Daphne du Maurier, a Vindication

Hunting for Daphne du Maurier in a book shop is never a simple task. Dependant on the whims of the book seller, she may be displayed prominently in the classics or literature section, tucked away on the Young Adult shelves or demoted to romance and ‘chick lit.’ Despite her prominence as one of the best selling British authors of the 20th century, she is sometimes absent altogether, wheeled out only when one of her works is adapted for film or television. Journalists and critics are still debating the quality of her work, was she a literary genius? Or a middlebrow hack writer?

When I first picked up a copy of Rebecca, I wasn’t sure either. The most famous of her novels has all the hallmarks of a gothic romance, and yet is executed with great skill and originality. Rebecca is innovative in its use of the nameless first person protagonist. It has a masterful control of narrative pace, taking time over evocative descriptions of its Cornish setting, while elegantly baiting the reader with hints of suspense. Most significantly, it is a re-writing and response to Jane Eyre. Du Maurier takes Charlotte Bronte’s classic and transposes it to the 20th century. The two have since become inseparable in my mind. Maurier picks up on the uncomfortable conclusion to Jane Eyre and uses it to her advantage, making the narrator accomplice in the very deceit that she has been subjected to. To place Rebecca in the romance genre is to miss-sell it entirely. It is not a wish fulfilling romance with a happy ending. Rather, it engages intimately with the literary canon, asking the still pertinent question – how far have we really come in the power relations between men and women since 1847?

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Rebecca, I wondered if it was something of an exception to du Maurier’s usual fare. Was she a romance writer with one book that transcended the genre? Reading The Scapegoat, put this question firmly to rest. The Scapegoat‘s protagonist-narrator is a young, idealistic man who meets his doppelganger in France and switches places, assuming the role and dysfunctional family of a French Count. The premise is admittedly far fetched, yet the book seems to acknowledge this. At first it appears to be a rags-to-riches fairy tale but, like Rebecca, it subverts this trope to offer a disquieting view of family responsibility. The Scapegoat reminded me strongly of Dumas’s work, it asks similar questions – how much are we the masks we wear, and is it possible to ever escape them?

My Cousin Rachel likewise features a male protagonist-narrator. A brooding, entitled and prejudiced young squire dealing with the potentially dangerous widow of his late guardian. Like Rebecca, Rachel features a femme fatale who has no actual voice in the text. We are never given her side of the story, only that of the unreliable narrator. The entire novel revolves around the question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt and yet her judge is, for numerous reasons, incapable of convincing us of either case. I was fascinated by the way du Maurier reversed the trope of the fallen woman. The Victorian heroine ‘giving up her virtue’ for love and an unfulfilled marriage proposal is here entirely inverted in a financially powerful but unwordly male figure. I found this the most unsettling of the three novels, and the most ambiguous, showing du Maurier at the height of her talent.

These books are all, in my mind, worthy of critical acclaim. Which leads me to ask, why have they failed to find a solid place in the literary canon? I propose that their very popularity works against them. They are not difficult books to read and their excellent use of pacing and mystery makes them page-turners. Du Maurier’s books have been marketed as genre novels, sporting lurid bodice-ripper covers in the 60’s and 70’s but I would argue they fail to meet the requirements of the romance genre. Although some are historical in setting, they are not overly interested in history. As keen as I am to champion literary qualities amongst genre fiction, these books do not, in my mind, belong on the genre shelves.

Another major factor in their mixed reception is gender. Adaptations of du Maurier’s books by Alfred Hitchcock receive critical acclaim as cinematic classics. Of course, the audience for these is not assumed to be exclusively female. Despite her ability to create convincing and complicated male protagonists, Daphne du Maurier is rarely marketed in a ‘gender neutral’ way, and I have no doubt that her name and image effect the critics’ position on her work.

So, are these books ‘literary’ fiction? While I have my issues with the inherent snobbery in this distinction, I will go so far as to say that I consider Daphne du Maurier on par with many of the finest writers of the 20th century. Her work engages with the Western literary tradition, responding to classics and placing them in a modern context. Her use of the first person narrator is experimental and innovative. Her protagonists and antagonists both demonstrate moral ambiguity. Her narratives are frequently unsatisfying and disturbing in their refusal to conform to our expectations. Her style is alternately simple and highly detailed. She poses intriguing psychological and sociological questions without offering easy answers. The fact that her novels are also eminently readable does not undermine these qualities in the least. Rather, it enhances them, as the reader is unable to maintain an objective distance from her powerfully engaging characters.


The Witches of Arthur Machen and Sylvia Townsend Warner

“Sorcery and Sanctity,” said Ambrose, “these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life.” (Arthur Machen, The White People)

Reading Sylvia Townsend Warner’s letters, I was delighted to discover that she knew, and was related by marriage, to Arthur Machen. My interest in this connection was piqued by a recent re-read of Machen’s story The White People (1904). The tale, which Lovecraft admires in his essay on Supernatural Horror, features the diary of a girl initiated into a rural witch-cult by her nanny. Although Lovecraft claims this story possesses ‘a lurking terror generously mixed with pathos’, I have always found it a beautiful and transcendent portrayal of self-awakening, with echoes of James Hogg’s ‘Kilmeny’. The central episode, described as ‘the White Day’, involves a long walk in a wild and remote landscape, likely influenced by Machen’s Welsh home. The young protagonist goes out alone and is at first afraid, but soon exhilarated by the landscape, dancing among the stones and drinking from a stream:

It tasted much better, drinking it that way, and a ripple would come up to my mouth and give me a kiss, and I laughed, and drank again, and pretended there was a nymph, like the one in the picture at home, who lived in the water and was kissing me.

That this story, about a teenage girl discovering her own power and sexuality and reveling in the natural world, could be terrifying to the likes of Machen and Lovecraft, is rather revealing of their own issues and anxieties. Regarding the background of the witch-cult and the worship of idols, which Machen presents as an Evil beyond that of the ‘average murderer’, it is interesting to note that the publication of The White People pre-dates Margaret Murray’s long discredited The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by 17 years.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s debut novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), can be read as a response to Machen’s tale. Warner’s witch is not a young girl but a maiden aunt, keen to escape the obligations of society for independence and solitude in the countryside. Laura takes solitary walks in the woods and meadows of her new home: ‘Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves round her like the fingers of a hand’, and is given a kitten as a familiar. When she discovers the villagers’ secret, their nocturnal Sabbaths, she is not afraid but rather reminded of ‘a Primrose league gala and fete.’ Although Laura embraces her new identity, she does not gain any thrill from the illicit gathering and is unable to ‘get into the proper Sabbath-keeping spirit.’ The entire event is described as a mundane social ritual, as tiresome to the introverted Laura as a ball or garden party.

The focus of Lolly Willowes is on escape from, rather than initiation into social circles, whether conventional or esoteric. Laura spends the novel looking for ‘her secret’, following a vision of herself standing in an orchard, arms raised, while ripe fruit falls about her. Laura and the unnamed girl in Machen’s tale are both Eve, but one is condemned and the other vindicated. For Machen, the imagination of a young woman is as terrifying as the untamed landscape, wildness in both cases leads to temptation and sin against God. Warner eloquently argues for the restorative power of being alone in nature:

…she had pounced on a clue, the clue to the secret country of her mind. The country was desolate and half-lit, and she walked there alone, mistress of it, and mistress, too, of the terror that roamed over the blank fields and haunted around her.

There are elements of Warner’s novel just as dark as those Machen hints at: Laura casts a curse to drive away her nephew and the Devil himself appears as a predatory figure who seduces unsatisfied women. Yet the tone, a parody of social commentary, demonstrates the fearless irreverence that is key to Warner’s style. While Machen presents subject matter that shocked his Victorian and Edwardian readership, he responds to ‘perversity’ of religion, sexuality or morality with conservative terror. Warner is unflappable and finds both humour and freedom in the idea of a rural witch-cult. She seizes upon Machen’s theme of self discovery through solitude in nature and grants her heroine the maturity and agency to choose a way of life beyond social expectations. Lolly Willowes is a powerful feminist text that supports my reading of Machen’s The White People as a female bildungsroman.

Art: ‘Eve Tempted by the Serpent’ by William Blake, c. 1800.


There is a place that has been calling to me for many years now, since I first read Robin Jarvis’ eerie children’s classic The Whitby Witches,  to the hours I spent immersed in Nicola Griffith’s Hild, the exquisite scenes at the heart of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and of course, the arrival of Stoker’s Dracula. It has existed on the edge of my imagination as a place of stone serpents, Anglo Saxon poets, jet mermaids and pock-marked gravestones, and I knew that the first trip I had to make from my new home in York, was to the coast, where the black cliffs crumble into the North Sea, that is, to Whitby.

I decided there could be no better day for this than Halloween, and so booked a room at Arundel House from which I could see the silhouette of Whitby Abbey and the outline of St Mary’s Church across the harbour. Literary fame aside, Whitby is a picturesque little harbour town, with a pleasant promenade and pier lined, in typical seaside-resort fashion, with fish and chip shops, amusement arcades, icecream sellers and the pungent odor of freshly caught seafood. I was delighted by the stacked heaps of lobster pots, the sight of one or two fishing boats still working beyond the harbour and Church street, which winds up to the 199 steps and is crowded with stores selling jet, Gothic clothing and postcards. The independent Whitby Bookshop has a selection of small press books on local history and Yorkshire folklore.


In The Whitby Witches, the children visit the museum, which is one of those brilliantly preserved, local institutions that combines natural history (of which Whitby has much to boast) with the maritime, archaeological and regional crafts, keeping the 19th century classification and labels. The museum still has the hand of glory, which features in Witches, but I was even more fascinated by George Merryweather’s ‘Tempest Prognosticator’, an apparatus containing 12 pint glass bottles, each home to a medicinal leech and resembling a steampunk merry-go-round. It was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, with the accompanying statement that a leech, governed by it’s instinct, could predict oncoming storms and, through the telegraph, ring St Paul’s bell in London. The museum also has a fine collection of narwhal horns.

Due to a coincidence of timing, it being the first day after the end of daylight savings and the last day of English Heritage’s summer season, I arrived at the abbey just as the sun was setting. The ruins were virtually empty, just a few stray goths and a mouse darting about in the shadows. I ignored the audio tour and informative signage and walked, watching my own shadow moving along the walls and finding it easy to slip into imagining Saint Hilda and Caedmon and, much later, Victorian visitors getting a wonderful sense of the ‘gothic’ and ‘sublime’ of the place. On leaving the abbey I entered St Mary’s churchyard where I was met by, of all things, a large black dog. His name was Gordon and he was out for his evening walk.

The following morning I went down to the east cliff at low tide, the home of Jarvis’ ‘Aufwaders’ and the crumbling Jurassic cliffs where fossil hunters still pull dinosaur bones and ammonites from the stone. I combed the sands for jet and kept a wary eye on the tides which come in fast and all the way up to the cliffs, trapping the incautious. I have no doubt Whitby will continue to inspire fiction and poetry, it has that combination of beauty and danger, natural and human history which make it a mine of inspiration.


(all images are my own)

An Antidote to War: T.H. White’s The Once and Future King

I’ve attempted to read The Sword in the Stone, the first volume of T.H. White’s retelling of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, twice in the past, but gave up in exasperation. However, following my recent read of Malory, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of White (which is both sympathetic and brutally revealing) I decided to have another go at it and see if I could get through to the latter books that complete the saga. I’m very glad I did, because a few years of medieval studies and a recent interest in early 20th century British fiction have made all the difference. The Once and Future King is many things; a tribute to Malory’s genius, a deliberate contribution to the Matter of Britain, a pantomime comedy, a personal manifesto, a pamphlet on ethics, a rather Freudian take on maternal relationships, an attack on the myth of progress, a paean to the middle ages, a piece of occasionally exquisite nature writing and an attempt to solve what White saw as the central problem of the human species – war.

Academics commenting on the Arthurian tradition invariably point out that each new interpretation of the material highlights the political concerns of the time and place in which it was written. In White’s case, this is entirely conscious. As he explains in his letters and diaries, the purpose of writing The Once and Future King was to discover an antidote to  war. This is rather a bold ambition, many authors set out to ask questions about conflict, but White is not satisfied to leave the issue open. The book is essentially didactic, it is a modern Mirror for Princes. The great beauty of this attempt is, in my view, that you can see White himself grappling with the problem, both as Arthur and as Merlyn, and the changes to his beliefs and opinions as the work progresses. It asks questions, provides answers, and then questions those answers.

The Sword in the Stone, the best known and loved of the volumes, is also the most innocent. Featuring Arthur as a boy under the pseudonym ‘Wart’, guided by a Merlyn in the guise of eccentric professor, it is full of magic, parody and genuine fun. It depicts ‘Merry Old England’ as a golden age, with long hot summers, snowy Christmasses, haymaking and real forests full of fairies and Saxon outlaws. Even feudalism is set up as an ideal, only ruined by those ‘nasty barons’ who abuse the system. White is overtly conscious of his own nostalgia and revels in it, which is part of what makes this work so enjoyable. The Sword is full of detailed descriptions and explanations of the lost medieval arts that fascinated White, from hawking and tilting to boar hunting. While the focus is on the pleasures of the gentry, it still makes for a fascinating and well researched bit of medievalism that makes me think of White as something of an experimental archaeologist. The politics in this book are light, explored through Wart’s experiences in the animal kingdom.

The Witch in the Wood, also titled The Queen of Air and Darkness, is a transition from the sunshine of The Sword to the shadows of the later books. It contains three narrative streams; Arthur’s war with the five kings and Merlyn’s counsel for his future reign, the boyhood of the Orkney faction (Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth) and King Pellinore’s hunt for the questing beast. The first two threads are full of pathos, Arthur makes difficult choices and gets a taste for war while Merlyn fails to avert Mordred’s conception by giving the one piece of necessary advice. White begins to show his mother issues in the treatment of Morgause, who replaces Guenever as the femme fatale of the piece. The scene with the unicorn is perhaps the darkest and most shocking passage of the entire series, a turning point at which cynicism and nihilism begin to seep into White’s glowing middle ages. Meanwhile the pantomime of King Pellinore’s story seems out of place, a fool who has wandered onto the set of a tragedy. Another element that creeps into book two and lurks in the following volumes is White’s own racism towards the Gaelic speaking peoples. The Irish and the Scottish are described as melancholy, backwards brutes nursing a cold hatred towards the English, with brooding violence a feature of their racial temperament. This attitude rears its ugly head several times in the books and rather ruins White’s more lofty sentiments.

The Ill-Made Knight features the story of Lancelot, and to a lesser extent, Guenever. It is an an uncompromising self portrait of the author, who seems to have identified with Lancelot enough to give the knight all his faults and insecurities. The character that emerges is perhaps the only real person in White’s series; deeply conflicted, emotional, self-critical, searching for a higher purpose, an ideal of honour, and yet falling short of it due to his physical appetites and wracked by shame for his own desires. All of this comes from White himself, who writes of young Lancelot:

The boy thought that there was something wrong with him. All through his life – even when he was a great man with the world at his feet – he was able to feel this gap: something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand.

White was, according to his biographer and his friend David Garnett, a sadist, who struggled to establish intimacy with anyone. His only real connection was to his dog, Brownie. White’s life seems to have been one of continual self-imposed loneliness, a fate he bestows on Lancelot, who, despite his affairs with Guenever and Elaine, and his love for Arthur, is a lost soul, the noble tragic hero who is never fully redeemed. The Ill-Made Knight is beautiful and terrible in its sorrow. Easily the best of the books on literary merits, but perhaps the hardest to read.

In The Candle in the Wind, White returns to the declared purpose of his work, the question of war. Here we meet Arthur again, as an old man, tired and feeling that his great attempt at civilisation has failed. I haven’t mentioned White’s direct references to Malory thus far, but in the latter books they become more pronounced. Often when he doesn’t want to describe a scene he will simply tell the reader to look it up in Malory. He creates a young page named ‘Tom’ whom Arthur tasks with carrying his ideas into the future. White even inserts a reference to himself as future chronicler in a list including Milton and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Merlyn describes the author:

After a bit there was poor old White, who thought that we represented the ideals of chivalry. He said that our importance lay in our decency, in our resistance against the bloody mind of man. What an anachronist he was, dear fellow!

The Candle is by far the most political of the books, excepting The Book of Merlyn, and the volume which contains the most references to the second world war, from which White was a conscientious objector, although never very sure of his own conviction. Mordred becomes a foppish fascist leader whose blackshirts are known as the ‘Thrashers’ and whose villainy stems from his own mother issues. Morgause, although dead, is still held to account for the crimes of her sons while Arthur is forgiven even his massacre of the innocents.

When these four separate books were first published as The Once and Future King they did not include The Book of Merlyn. Rather, White took the two animal incidents, the ants and the geese and inserted them into The Sword and the Stone. My copy, however, includes the fifth book, and although this results in some repetition, I feel that the inclusion is necessary as a capstone to White’s series. This final book sees Merlyn return once more, to collect Arthur on the eve of Camlann, and ‘fill in the gaps in his education.’ It is essentially White’s political manifesto in which he attempts to answer the question of war; what causes it and what system of human organisation would prevent it. Merlyn, at his least charming, spends most of the short book on a soap box, declaiming against mankind in favour of other species, and then using biology to rationalise his (White’s) political beliefs. Here, finally, even Arthur recognises what I have referred to in a previous post as the sinister Merlyn of Malory:

You move me like a chess piece. Have you the right to take my soul and twist it into shapes, to rob a mind of its mind? […] Who made you into gods to meddle with destiny, or set you over hearts to bid them come and go? I will do this filthy work no longer; I will trouble with your filthy plans no further, I will go away into some quiet place with the goose-people, where I can die in peace.

What then, is the culmination of Merlyn’s research? What does he see as the antidote to war? As it turns out, he is against nationalism of all kinds, and offers in its place individualism, capitalism and anarchy. Much like White’s uncertain conscientious objection (he even wrote to the war office offering his service, but was relieved when they declined) Merlyn is forced to recognise the flaws in his own manifesto. He can find no example of true capitalism in the animal kingdom and does suggest that a cap on income might be necessary to prevent oligarchy, without acknowledging that this requires some sort of government to enforce it. White’s racism is expanded to include, alongside the Gaels, the Polish, Germans and Japanese. The Matter of Britain, which has for so long been used to promote nationalism, proves an ineffectual weapon with which to demolish it.

There is something sad and desperate about White’s Merlyn, shut away in his cave (which is, however, a very comfortable academic common room from which he can leave whenever it pleases him) with a committee of animals to help him solve the problems of the human race like a mental puzzle. Merlyn, like his creator, is unable to live amongst humanity and can only analyse it from the outside with growing frustration. It was a genius move of White to explain Merlyn’s prophesies by way of his living backward through time, yet he lacks true historical (or future) awareness and attempts instead to base his antidote to war on hard science. Those of us who have seen how 20th century experiments in individualism and capitalism have worked out can perhaps sympathise more easily with Arthur, who redeems this book with deeply moving passages about love, duty and the desire to do what is right, however ignorant it may be.

The Once and Future King, for all its flaws, is a masterpiece of Arthurian literature. White, at his best, crafts complex motives for Malory’s characters, going to great lengths to understand the moments in Le Morte d’Arthur where Lancelot weeps, or Sir Bors’ decision to save the lady over his brother. He gently mocks conventions of medieval literature, but shows a deep appreciation for the medieval world with wonderful descriptions that allow the reader to experience it sensually. Even his political views and statements are not all irrelevant, his insistence on the humility of the human race as just one of many species and of the ignorance in our worship of progress still resonate today. A great many of his own weaknesses are self-acknowledged, White struggled to write female characters, but Gwenever is not entirely unsympathetic. Even the antidote he offers to war is only produced as a guess, a hope, a possible direction or line of thought to follow. After all, Merlyn reminds us that…

…the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people.

Image: Detail from Dennis Nolan’s illustration to The Sword in the Stone

The Sinister Merlin

Reading Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur through for the first time has been a thoroughly rewarding experience. I’ve made several discoveries, not so much in the content, but in my own understanding of the themes and characters of Arthurian literature. Malory, by condensing and connecting the vast assortment of romances he had access to, gives context to isolated incidents narrated in other sources. His approach is not all inclusive, but he succeeds in giving a satisfying individuality to his knights, largely by providing their histories and following them through to the end. As mentioned in my last post, I am particularly interested in his use (or sometimes avoidance) of the supernatural and this brings me to Merlin. I found Malory’s Merlin a sinister figure. This has made me aware of the fact that I have never really liked Merlin and that my dislike of him has prevented me from appreciating his reincarnations, including T. H. White’s Merlyn, Tolkien’s Gandalf and Rowling’s Dumbledore. While these latter figures are much more wholesome, they retain something of Merlin’s manipulative character, a negative trait that is startlingly apparent in Malory.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin is only present in person in the first four books, where he arranges the circumstances of Arthur’s birth and ascension, interferes briefly in the tale of Balin and Balan and is eventually imprisoned by Nenive at the start of book 4:

Then soon after the lady and Merlin departed. And by ways he showed her many wonders, and so came into Cornwall. And always he lay about to have her maidenhood, and she was ever passing weary of him and would have been delivered of him, for she was afraid of him for cause he was a devil’s son, and she could not be shift of him by no mean. And so on a time Merlin did show her in a rock where as was a great wonder, and wrought by enchantment, that went under a great stone. So by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under that stone to let her wit of the marvels there, but she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do. And so she departed and left Merlin. (IV.1)

This passage is one of the most revealing, I feel, of Malory’s own attitude to Merlin. Nenive, rather than a seducer of Merlin who steals his magical knowledge and tricks him into the cave, is portrayed as a victim of Merlin’s lust. She is afraid of him, and this is significant, because no woman in Malory is afraid of a man who is anything but a villain. Several of Merlin’s achievements in the first four books are unexpectedly dark, Merlin:

  • Engineers the rape of Igraine by Uther by disguising him as her husband
  • Takes Arthur from his mother, who does not see him again until he is a man
  • Prophecies the birth of Mordred leading to Arthur’s own ‘massacre of the innocents’

For these acts he is accused by other Kings of witchcraft and several references are made to his paternity; according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin’s father was an incubus. The fact that Arthur respects and ‘worships’ Merlin is contrasted with the suspicion other men have of him. His infernal parentage, while lending weight to his magical abilities, seems to taint his behavior towards women, and the treatment of noblewomen is a primary indicator of nobility throughout Malory. The very fact that Merlin is punished for his lust by imprisonment suggests a moral judgement on his character.

It could be argued that Merlin also does some good in Malory. His fostering out of Arthur could be read as protecting him until he was old enough to rule, and he does advise Arthur at one point to cease killing his enemies when he has already won the battle. However, his almost omniscient knowledge of events to come is highly problematic. He uses his foreknowledge to achieve his own goals, such as establishing Arthur as king, but does not prevent the tragedies he foresees. Even his awareness of his own downfall at Nenive’s hands is submitted to, rather than averted, a weakness that deprives Arthur of his counsel and assistance in the troubles to come.

Malory’s ordering of events in the cycle gets rid of Merlin fairly quickly, possibly because his prophecies make him something of a nuisance and because he does not fit into the new morality of courtly love that concerns much of the book. However, his role as magical intercessor is soon filled by Nenive herself, who becomes a sort of fairy-godmother character who arrives at the end of a tale to reward or punish, or reveal hidden information. She does not prophecy or involve herself in state affairs, like Merlin, but in the personal relationships between men and women, who are upheld to the codes of courtly love. Like Tryamour, she becomes the otherworldly patron of a worthy knight, Sir Pelleas, and when she arrives to insist on the innocence of Guinevere, Malory tells us; ‘for ever she did great goodness unto King Arthur and to all his knights by her sorcery and enchantments.’ (XVIII.8) A statement that is nowhere mirrored in descriptions of Merlin.

Although modern interpretations of Merlin have more frequently cast him as benevolent, affable character, they cannot escape the problem of his foreknowledge. The fact that Merlin knows Arthur and Camelot’s fate is central to his involvement in the story. When he uses this knowledge to interfere, it often brings up questions of consequentialism; are the means Merlin uses to bring about the Arthurian ‘golden age’ worth the ends? When Merlin fails to use his knowledge, such as informing Arthur of his incest only after it has occurred, is he equally guilty? Any interpretation of the Matter of Britain that includes Merlin has to deal with these questions and, in my opinion, he casts a very long shadow.

Skye M. W.

All quotes from Helen Cooper’s edition of the Winchester Manuscript for Oxford World’s Classics (1998)

Image: Detail of Merlin, Alan Lee

Approaching Arthur

I was very fortunate to be introduced to Arthur in what I consider the best possible way; as a child, listening to an audio book of Rosemary Manning’s Green Smoke, read in the sumptuous Welsh accent of Sian Phillips. Manning’s story is a frame tale, in which a young girl on holiday in Cornwall encounters a retired dragon living in a seaside cave. The dragon, who has been around since the time of Arthur, recounts episodes from Malory, interspersed with other English folk tales. The Arthurian stories are themselves reworked as folk tales and linked to the surrounding locality, including Tintagel and Bodmin Moor. I listened to and read this story over and over, so that the tales are deeply imprinted on my memory. I realise now that Manning was doing something very subtle and clever; returning Arthur to his homeland, and perhaps even to an older form of storytelling than the Romances or epics produced in the Middle Ages. As a slightly older child I read Bulfinch’s The Age of Chivalry (1858). Both writers used Malory as source, indeed Manning’s dragon sometimes quotes his most evocative lines. Arthur was so great an influence on my early experience of literature, that I find I am always drawn back to him. It is part of the reason I am pursuing medieval studies in the first place (the other being C. S. Lewis) and yet I am nervous of approaching the vast body of texts that make up this tradition.

Lately, I’ve decided I really can’t afford to skirt around the topic any longer and must make a considerable effort to get to grips with it. I’ve begun with Derek Pearsall’s Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction (2003), which does exactly what it says on the cover, in an witty and insightful manner. The most helpful distinction Pearsall makes is between the English tradition, which focuses on Arthur as a national hero and even conqueror, and the French romances in which he is more of a background figure to the courtly love intrigues of Lancelot and Guinevere. Both explore the tragedy of the death of Arthur but while the Vulgate cycle (composed in monasteries) blames this on sexual transgression and the vanity of secular knighthood, English writers explore the human failings of the principal characters.

Having just started reading Malory (Helen Cooper’s Oxford World Classics edition) I’m impressed by his ability to include both streams of the Arthurian tradition and weave them into a whole. We often think of Arthurian characters as idealised, even archetypal figures but Marlory’s knights and kings are deeply flawed. He plays on the dramatic irony of his audience’s familiarity with the source material by having his characters spout morals that we know they will fail to live up to. I’m fascinated by the contrast between Gawain, who cannot seem to put a foot right, and Lancelot, who never loses a physical or moral battle and am keen to see how their later conflict is portrayed, because I feel it is this contrast; between worldly Gawain and holy Lancelot, that is really behind the downfall of Arthur more so than the treachery of Mordred, which was anticipated from the beginning.

There is another thread to the Arthurian tradition that is only touched on by Pearsall, and that is the supernatural elements it inherits from Breton lais and Welsh mythology. These are the features that intrigue me personally; Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Nenive/Vivienne/The Lady of the Lake and various other warlocks and enchantresses who pop up throughout the texts. I’m pleased to find that Malory preserves these, and although he seems to get confused as to which magical lady is which sometimes, the effect is that there are a fair few women in Le Morte Darthur with personal agency. Merlin, thankfully, is shut away in his rock fairly early in the book and Nenive assumes his role as deus ex machina, resolving difficult situations with magical intervention. She’s not altogether benign, but then neither was Merlin. I’m fascinated by the way magic is used in Morte Darthur, where enchantment is as commonplace as violence, and just as morally ambiguous.

I’m glad I’ve decided to return to these texts and explore them more thoroughly, because they still retain the power to enchant me. I love the combination of quirky humor (not always intentional), rollicking adventure and gentle pathos in Malory, and I look forward to reading later works inspired by him to see how these are developed.

Image: The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, Edward Burne-Jones, 1889.

The Wry Romanticism of Kenneth Grahame

I did not set out to reread Kenneth Grahame’s essays this morning, but simply to find a quote. However, as always happens when I get anywhere near his writing, I was drawn in and ended up going through them all again in a single sitting.

Pagan Papers was the first book of Grahame’s to be published, a collection of essays and stories, written originally for London periodicals (including The Yellow Book.) It came out in 1893, fifteen years before The Wind in the Willows, and while his style matures over that time, you can certainly find the wistfulness of Mole and Ratty, Toad’s mischievous humour and Badger’s curmudgeonly disregard for society in these early essays.

The first edition of Pagan Papers also included some of the stories that were later removed and published separately as The Golden Age and Dream Days, they are are vaguely autobiographical and beautifully written adventures that demonstrate Grahame’s unparalleled ability to see the world through a child’s eyes. The essays stand apart from these and fit in more with the style of Jerome K. Jerome, whose Three Men in a Boat was almost certainly an influence on Willows.

Several of the essays are ironic pieces, poking gentle fun at his subjects which include book-buying (Non Libri Sed Liberi), public libraries (Cheap Knowledge) and familial relations (Justifiable Homicide). You get the impression that he is deliberately provoking the reader by giving absurd opinions on things, only to change tack at the last minute. It is amusing to be forced to see things like lending libraries and railways, not as romantic old-world institutions, but as highly suspicious intrusions onto Grahame’s nostalgic world view.

This nostalgia is an undercurrent in everything Grahame writes, and he is always aware of it and indulges in his romanticism without any attempt to hide it. He uses childlike playfulness to get away with sentimentality, in much the same way Toad’s adventures distract the reader from Ratty’s yearnings. The more romantic essays express a deep connection to the landscape. Grahame always fell in love with places and saw in them the layers of history. In The Romance of the Road, he takes us on a walk along the Ridgeway of the North Berkshire Downs where “the Roman, sore beset, may have gazed down this very road for relief, praying for night or the succouring legion. This child that swings on a gate and peeps at you from under her sun-bonnet — so may some girl-ancestress of hers have watched with beating heart the Wessex levies hurry along to clash with the heathen and break them on the down where the ash trees grew.” If this sounds unfashionably quaint, I must point out Robert Macfarlane, who follows the same path in The Old Ways (2012)with an almost equal affection for the land.

The Romance of the Rail is nearly prescient in predicting our romantic attitudes towards railways (and particularly steam trains), which he derides, like Ruskin before him, for destroying  the “steadfast mystery of the horizon.” It is clear that he is already succumbing to their charms, however, when he confesses to “a sentimental weakness for the night-piercing whistle.” His description of night trains, ghostly passengers and imaginary journeys brought to mind Blackwood’s A Prisoner in Fairyland (1913). So it seems the Edwardian prose writers were far from immune to the railway’s magic, even if, “The poet, however, seems hard to convince hereof.”

This feeling is expressed most explicitly in A Bohemian Exile, which mourns not only changes to the land, but the people who inhabit it.

…there were two Englands existing together, the one fringing the great iron highways wherever they might go — the England under the eyes of most of us. The other, unguessed at by many, in whatever places were still vacant of shriek and rattle, drowsed on as of old: the England of heath and common and windy sheep down, of by-lanes and village-greens…

If you think this sentiment is dead, you need look no further than Icons of England (2008), a collection of essays for which this could almost be the blurb. Grahame’s nostalgia has, at least, that quality of self awareness.

My favourite of the essays, The Fairy Wicket is more mischievous. It is a musing on disenchantment (Weber again) and the loss of both a child’s power of imagination, and perhaps the imagination of Grahame’s contemporaries, children of the industrial revolution; that “material generation that so deliberately turned its back on the gap into Elf-Land.” Grahame was, after all, an employee of the Bank of England, and perhaps no one has greater need of fairyland than a bank clerk.

Pagan Papers is both a plaintive mourning for the loss of an idyllic England (a mourning that has been going on for centuries I might add) and a humorous poke at the English themselves. Grahame is capable of rescuing his romanticism from sentimentality, as he does in Willows, by the judicious injection of humour.

Skye M. W.

Illustration – Aubrey Beardsley, for The Yellow Book, source