Epic Poems You’ve Never Read: Beowulf’s Anglo-Saxon heroics

beowulf-1It’s the start of university teaching again in the UK, so this miniseries of Really Like This Book podcast script catch-ups indulges my passion for teaching epic poetry. If English literature is a forest, epic poems are the big knobbly roots that stick up out of the ground and get in the way. They’ve been there for a long time for good reason. I start in the sixth century AD, with that Anglo-Saxon epic of Danish monsters, Beowulf. Today’s link with the sixth century’s round-the-fire entertainment is The Lord of the Rings, so if you like that, you’ll like Beowulf. It’s got a superhero with a sword, it’s got the ur-monster Grendel, and his even more terrifying mother who is an underwater killing machine. It’s got a dragon, it’s got a hall of men being eaten up by a rampaging monster dripping blood, and it’s got stately kings and magnificent queens.

All that is great to read, but in reading Beowulf, we do have a problem. It’s not written in modern English, so we have to use translations unless you’ve done a year or two of Anglo-Saxon first. * Seamus Heaney’s version is very good. I like it mainly because Heaney’s version is that of a poet retelling the story while following the Anglo-Saxon poetic forms. The translations I used as a student were written by scholars of Anglo-Saxon. While they were all enthusiasts for the story and the culture it depicts, and in some cases they were also literature scholars as well as linguists, they weren’t always good poets. I got tired of clunky renderings of the exact match of sense and sound: I wanted story. Heaney gives the story in poetry.

beowulf-2When you read Beowulf, as with all poetry, it’s a good idea to read it aloud. Beowulf was an orally transmitted poem, memorised and recited as a set-piece performance in halls and at feasts. It was public entertainment, to be heard and marvelled at, and also remembered. Everyone would have known it as a familiar story, and it would have been received as an old favourite as well as a variant on an old form. The first word of Beowulf as we know it tells us this: it’s ‘Hwaet!’. That means, ‘listen, pay attention, I’m going to tell you about something worth listening to’. It’s a word designed for bellowing into a rowdy drinking hall, to make the drunks shut up and the idle pay attention. Heaney’s version starts the poem with ‘So.’, which is equally effective: a colloquial signal meaning ‘stop what you’re doing just a minute, and listen to what I’m about to say’.

The story begins in the hall of Hrothgar, a Danish king with a hall that was probably somewhere near Roskilde in modern Denmark. (There’s a huge metal music festival there now every year: is this a coincidence?) Hrothgar is a good king and a rich one; his queen is the great lady Wealhtheow, and he has a fine body of men as his war-horde. But he has a problem: he also has a monster. Something is attacking and eating his men, by night and in secret, and no-one knows where the beast lives, or how to stop it. So he sends out the word for help, and Beowulf’s ship arrives.

beowulf-3We could describe Beowulf as a professional hero, but that would be a very anachronistic view. We have to think ourselves into Anglo-Saxon culture, drawn from archaeology as well as ancient fragments of poetry and formal records. The lord of a hall offered hospitality without question to anyone who came to visit – this was a common feature of Bronze Age and Iron Age civilisations worldwide. Fighting men who had their own means – weapons, armour, servants and their own warriors, and a network of family and friendship connections – would find a welcome anywhere where they weren’t already involved with a feud or a bad kin relationship. Once the fighting man had come to visit, he might stay for a week, a month, or years, giving the lord service as required, and being treated as part of the fighting force. Beowulf is already royal, as the nephew of King Hygelac of the Geats, so he has high status, but he’s also welcome for his prowess. He’s an established hero, and the poem is full of stories of his deeds. All heroic fantasy novels, video games, films and avatar worlds that have any connection with pre-medieval swords and sorcery, are descended from Beowulf, no matter how remotely.

Here is a digression into book history, and the extraordinary survival power of stories. Beowulf was an orally-transmitted poem, and is around 1500 years old. It’s the oldest text in English literature. It was probably first created in the Anglian dialect, from the East of England. At some time in about 750 AD a written version was made using a different dialect of Old English, from the north or west of England. This was copied and recopied by different scribes for different clients, in different parts of the linguistic patchwork of the British Isles. The earliest copy of the poem that exists now dates from 1000 AD, and that was written in a Kentish dialect. So the poem was an English poem, it travelled around and existed outside the borders of small kingdoms. That single copy of the poem was the only one that survived, for 1000 years, without being burned, used as fish wrapping, or stolen and lost in a river at night, as probably happened to other copies that undoubtedly also existed. Finally, this ancient survivor was copied in the early eighteenth century on the instruction of its then owner, because the 1000-year old parchment was decaying fast, and it had been damaged in a fire. These eighteenth-century copies preserved the poem for modern study, and released Anglo-Saxon culture as an imaginative cultural force into modern society. Pause for a moment to think of all the other Anglo-Saxon poetry and stories and jokes and songs that were never written down, and have disappeared for ever.

beowulf-5Back to the plot: Beowulf makes his plan and lies in wait for the monster. At this point in the story, the Christian concept of ‘demon’ is used as a description of the man-eating monster, showing that the society that enjoyed the poem enough to write it down was also Christian. When the monster enters the hall for its nightly snack, Beowulf wrestles with it as it scoops up men to eat, and wrenches its arm off at the shoulder. Consider this for a moment: the poem has already mentioned Beowulf’s stupendous battles with underwater creatures, and his beyond-human prowess in war, so we know he’s a little bit supernatural. But here we’re hearing about physical strength, endurance, immense wrestling power, all without weapons: Beowulf must be a man-monster himself, but luckily for Hrothgar he’s on the right side.

beowulf-7So Grendel the monster (for it is he) is defeated, and runs back to his lair wailing, to die. The warriors feast in triumph, there is much rejoicing, but on the next night, a far worse terror enters the hall: Grendel’s mother. I have to say, the concept of a bully’s mother being more terrible than the bully itself seems a joke now, because Monty Python have massacred that idea into silliness. But if we read this from the Anglo-Saxon perspective, the mother of a monster has got to be worse than the monster itself, because of kinship laws and the transmission of a feud between child and parent. From the Christian perspective, Grendel wasn’t any old monster-demon: he was the son of Cain, so Grendel’s mother could be connected with one of the Old Testament demons like Lilith, which Jewish folklore later connected with Adam, Cain’s father. In any case, a female demon is more formidable than a male one. The fear of a powerful female who can defeat men, even eat them up, goes a very long way back in human culture.

beowulf-4Beowulf takes on Grendel’s mother in an underwater battle in the slime, and their combat is epic, lengthy and bloody. When it is over, the world returns to normal, the hero is feasted, and he sails away. But the poem is not yet finished. Many years later, Beowulf has become king of the Geats (the poem is very precise about details of Scandinavian ruling dynasties, because it also functioned as a history lesson for its original listeners). He has got to fight a dragon, because some thief or other has stolen a golden cup from the dragon’s hoard. Anyone who’s read The Hobbit will now be pricking up their ears: this is where Tolkien got the idea from for Smaug, and for Bilbo’s theft. Beowulf goes forth to attack and beat the dragon, and he dies.

The thing I particularly love about the dragon part of Beowulf is that it was the first known best-seller. The manuscript of the dragon part of the single surviving earliest copy of Beowulf is significantly more worn, and faded, and handled, than the earlier parts. The dragon part was almost illegible in the eighteenth century, and was obviously much more popular than the earlier parts since it had been used and copied from and simply touched by many more hands. That battle was epic, but it was also tragic, and noble. Interesting fact for medievalists: the death of Beowulf, and his conversations with his faithful warrior Wiglaf while dying, have a lot of similarities with the Malorian version of the death of King Arthur.

Any dragon in English literature is descended from Beowulf’s dragon, which itself came from Norse mythology, but there are other things in Beowulf the poem that we recognise today. Tolkien was a world-class scholar of northern languages and myth, and wrote many highly influential scholarly works dealing with dragons and northern mythology, as well as with the language and literature of that period and later. He too translated Beowulf (see the image posted above) with an extensive commentary. In The Lord of the Rings the Riders of Rohan and the culture of the Rohirrim are lifted straight from Beowulf, as are the names of Éomer and Hàma. The defence at Helm’s Deep is partially lifted from the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Fight at Finnsburgh’. When Beowulf and his men arrive at Heorot they are asked to stack their weapons at the door. When Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli arrive at Édoras, Hàma the doorwarden asks them to do this too. Wealhtheow, the queen of Hrothgar’s hall, and Hygelac’s queen Hygd, are the Éowyns of their day, and Éowyn’s offering of the guest-cup to Aragorn comes directly from Wealhtheow doing to same to Beowulf in Hrothgar’s hall. The lament of the Rohirrim that Aragorn sings to Frodo is a Tolkienised version of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wanderer’. Beowulf’s sword that dissolves in Grendel’s mother is startlingly close to the sword that the Witch-King of Amgmar stuck into Frodo.

beowulf-6We could go on hunting Anglo-Saxonness in Tolkien, and several people, principally Tom Shippey, have done so. Everywhere you look in Anglo-Saxon poetry, you can find things that Tolkien reused in Middle-Earth. But start with Beowulf: it’s the best and most direct way to return to the society Tolkien had in mind when he wrote his Rohan chapters. But read Beowulf for itself: it’s a grand poem, it won’t take you long (epic does not necessarily mean long), and it’s a window into a different world.

* The late Professor Duncan Macrae-Gibson taught me Anglo-Saxon, and recited the first stanzas of Beowulf to a harp (possibly also wearing Anglo-Saxon costume, but I’m not sure about that now), to open his first lecture. That is how to get your students’ attention.



Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising

Cooper 1In the last of the Really Like This Book podcast script catch-ups about King Arthur, I’m reading a very old favourite, the series of fantasy novels by Susan Cooper called The Dark is Rising. There are five, and the earliest one – Over Sea Under Stone – is most definitely a children’s mystery quest. Simon, Jane and Barney Drew are helped by Merlin to find the Holy Grail in a Cornish cave. The second is the key novel of the five, written for an older readership: The Dark is Rising itself, where on his birthday Will comes into full membership of a company of guardians of the earth against the Dark. Again, it’s a quest story, where Will is helped by Merlin. The third, Greenwitch, takes Will to Cornwall where he meets the Drew children, and helps them, with Merlin, retrieve a certain something from the pagan wicker man thrown into the sea each midsummer, which the forces of the Light need to combat the Dark. Notice the capital letters. The fourth novel, The Grey King, is a much darker story, set in Wales and dealing with racism and bigotry, where Will meets King Arthur’s son, a Welsh boy called Bran who is an albino. The last of the series, Silver on the Tree, has Will, Bran, and the Drew children back in Wales, on another quest, all bound up with Welsh mythology and flights through time to prevent the Dark from rising all over the world.

cooper 6These are 1970s novels, yet there is something very pure about Cooper’s writing that makes her fiction undatable. One of her earliest novels, Mandrake, was written in the 1960s, and, apart from the obvious changes in technology, could be read unremarked for its dystopic vision today. Her strange and dark coming-of-age novel, Seaward, is a perfect evocation of bereavement and adolescent feelings, and again is impossible to date: it could have been published last year or thirty years ago, you just can’t tell. All her fiction seems to be about quests, characters who have suffered loss looking for something to put the world back together again, and usually they manage it. She is an eternally hopeful novelist.

The Dark is Rising novels are linked by Merlin, who is really only ‘revealed’ as Merlin towards the end. He is Merriman, Great Uncle Merry to the Drew children, an imposing and friendly university professor, and a friend of their parents, but they never quite work out what he is a professor in. In Will’s books, he is Merriman the butler, working for an elderly and stern old lady living near Will’s Buckinghamshire village, but when Will meets the Old Ones of the Light (more capital letters), Merriman is his guide and the old lady is part of the circle. In the two last novels there is much less of Merriman and much more of Bran, because just as Merlin was King Arthur’s guide and counsellor, and friend, Will has the same relationship with Bran.

cooper 2Bran is an interesting creation. He’s the son of King Arthur, brought forward in time by Guinevere with Merlin’s help, to keep him safe, because she and Merlin know that Arthur will not believe in his royal parentage, what with all the bother about Lancelot. (Rather a moralistic message to send children about their tragic love triangle.) So Bran grows up as the much-loved son of a Welsh shepherd, who also loved Guinevere when he took her and her baby in from the storm. Cooper was brave to make Bran albino. It’s not a very common condition for fictional characters because it is so visual, hard to keep in mind when you are reading about him but not seeing him, and that is undoubtedly the point. There is nothing about albinism that affects the mind, yet Bran is a damaged child, highly sceptical about his mystical fate, hut willing to accept it as a reason, however far-fetched, for his essential difference that has caused the bullying and unpleasantness he has endured in this remote Welsh community. Being different is one thing, but looking different, all the time and inescapably, in a very conventional and rigidly Christian society, with views about apparently illegitimate children, is very hard. Bran is a highly prickly character, and The Grey King and Silver on the Tree are full of the resentment he feels towards all of society, aimed at Will initially as Will tries to get through his barriers and make friends. Once they start their quest and Bran realises that he has a place in this new parallel world of magic and hidden secrets, things go better, until the unpleasantness of the ‘real’ world intrudes, and bullying returns. Cooper is exceptionally good at depicting the viciousness of hate brought about by resentment of difference. By using the metaphor of the Dark versus the Light, the attacks on Bran become part of the way we can understand what the Dark really is.

Cooper 3Before, in the series, it was enough to know that if Merlin was for something, then those against Merlin were automatically bad. There was no need to see the badness, to realise what the Dark could do if it had power over people. A hint here and there, about throwing a child into a river, for instance, was enough, because that is conventional, that’s what storybook villains do, they just threaten and the good guys will stop them doing it. But in The Grey King, and in Silver on the Tree, death happens, and betrayal on a terrible scale is revealed. And it is shocking, because these things – and I’m not going to spoil the novels by telling you exactly what I’m talking about, so you’ll have to take my word for it –  these things really matter to understand the immensity of the struggle Cooper is writing about. We all understand that the stories of Arthur and Merlin are about power and rightness holding back the might of evil times, and we all understand the convention that in fantasy stories it simply doesn’t matter that the protagonists can be children. The age of the protagonists is irrelevant in stories that draw on myth and enact metaphorical struggles, because qualities of character, and a sense of right and wrong, make the difference. Dressing up the essential battle with heroic names and things of power and rituals and quests are good for exploring ambiguities in the story, and good for developing the parallel story of a child growing into an adult. But outside this, what Cooper is writing about (along with hundreds of other YA and fantasy authors), is simply the tipping balance between right and wrong, and the battle to stop the wrong taking over the right. In a different genre, thrillers are about this – protecting the thin line between civilisation and anarchy – and they have nothing to do with the supernatural. All fantasy fiction is about this, whether it’s queens or wizards or humans or elves.

cooper 4So what do the stories of Arthur have that make them so enduring, in Susan Cooper’s novels? Why does it work so well, that Merlin can be a professor and a butler, and train his pupil Will to be the last wizard of the Old Ones left on earth to keep an eye on the Dark trying to get in? If you accept these stories as part of the Arthurian canon, you accept all the Arthurian canon with them. In this shared world, all the detail and back story are assumed to be known and understood, so we don’t have to be told why Guinevere was so afraid for Bran, we know enough that she has reason to be afraid. Cooper never mentions Mordred’s name, but we’d know which side he was on. Arthur is the great king and Merlin is the great wizard, and these archetypes are enough to rest any amount of stories on.

One last thing: the Welshness in these last two stories is done spectacularly well. The Cornwall and Buckinghamshire of the first three novels are just places, they could be anywhere in rural England, but the Welsh landscape and mountains and small roads and railway lines of The Grey King and Silver on the Tree are unforgettable. Cooper wraps all this up in Welsh legends and names that will be unfamiliar to those of us who weren’t brought up there, which magnifies the strangeness and mystery. These are marvellous novels, heartily recommended.

cooper 5Postscript. A film was made of The Dark is Rising in 2007, and I couldn’t manage to get through even the trailer. Will has been made American, and even though Dr Who has grown his hair to become what looks like a creditable Rider, and Ian McShane looks quite good as Merriman, it looks like a Harry Potter rip-off with extra, unwanted, hormones. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with it.


Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave

stewart 1We’ve reached the point in this recap of Really Like This Book podcast scripts about King Arthur when we really have to talk about Mary Stewart. She died in 2014, which came as a shock to me. I had been living in the same time as one of my favourite authors, and never had the gumption to write her a letter? Fool. I wrote a humble obituary instead.

Mary Stewart wrote a magical series of five Arthur novels, starting with The Crystal Cave, and the life of Merlin. The following four are The Hollow Hills (in which Arthur grows up and comes to his kingdom), The Last Enchantment (the early years of Arthur’s reign, still struggling against the Saxons), and The Wicked Day (the story of Mordred, given a rather sympathetic twist). The fifth novel, The Prince and the Pilgrim, I haven’t actually read, and I didn’t even know it existed until I started researching this pod. I think this must be because I bought the other four novels in one go, and this last one was published after that, and I simply didn’t notice. I’ll have to go and buy it now, * but I do know that it’s about the finding of the Holy Grail.

stewart 2My favourite is The Crystal Cave, which I first read lying fully dressed in a sleeping-bag, in a tent in mid-Wales, in the March snow, desperately trying to finish the book before the light went, or my torch battery went. That was the first and last time I went on a camping holiday of my own free will, and The Crystal Cave did a lot to make the experience bearable, by taking me away from it completely. It was completely unputdownable, and still is, for me. Part of its attraction is that it isn’t about Arthur as such, but about the events led up to Arthur being born. I’m quite aware that Arthur is a myth and a fantasy in many forms, but for simplicity I’m going to pretend he was a real person, because in the world of this genre he is, and because it saves me writing a lot of conditional ‘might haves’.

Merlin also did not come first: before Merlin and Arthur were King Uther, who was Arthur’s father, and his elder brother the High King Ambrosius, who was Merlin’s father. They are crucial to ground the story of Merlin, because it is so completely unknown. Mary Stewart makes a terrific job of placing him in a historical lineage (Ambrosius is mentioned in something more reliable than Gildas, I think), and within a Roman military tradition.

stewart 3Merlin doesn’t know who his father is, and nobody else does either, because his mother, a princess in south Wales, has refused to let anyone know. It’s assumed that he must have been the devil, since she comes from a decent household. Merlin grows up in his grandfather’s palace, which is a patched-up ruin of a Roman villa, in Carmarthen. He is bullied and picked on, but is resilient, and clever at getting out of the way. He finds a cave in the hills nearby, and meets its owner, a hermit called Galapas, who becomes his supplementary tutor. The cave releases Merlin’s magic, which he knew he had in a vague sort of way, since he has inherited his mother’s second sight. As Merlin gets older, he becomes more aware of the politics of his world, and the threat of war that is always lurking on the horizon. The usurping High King Vortigern has invited the Saxons in to defend his kingdom, and has to pay them more money each year to keep the land safe from other invaders. A rival force, led by his sons Vortimer and Katigern, is becoming a threat, and the small kings of Wales, Merlin’s grandfather included, have to be wary about which side they choose. Merlin’s uncle Camlach is also a danger, since Merlin is a threat to his inheritance. All this boils up into murder and destruction when the old king dies. Merlin is partly kidnapped and partly helped to escape, and sails to Brittany to find the near-mythical war leader Ambrosius.

stewart 4The story really takes off when Merlin, a twelve-year old boy, is facing down suspicious troops and a very angry Uther in a barn in a frozen field in France. He’s seen a vision of a bull-killing, which he doesn’t understand at all, but which the reader will spot as a ritual from the worship of Mithras, the Roman soldier’s god, and cognate with Christ. Ambrosius arrives, instantly recognises Merlin as his son (but doesn’t mention this to anyone), and takes him into his service. Merlin trains as an engineer, a military doctor and a singer, and learns a lot about druids. There’s a lot about gods and goddesses in Merlin’s world, and I find it interesting how Stewart slides her meanings about. Goddesses are always evil and dark, which is the kind of traditional and patriarchal thinking that led Marion Zimmer Bradley to rework the theology in Arthur’s world, in her The Mists of Avalon. Merlin serves a god with a small g, who is the source of his visions and his magic. He is received as an initiate into the worship of Mithras because as his father’s son it is politically necessary, and also because it is important to have close connections with other men whom he meets in the Bull Cave. It’s unclear whether Merlin believes in Mithras as a god in his own right, or just a manifestation of THE god. Above all else, Merlin is interested in belief, and investigates it wherever he goes. All knowledge is good, but all beliefs are not so good. He is polite about Christianity, because a God is a god, after all, but it is not where he places his belief.

stewart 5Ambrosius is creating a new Roman army for the takeover of Britain, his rightful kingdom, since Vortigern killed his elder brother Constantius. When the army finally invades, Merlin goes over first to collect information, and to find his mother. She’s now safe in a nunnery, but they are both collected by Vortigern because Vortigern is having trouble building a fortress that keeps falling down, and wants Merlin, as the well-known son of a devil, as a druidic sacrifice. Merlin prophecies Vortigern’s defeat instead, and the invasion begins. Merlin is a human who has seizures of Sight, but otherwise his influence is derived from common sense, logic, complicated mathematics, and a lot of luck. He is also unafraid, because he has seen his death, far in the future, and so there is nothing for him to fear in the here and now. This makes a big difference to how one regards dangers and threats. Stewart’s storytelling is tremendously exciting because she uses simple, matter-of-fact narration that contrasts with the importance and drama of what is happening.

stewart 6The important part of the novel, of course, is how Merlin engineers the birth of Arthur. This part is all taken from that truly jaw-dropping fantasy work, a 12thC historical chronicle by Geoffrey of Monmouth called the History of the Kings of Britain. Many, many poems and stories about Arthur were derived from this, including Malory, until the 19th century, when Tennyson’s poem cycle The Idylls of the King rather took over as the Arthurian source du jour. Geoffrey’s account, or story, because it is not a history but a shameless patchwork of event and myth, is used by Stewart faithfully, embellished where there are gaps, and where she needed to link Geoffrey to the Roman military legacy. So because Merlin knows that Arthur will be the greatest king England has had, he knows that it will all go according to plan. Trouble is, he doesn’t see all the details, so although getting Uther into the bed of the virtuous Ygraine, Duchess of Cornwall, is fiddly and difficult, it is possible. Unfortunately, Merlin doesn’t foresee the death of the Duke of Cornwall, which King Uther sees as Merlin’s failure, and shoves the blame onto him. The king also rejects the baby to be born, leaving him safe for  Merlin to take away and hide until he is needed.

But all that is in the succeeding novels. The Crystal Cave is about Merlin, and Merlin’s relations with his servants and friends and relations, and it is a mighty fine story, highly readable, engaging, delightful, thrilling, daring and utterly absorbing. For invention and plausibility alone Mary Stewart would be worth reading, but she’s also completely faithful to the Arthurian story in these novels in a way that gives them new life, and keeps the important, central themes intact.

* I still haven’t bought it. I will, I will.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern-Bearers

sutcliff 1This novel of King Arthur from the Really Like This Books podcast scripts catch-up is Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern-Bearers. It begins as one of her Romans in Britain novels, the books for which she is best known, a sequence that traces different periods of Roman rule in Britain, linked by the transmitted family heirloom of a glass ring engraved with a dolphin. In The Lantern-Bearers Aquila is a Roman centurion, visiting his family on their farm in what we now call Sussex, which has been in the family for generations. (Readers of earlier novels in the sequence will know who bought the farm, and who lived there before.) He’s one of the native British officers: after over 300 years of Roman occupation, the island of Britain has contributed generations of soldiers to the Roman army. He receives word unexpectedly that his legion is being pulled out of Britain, along with the rest of the army, and realises that if he goes, he may never see his family again. He goes back to barracks at Rutupiae, or Richborough, as it is now called, on the south-easternmost tip of England, and gets his men ready for boarding ship. But he doesn’t go with them. He becomes a wilful deserter, and allows the last ship to leave without him. As a farewell, he lights the great beacon at the fort to shine out while the Roman Empire leaves Britain for good.

sutcliff 5After that, he goes home. His father, blind but still a soldier at heart, is pleased but also not pleased; it isn’t so good to have a deserter in the family, even if it means deserting to protect one’s native country. The family settles down, but now that the Romans have gone, the Saxons come back, and one autumn night, the farm is attacked, and everyone is killed or taken as slaves. Aquila gets knocked out in the very violent struggle, but he sees enough to realise that while his father is dead, his sister Flavia has been captured. In a state of shock, he is taken to Jutland as a slave, and spends several winters there, learning the language and learning to be worth less than nothing. Sutcliff does a tremendous job of conveying the extreme psychological damage Aquila has suffered. Since he is shut off from his own language – Latin – and only able to speak Jutish, and because he is a brutalised slave under barbarian control, he loses his ability to be open, to remember freedom, and internalises his anger and hurt, destroying the boy he had been.

The time comes for his owner to return to Britain for a great meeting of Saxon leaders, and Aquila is taken too. While he’s in the Saxon camp, he accidentally meets Flavia again: now the property of a Saxon warrior, and with a baby of her own. They are totally miserable at her continued captivity, because she will not leave her baby son, or her husband, even though she and Aquila regard slavery under the Saxons as the ultimate in degradation. She helps Aquila escape and he gives her the family dolphin ring. And so he gets away, more tormented than ever.

artwork by the immortal Charles Keeping
artwork by the immortal Charles Keeping

Now we come to the Arthurian part. After a jump of several years, we meet Aquila again as the cavalry leader in the war band of Ambrosius, which the very young Arthur is just desperate to join. And now it all clicks into place. This is a retelling of the Arthur story which connects a what-if counterfactual speculation with historical post-Roman fact, and builds in all sorts of attractive ideas about the rebuilding of the defenders of Britain as a guerrilla force resisting the invading Saxons, year by year. It’s also a cultural argument, linking Roman civilisation, and advanced techniques in military strategy, tactics, discipline and techniques, with the heroism attached to the Arthurian legend. Not that Arthur is just another local-born amateur legionary, oh no. In The Lantern-Bearers he is a royal child, a golden boy and a natural horseman, a young man that everyone wants to follow because he is charisma personified. He’s also a nice person, honest and loyal and kind.

sutcliff 4This is fine when Aquila is his cavalry captain, because Aquila is content to serve under Arthur’s uncle, Ambrosius, because then he doesn’t have to think. He is still horribly traumatised by his years of slavery, and does not speak willingly to anyone. Ambrosius wants to build more alliances with the small kings in Wales and the west, and so he asks Aquila to take a wife from these provinces. Aquila is not at all interested in women, or marrying, but he does what his leader asks, goes to visit Cradoc in Wales, and almost at random asks him for his younger daughter Ness. The choice is bizarre, since he has hardly noticed Ness, and her elder sister is much more beautiful. But Ness was cross at Aquila’s arrogance and unfeeling contempt for their poverty, and somehow that stuck in Aquila’s mind. So Ness left her home to become Aquila’s wife, and a cold, miserable and lonely few years she had of it, since he paid her hardly any attention, and treated her calmly and coldly as a housekeeper rather than anyone he had a relationship with. But small things began to happen, and he began to miss her when she was not waiting in their cave or their hut with all things ready for his return. When he had, most unusually, to go and look for her in the woods, one autumn evening, he found out that not only had she been in love with someone else, but that man has just been killed in battle. What a mess Aquila has made of their lives. Ness has their baby, not long after, and so Aquila now had a son of his own, who he named Flavian, after his father, the first time he’d told Ness his father’s name. Flavian grows up, and Aquila struggles to become human again. His son is not a natural defier of authority, but he hero-worships Arthur, and through the story of the younger men we get the beginnings of the Round Table, and the rehabilitation of Aquila.

sutcliff 6The Lantern-Bearers is a harsh novel, because it’s about what war and captivity do to the psyche. It’s also about using authority wisely, and accepting when to fight a battle and when to leave things alone. Arthur is a good minor character, and we look eagerly for all the elements in his life and character that will turn into his legend much later. But the men of the story are the important ones, because this novel is also about resistance to invasion, a very British theme.

Sutcliff did write another Arthur novel, called Sword at Sunset, but it’s nothing like as good as this one. This retelling of the Arthurian legend works best when she’s got her feet in Roman Britain, looking forward at the murky unlettered middle ages to come, when very little was recorded and a short life and a violent one was the norm for most people. When I was writing this podcast script, I was also reading a truly excellent, revisionist work of history, Robin Fleming’s Britain after Rome. This turns on its head the old idea that after the Roman Empire broke up and Britain was abandoned, there were waves and waves of invading Vikings and other fierce Norsemen from Scandinavia, flooding over Britain like a tide of blood. This apparently did not happen, and the archaeology proves it. What did happen were slow accretions of settlements in different areas for different reasons, which seems pretty much like common sense. Towns were abandoned and farms became the main settlement unit. Christianity disappeared, and then came back again.  All of which makes sense when reading The Lantern-Bearers.

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.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

Kaz 1I didn’t come to The Buried Giant by the standard Ishiguro route, since I’ve not read much of his work. All the descriptions I had read before The Buried Giant arrived in my Christmas stocking agreed that it was an odd and peculiar novel from this modern British novelist because it involved giants and knights and other non-standard things that Serious British Novelists shouldn’t bother with. Unusually, the chattering about The Buried Giant seemed to be about which niche the story should be confined to, rather than whether it was any good. I do love it when the mainstream book reviewers get snooty, because that shows they’re out of their precious little comfort zones.

Kaz 3I liked The Buried Giant, because it is gentle, but springs surprises out of nowhere. It is cunningly written, gripping the attention through its subdued tone describing a journey packed with unexplained wonders. The story is about an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are travelling away their village, in which they are – oddly – deprived of candles and other useful things, to see their son. They are worried by a mist in the land that is taking away memories, and they worry that this is bad for them and their neighbours. On their journey they meet and travel with Wistan, a dragon-killing warrior who doesn’t want to be recognised, because he is a Saxon and this part of the land is populated by Britons. They rescue Edwin, an outcast boy who has been bitten by a dragon (shades of Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu?), escape some extraordinarily brutal attacks by Saxons and Britons, and find dubious refuge in a monastery that is well provided with death-traps and defensible positions. There is an underground monster, and mysterious ladies of the lakes who confound reality. They meet Sir Gawain, an elderly, creaking knight who is the famous nephew of King Arthur, wandering around the countryside in an aimless way with a horse called Harold. If he isn’t an affectionate homage to King Pellinore of The Once and Future King I’ll eat my brachet.

Kaz 2Memories surface out of conversations, and chance encounters open up more stories and recollections, until – partway through the novel – we become certain that Axl is also an elderly knight, that Wistan has a mission that he’s not telling anyone about, that Sir Gawain is lying through his horse’s teeth, and that they should all be careful what they wish for. The reign of King Arthur was not as benign and good for the people as we have been led to believe, and Axl, a gentle, loving, dutiful man, devoted to his saintly wife, may have done terrible things in his mist-covered past. Reconciliation seems desperately needed, and as the reader deduces what might be hidden by the mist, perhaps killing the dragon will do more harm than good.

This is a very clever novel. It might also be a fable, or an allegory, but both those labels have too much baggage to work effectively. Think of the episodes in The Buried Giant as moments in a tale described in detail, the reader ushered from one to the next, much like the way Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was constructed, or even Le Morte d’Arthur itself. Ishiguro makes the telling of the story reflect what the plot reveals, and compounds the effect of the events with how the reader experiences the plot’s unfolding. There is a buried giant in the story, but he only appears briefly, towards the end. The alert reader will wonder if the title is also an allegory, since such a short and on the face of it not very relevant appearance of a giant buried in the earth hardly warrants the naming the novel. The things that are buried are indeed giant-like in their implications for the characters, for their world, and for how things might go once the dragon has been killed, for this is the quest that Sir Gawain and Wistan are both resolved to accomplish. But only one of them can do it, and there will be swords.