Sunday, August 05, 2007

Arthur: from the Mabinogion to John Heath-Stubbs' Artorius


Being slightly closer to Birmingham now - all of five miles closer! - I took a trip there this week and bought a newish guide from the Oxford stable, this time the Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, by Alan Lupack.

This respectably thick paperback weighs in at just under 500 pps of dense text and covers more or less everything you could possibly want to know about King Arthur and his associated knights, relatives and hangers-on. Most interestingly, it also includes details of how these stories have been retold and repackaged through the centuries, from the Middle Ages (i.e. the likes of Marie de France and Chretien de Troyes) through to the latest (up to about 2004, that is) versions of the stories, including Arthurian-related poems like Gawain and the Green Knight. Different versions of some of the most popular stories and legends are compared for similarities and differences, and some explanation for each differing version is usually given.

I've always been interested in the Arthurian complex of stories, and I'm not alone in that, of course. At the moment, I think it might be interesting to take one or even several of these Arthurian stories and reinvent them for the twenty-first century, either in poetry or prose, as so many other writers have done, but hopefully putting my own individual stamp on them.

My personal inclination is towards creating a collection of poems around one central character or theme. Probably one of the less well-known female characters, but not necessarily. It all depends on what I need to say at the time of writing and how well the story or character in question fits that need. With Boudicca, the choice was simple. But with Arthurian legend, writers wanting to work with such well-worn material soon find themselves drowning in a sea of other versions, with no clear way 'in' to something original and worthwhile.

I'm still reading, researching and mulling this over, of course. When the right idea strikes me, or rather when the right angle into the legend opens up for me, one which will fit my style and voice as a poet, that will be the moment when I can finally start work. And there's no hurrying that process ...

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

You could always invent a character as Tennyson did with the Lady of Shallot...

Jane Holland said...

I've thought about that and it's an interesting possibility. Actually, my favourite idea is to invent a person for whom I would then write a biography. I love that idea. But you can't do everything and poems are at least mercifully short! These days, anyway ...

With the general dearth of strong female characters available from our native myths and legends, I've often considered rewriting legends - like the Arthurian ones - with the male 'lead' recast as a female. The legendary Artha! Or Robyn Hood!

Certainly worth investigating.

Jx

Anonymous said...

Tennyson did invent the character and make up her (short) biography and set it quite convincingly in Arthurian times.

I realise this could be your intention, but the idea of Artha and Robyn Hood makes me cringe! Too padded-shoulderedly eighties for a start. Ripe for parody perhaps, I doubt it could it be written "straight" in this day and age...but I could be wrong!

Bo said...

Spenser had a good shot with Britomart and Belphoebe, and old Liz I consciously positioned herself as a female Arthur with John Dee as her Merlin.

Jane Holland said...

Don't get excited, anon. I'm just throwing out ideas. Nothing is settled here, everything is still at the 'mull and simmer' stage. Which can take a considerable amount of time with me. Years, sometimes.

I was there in the eighties. I never liked shoulder-pads ...

Jx

Anonymous said...

Have you seen/heard of The Mists Of Avalon? Here's the blurb from the DVD : The MOA from Marion Zimmer Bradley's bestseller retells the Arthurian legend from the perspective of women who shaped events with spiritual powers. Angelica Huston plays high priestess Viviane,Lady of the Lake determined to perpetuate the ways of Avalon, Julianna Margulies is Morgaine her chosen successor. Joan Allen portrays Margause, fiercely driven to shape the royal lineage to her own end. Out of the lives of these three and others - and out of the mists - will come a nation's destiny."

See what I mean? Hollywood has so thoroughly done over Arthurian legend, it seems almost impossible to recover...

Bo said...

Fit boy playing Mordred though...

Jane Holland said...

Lol at Bo!

Anon, I'm surprised that you think one particular film version of the much-used Arthurian legend could mean no one else can do anything with it. That's a very shortsighted attitude. It's like saying 'Oh that Christ business ... forget it, that's been done to death!' or even 'Don't bother celebrating your birthday. It's all so commercialised these days, it can't possibly mean anything to you.'

A good story is always a good story, regardless of whoever may have mangled it in the past. As a writer, you have to look with better eyes, reinterpret things in your own idiom, not Hollywood's or that of any other writer who may also have used those ideas at one time.

One of my favourite books as a young reader was the Mary Stewart trilogy about Merlin. Her work has definitely influenced the way I write prose, and the way I approach fantasy fiction.

Yet when I think of the Arthurian legends themselves, I never think of Mary Stewart. I might well think of Malory or the Gawain poet, or Marie de France, or even some tales from the Mabinogion, but more recent work would be very unlikely to influence my treatment of the legend proper.

And as for Hollywood film versions ... I'm really not into that sort of thing, so that's never going to be an issue.

Anyway, all I wanted to say to my blog readers was that I am interested in exploring the possibility of doing something in poetry with the Arthur story, or something connected to it, but that it could be some way off yet.

Still got my third collection to put together this year, after all, not to mention the young adult fantasy novel I'm writing. In the course of researching which tonight, by the way - and this is aimed primarily at Bo - I was amused to discover that one of my characters, based very loosely on Lilith, also has tentative connections to the Sumerian goddess Inanna.

What a small world it is!

Jx

Jane Holland said...

Anon, are you Emma?

I know you're in good company as Anon, but I can't keep calling you that as it starts to sound a bit silly after a while.

I've never seen Mists of Avalon - though I've seen the book in shops & libraries often enough - but I have seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as you know.

Now that might inform my choices at times. Especially when it comes to selecting shrubberies at the garden centre.

Jx

Emma said...

Lol, Jane, anon in this instance was not me! Promise! Far too articulate to be me anyway.

Jane Holland said...

Don't do yourself down, woman!

All these Anons though ... doing my head in. I'll have to start numbering them soon. Anon 1, Anon 2 etc.

Jx