Tag Archives: King Arthur

The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion – a review

I’m no Arthurian scholar, although my wide ranging reading habits and interest in folklore and mythology mean that I’ve run into King Arthur and the grail from all kinds of perspectives already. I was interested to see what Simon Stirling would do with the idea. I don’t feel qualified to comment on this as a piece of historical writing, but I found it in many ways persuasive.

In this book, Simon makes the case for King Arthur being Scottish. I found this argument compelling. To establish his case, Simon draws on mediaeval writing, period history (such as it is) place names and the names of known historical figures. He also explores why we have a southern Arthur and how that benefitted the church.

I found the exploration of texts and history to be especially interesting. One of the things this book does especially well is to look at the relationship between history making and myth making. These things are deeply related to each other. We tell stories to reinforce our sense of history. We use history as propaganda. We reinvent our stories to reinvent ourselves. Arthur has been used repeatedly in this way, and I found the exploration of the mechanics to be really helpful.

One of the other things that stuck out for me is the way language changes over time. The poetic sources Simon deals with are full of kennings, allusions and metaphors. It represents a world view rather different to our own. There’s a blurring of edges created by word play and pun, and resonance that may easily be lost to a modern reader. There’s no knowing how literally our ancestors took any of this – whether we’re dealing in straightforward symbolism where Bran = raven, or whether in some sense ravens are Bran, and Bran is ravens… How much mythology could be grown from a misunderstanding of poetic language? For me, this raises more questions than it answers, and I am very glad to have them raised.

I do not emerge from this book confident that I know what the Grail is. The case Simon makes is fascinating and I very much enjoyed reading it. It is a pleasing addition to my sense of what the grail might be, and might have been, but I’m not one for definitive answers. I’ve certainly learned a lot about how different people have perceived the grail. For anyone looking for a non-Christian take on the elusive artefact, this is a good book, I think regardless of whether you find the central argument persuasive.

For me, reading this was like investigating an ancestral dream world. Simon draws on sources from all over the world to explore ideas about what it means to be human, because in many ways, the quest for the grail is always a quest for something fundamental about humanity. This take on the grail is very much the warrior poet, masculine grail, and it has most to say about male mysteries around what is often taken to be an innately feminine object. It often reminded me of reading The White Goddess – this is not a wilfully obscure book, but it has that same sense of being a hairsbreadth from absolute truth, while never enabling me to completely grasp it. As I appreciate that sort of mythic, deep dreaming experience in a book, I really enjoyed reading this. I suspect different readers could have radically different experiences of this book, depending a lot on what you know and believe already.

Mote about it here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/grail

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120 pages of King Arthur

It’s been a challenging year. I’ve never been at the art-end of a graphic novel before – I did some shading for The Raven’s Child – making big areas dark, but that was occasional and mechanical, and did not call for much skill, just patience. This year I’ve been the colourist on the John Matthews graphic novel adaptation of Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. My husband Tom Brown is drawing it, and today I will colour page 120, completing the first of four graphic novels.

I know how to knuckle down, but this kind of art intensity, most days of the week, for months, has been a challenge in many ways. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned what I can get away with, and what the oil pastels I’m working with can be persuaded to do. I’ve learned what will happen when the lines are dropped back on top in photoshop, and I’ve learned to adapt. I’ve learned that the wealthy of the 1400s (the book is set in Mallory’s period because that’s how he imagined it) had details, twiddly bits and colour on everything. To make the images make sense, the details had to be simplified. I’ve learned that I enjoy doing landscapes, and hate doing the interiors of great halls.

I’ve also been the model for Nimue the character, only blonde. Many friends have loaned their faces to help with the enormous cast. It’s been weird when they’ve died. Turning Druid Camp’s Mark Graham (Uther) into Matlock the Hare’s Phil Lovesey (Gorlois) was an especially surreal experience!

There were many reasons for asking to get involved. One is time – my two hours on a page save Tom perhaps more than 2 hours, for various reasons. It means we’ve both worked more like ten hour days, rather than him working 12 hour days, which is a lot better on the relationship/life front. During The Raven’s Child (a huge graphic novel project a couple of years ago) I felt very much on the outside when he was struggling (lots of seven day weeks there) and I wanted to be on the inside, able to help.

I wanted to be involved for selfish reasons, too. It’s tough when your husband and creative partner is working 12 hours a day on someone else’s book and talking about it when not working on it. If I’m involved in the project, this is a lot easier to take. I wanted to prove I could do it – I did art to A Level a long time ago, I’ve always played with colour (usually fabrics and craft) I’ve also been told I have no idea how to put colours together. I think I can lay that one to rest! I like a challenge, I like the opportunity to pit myself against things I’ve never done before.

The next book will be easier, because I won’t spend the first 30 or so pages in a state of anxiety. It will be easier because of the tricks I’ve learned, and because after 120 pages I am better than I was when I started, inevitably. This means I want to go back and re-colour the first half of the book, but I know how that goes, and you never get to finish a book if you keep trying to get it all up to the most recent standard. It’s the downside of improving. The logo I did at the beginning (top left). I hate the sky. I do much better hills these days, and water for that matter…

This afternoon, I colour the last page, on which Lancelot rides into Camelot. Then I am going to the pub.