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Archive for January, 2014

I have lately found myself very interested in Sir Palomides, the Saracen Knight of the Round Table. What was a Saracen doing at King Arthur’s Court, and just what is meant by “Saracen” in these stories? Palomides is described as a Saracen in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, and perhaps we can assume that term means he is a Muslim, although there were no Muslims yet in sixth century Britain; the time of King Arthur was a good century before the Prophet Mohammed established Islam. But nor was Malory trying to recreate a sixth century world—his setting is more akin to the High Middle Ages. “Saracen” was also a very general term that could refer to anyone from the Middle East at the time actually, but it was also synonymous with “Muslim” in this time period. Malory and other medieval writers make little mention of Palomides’ religion, however, other than to say he was a Pagan. Most versions of the legend say he was the son of King Escabor of Babylon, who traveled to Rome and saved the life of the emperor and later traveled to Britain and saved King Pellinore’s life. The stories are vague—did Palomides come to Britain with his father? Pellinore is known for his role in following the Questing Beast and he states that only one of his family can pursue and kill the beast, but it is Palomides who eventually does kill the beast—does this mean Palomides is in some way related to Pellinore? If there were any real sources behind Palomides’ story, they are lost. At best, we can assume he was to be seen as a model of a Pagan who was later baptized as a Christian.

One important part of Palomides’ story is his great love for Isolde, the mistress of Sir Tristan. In fact, at one point Tristan defeats Palomides and makes him swear no longer to pursue Isolde or bear arms for a year—a harsh sentence indeed. I never did like Tristan anyway and I’ve always found his and Isolde’s long love story a tiresome and lengthy digression from the good stuff in the Matter of Britain.

Tristan and Isolde: Restoring Palamede by John Erskine

Tristan and Isolde: Restoring Palamede by John Erskine

So I was both excited and doubtful when I heard that John Erskine, back in 1932, had written a book titled Tristan and Isolde: Restoring Palamede. (Palamede is an alternate spelling for Palomides just as Tristan is sometimes spelled Tristram and Isolde as Iseult.)

Erskine’s book starts out well enough. Palamede is in his father’s kingdom wanting to find out more about the world and he has heard tales of King Arthur and his knights from his tutor. In time, he decides to set off on an adventure and find the chivalrous and noble heroes he has read about. He is quickly disappointed, however, when he arrives in Cornwall and meets King Mark, Tristan, and Isolde. In fact, the only character not disappointing to me, other than Palamede, in this book is Brangain, Isolde’s maid. One of the tales of Palomides is that he rescued her from robbers who had tied her to a tree. In Erskine’s version, the local people follow vegetation and pagan beliefs, and so they chain her to a tree and it is believed the spirit of the tree will impregnate her. Palamede comes along to her rescue then, and of course, she falls in love with him, but I won’t give away what happens between them.

King Mark, Tristan, and Isolde all turn out to be quite obnoxious in Erskine’s story. The book is written in that satiric, tongue-in-cheek tone that was common in this era as postmodernism was arising—it’s the same tone as Evelyn Waugh in Helena or T.H. White in The Once and Future King. It’s the kind of tone that I find tedious—an attempt to be funny that is strained by being prolonged for more than a few appropriate pages into an entire book; it has an underlying meanness to it that shows the author laughing at and even sometimes despising his characters. And Erskine’s characters are so unlikeable that in their arguing and bickering, there were times when I felt as if I were reading a play by Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill about a dysfunctional family, rather than something Arthurian.

In the end, I was disappointed by this book. Palomides deserves better than to be the subject of a comical novel that can’t take its subject seriously. Here is the only Saracen knight in the Arthurian world and he becomes the object of satire. What was he really doing there in the Arthurian world? Erskine’s subtitle “Restoring Palamede” refers to how Palomides was often cut from the tales in later retellings that focus on Tristan and Isolde’s love—perhaps these later versions of the Victorian period or thereabouts wanted to clean up the story—no interracial or interfaith relationships allowed—but to restore Palomides properly requires a more serious tone, one perhaps that our current age of multiculturalism and diversity will be able to fulfill in a way that could not be done in the 1930s. I hope some author will restore him properly. Sadly, even the 1990s The Legend of Prince Valiant cartoon television series and the more recent Merlin BBC series did not restore him properly—The Legend of Prince Valiant substituted a black knight named Sir Bryant, and Merlin had a black knight named Sir Elyan, who was Guinevere’s brother. Why was there no Sir Palomides? Are modern writers afraid to depict a Muslim within the Arthurian world, or is he, rightly so, seen as an anachronism since there were no Muslims in Arthur’s time? Either way, Palomides deserves a new and respectful reinterpretation. Perhaps, I will make a try of it myself in my upcoming Arthurian novel series….

Erskine wrote many other books including another about the Arthurian legend, Galahad: Enough of His Life to Explain His Reputation (1926). I fear from this book’s subtitle I won’t like it much better, so I won’t run out to find a copy any time soon. But I also know that my dislike of satire is a personal taste, and anyone interested in Palomides might still want to give Tristan and Isolde: Restoring Palamede a try.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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I’ve long wondered about the truth behind theories that Helena, the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, was a British princess. As with the legend of King Arthur, we’ll probably never know the truth about her birth, but since I love the Arthurian legend, I like to think it’s true, and even that she is an ancestor to King Arthur himself since King Arthur is often theorized to be Constantine’s descendant.

Consequently, I was excited when I found out that one of Britain’s greatest twentieth century novelists, Evelyn Waugh, had written a book about St. Helena. I was even more excited when I read in the book’s preface that the Wandering Jew—a favorite figure from Gothic literature—makes an appearance.

helena-waugh-cover

Evelyn Waugh considered Helena to be his best novel.

Helena, published in 1950, actually was considered by Waugh to be his best work. I’m afraid that most critics, myself included, don’t agree. Otherwise, I’d have heard of the book long ago since I’ve read several of his better known—and better—novels such as A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited. But being Catholic, an Arthurian enthusiast, and a scholar of British literature, I was curious to know how Waugh—a Catholic novelist—would treat the subject of St. Helena.

I had really high hopes when I read George Weigl’s introduction to the book (I read the Loyala classics edition; Loyola is a Catholic publisher). I’m not a big fan of modernism and its lack of real meaning and the relativism it often favors. I don’t pretend to be completely traditional in my thinking as a Catholic, but I do appreciate a devoutly written book, and even more, one that is realistic and not sentimental. I’m afraid, however, that the introduction by George Weigel and Waugh’s Preface were the best part of the book for me. Weigel refers to how Waugh was against Gnosticism and the meaninglessness of life that it depicts. I think Weigel misunderstands Gnosticism in this description (or is relying on Waugh’s limited understanding of it in an era when many ancient Gnostic texts were just being rediscovered and would change our understanding of them), but clearly Waugh was against it—he shows Helena thinking it’s all “bosh” and I have to admit that the Gnostic texts I’ve read haven’t made much sense to me either—Waugh’s depiction of their convoluted mysticism is a pretty fair portrait—although I appreciate the recent revival of them and the spiritual message they try to express. I don’t have space here to debate their value, but Waugh should have given them less short shrift.

What I liked best about Waugh’s book is that Helena is depicted as a no nonsense person. Whenever she is introduced to any religious ideas, she constantly asks, “How do you know it’s true?” In the end, she decides Christianity must be true because there are eyewitness accounts of Christ’s life, and if Christ lived, there has to have been a cross so when she finds the True Cross, she has proof of the religion’s validity.

I also liked that in the Preface, Waugh dismisses the disbelief of so many people about the relics of the True Cross in existence in Europe, stating “We do know [how we know Waugh doesn’t say] that most of the relics of the true cross now venerated in various places have a clear descent from the relic venerated in the first half of the fourth century. It used to be believed by the vulgar that there were enough pieces of this ‘true cross’ to build a battleship. In the last century a French savant, Charles Rohault de Fleury, went to the great trouble of measuring them all. He found a total of 4,000,000 cubic millimeters, whereas the cross on which our Lord suffered would probably comprise some 178,000,000. As far as volume goes, therefore, there is no strain on the credulity of the faithful.”

While I appreciated this no nonsense approach, I found the book’s overall tone somewhat tiring. Waugh’s sarcasm and cynicism and straining attempt to be funny do not support the theme or message he’s trying to deliver. The book’s style is that semi-humorous, tongue-in-cheek style of his contemporaries from the first half of the twentieth century, authors like John Erskine and T.H. White, and with all of them, I feel the result is a style that shows it is trying too hard to be funny, perhaps because it doesn’t know what it’s real subject is or how to take it seriously—perhaps afraid to take it too seriously from fear of failing in the attempt.

Certainly, there is nothing funny in this book about Helena’s husband cheating on her, her son imposing religion on the empire for political motives, or his murdering his family members. The humor may not be laugh out loud funny, but it could use some toning down.

Helena 001

This is one of my favorite images of St. Helena, the Emperor Constantine, and the True Cross. I bought it in Turkey, which is the other competitor, along with Britain, for being her birthplace. This icon combines religion and superstition. Those are evil eyes hanging from it.

What I enjoyed most about the book was how Waugh played with myths and legends. The Wandering Jew, whose connection to finding the True Cross in the novel is Waugh’s own invention, makes his appearance when Helena is in Jerusalem looking for the cross. Since he was at the event, he is able to guide her in knowing where to find the cross. Waugh has the Jew appear to Helena in a dream to give her the information, perhaps to avoid the novel losing its feel of realism. Waugh doubtless was aware of the Wandering Jew as a standard of Gothic literature, but he in no way depicts the Jew as a Gothic figure.

Waugh also plays on the legend that Helena was a British princess and her British family are descendants of Brutus, himself a descendant of Aeneas, and consequently, of the royal family of Troy, another part of British mythology which many have tried to disprove and may well not be true, but makes for a great part of the Arthurian story.

In the end, I don’t think Helena is a fabulous book. In fact, the pivotal moment when Helena becomes a Christian is brushed over, and I feel that really detracts from the whole argument Waugh is trying to make. Nor do I think she comes off looking like the kind of saint we would expect—a criticism Waugh would have understood. For Waugh, part of sainthood was about finding and living your vocation—Helena’s vocation was to find the cross. Waugh believed his own was to be a writer. Both served God in their own way through those vocations. Does it matter whether Helena found the True Cross? To some it may have added to their faith. Waugh himself actually comes off sounding uncertain. At the end of the preface he says, “The story is just something to be read; in fact, a legend.” But at the end of the novel itself, he states, “Above all the babble of her age and ours, she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone is hope.” Does the hope Waugh refers to lie in that she found the cross, or that there is hope itself? I guess it’s up to the reader to decide.

For readers who want a different take on Helena that again ties her to British myth, they might also enjoy Diana Paxson’s Priestess of Avalon, part of the Marion Zimmer Bradley Avalon series, which takes a less Catholic view of Helena, as the title suggests.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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