Posts Tagged Arthur

Merlyn’s room


When a few years back I told my mum I was writing a story about Pythagoras, she said why not pick someone British to write about? Merlin, she suggested.

It would be hard to do after T. H. White’s classic Sword in the Stone, which Sam is reading now.

He does need a little help though with some of the difficult bits. I need some help with some of the difficult bits. Take this, which must be one of the hardest passages to take a breath in in children’s literature, the description of Merlin’s room:

It was the most marvellous room that he had ever been in.

There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed. There were thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the book-shelves and others propped against each other as if they had had too much to drink and did not really trust themselves. These gave out a smell of must and solid brownness which was most secure. Then there were stuffed birds, popinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed phoenix which smelt of incense and cinnamon. It could not have been a real phoenix, because there is only one of these at a time. Over by the mantelpiece there was a fox’s mask, with GRAFTON, BUCKINGHAM TO DAVENTRY, 2 HRS 20 MINS written under it, and also a forty-pound salmon with AWE, 43 MIN., BULLDOG written under it, and a very life-like basilisk with CROWHURST OTTER HOUNDS in Roman print. There were several boars’ tusks and the claws of tigers and libbards mounted in symmetrical patterns, and a big head of Ovis Poli, six live grass snakes in a kind of aquarium, some nests of the solitary wasp nicely set up in a glass cylinder, an ordinary beehive whose inhabitants went in and out of the window unmolested, two young hedgehogs in cotton wool, a pair of badgers which immediately began to cry Yik-Yik-Yik-Yik in loud voices as soon as the magician appeared, twenty boxes which contained stick caterpillars and sixths of the puss-moth, and even an oleander that was worth sixpence — all feeding on the appropriate leaves — a guncase with all sorts of weapons which would not be invented for half a thousand years, a rod-box ditto, a chest of drawers full of salmon flies which had been tied by Merlyn himself, another chest whose drawers were labelled Mandragora, Mandrake, and Old Man’s Beard, etc., a bunch of turkey feathers and goose-quills for making pens, an astrolabe, twelve pairs of boots, a dozen purse-nets, three dozen rabbit wires, twelve corkscrews, some ants’ nests between two glass plates, ink-bottles of every possible colour from red to violet, darning-needles, a gold medal for being the best scholar at Winchester, four or five recorders, a nest of field mice all alive-o, two skulls, plenty of cut glass, Venetian glass, Bristol glass and a bottle of Mastic varnish, some satsuma china and some cloisonné, the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (marred as it was by the sensationalism of the popular plates), two paint-boxes (one oil, one water-colour), three globes of the known geographical world, a few fossils, the stuffed head of a cameleopard, six pismires, some glass retorts with cauldrons, bunsen burners, etc., and a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wild fowl by Peter Scott.

I didn’t type all this out – it was on another blog. In fact it doesn’t matter too much that I’m not quite sure about them, perhaps it even makes it better, not to be quite sure what these things are. A bit like the famous poem The Jabberwocky.


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I did not come here for recognition

1223675642-sc-240reading the story of Culwch and Olwen*:

I always like the bit where the young hero-to-be rides into Arthur’s court.

Here it is from Robin Williamson‘s brilliant retelling on the CD Gems of Celtic Story – One, where he plays along with harp and sings some of it too, and in his book The Craneskin Bag (both far too difficult to get hold of) –

To help you imagine the harp with the story, here is the man himself playing the harp:

It was the custom to dismount at the gate, but Culwch, when the door was opened to him, rode straight into the hall dogs and all. ‘Greetings, Lord of Kings in this island,’ he said. ‘May the low part of your house be no worse than the high. May this greeting reach equally your fighting men, your companions and your warlords. May no one here be deprived of this my greeting. May your fame, Arthur, resound throughout Britain.’

‘Greetings to you also, chieftain. Sit here by me among the warriors. You shall have the privileges of a prince when you are here.’

‘I did not come here for recognition, but to ask one boon* of you.’

‘You shall have whatever
your tongue can utter
while the wind blows with the wetness of rain
and the full extent
of your mind’s invention
while sun lifts day to the last ebb of land
except my sword, my shield, my spear,
or my wife Gwenhwyfar.’

‘I ask first that my hair be trimmed.’

‘You shall get that,’ said Arthur, and taking a golden comb and silver handled scissors, he commenced to comb and trim the hair of Culwch. But as he was about this he felt his heart warm to Culwch, and he said to him, ‘I know in my heart we must be kindred. Tell me who you are.’

‘I will. I am Culwch son of Cilydd son of Celyddon Wledig and of Goleuddydd my mother.’

‘Then,’ said Arthur; ‘you are my cousin. Claim what you will of me.’

‘Help me to win the hand of Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden King of all Giants.’

* Culwch –> pronounced kill-hook
“boon” = a favour, a wish granted

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he boards the ship… and sails away


Sam asked me to read the first few pages of Gerald Morris’s version of the Lancelot story Lady Sarah and the Dung Cart Knight – the print was smaller and there were more words, but it had the characters he liked from the other stories – and then… he read the rest himself.

Head in the book, in the car, on the sofa, in the garden, in bed. Hours and hours.

I’m happy of course. And of course a little sad to not be part of it any more!

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another quest


Gerald Morris has done a great job with the Parsifal story too.

Parsifal has been kept in ignorance of knights and all things chivalrous by his mother, for reasons of her own. When he sees a knight ride by though, he is seized by a desire to become one himself….

The story is told by Chretien de Troyes, though he stopped writing it before he got to the end. Wolfram von Eschenbach retold it, claiming to have got the story from one Kyot the Provençal, who himself got it from an arabic manuscript written by a muslim astronomer from Moorish Toledo.

I identify with Parsifal because he’s hopelessly ill-equipped for any quest, but has a sort of raw enthusiasm. Like ‘Lazy Jack’ he’s always following the last piece of advice he’s been given. At first he always asks questions, just as his mother told him to, then he is taught to not ask questions because it is not seemly in a knight, and then, when his moment comes at the famous grail castle, he doesn’t ask about the strange things he sees, the sick Fisher King, the bleeding lance, the Grail that magically produces food.

Later he finds out what a mistake he has made:

The king, the queen and the barons gave the most joyful welcome to Perceval the Welshman, and led him back to Carlion, returning there that day. They celebrated all night and the day that followed: until, on the third day, they saw a girl coming on a tawny mule, clutching a whip in her right hand. Her hair hung in two tresses, black and twisted: and if the words of my source are true, there was no creature so utterly ugly even in Hell. You have never seen iron as black as her neck and hands, but that was little compared to the rest of her ugliness: her eyes were just two holes, tiny as the eyes of a rat; her nose was like a cat’s or monkey’s, her lips like an ass’s or a cow’s; her teeth were so discoloured that they looked like egg-yolk; and she had a beard like a billy-goat. She had a hump in the middle of her chest and her back was like a crook … She greeted the king and his barons all together – except for Perceval.

Sitting upon the tawny mule she said: ‘Ah, Perceval! Fortune has hair in front but is bald behind. A curse on anyone who greets or wishes you well, for you didn’t take Fortune by the hand when you met her. You entered the house of the Fisher King and saw the lance that bleeds, but it was so much trouble for you to open your mouth and speak that you couldn’t ask why that drop of blood sprang from the tip of the white head; nor did you ask what worthy man was served by the Grail that you saw. How wretched is the man who sees the perfect opportunity and still waits for a better one! And you, you are the wretched one, who saw that it was the time and place to speak and yet stayed silent; you had ample opportunity! It was an evil hour when you held your tongue, for if you had asked, the rich king who is so distressed would now have been quite healed of his wound and would have held his land in peace …’

Perhaps the latest Parsifal type person is Po, the Kung Fu Panda – hopelessly ill-equipped, but somehow improbably making it through to herohood in the end. There must be scores of stories like this, Disney seems to like them, where Everyman manages to do the impossible. But my favourite is Parsifal and, I’m pleased to say, Sam loved it too.

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a quest


We got the bare bones – Arthur, the Round Table, the sword Excalibur, Avalon, Camelot, Guinevere – from a cheap book called “Children’s Treasury”: King Arthur and His Knights Illustrated by Harry Threaker (the author’s name was not on the book). Sam luckily wasn’t bothered by the sentimental style:

“Never was there so handsome and so special a young mornarch! Not only did all the knights and ladies of his court think the world of him, but the fairies of the forests and lakes loved him, too. Had he not been given into the special care of Merlin, that master of magic, who knew a hundred times more secrets than the fairies knew themselves?”

And then we struck gold. I ordered a book called Sir Gawain, His Squire and his Lady (actually number 2 in a series called Squire’s Tales) by Gerald Morris. It’s an excellent children’s retelling, recasting from the squire’s point of view, of Gawain and the Green Knight, with of course much taken out, but also a lot added in. It’s meant for older children than Sam (just coming up to 8 in two days’ time), but with a few words changed or explained, and a bit of patience with the romance (in the modern sense of the word) we have found the Grail!

Naturally there are things that didn’t suit my taste – for instance Guinevere’s total weakness for Lancelot – but there’s none of the fayness or mawkishness of the “Children’s Treasury” one. The characters are unsentimental. And at the same time while there are a lot of liberties taken with the old stories there is also a respect for their weight and meaning. It comes through in the “Author’s Note”:

When I was in college during medieval times, about 1982; Dr Laura Crouch required my English literature class to read a poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was the most wonderful story I had ever encountered. I loved its brave and courteous hero, and was fascinated by the otherworldly scene at the Green Chapel. I loved the poem so much that I wrote a long and very complicated research paper on it, and like many of those who write about literature, I managed to footnote away all the poem’s charm and to make Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seem as dull and pretentious as I was.

Well, I did no irreparable damage. My paper is long forgotten, but the poem is still around. All the same, some of the things I learned while researching that paper are still interesting to me and may be to others. So, at the risk of being boring twice on the same subject (an unforgivable sin), here is some background to the original work on which this book is based.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written by an anonymous poet in the fourteenth century, at about the same time that the great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales. The Gawain poet, however, wrote in a completely different dialect of English than Chaucer…”

We’ve been reading bits on our myriad journeyings, moving belongings to our new house, going off on holiday in the north. We’ve ended up working our way through the series. The first book is about Gawain too – or perhaps about his squire, Terrence. This one has elements of the “Loathely Lady” tale in it too.

And, again, sometimes I have to leave off at a really exciting bit, and Sam has to pick the book up himself…

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more on Gawain


Somehow Michael Morpurgo keeps some of the poetry of the telling.


Here is another translation – as a small sample – of the bit where the lady of the castle comes to tempt and test Gawain while the lord is out hunting. Gawain pretends to be asleep and …

Then he straightened and stretched and stirring toward her
he opened his eyes and acted astounded.
Then he crossed himself as if he claimed protection
from that sight –

Her chin and cheeks were sweet,
lending red and white;
er voice a pleasant treat
here small lips smiled delight.

Now and again I look at the original – which would be impossible for me to read – and spot a few familiar words. Here’s the same bit in middle English:

Þen he wakenede, and wroth, and to hir warde torned,
And vnlouked his y3e-lyddez, and let as hym wondered,
And sayned hym, as bi his sa3e þe sauer to worthe,
with hande.

Wyth chynne and cheke ful swete,
Boþe quit and red in blande,
Ful lufly con ho lete
Wyth lyppez smal la3ande.

I’ve just spotted a cartoon version on youtube – which has the defect of being over much too quickly – I hate to lose any of the details of the story:
(looking at it again there’s lots that I like in the original that’s not there – but well done to ’em for making it)

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I had told Sam the story of Gawain and the Green Knight before, but I was looking forward to the time I could read the version by illustrious author Michael Morpurgo and authorial illustrator Michael Foreman.

Sam had to ask me the meaning of some of the chivalric technical terms –

“What does ‘honour’ mean?”
“What does ‘integrity’ mean?”

Had I not mentioned them before? Just as well we read the book.

A few points about the tale.

1. It’s one of my Favourites.
2. It – probably did not happen here.
3. It would be great dramatised.

Of course, Sam loved it. Now I want to find the best ones for us to jump onto next: the round table, Merlin, the sword in the stone, Camelot, Kay and Morgan le Fey… and of course a few more of those interesting words!

El pointed me to a good telling of this tale which is also sometimes told about Gawain too.

And where to go then?

I like the Parsifal – Grail story, but don’t know a good children’s version of that. The Lancelot – Guinevere story should have one too…

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