Tag Archives: King Arthur

Yes, I’m a King Arthur geek

Okay, okay. I’m getting a little sidetracked, but I just want to show you a bit more King Arthur illustration before we get back to late mediæval literature.

Brandywine is an American creek that runs through Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania and Wilmington, Delaware. The Brandywine School was a group of illustrators who left New York City and opened studios in the wilds of eastern PA where they posed costumed models against the countryside for their paintings. Their work has a vibrancy that you can’t match if you’re crammed inside a tiny studio in the Big City. Thanks to the railroad, the Brandywine artists could ship their illustrations to their clients in NYC and still make deadlines. Howard Pyle founded the Brandywine school. He was one of those thoroughly admirable and talented types who can illustrate and also write. Pyle produced a King Arthur book that’s packed with superb black & white drawings and some boffo color paintings, too. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_King_Arthur_and_His_Knights
Get yours here: https://www.thriftbooks.com/w/the-story-of-king-arthur-and-his-knights_howard-pyle/326253/item/9289845/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwu7OIBhCsARIsALxCUaNgzrRTspXOWPTAg64ytNGCJLrrujFSVb-mE9oHNZOdm-tfhAzWHMEaAraNEALw_wcB#idiq=9289845&edition=3431357 (the blurb sez Arthur drew Excalibur from the anvil. He didn’t. He got Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. So there.)

Another of my favs is N.C. Wyeth who also did Arthurian illustrations—

Pyle’s and Wyeth’s work surely must have been at least part of the inspiration for the Sunday comic strip, Prince Valiant. How I used to drool over Hal Foster’s inkwork when I was a mere slip of a thing. https://www.fantagraphics.com/collections/prince-valiant

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

Aubrey Beardsley

Pen, brush and ink on paper, you guys.

As I never tire of reminding you, I’m an illustrator. So I have to tell you about this specially-illustrated edition of Le Morte d’Arthur that came out centuries after Malory and Caxton. It was illustrated by nineteen-year-old Aubrey Beardsley in 1893. Some of the drawings are—let’s face it—bizarre. But Beardsley had a breath-taking mastery of black & white. He would have made a swell cartoonist. Not only that, his style looks like it was designed for woodblock printing—so it feels right for his mediæval subject.

As the Enchanted Booklet tells it:

“William Morris’s Kelmscott Press produced exquisite limited editions, with elaborate woodcut ornamentation and vellum bindings.
J. M. Dent, a London publisher, wished to print a book as beautiful as Kelmscott’s publications but more affordable, targeting the middle class. He achieved this by using a new printing procedure with half-tone reproductions. But mostly he achieved his goal because he had the luck to meet a nineteen year old artist : Aubrey Beardsley.
The publisher recognized the unique powerful talent of Beardsley who was perfect in many ways including his eagerness to produce a huge amount of quality work for a small profit since he was working at the time as a clerk at an insurance agency.
That is how a wonderful book with 360 full and double-page drawings, borders, chapter headings, and ornaments of detailed illustrations, a total of over 1,000 decorations, arrived (in bookshops at) an affordable price.” https://enchantedbooklet.com/le-morte-darthur/

You can get your own copy: https://www.amazon.com/Morte-DArthur-Thomas-Malory/dp/051747977X

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

The printing press comes to England

Poor old Tom Malory died in prison in March 1471, but his book was on its way to fame and fortune. William Caxton was a textile merchant who became interested in printing presses and decided to get one of his own. In 1471 Caxton was the first to print a book in the English language: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (A Collection of the Histories of Troy—kind of a spinoff of Homer’s Iliad where one of the supporting characters gets his own series). Caxton had a good sense of what would sell as well as what is great literature. He’d set up his first printing operation in Brussels, but—

“In 1476 Caxton returned to London and established a press at Westminster, the first printing press in England. Amongst the books he printed were Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, Gower’s ‘Confession Amantis’ and Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’. He printed more than 100 books in his lifetime, books which were known for their craftsmanship and careful editing. He was also the translator of many of the books he published, using his knowledge of French, Latin and Dutch. He died in 1492.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/caxton_william.shtml

Le Morte d’Arthur was printed in 1485. I link below to a site that shows all the pages of the first edition. You can see the typeface was trying to mimic hand-written calligraphy. It wouldn’t take long for printers to realize they could design typefaces that were meant to be printed.

This is just fantastic. You can see the original pages here: http://www.maloryproject.com/caxton_viewer.php

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

Le Morte d’Arthur

sketch of King Arthur based on a painting by Howard Pyle

Thomas Malory was a gifted writer (and convict*) who in 1470 brought the Arthurian stories together and organized them into a grand epic novel. His book has a French title, Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), though the text is Middle English with some French and Latin thrown in. The title is kind of a spoiler. For a while Britain was ruled justly and happily, but Camelot was ultimately doomed because nothing lasts forever. The high ideals that shaped Arthur’s reign were abandoned with the passage of time. Even knights of the Round Table are born weak and live in a broken world. Arthur’s closest allies betrayed him. His court fell apart. It was fun while it lasted. And yet, Malory gives us hope that Arthur and Camelot may return someday: on Arthur’s tomb is written, ‘Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus’ (Here lies Arthur, the once and future king).

I was a King Arthur geek when I was a tween. I did read Malory’s book and it was a glorious long slog. The version I read wasn’t in Middle English but somehow had the flavor of it (it was a library book and I can’t remember who translated it). Malory built the ‘once and future’ Camelot** word by word—the fellowship of the Table Round; the knights with their odd mannerisms and creaky old way of speaking; the exalted idealism; the shameful weaknesses. He showed me a sword magically embedded in an anvil and stone; a lady, naked as a needle, cursed to stand in boiling water until she was rescued by a very pure knight; a weird animal whose belly made the noise of a pack of hounds; ogres; giants; awkward love triangles; the Holy Grail (the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper). Malory conjured a dear old island that stood in that very misty spot where paganism hadn’t quite taken its leave and Christianity was just getting started.

* Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while he was serving time—probably as a political prisoner—at Newgate Prison. The prisons of the Middle Ages seem to have been full to bursting with authors cranking out the classics of Western Lit.

**The French poet Chretien de Troyes invented the name Camelot and created Sir Launcelot. That’s a lot.

I can’t top this article about Malory and his book—

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

A wooden statue of Geoffrey of Monmouth at Tintern Station https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/6023609

King Arthur Pendragon may not have even existed. He was a figure from the mists of Welsh legend and made it into Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of The Kings of Britain which he wrote in the 1100s. Geoffrey was not good at verifying historical facts—or he liked his history fanciful—but he gave us Arthur and Camelot. I’m a hopeless romantic so I like to think there really was a King Arthur.

During the 3 or four centuries after Geoffrey’s book came out, legends and folk tales emerged under the general heading of Arthurian. Figures of Arthur’s court came into being and had their own stories or they were given stories from older lore. Knights went on quests to prove themselves spiritually worthy. They fought wickedness when they found it and offered protection to the powerless. There was a mystical quality that surrounded Camelot and all of Arthur’s Britain—dragons, beasts, enchantments, sorceresses and Merlin the wizard. There was a beautiful young queen.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

The once and future blog post

“Who so pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England.”

During the thousand years before the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, life for the British was one stinkin’ thing after another. If it wasn’t the Romans, it was the Angles. If it wasn’t the Angles, it was the Saxons. Or the Jutes. Or the Frisians. Everybody invaded Britain back then, it was the thing to do. Sometime during the ad 500s the British were in a life-and-death struggle to keep the Saxons from taking over their island. The Roman Empire had imploded and the Brits were on their own. The Saxons were unrelenting, ruthless and seemingly invincible. The British desperately needed a leader: someone just and moral; someone who could out-general the invaders; someone with a trusted band of mighty warrior-heroes; someone who would rally his countrymen to save their sceptre’d isle. They got one. The catch was that this chieftain and his friends were doomed—their time was to be only one brief shining moment. This chieftain? His name is Arthur.

Wow! That was some pretty good writing, huh? I should get a Brit actor like Kenneth Branagh or that Cumberbatch fella to read it out loud, backed up by an orchestra quietly playing the overture to Camelot.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

The Norman Conquest and all that

My ham-fisted rendition of Edmund Blair Leighton’s 1900 painting ‘God Speed!’ A lady ties a ‘favor’ (an item of her clothing) on the arm of her paramour as he leaves to do battle.

Thanks to the Norman Conquest in ad 1066, French was introduced in the British Isles. French is another one of those Romance languages developed from Latin. The British natives had been speaking Old English/Anglo-Saxon which had Germanic roots (as we heard in Beowulf). The two cultures influenced each other. People were zipping back and forth across the English Channel (my British pal John W tells me on clear days he can see France from where he lives). English and French speakers swapped words (like lamb meat is mutton from French mouton). They influenced each other’s written language, too. Soon after 1066, church hymnals and psalters in England were written in French.

Later on mediæval England’s nobility became fascinated with chivalry, the knightly code of honor, and courtly love. They created a demand for literature that featured those themes. The nobility spoke French and Latin, so poetry was written in those languages. As time went on, French became the preferred language.*

* Courtly love is where a gentleman adored a lady from afar and performed brave, glorious deeds in her name. Often the ladies were other people’s wives. The romance between Queen Guinevere and Sir Launcelot is a famous example of courtly love. In theory the lady’s and gentleman’s code of honor forbade any monkey business—it was a strictly chaste relationship. Chivalry’s ideal man was a ‘verray parfit gentil knight.’ Even so, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee observed, “Well, it was touching to see the queen blush and smile, and look embarrassed and happy, and fling furtive glances at Sir Launcelot that would have got him shot in Arkansas, to a dead certainty.”


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

The die is cast! Part III

(I’m still giving Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment! Continued from the previous post)

The Byzantine power couple: Justinian & Theodora (or maybe it’s Boris & Natasha, or Gomez & Morticia…)

…so even though Romulus Augustulus surrendered his crown to Odoacer the barbarian it doesn’t mean Odoacer’s the new emperor in the west because let’s face it: the western Empire is over, kaput, yesterday’s news, stick a fork in it—there’s no imperial law enforced by imperial military any longer so Odoacer is king of a handful of kingdoms that will one day become Italy and Dalmatia the Vandals take over the African parts of the old Empire the Huns are still pillaging villages and killing everyone, the Visigoths, Goths, Burgundians and Franks are duking it out over Gaul, in the British Isles the Celtic Britons (like King Arthur) are trying to keep out the Angles and the Saxons but the Saxons take over so the Celtic Britons head for the frontiers (what are today Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and northern France), Visigoths take over Spain, the Lombards (long-beards!) conquer northern Italy then from 493-526 Theodoric the Ostrogoth reclaims a big chunk of the old western Empire by invading Italy then forming alliances with the Goths and Visigoths (during this time the philosopher Boethius is imprisoned and writes A Confederacy of Dunces*) meanwhile in the east we got Emperors Anastasius, Justin I, then in 482 Justin I’s nephew Justinian who more or less shares the throne with his wife the actress, Theodora (before Justinian it was illegal to marry actresses so good news for Hollywood) there’s violent rioting by sports fans who really really support their chariot race teams he builds a new beautiful cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, where an old one had burned down Justinian’s generals Belisarius and Narses fight the Persians, the Vandals in Africa, and the Moors Belisarius also gets back Sicily and Naples from the Goths—Rome too the Franks invade Italy and Belisarius fights them then fights the Persians in Syria Ethiopians ally with Justinian then the Goths revolt and re-recapture Rome until Narses beats them the Franks and Alemanni invade Italy again but get beat again Belisarius keeps out the Bulgarians there are comets and an earthquake a tsunami possibly a volcano whose smoke dimmed the Sun for awhile the bubonic plague famine Justinian codifies the Law everybody in the eastern half decides to speak only Greek except for the government who stick with Latin…**

* Please forgive my lame gag. Arianism—the heresy that says Jesus wasn’t really divine—had rattled Christianity and people were touchy about it. Boethius wrote using his knowledge of Greek philosophy and logic to explain the existence of G-d and the divinity of Christ. When he was (innocently) caught up in political intrigue, Boethius was imprisoned and later executed. While serving his sentence Boethius wrote his masterwork, The Consolation of Philosophy (which book is one character’s obsession in the zany novel A Confederacy of Dunces). https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anicius-Manlius-Severinus-Boethius

** Even by the standards of the other emperors Justinian seems to have a whole lot of war and mayhem going on—Procopius wrote about it in his tell-all biography:


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.