Thursday, December 25, 2014

To Drive the Cold Winter Away

All hayle to the dayes,
That merite more praise,
    then all the rest of the yeare:
And welcome the nights,
That double delights,
    as well the poore as the Peere:
Good fortune attend,
Each merry mans friend,
    that doth but the best that he may:
Forgetting old wrongs,
With Carrols and Songs,
    to drive the cold winter away .

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ambrose, Myrddin Wyllt, and the Antichrist

Attempting to create the Antichrist and so bring about the end of days, Satan impregnated a virgin, but, wise to his designs, she ensured that the child would be baptized immediately after its birth. The child was thus a Christian and saved from the power of the Devil, but nonetheless inherited prophetic powers from his diabolical heritage.

So runs one version of the origin story of Merlin, from a text worthy of its own post later. But the Doylist origin of the Merlin character is even more intriguing.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Thomas Malory

The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table, or, as its publisher rechristened it, Le Morte Darthur, is a Middle English compilation of stories about the Matter of Britain, written by Sir Thomas Malory. Derived principally from the Vulgate Cycle (a set of Old French romances about Arthurian subjects) and from earlier Middle English poetic works, it is one of the major sources for Arthurian legend today (in large part because it was a favorite of English Romantics in the 19th century). It was printed by William Caxton in 1485, a few years after its author's death.

It is a work which offers high ideals about chivalry - ideals that seem to be at odds with the life story of its author.

Friday, December 19, 2014

To the Queen

O loyal to the royal in thyself,
And loyal to thy land, as this to thee--
Bear witness, that rememberable day,
When, pale as yet, and fever-worn, the Prince
Who scarce had plucked his flickering life again
From halfway down the shadow of the grave,

The Ongoing Arthurian Revival

Nineteenth-century Romantics are a major source of our current understanding of the Matter of Britain. Their involvement has codified the versions of the stories now most often thought of as "canon" by enthusiasts of the legends, smoothed out the conflicts between different stories, and thus leveled off a lot of the detail of interest to the historical folklorist that's found in the early sources. But their interest is also why the Matter of Britain is well-known at all - today, few people other than enthusiasts of medieval history or French literature can tell the story of the death of Roland, few who haven't studied the classics could give you a summary of the life story of Alexander the Great or any part of the history of pre-Homeric Thebes, westerners know the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Journey to the West only if they study East Asian culture in at least a little bit of depth, but King Arthur has been on Broadway twice, riffs on the story can draw big box-office crowds in part by trading on how they differ from the classic story, and as much as it departs from the traditional plot, the BBC's Merlin can still expect the audience to feel like a significant moment just happened when an episode ends by revealing a child character's name to be Mordred.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Kings of Pre-Roman and Sub-Roman Britain

Nearly all of our knowledge of the history of the Britons during the Roman and Sub-Roman periods comes from chronicles written by historians writing during the medieval period. This is a problem, because these chronicles are laughable at best.