King Arthur and Tintagel

One of my abiding interests from childhood is the myths of King Arthur. I dragged my parents round places such as Glastonbury Abbey (the alleged burial site of Arthur – one of several) and Tintagel  Castle (revenge, perhaps, for all the churches and stately homes!) I read and reread the myths, from children’s retellings to Chretien de Troyes, Malory, Spenser, Geoffrey of Monmouth (I was once asked to leave a history class at school for reading this under the desk, ironically) and, latterly, Tennyson. The Pre-Raphaelites, with their love of medievalism (shared by the Victorians more widely), also painted some Arthurian myths, and I’m interested in those, too. I’m less concerned about the ‘real’ King Arthur, if there was such a person (and if there was, he certainly couldn’t have been the medieval king he is depicted as) and more interested in what the myths mean to us, and what we do with them. It seems fair to say that the myths of Arthur and his Round Table have been associated with either those interested in mysticism, or those with an overabundance of misguided patriotism, but there are plenty of serious scholars, too. The constant reinterpretation of the myths, in poetry, fiction, art, films and more, is an indication of the enduring nature of the legends, but the ways in which these stories are used tells us more about the society in which these interpretations were created than it does about Arthur himself.

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The stories are age-old, including chivalry, fighting, power, magic, love, adultery, faith, death and human fallibility. They come from all over the place – the stories we are now familiar with have been pieced together largely from Welsh, Cornish and French tales, and there is no ‘pure’ or ‘true’ version. But the stories of Arthur and his knights, their adventures, their search for the Holy Grail, the doomed love-triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot which brings down a kingdom, have resonances throughout history. Arthur, after his mortal wound, is taken to the mysterious Vale of Avalon; he was said to be ready to return when Britain needed him (and, interestingly, during WW1 some people apparently believed he would return). There are echoes of Christianity in this: as a good, pure man and leader, Arthur is figured in the myths as Christ’s representative on earth, whom death cannot kill and will one day return to save those in need. The chivalric code of Arthur’s court is set up as an idealised society in which all are welcome, all are brave, good, mutually supportive, and so on. (Actually the details of the stories indicate something more nuanced than this, though).

Places which are associated with Arthur are extremely popular. We visited Tintagel recently, which is known as the legendary place of Arthur’s birth to Ygraine and Uther; Merlin is said to have smuggled him away to live with another family (Sir Bors, I think). Tintagel Castle and village make much of this connection, and as we climbed up to the castle I told my small son some of the stories of Arthur (bowdlerised for children!) Surrounded by sea, high up on the cliffs, it’s an evocative place, despite the extremely tenuous Arthurian connections. I notice that another castle is being excavated near Tintagel, which is expected to arouse the interest of Arthurians (see here).

I was also curious to visit King Arthur’s Great Halls. In the 1930s, Frederick Thomas Glasscock acquired a Victorian house on the main street in Tintagel, and set about turning into how20160716_153528 he saw King Arthur’s court. This slightly barking idea has led to a fascinating place: the first room contains thrones on which one can sit and listen to a recording of Robert Powell reading the story of King Arthur, which is illustrated by some striking paintings by William Hatherall, which are very much period pieces. Each painting is lit up at the relevant moment in the story – my son loved it. Then one moves down a corridor which contains beautiful stained glass by Veronica Whall, loosely Pre-Raphaelite in style, featuring the coats of arms of the knights of the round table. The real destination, though, is the Great Hall itself: with 52 types of Cornish granite. There is a Round Table, along with thrones and suits of armour. It’s fascinating in a rather surreal way: remarkably kitsch, and indicative of the passion some people have for Arthur himself. You can find out more about the Halls here. There are various other places in the area, all which take equally seriously their position so close to the birthplace of King Arthur; perhaps we will visit those another time. Tintagel was fascinating, but I was happy to return home and read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

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Not writing about Shakespeare

imageI have realised that I avoid Shakespeare. I read his plays, and watch them when I get the chance, and I’m not disputing his significance, but I feel somehow that I haven’t anything to say about his work, so I don’t tend to write about or teach him (apart from a few sonnets). This year marks 450 years since his birth, though, and I am reading a lot about him in the press and on the internet (and am looking forward to reading 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare after reading about it in the TLS). All this is making me ponder why I avoid him when I don’t subscribe to the old chestnut that ‘everything has been said’ about his work; after all, every reader and every theatregoer experiences a different Shakespeare, and every age reinvents him for their own ends, social, political and artistic. Anyway, it’s impossible to avoid Shakespeare; even if you’ve never read a word of his, our language is so saturated with expressions of his devising that he is inescapable (see here for a list!) It is Shakespeare’s language – resonant, evocative, witty, dramatic – for which he is so widely loved; his plots tend to come from other sources (I spent hours with Geoffrey of Monmouth reading up on the original ‘King Leir’ while I was doing my A-imagelevels), and the outline of the narrative would thus often have been familiar to theatre-goers of the time. Shakespeare’s genius, then, is to use language to construct characters and situations which have us by the throat even when we know what happens. I’ve seen numerous productions of King Lear, yet every time I am on the edge of my seat, illogically hoping that Cordelia will not die.

And there is still fresh research. The TLS has recently reviewed William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, ed. Bate and Rasmussen, which offers new ways of looking at plays that Shakespeare might have had something to do with, but which imagecannot be wholly attributed to him. We still don’t know everything about the man and his work, nor will we ever, but that is no reason to stop trying.

Another fruitful and fascinating aspect of Shakespeare studies is the reception studies approach. How did the Victorians read Shakespeare, for example? They saw some of his work as unsuitable for family reading, so an expurgated version was produced by Thomas Bowdler (hence the word ‘bowdlerised’). We know they responded to his plays and characters creatively, in poems and paintings, for example, such as Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana‘ (based on Measure for Measure), and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the same subject, particularly by Millais (this is probably my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting).

Tennyson takes the abandoned Mariana of Shakespeare’s play and rewrites her as a melancholy Englishwoman longing for her lover to return. I sometimes teach this poem as a way of looking at the trapped position of many women of the period, condemned to a monotonous, wistful existence in which life seems to happen away from them. The poem also aestheticises women’s sadness, making it a beautiful spectacle, and this is also what Millais’s painting does – but it does more than that: Millais’s Mariana is not just a spectacle of beautiful sadness, she is also a real woman, who stretches languorously as she stands up from her sewing. This was considered shocking by many of Millais’s contemporaries, who saw a sexual resonance in imageMariana’s pose.
These are small examples of how Shakespeare has been reinvented. And we continue to do this. I’ve seen some wonderful modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays; I don’t really like ones that attempt to change Shakespeare’s language, because I can’t really see the point of this, but the wonderful adaptability and ‘relevance’ (horrible word) of his work is all the more apparent in productions such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
(which I saw at 19 and loved), and the 1993 Royal Court Theatre’s production of King Lear set before and during the Great War (contrasting the power of the old with the gullibility or manipulation of the young). Read Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty First Century for more on this! I’m not an expert on how we reinvent Shakespeare, or even why, but am intrigued by how any one writer can have had such a far reaching influence. That is certainly something we should be celebrating, this and every year, and means that no-one with an interest in literature, popular culture, art, history or even social studies can afford to ignore him.

The Poet’s Scissors

My final call at the book festival was the Tennyson Research Centre. We were treated to a short talk on its holdings, and it’s amazing what’s there – a piano which may have belonged to Emily Tennyson, the majority of the Tennyson library (his father’s, his wife’s, his own), and some surprising memorabilia. Grace Timmins, who gave the talk, made it clear that any collection of Tennysonia (a real word?) is self-conscious, since even before he died people were hanging onto anything that might possibly have been connected with him, as he was such a celebrity (and not a fake tan in sight…) I suppose this is how they come to have two small pairs of scissors labelled “The Poet’s Scissors”, which amused me, as well as numerous pipes and quills (enough DNA to recreate him?)
The insight into Tennyson’s father (alcoholic, unstable, rather mad vicar, extremely educated) impacts upon one’s understanding of the poet; and Tennyson scholars are fascinated by the books he had access to in his father’s library. It’s also amusing to think of this mad, clever man giving impenetrable, erudite sermons to Lincolnshire peasants who probably didn’t understand a word of it. There’s also what could be considered to be Tennyson’s first work – his translations of Horace, and some fascinating marginalia – doodles, genealogies of the Greek gods, and some workings out of the number of ships that were sent to rescue Helen of Troy!
It’s sad that the library of the remarkably intelligent and educated Emily Tennyson consists largely of religious books and novels, but of course she would have had access to her husband’s library and read much more widely than this. Tennyson’s own library is, it appears, rather selective – the Research Centre owns far more than they display, and despite the poet being a well-known voracious reader of novels, it’s the more serious works that are on display. Of course when space is limited choices must be made, but this does seem a rather fascist way of editing his ‘legacy’! – it’s quite comforting to know that Tennyson indulged in the Victorian equivalent of EastEnders!
His family life, with 10 siblings, seems chaotic and dream-like, reminiscent of the Brontes. I love the vision of his mother being pulled around in a cart drawn by a Newfoundland mastiff, pausing unpredictably while the children recited poetry; and of the young Tennyson taming an owl to sit on his mother’s shoulder, which is lovely until it fights with the monkey… When three of the Tennyson brothers had their first volume of poetry published, they hired a coach to take them to Mablethorpe to shout their joy to the world! People just don’t seem so interesting today, sadly.
The Centre has many editions of Tennyson’s work, though few manuscripts (most are at Trinity College Cambridge or in the States), but they do have a ms of ‘In Memoriam’, which is so valuable it’s kept in a safe, and I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see it. We did get to see multiple proofs of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, though, and it’s amazing how many times he changed his mind about where in the poem the famous “Half a league…” stanza should appear. One almost pities his publishers. In fact he was rather careless with his manuscripts, since he had excellent recall. Apparently he once asked Coventry Patmore to look for something he had written, and it was found in the grocery box, written in the butcher’s book. He also had an uneasy relationship with illustrators, only liking Julia Margaret Cameron. The Centre has a 6th edition of The Princess, illustrated by Maclise, with a comment in Tennyson’s writing next to an illustration which simply reads “Wrong!” I was intrigued by an 1866 edition of his poems with a remarkable, intricate fore-edge painting which shows Farringford when bent one way, and Somersby the other.
There are also some excellent letters to view, including comically illustrated correspondence between Emily and Edward Lear, and a sincere letter of condolence from Queen Victoria on the death of his son, Lionel, not to mention an autograph-seeking letter from Prince Albert! This archive provides a wonderful insight into the ways of Victorian celebrity! There is also an unsent letter to the soldiers in Sebastopol, who (rather surprisingly) had asked for copies of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. Tennyson sent 1000 copies, and wrote them a letter talking patriotically of the glory of the soldiers – but there’s a little note on it by Emily suggesting that “while it might be pleasant to write to soldiers, one is afraid to seem too regal”!! I could go on, as there was so much to see and so many anecdotes told to us, but the most important thing is that I now have a strong desire to reread Tennyson and to think about his poetry and not just the physical things he left behind.