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So Much Research

Exciting news! A print version of Tisiphone’s Quest should be available before the end of the month. And now back to your regularly scheduled blog content.

One of the ways I am spending this summer is in paddling about in the shallows of the truly vast sea that is Arthurian literature. This is not for the fairy book, but for the next project on the self-pub list (next year, probably) — an urban fantasy in which some of the supporting characters and themes come from that neck of the literary woods.

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My main goal in reading (and no, I haven’t gotten through the whole stack yet) was to come up with a timeline. A quixotic task, I admit, since any two stories even within one collection contradict each other. I’m relying mostly on Malory, under the assumption that more people are familiar with that version than any of the others, at least in outline, but his (genuinely impressive!) effort makes no logical sense in so many places that I have been forced to use a heavy hand in coming up with my own version.

That aside, it has been tremendous fun revisiting Sir Thomas’ work. I’m fascinated among other things by how simultaneously ubiquitous and unknown the story is these days. Arthur’s cultural penetration in the US is both vast and shallow, a series of impressions and a dozen or so names with no substance attached. Most of the cast of characters has been forgotten by popular culture, but a half dozen retain a stubborn foothold (if only thanks to Monty Python). It’s another layer in a process that has been going on since, presumably, the seventh century or so, one of constantly adding, subtracting, and shifting emphasis. Malory is a bit like a core sample that way, capturing the story as it stood at his own time, with echoes of the centuries before. (So many centuries by then, so many since. How many stories have been in more or less continual demand for anything like this long? Have been adapted and pruned and grafted to so many new gardens?)

The beginning of the volume juxtaposes a very straightforward tale of a warrior king coming into his own with a world of vast and alarming mystery; prophecies, giants, and unexplained magic abound in between the battlefields. It’s an alien place to a modern reader, and the stories often end either in tragedy or dissatisfaction. This probably explains their lapse into relative obscurity these days.

In the middle of the book we get more into what modern readers think of as “Arthurian” tales, even though Arthur barely figures in the stories himself. Knights go on adventures, joust with opponents who might be mortal enemies or disguised friends or relatives and only find out which one it is afterward, rescue and are rescued by mysterious maidens, and are taken captive by sorceresses with wicked intent. Characters have a bit more depth, and there is occasional evidence of a sense of humor. Some of the stories feel downright modern, and use tropes that endure all around us. Even the magic is less wild and more human. The world is still full of unnatural dangers, but their scale has diminished. The emphasis is less on warfare and more on personal contests, with pointed lessons on how heavily armed and powerful individuals ought to behave themselves, dammit.

And then there’s the Grail, which makes a heroic attempt to graft a Christian ethos of modesty and humility onto a bunch of characters who are terrible human beings almost to a man throughout all of the preceding chapters, and who immediately revert to type after returning from that quest. We come full circle in the end; Arthur’s final chapter returns us abruptly to the primal world in which the story began. The war with Morded is straight-up classical tragedy–incest, mass infanticide, the bit of ironic bad luck that starts the final battle, Arthur’s ambiguous ending–and takes no note of the more socially oriented layers that were put down in the intervening chapters by storytellers whose own world had moved on from that one.

And now I’m adding my own little layer, and it’s a ridiculous amount of fun, at least now that I’m past the major headache that was the timeline. More on this later, no doubt!

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