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Posts Tagged ‘Rosemary Sutcliff’

Thomas Love Peacock was a writer of the Romantic Age known for his friendship with writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley and for books such as Nightmare Abbey (1818) a parody of Gothic novels. Being a lover of the Gothic, I read Nightmare Abbey many years ago, found its satire tedious, and never read another Peacock book until I heard that The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829) was an Arthurian novel.

An early edition of The Misfortunes of Elphin – note the peacock design – a tribute to the author’s name.

In fact, The Misfortunes of Elphin may be not only the first modern Arthurian novel but the first historical Arthurian novel, a designation that often goes to Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset (1963). Actually, several other authors wrote historical Arthurian novels in between, including William H. Babcock (Clan of the Chariots, 1898), W. Barnard Faraday (Pendragon, 1930), Edward Frankland (The Bear of Britain, 1944), and John Masefield (Badon Parchments, 1947), but it wasn’t until Sutcliff that a real effort to create a historically accurate Arthurian world became popular.

Regardless, Peacock is the first to make the effort, though that is not to say that he uses the same criteria a historical novelist would today, but nor does he set Arthur in a vague medieval period in England. Instead, he goes back to the Welsh legends to create an Arthurian world akin to what we find in the Mabinogion. Not until Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King (1988) would another author try to be so loyal to the Welsh legends in his depiction of the Arthurian story. For that reason alone, I find The Misfortunes of Elphin remarkable.

I was also surprised that Peacock does not mock his subject matter but treats it sincerely. The only really flaw in his style is that in a few places he has digressions where he compares the past to the present, thus breaking the fictional spell for the reader. Unfortunately, the story itself is a bit weak and disjointed, but Peacock’s use of the Welsh Triads and other Welsh sources still makes it of interest to the student of Arthurian literature.

The story begins with Gwythno, King of Caredigion, who has working for him Seithenyn, Lord of the Embankment. Seithenyn is not good about maintaining the embankment and eventually it fails and causes the land to flood, leading to the destruction of Gwythno’s kingdom. Gwythno’s son, Elphin, tries to prevent this from happening, but he is too late. Nevertheless, he falls in love with Seithenyn’s daughter, Angrahad, when he goes to speak with her father. Both Gwythno and Seithenyn feature in Welsh tradition (although Jenifer Westwood in Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain suggests that Gwythno is really Edward I “Longshanks”).

“She gave him a supper” an illustration from the novel. The scene shows a trick played by Angrahad to deceive Maelgon’s man into thinking she is not as virtuous as Elphin claims.

Living in new quarters because Gwythno’s castle has basically been destroyed—Elphin and Angrahad marry and Gwythno goes to live with them. After the destruction of the kingdom by the flooding, Elphin is reduced to fishing for a livelihood to feed his family. One day he rescues from the water the baby Taliesin, who will grow up to become a great bard. Elphin regrets rescuing the child because now there will be another mouth to feed, but Taliesin, who can talk as a baby, tells him someday he will rejoice for having done it. The rest of the novel shows why Taliesin is of value to the family.

One day, Maelgon, a neighboring king, raids the land but pretends to be a guest to Elphin. He then invites Elphin to his castle, but when Elphin returns the visit, trouble ensues when they argue over whose wife is better. In the end, Maelgon imprisons Elphin. By now, Taliesin is grown up. He goes to King Arthur, who is overlord of Britain, to ask for help to rescue Elphin, but Arthur has troubles of his own—Gwenyvar has been captured by Melvas. Taliesin aids Arthur in helping to negotiate Gwenyvar’s release. In exchange, Arthur then helps to free Elphin. All ends well, of course, and even Taliesin finds love to add to the happy ending.

For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the book is that Gwenvach is a character in the novel. She is Gwenyvar’s half-sister and Mordred’s wife in the novel. She makes a remark after Gwenyvar is rescued that suggests Gwenyvar was not virtuous while Melvas’ captive. As a result, Gwenyvar slaps her, which Peacock says is one of the Three Fatal Slaps that caused the battle of Camlann since it increased the enmity between Arthur and Mordred. I love this inclusion of Gwenvach because in my own Children of Arthur series, Gwenvach is the primary villain, also based on this statement from the Welsh Triads, although I spell her name Gwenhwyvach. Peacock is digging for legitimate legends here and not just making up his storyline like too many modern Arthurian novelists. Another scene refers to one of the Three Chaste Kisses of Britain, a kiss given by Taliesin.

It’s also noteworthy that Peacock intersperses a lot of poetry throughout the novel. It is not great poetry, and most of it is sung by Taliesin, including a song of Ceridwen’s Cauldron. The poetry takes up a huge portion of the book and acts like filler for the undeveloped plot. It largely reminded me of opera, with a little plot, and then a bunch of songs that don’t really advance the plot, but it is an interesting mix of poetry and storyline anyway, and also a bit reminiscent of Mrs. Radcliffe’s use of poetry in her novels. Peacock was just as well known for his poetry as his novels, and he had already published a longer Arthurian poem, “The Round Table, or King Arthur’s Feast” (1817) in which King Arthur is in Avalon and Merlin allows him to view all the monarchs who have sat on his throne up to the time of George III. The poem can be read online at: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/peacock-round-table.

Thomas Love Peacock, known today chiefly as a satirist and friend to Percy Shelley.

Ultimately, Peacock ends up being a mediocre poet and a mediocre novelist, but his writing is not completely without interest. The Misfortunes of Elphin is not a masterly novel, even though some critics have said it is Peacock’s best. I can’t say it has made me eager to read more of Peacock, but I think it a remarkable novel nonetheless for its early treatment of Welsh legends. It may seem surprising to us that it gives such a historical treatment to the Arthurian legend, considering no other writer will do so for another 130 years; however, it really isn’t that surprising given that Peacock was writing in the age of Sir Walter Scott, the great antiquary who not only wrote some of the first and most popular historical novels but collected ballads and legend and folklore, and so Peacock is following in his footsteps. It also predates the popular translations of the Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest (1838-1845), which shows Peacock likely read the early Pughe translations of 1795 and 1821 and early translations of the Welsh Triads by Iolo Morganwg published in 1801-1807. The Misfortunes of Elphin, then, is very much an Arthurian novel ahead of its time and yet of its time as ancient Welsh literature was being rediscovered in the early nineteenth century.

(Note, I am indebted to Howard Wiseman for providing me with the list of early writers of historical Arthurian novels between Peacock and Sutcliff.)

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other historical novels. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

 

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I first learned about the British television show The Adventures of Sir Lancelot back in 1999 when I found the TV show tie-in Whitman Big Little book in an antique shop. I didn’t think I would ever have the opportunity to watch the program, so I was surprised to discover it on Amazon recently; of course, I had to order the complete 3-DVD series.

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot - 3 DVD set

The program is well worth watching, in some ways being more, and in a few ways less, than I expected, but overall, for 1950s television, it stands up well. The Adventures of Sir Lancelot aired on the ITV network from 1956-1958 for thirty episodes and nearly half of the later episodes were actually in color—the first British television show to be in color, which speaks well for its popularity. It was also one of the few British television shows ever to be shown in the U.S. on a major network—first on NBC and then it moved to ABC. The series starred William Russell as Sir Lancelot and includes other apparently well-known British actors of the time, although I had never heard of any of them.

The sets/castles are well done considering they were made in television’s infancy. Apparently, the producers wanted to be historically accurate in recreating the Arthurian legend, so they recreated a fourteenth century Britain, an entire pre-Norman Conquest Village, and filmed at Allington Castle in rural Kent to provide grand visuals. At least, that’s what the back of the DVD states. Actually, the program is not all that historically accurate. It’s time period is unclear, but it seems to be set in the sixth century since in episode 10, Lancelot encounters the last Roman outpost in Britain whose members have held out for generations after the fall of Rome. The costumes and castles are of a much later medieval period as is usually to be expected. The television series Camelot is actually more accurate in its historical context, but the desire to be historically accurate for the series is important in itself since the 1950s is when interest in the historical Arthur really became significant during that decade, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, the first historical novel about King Arthur, was not published until 1963.

The sword fights are poor and very fake looking, especially in the first few episodes, and the battle scenes, which are few, usually have only half-a-dozen people laying siege to a castle. There are no grand and epic battle scenes with a gigantic cast. But if one can overlook these minor flaws of the production and its time period and expect a series of fun TV sitcom 1950s style episodes, a person can find much to enjoy in the show. William Russell makes a pretty fine Lancelot—perhaps he’s not a heartthrob, but he’s clever and a bit of a comedian without falling into corniness. He is not the lover of Guinevere, although they definitely check each other out when he arrives at Camelot in the first season. I imagine the 1950s television codes weren’t ready for adultery on television yet. (I’ve only watched the first ten episodes so far and will post again when I finish watching the series to see whether this changes.)

The producers who wanted to be historical must have also wished to be realistic. Magic does not exist in this Camelot. Merlin is clearly a fraud, and although he may have everyone else at Camelot fooled, Lancelot right away realizes how Merlin uses tricks to make things happen, using simple technology such as mirrors and invisible ink to make his magic work, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, without Merlin being the villain here.

One reviewer at Amazon asked whether the writers and producers did any research into the legend. The answer is a definite yes. Although none of the episodes follow Malory or other writers’ storylines directly, it is clear there is familiarity with many of the stories, such as that of Sir Gareth being a kitchen boy, since Lancelot’s squire Brian begins as a kitchen boy. The King Mark and Sir Tristram plot is also referenced in episode 6 “Sir Bliant” without the adultery plot woven into it. Other plot elements in different episodes also make it clear the familiar stories of Camelot were modified to fit the program.

Overall, I am pleasantly surprised by this television show, and while I don’t like it as much as Merlin, the writing is better than Camelot. It may not have high aspirations for recreating an accurate or fantastic Arthurian world, but The Adventures of Sir Lancelot succeeds at what it sets out to do, and it provides some light entertainment. I give it four out of five stars.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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The recent film The Eagle raises many interesting questions about how we are to interpret it, and perhaps best of all, it provides a glimpse into Roman Britain and the outlying territories above Hadrian’s Wall that I haven’t seen depicted previously in film. While the film depicts Britain in the mid-second century, about three centuries before the time of King Arthur, it provides a fascinating look into the Britain the Romans would have experienced.

The movie is based upon the book The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) by Rosemary Sutcliff, best known to Arthurian enthusiasts as the author of Sword at Sunset (1963), the first Arthurian novel to have treated King Arthur from a historically accurate perspective. Sword at Sunset is also part of the Eagle of the Ninth book series, all connected by the Aquila Family dolphin ring, although Sword at Sunset is only very loosely connected.

The film and book’s main character, Marcus, is a Roman soldier stationed in Britain who wants to know what became of his father, who led the Ninth Legion beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The legion was never heard from again, but Marcus hears rumors that the Eagle standard of the legion has been seen north of the wall and is being used in pagan ceremonies.

Of course, Marcus wants to know what became of his father and to reclaim the Eagle. I won’t give away any more of the plot. What interests me is how Marcus is the commander of a fort that is attacked by the local Britons, who yell about how the Romans have raped their daughters and stolen their land. Marcus never for a second considers that Rome is at fault. He simply does his duty as a Roman soldier. Later, on his quest to regain the Eagle, Marcus is accompanied by Esca, a slave and the son to the late King of the Brigantes. Marcus’ uncle warns him that Esca is a Briton so he will betray him on the journey, but Marcus has Esca accompany him anyway and Esca appears loyal, at least at first. Later, the two will encounter the Seal people, a term Sutcliff uses in her novel.

What is fascinating about the film is the depiction of the local Britons. The Seal people are fictional largely because so little is known about the local people of Britain in Roman times, who were mostly Celts and Picts. Wikipedia does a good job of discussing the film and the issues with depicting the native people at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eagle_(2011_film) The confusion and difficulties of pinning down the Celtic peoples of Great Britain is understandable, considering how many different tribes there were as evidenced in the list at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Celtic_tribes#Great_Britain

I admit I haven’t read the novel, which was actually written for children, but the film definitely made me want to read the entire series and reread Sword at Sunset. I was surprised by the film’s lack of a politically correct or multicultural message—I don’t expect a book written in 1954 would have a politically correct tone, however, so perhaps the filmmakers decided to be true to the book. In any case, Marcus never thinks that he or Rome is in the wrong for how they have treated the native peoples of Britain. Although Marcus and Esca become friends of a sort, and Marcus does save Esca’s life early in the film, otherwise he does not show any great tendency to be sympathetic toward those who were conquered, and he is not in any way a dynamic character who has a new understanding about the situation in Britain.

Equally fascinating is the depiction of the native peoples. It is difficult to imagine such a “primitive” way of life as they experience compared to Rome, which we can perhaps more closely relate to. And I know “primitive” is a judgmental term, but their life is so vastly remote from ours today. In truth, my sympathies lay more with the native Britons who have been conquered and even betrayed by their own people. Of course, you don’t want Marcus or Esca to be killed, but I found it difficult to have my sympathies with them.

In the end, I wasn’t sure how to feel. It was more an interesting look into the mind of a Roman than one where I could identify with any character, and in that way, because I had no emotional reaction to the film, I felt like it somewhat failed to do its job.

It would be interesting to read all of Sutcliff’s series and how the stories link to Arthur, who is more Roman than Briton in most versions of the legend. In a film adaptation, one would expect a more politically correct and sympathetic view of the native Britons, but at the same time, perhaps I appreciate the film more for not taking that route which would be a modern twist and not one Marcus or the Romans themselves probably would have considered taking.

The Eagle may not be a perfect film, but the actors do an excellent job; both actors playing Marcus and Esca are completely believable in their roles; whatever faults the film has are due to the screenplay, or perhaps the original novel. The story opens up many questions about right and wrong while creating an imaginative, yet as historical as possible, depiction of what second century Britain may have been like. Altogether I give this film 4 out of 5 stars and remain with mixed feelings about it.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, I’d love to hear your comments.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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