 1Launching into a new miniseries of podcast scripts from Why I Really Like This Book, the next few weeks will see a long and enjoyable wallow in stories about King Arthur. This will include early British history, fantasies about Merlin, and the utterly compelling theory that when the Romans pulled out of Britain, somehow the Saxon warlord culture that emerged also brought forth the stories about Arthur that were medievalised into the knights of the Round Table. I don’t begin with Sir Thomas Malory, because, entrancing as the Morte Darthur is, it’s rather hard to read, since it isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of repetitious events stuck together. I’m going to start with the American writer Mark Twain’s satire on knight errantry, A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, first published in 1889, and now more commonly known as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Warning: here be spoilers.)

Twain 2Mark Twain was irreverent. This work of Arthurness may have come as a shock to the pious late Victorians who were used to swooning over Tennyson’s Arthurian poems from The Idylls of the King, only a few years earlier. Tennyson wrote as though he were a Pre-Raphaelite without a sense of humour. The whole point of the Yankee is that the story juxtaposes the ignorant 6th century against the knowitall, up to the minute, technologically superior 19th century, and the 19th century wins, right until the last chapter. Twain makes no explanation as to how his 19th-century man, one Hank Morgan, travels back in time and place from Hartford,, Connecticut, to 6th-century England; he just wakes up one morning and there he is. He is also dealt with as any 6th-century stranger would be: he is challenged by a knight, refuses to fight, and is taken prisoner as that knight’s personal property, and condemned to die at the stake. Luckily (and this is the most ridiculous coincidence in the novel) Hank just happens to know that in a day’s time there will be an eclipse of the sun, so on the strength of that, he sends out word that he is a wizard, and will cause mighty terrible things to happen unless he is released. He is not, the eclipse happens, the populace are very much impressed and terrified, and Hank Morgan becomes King Arthur’s prime minister.

Twain 3He can see a lot of scope for his brain and superior knowledge, and the nice thing is, none of it is for his own aggrandisement. The Boss, for that is now his name, is not at all interested in getting rich, or commanding power where he doesn’t need it. He is a reformer, and is determined to reform 6th-century society with judicious applications  of 19th-century technology. The first things to make their absence known are the basic necessities of life; no soap, no matches, no mirrors. There were no books, paper, pens or ink, and no glass for windows. There was no sugar, coffee, tea or tobacco: and now I think we get the picture. Twain’s hero is not at all interested in enjoying life in the 6th century; he just wants to return to his own time as fast as he can, or, if that isn’t possible, to make where he is like his own time. It helps that the entire nation thinks that he is a magician, and that Merlin (who in this novel is a doddering and malign old man with no power whatsoever) is not going to get in his way. At least, he won’t get in the Boss’s way once the Boss has blown up Merlin’s tower with homemade dynamite. Now that the Boss really is the boss, King Arthur’s sole advisor, the Boss can get on with a more noble long-term plan, of relieving the oppression of the poor, and removing the tyranny of the knightly class. The rest of the novel is part adventure, part philosophical nature ramble, on how an ignorant and illiterate populace can be persuaded to help turn themselves into a republic. Spot the American influence.

Twain 4Not that Twain has anything against King Arthur. Arthur remains a noble and honourable figure throughout (I think it would be hard to change his character in any circumstances), but he is a bit dim. Twain does an excellent job of thinking through how 6th-century man might think, speak, and reason, and he sticks to it. There is very little anachronism here, in the way of 6th-century people thinking like 19th-century people, that can’t be explained by sustained exposure to the Boss’s own speech and thought processes. His chief assistant, Clarence, learns fast how to keep up with the Boss and his schemes and planning, but he still speaks in the way he was brought up: he’s just a fast learner with the flexibility of youth. King Arthur, on the other hand, is a great and noble savage, with excellent instincts for truth and justice, but that’s about it. The Boss takes Arthur on a tour of his kingdom in disguise, so that the king may see the common people close up, but Arthur’s inability to act common nearly gets them caught several times, and in the end they are sold as slaves. The Boss, in his turn, has to act like a 6th-century knight, especially when a fair maiden arrives at court with a tale of woe and captured ladies. He is provided with a horse and weapons and armour (complicated to put on and manage), and off he goes on a quest, with the lady sitting behind him chattering unstoppably.  Problems begin when the sun gets stronger and the shade gets weaker, and he gets hotter, and has an itch on the back, and a fly inside his helmet. These unbearable conditions force him to dismount, and get Sandy (the lady’s name is Alisande, so naturally he calls her Sandy) to take his helmet off and pour water inside his armour until he is comfortable again. Only now, he can’t get back on the horse, so he walks and Sandy rides. By such means are the impracticalities of knight errantry skewered lengthily and lovingly by Twain.

Bing Crosby as The Boss?Not very believable.
Bing Crosby as The Boss? Not very believable.

They run into Morgan Le Fay, a terrifying witch, married to King Uriens, who is a doddering old man with no courage (very much like the Red Queen and Red King from Alice in Wonderland, which had been published a few years earlier). In Morgan’s castle the tone of this novel begins to turn sharp, since real human misery and cruelty are here, in her dungeons. The Boss sets people free, and does what he can to alleviate suffering, but he can’t wipe away years of torture and confinement. This is what I admire about this novel. It is not fantasy wish-fulfilment, in which all ills are easily wiped away by a stroke. Actions have consequences, which can’t be got rid of. People get killed and die of other means: the casual brutality of the 6th century is accepted by the Boss, possibly because in the 1880s there was a lot of casual 19th-century brutality as well. The Boss blows people up, kills people, arranges for things to happen that will inadvertently kill people: it’s all rather shocking but also very real. This is what people are like. He deals with the knightly class once and for all by first defeating his most hated enemy in a joust with a lasso, and then with a revolver. Many knights die, and no-one thinks anything of this, because (we are reminded) jousting was not about the spectacle and the romance, it was about maiming and disabling your opponent with heavy, fast and sharp weapons and then cutting his head off. If death has to happen the Boss’s method is cleaner and faster and more humane. In a passage near the end, when the Boss is describing the advance of newspaper journalism in Arthur’s kingdom, he mentions as an aside that the first novelist to have his book published made a bad joke once too often, and so the Boss suppressed the book and hung the author. That sort of thing comes as a shock when we also read about the Boss’s enlightened practices and useful inventions for the betterment of mankind. He really is not like us at all. He’s like we might have been over 120 years ago.

Will Rogers and Maureen O'Sullivan? Much better.
Will Rogers and Maureen O’Sullivan? Much better.

What does this novel have to say about Arthur, and the Round Table? Arthur is untouchable: a bit gullible, but a hero and a great man. Guenevere is a bored and foolish queen in love with Sir Launcelot, which Arthur knows about, but is more sad that the queen doesn’t seem to love him. Sir Launcelot is the greatest of the knights, and a sportsman as well, we can’t say anything bad about him. This eternal love triangle brings the kingdom to ruin in the end, as it must, because you can’t change the end of this story, even if the middle has been seriously messed around with. And after the death of Arthur, in comes the Church, about whom the Boss has been railing all along, since he is afraid of the Church, and rightly so. He had plans for getting rid of the Catholics and encouraging an early growth of Protestantism, but something else demanded his attention, and so the Reformation had to wait for another thousand years. Most sad of all (spoiler alert), now that the Boss has married Sandy and they have a baby girl, he inadvertently gets killed by a malign knight and is flung forward to his own time, where the reader first met him. Luckily he dies not very long afterwards, because to be missing your wife and child who have been abandoned 1300 years ago is torture we don’t want to hear much about.

But don’t be sad: there is so much humour in this novel. Satire means laughter, and the witty asides and terrific snappy dialogue in the inner thoughts of the Boss make this a novel to treasure.