ladyofastolat: (sneezing lion)
2016-07-25 08:27 am
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Searching for the Grail

Musing about the search for the Holy Grail last night, I began to wonder if the introduction of certain aspects of modern technology would have made the whole quest easier or harder. The words are inspired by Malory. The content is... not.


At the feast of Pentecost, when all the fellowship of Camelot were comen unto Camelot, right so there entered into the hall a damosel clad in white samite. "Arthur," quoth the damosel, "thou and thy knights must search for the Holy Grail," and as she spoke, there came a light seven times brighter than day, and singing from the empty air.

And all the fellowship did jump unto their feet. "I will search for the Holy Grail!" they cried with great voice, but King Arthur sank his head into his hands and sat a little while apart. "Alas," he said, "for this will be the undoing of our fair fellowship."

Sir Gawain was the first to start upon his search. Many dangers did he face, but at length, after many trices, his speaking device was within his hand. "I will search for the Holy Grail," quoth Sir Gawain, "by the power of Android," and with his fingertips, he traced the words "holy grail," and searched for it.

Searching for the Holy Grail )
ladyofastolat: (Misty Glastonbury)
2016-07-14 07:05 pm
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Arthurian recs?

Despite the important role that Arthurian legend has played in my life, I haven't actually read all that many Arthurian novels. Does anyone have any recommendations, especially for books that have appeared on the scene after the early 90s, when most of my previous reading took place? (However, feel free to recommend earlier stuff. I've definitely missed many must-reads. I'm currently 50 pages into my first ever reading of Sword at Sunset, for example - a book I really should have read decades ago. I'm not sure why I didn't, given that I read The Lantern Bearers several times. Anyway...)

I'm open to recommendations for pretty much anything with an Arthurian element, from Arthur the Romano-British warlord to Arthur the high king of an medieval romantic castle; from modern-set fantasies that draw on Arthurian legends (like The Dark is Rising), to the Matter of Britain transposed to space; from retellings of the well-known stories, to stories about original characters who live on the fringes of Arthur's world, observing from the outside. (I always love outsider viewpoints.)

The only things I'm not that keen on are:
- Macho military battle stories, with endless battles waged by paper-thin characters. A few battles are fine, but I want emotions and characters, too.
- Books full of New Age mysticism, although some magic is fine.

I'm also dubious about books that try to convince us that Mordred was just misunderstood. I read one once, and it was okay. I could grudgingly accept it for the duration of the book, but that was all. Having recently had my heart broken all over again by Gillian Bradshaw, I am not currently receptive to this idea.
ladyofastolat: (Misty Glastonbury)
2016-07-11 01:06 pm
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The Round Table

The stated justification for the Round Table is that no knight takes precendence. However, most medieval depictions of said table show King Arthur sitting at it. This is a clear contradiction of the stated aim, since precedence will be defined by proximity to Arthur. Yes, you could randomise this, perhaps by holding a daily raffle (proceeds to go to distressed damsels), but you could do this just as easily with a plain old rectangular board. I think the most likely solution is that King Arthur sat in the middle, either in a hole cut in the exact centre, or sitting on an elevated platform that dangles from the rafters. No knight should suffer the ignominy of having the king's back turned to him, so the King would have to rotate. It would be easy to devise a mechanism for this, like a turnspit or a donkey-powered well, powered by dogs or small servant boys (but probably not hamsters.)

However, other problems present themselves. Some sources put the number of Knights of the Round Table as high as 150. That is a VERY large table, and likely to need a veritable forest of legs beneath it. However, medieval carpenters who can build cathedral roofs can cope with such a table. But what about the poor king, stuck in the centre of a circle large enough to hold 150 round its circumference? Think of the noise, and the constant shouting of "what? What?"

And then there's the problem of serving. Service a la Russe hadn't come along yet, so all dishes need to be put on the table at once. With a rectangular board, you can fill up from both sides. High Table, sitting on only one side, can be served from the opposite side, and regular people can ask the person opposite to pass them the buttered parsnips. With the guests sitting around the rim of a vast circle, only a tiny part of that table can be used for serving food, and the rest is wasted, and impossible to clean without clambering on it. The King, stuck in the middle, would need food parcels thrown at him - a skill, perhaps, practiced by pages in the tilting yard?

But there are other ways to denote precedence at the dining table. Take the whole "above the salt" thing. Clearly it would be out of the question to have a single, elaborate Salt on the table. Thus we see the origin of the small salt shaker that we see now on every cafe table - or maybe even tiny sachets, that survived into the present century only in Salt 'n' Shake crisps. And what about boars' heads and such like, and the honour of carving such things? If Knight A has a boar's head put in front of him, and Knight B only has some boiled cabbage, then Knight A is clearly more favoured! Instead of this divisive practice, we would need a vast array of small plates of mixed food stuffs, none of them an obvious centrepiece. Did the dining needs of Camelot lead to the invention of tapas?

Or did the Round Table itself rotate along with the King, thus bringing boar's head to each knight in turn? Was the Round Table the origin of the Lazy Susan?
ladyofastolat: (sneezing lion)
2016-07-10 01:33 pm

Legless in Yore

Today I have mostly been ranting about the way that trousers (for which read trousers or hose or braies or braccae or leg wrappings or any other leg covering of choice) have been airbrushed out of Yore and Fantasyland. It is well-known that people don't wear socks in Fantasyland, even though they jolly well should. In a recent episode of Game of Thrones, SPOILER, recently returned from an absence of a considerable number of episodes, killed someone, took his boots, and put them on over entirely bare feet. I had to try a few million pairs of boots on before I found some that were comfortable for long walks, and even then, I wear two pairs of socks. I warned SPOILER about blisters. He didn't listen.

But trousers (hose, braies, breeches, whatever) appear to have been excised, too. I've been reading a very silly vaguely Arthurian novel in which a feisty warrior woman goes round wearing a jerkin over entirely bare legs. Now, the internet offers up a dazzling array of images of jerkin, but none of them would be remotely decent when worn over bare legs. I've also been watching Arthur of the Britons, in which the costume department clearly added an accidental few extra noughts to their order of white sheepskins, and, forced to cover up their mistake, have shrouded every single Saxon extra in at least four sheep. Some are positively spherical in their sheepskin cardigans, some of whom wear them over bare, spindly little legs, with bare, spindly little arms and shoulders struggling to emerge from the white globe of sheep.*

These are the two examples that have troubled me today, but it is an ongoing rant, prompted by numerous historic and fantasy films, and by the sight of chilly Roman re-enactors shivering bare-legged in the British cold.

Personally, I never wear shorts on a walk, because walks often involve wading through brambles and bracken and other scratchy things, and I want the protection of a layer of fabric, thank you very much. It would tend to ruin the impact of a surprise ambush if all your bare-leggety warriors were constantly going "ow! ooh!" as they knelt in thistles and squelched in slimy cow pats. Warriors who charge naked into battle, clad only in woad and bravado, are presumably hard enough to cope with the string and prickles of outrageous flora, but why would those who've bothered to clothe their top half forget to bother with clothing anything under the waist?

* Bagpuss )
ladyofastolat: (sneezing lion)
2016-07-08 12:56 pm

June books

I've failed badly in my resolution to write reviews of everything I read in 2016. Blame holidays, which got me out of the habit.

For several weeks, from late May to the middle of June, I was reading through Dorothy L Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels. I did so in a fairly random order, the first book (Murder Must Advertise) being chosen for me out of thousands of possibles by a series of die rolls. From a random beginning, it seemed fitting to carry on in a random order, so I went to Strong Poison, which I liked, and Gaudy Night, which I liked a lot. I'd read one or two of the series some years ago, but I found them too lacking in emotion for my taste at the time. I don't know why I reacted better to them this time. Perhaps I was just in a different mood. Perhaps it was because Gaudy Night gave me an emotional way in, being a lot more focused on such things than some of the other books. I do often struggle to warm to a main character until I've seen them through other people's eyes, which is why I often find first person narration unengaging. But, anyway, whatever the reason, I read my way - in a fairly eccentric order - through most of the novels, and then went on holiday to Wales, where I got waylaid by King Arthur, so moved on without quite completing my reading of the series.

At some point during my reading of that series, I paused to read The Monstrous Child by Francesca Simon - a brief YA retelling of Norse mythology, from before the building of Asgard all the way through the Ragnarok and beyond, all told in the first person by Hel. The voice is that of a modern teenage girl, informal, colloquial and very angry. It's had some rave reviews, but I just found it grim, depressing and unengaging.

I also read Ferguson's Gang: The Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters, by Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck. Ferguson's Gang were a mysterious group of people who raised money for the National Trust in the 1930s, and presented it masked, in a variety of dramatic and headline-grabbing ways. This was in the early days of the National Trust's involvement in preserving buildings, and Ferguson's Gang arranged and funded their purchase of several small buildings across the country, including Newtown Town Hall on the Isle of Wight. I spent ages one day in Newtown Town Hall reading the facsimile of "The Boo," their minute book. All the members took on assumed names and personas, and The Boo is full of jokes, jollity and japes; it reminded me quite a lot of the minute book of various student societies I was involved in, full of digressions and in-jokes. All the members were women graduates in their 20s, from a variety of backgrounds, so it fitted in quite nicely with my reading of Gaudy Night. One of the authors of the book is the granddaughter of "The Arthichoke," the gang's tame architect, who raised his family in one of the buildings the Gang preserved. The book tells the story of the Gang and of the real people behind the pseudonyms, many of whom had colourful lives, and I found it extremely interesting and readable.

While in Wales, I read the Four Branches of the Mabinogion (Penguin Classics edition) and meant to carry on, but reached the bit when Culhwch spends 6 pages listing every single one of Arthur's warriors, and laid it down for a while, weary. I misaimed on picking it up again, so ended up dipping in and out of Gerald of Wales instead, both his tour of Wales and his description of Wales. I do like Gerald, with his shameless bias towards his own birthplace and family's lands, his ability to go off on long tangents about the habits of beavers, and the way he misses no opportunity to plug his latest book or have a dig at Geoffrey of Monmouth. (Must reread him, too.)

I tried to read the Maginogion sequence of novels by Evangeline Walton, but really didn't take to them at all, so gave up very early.

Since getting back from Wales, I've been obsessing on Arthurian legend, but I did take a brief break from it to read Binny Bewitched by Hilary McKay - one of the few children's book authors who gets me to read out of my usual favourite genres. I particularly love her Exiles series - humorous mini-misadventures of a family of four book-obsessed sisters - but I'm enjoying this current series, too, of which this is the third. Set in a small Cornish village, it deals with 12 year old Binnie, her family and her various nemeses - she always seems to have a nemesis. There are no massive dramas and no heavy-handed Issues. It's just the small dramas of daily life, with nice characters, lots of humour and some lovely turns of phrase.
ladyofastolat: (Misty Glastonbury)
2012-02-17 08:38 am
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Happy stories

The Arthurian tragedy is just getting worse and worse. Tears are involved every time I pick my Kindle up. Earlier, when things were still all sunny and I was full of Arthurian and Dark Age enthusiasms, I was planning to move on to the rereading The Lantern Bearers and then reading Sword at Sunset, which I've never read. However, I'm not sure I can take more tragedy. So what happy, feel-good books can people recommend? By happy, I don't mean funny, joke-a-minute humour, but an immersive story in which unpleasantnesses get recovered from and misunderstandings get resolved, and villains get thwarted and nice people get nice happy endings, that leave the reader beaming. I'd prefer something set in Fantasyland or Yore, and I want something easy to source - either a super-cheap Kindle download, or something likely to be available through the library system - but feel free to recommend things outside these categories. I've got plenty of old favourite feelgood books of my own, but would like something new.
ladyofastolat: (Rhymer icon)
2012-02-15 05:51 pm
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History, legends, heartbreak

I was musing a weeks ago about historical novels, and the fact that I can very seldom get emotionally involved in a story starring real people. Even in novels that avoid blatant historical errors, an annoying little presence in my mind keeps jumping up and down, shouting, "but they didn't really have this conversation in these exact words, or feel these exact emotions! There is a real story, yes, but this isn't it! It's all fake!" It creates a distancing effect, a barrier against emotional involvement. There's absolutely no logic to it. I can quite happily immerse myself in a story of a fictional character who rampages through history doing various deeds that never happened, or even doing deeds that in real life were performed by somebody else. Within the world of fiction, my emotions can accept this as real and allow themselves to get immersed, whereas with real people, they usually dig in their heels and refuse to get past that pesky barrier.

From then, I went on to muse about the fact that I sometimes have a similar problem with novels that are fairly straight retelling of familiar myths and legends. In this case, it's not a barrier caused by some Real Story lurking in the background, but a barrier caused by the fact that there is no single Real Story. If a story has been told over hundreds or thousands of years in numerous different forms, once again those illogical, treacherous emotions want to kick in and say, "Ah, this is just one version out of many. There's no point caring, because it's not real."

In fact, I was going to write a post about all this a few weeks ago, but didn't get round to it. And it's just as well that I didn't, really, since I'm currently reading Gillian Bradshaw's Arthurian trilogy, and my emotions are very definitely engaged. I'm about a fifth of the way through the final book, and I've taken to whimpering, gasping "No!" at the screen, and even rushing in to Pellinor in tears, saying, "Arthur's kingdom is going to fall and I don't want it to happen!" I don't think I've really felt the tragedy of the Arthurian story since... well, since I was 11 and first discovering the tales via Roger Lancelyn Green? A bit older, and reading The Once and Future King? Ever? Even though it's breaking my heart, I'm really rather pleased that I can still feel this way about a (broadly) familiar tale. Maybe I should give novels about real people another go, too.

EDIT: Oh, and because I'm currently so emotionally involved in this series, please don't leave comments along the lines of, "I hate that series and here are all the things that are wrong with it.
ladyofastolat: (Default)
2006-01-20 05:23 pm
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A book about me

Today I skim-read a new teenage romance novel, which was... er... interesting.

King Arthur at High School )

Totally unrelated: Anyone know of a science fiction novel that ends with the line "And the lights went out." A reader in one of our libraries want to know.
ladyofastolat: (Default)
2006-01-09 04:53 pm
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I wonder if she regrets asking...

The doorbell rang. There stood a nervous-looking student teacher. "I need to teach a lesson tomorrow on King Arthur and the man who invented him. Can you help me?"

Half an hour of lecturing later, I finally released her. She looked a little dazed...