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The Arthurian Project

Overview An Arthurian Cycle Samples from the work so far The Voyage of the Wild Argyll The first wonder of Pentecost

Jousting at Bolsover Castle, 2008.





Pictures from my travels whilst researching locations for the Arthurian Project


Roman fort, 'Arbeia', South Shields


Commander's Quarters, 'Arbeia'


By the road to Applecross, Wester Ross


Wester Ross from the top of the Applecross Pass


The Stones of Stenness, Orkney


Neolithic home, Skara Brae, Orkney


Peveril Castle, Castleton, Derbyshire


Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire


Arming 'Sir Edward Stacey'


'Sir Edward Stacey' prepares to joust


Foundations of a Roman watchtower, Holyhead mountain


Sunset on Holyhead Mountain


Hut circles, South Stack, Anglesey


Free grazing ponies, Anglesey, before Snowdonia


St Michael's Mount, Cornwall


Restormel Castle, Cornwall


King Doniert's Stone, Cornwall


Celtic Cross, Cornwall


Trevethy Quoit, Cornwall


Site of Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

Overview

The idea of writing an entire Arthurian cycle is a daunting one; considering doing so in verse may border on the insane. Yet 'Aurorielle', originally intended as a stand-alone fairy story in an Arthurian setting, has become the pilot for my 'Arthurian Project'. It is now clear I could write a full cycle in either verse or prose. Sadly prose is the more likely, for to commit myself to a verse cycle would probably require abandoning many other projects that are also dear to me.

After completing 'Aurorielle', my first step forward was to create an Arthurian time line. This included the few known historical events (most of which are dubious in nature or date) and added the fictional ones required to tell the story. In 'Aurorielle', I have accounted for the nature and theology of the Fay, the curious presence of Merlin in Arthur's court and many other thorny questions which beset an Arthurian writer. (Merlin was effectively a shaman in Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain" (circa 1136), and a curious compromise of sorceror and pious Christian in Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" (1485).) Having decided on those issues, the events required fell into place, though not without considerable research.

My objective is to write a recognisable fiction whilst including the few known events of Arthur's time, putting them at the heart of the story, whereas others have discarded them entirely. I base my history mainly on the views of Professor Leslie Alcock, as expressed in his book "Arthur's Britain". Alcock's work may not be entirely right and it may no longer be fashionable, but it is important to me to work with a history in which Arthur is believed to have been real.

I see no point in writing new legends based on accounts which suppose Arthur to be an old legend. I do not want to write legends about legends. Even if Arthur was 'no more' than a legend, even legends begin with something that once happened, no matter how far from the truth they stray. I intend my legends to include all of the fact they can include. Even if the truth is truly 'only' a legend, there is something underneath that legend which I can touch - a desire held by people of later times to have an ideal King. That desire may arise from the deficiencies of the real kings people had to live under. But it might just derive from the example of a real man who fought at Badon under the sign of the cross - the only leader in Europe to turn back the Saxon tide. I happen to find that very credible; others may not. But they must write their legends as they will; I will write mine.

However greatly one desires to stick to the few known facts, to ignore the body of legend postdating them would be to write a mere history; and history has very little to offer. History would have me write of an Arthur who has no Merlin to guide him (for such a shaman could never fight for the cross), no Lancelot (because French knights in 6th century Britain are an absurdity), no plate armour (arising from Malory's inability to imagine his way out of the 15th century) and no Fay (for they are a myth grafted onto a period where history is painfully lacking). There is no purpose in ignoring legend; there is so little known history to write, that anything based on that history becomes the legend one prefers to write. Geoffrey knew that, but preferred to pretend otherwise. I prefer to write the most possible version of the legends, rather than just those things which are truly possible.

Yet the most interesting stories from Arthur's period are those Malory and his sources ignore; the events of the time between Vortigern and the Saxon wars (which are Arthur's defining purpose), set in a real and vibrant British landscape - Cornwall, Wales and the Orkneys. Those lands are both the true home of these tales and the most ruggedly beautiful lands anyone could want to set a tale in.

Since creating a time line, I have made extensive preparatory notes. I have also spent as much time as I can visiting and photographing the key locations. Thus 'Aurorielle' has become the first of a series of stories yet to be written, defining the world in which I write.

To those who might ask, "Why rewrite Arthur?", I would say that everyone who wrote a version of Arthur we retain and revere began with the material which preceded them, then added their own unique contribution. Thus I am entirely in the Arthurian tradition, because that tradition is to take what has gone before and weave it into something new and wonderful of one's own making. One should do so in keeping with the core of what others have written; yet writers from Geoffrey to Malory never touched on the heart of what made any real Arthur famous - fighting the Saxons at Badon under the sign of the cross, and winning.

If Arthur had not done so, I suggest there would have been no reason for the Welsh (as they were soon to become) to commemorate him in legend, or for the French (before there was a France) to have sought glory by spuriously involving themselves with his legend through poetry and song. There is no smoke without fire; but most of what we read from Geoffrey to Malory is a smoke which ignores the fire. My desire is to put the fire first and let the smoke be of secondary importance. What smoke has been written! But it rose from a stupendous fire.



An Arthurian Cycle

1. Aurorielle

Already written.



2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

A considerably expanded version of the medieval tale, in three parts:

2.1 The King’s Champion

Prince Pellinore, champion of King Uther, undergoes a quest which entangles him with the affairs of King Lot of Orkney and the mysterious Questing Beast, which has threatened him. Afterwards, Pellinore is wrongly considered responsible for Lot's death; then his valour goes on to be rewarded with utter disaster.

2.2 The Knight of the Mountains

Pellinore, alone but grimly determined, seeks to change the character of the British nation by making it impossible for unrighteous kings to flourish. Yet the final result of this is the kingship of Arthur, son of the late king Uther, whilst Uther's failings were the very thing Pellinore set out to reform.

2.3 White Lion

When King Lot's son Gawain grows to manhood, he swears revenge on Pellinore, who he supposes to be his father's murderer. But when Arthur unexpectedly arrives on the throne, the rules of his court require knights to put aside their personal disputes. So Gawain is caught between competing oaths. When the Green Knight unexpectedly appears at Camelot, Gawain accepts the challenge of the Beheading Game. This requires him to leave Arthur's Court, expecting never to return.

Before Lot's death, Pellinore promised to hunt the Questing Beast, in order to save Gawain from its vengeance on the royal line of the Orkneys. The Beast will hunt Gawain as soon as he is old enough to be Orkney's King. Hidden from view for years, the Beast has at last been sighted, so Pellinore is out hunting for it in the wild.

Freed from his oath to Arthur, Gawain searches for the Green Knight. But as he has no clue to the location of the Green Chapel, Gawain reasons seeking directions whilst hunting Pellinore is as good a means of finding Green Knight as any other.

A terrible chase ensues, far from the reach of Arthur's justice. Gawain must allow Green Knight to behead him, or lose all honour; but he must also kill Pellinore to fulfil his oath. Will Gawain be able to kill Pellinore before finding Green Knight?

Pellinore is sworn to kill the Questing Beast to protect Gawain - but he already knows no human hand can destroy it.

What will result from this culture of death? The answer lies in Green Knight's mysterious identity and purpose, which will only be revealed to one who bares their neck to the blade of his hideous axe.



3. Arthur of Badon

A mystery - the British, shortly to become the Welsh, begin the Arthurian era as Christians, whilst the Saxons are pagans. Yet later we find the Saxons are Christian, whilst the Welsh have developed a partly pagan culture. Why?

Somewhere in the mists of time there is said to have been a battle at Mount Badon. No one can say for certain where that is, or when it took place. Only the name remains. The scale and nature of the forces is a matter of guesswork. All that was ever written about it at the time, was this: Arthur fought and defeated the Saxons at Badon, bearing the cross.

From then on, Saxon incursions into Britain ceased or were even reversed for 30 years. What feat of arms convinced the Saxons their intended conquest of Britain was beyond hope, unless Arthur should die?

In a forgotten place and time, Arthur did what no other European monarch or war leader of his era ever managed to do. The result would change the history of these islands ever after.



4. The Round Table

Myths and legends concerning Arthur are mostly set in a glorious era between the founding of the Round Table and a terrible conclusion at Camlann. The era of the Round Table is surely mythical; it is the 'smoke' that I spoke of, whereas Badon is the fire. For nine hundred years, the smoke has utterly eclipsed the fire, becoming the most enduring legend in the English language.



5. King Forever

All good things come to an end. The stories of the Grail and of Camlann are well known; one leads to the other. But the images used in the Grail stories are questionable at best for Arthur's time; identifying the true source of those false images shows how they themselves led to an old and dark cataclysm which is nevertheless horribly familiar today.



6. Vita Merlini

Geoffrey of Monmouth created Merlin out of the shamans of former times. Was his 'Merlin' based on Lailoken? Lailoken was out of period for Arthur; he was actually too late, though he belonged to a much older tradition.

Geoffrey knew Merlin could have no place in Arthur's Court; he wisely used him only as Uther's means to rape Igraine. But where did this "Devil's Son" come from? How did he become, to the authors who followed Geoffrey, at once both Geoffrey's dark magician and Malory's pious Christian?

There is a model for Merlin that fits both views, but it has been forgotten for centuries. Today it has been restored, though few know of it. Thus it is possible to find a Merlin who satisfies the courts of both Uther and Arthur. To discover this man is to discover the times; not in a way we can romanticise or desire, because they were more terrible even than the worst of the darkness we can no longer ignore in our society today. In Arthur's time, when both the old and the new models of power through wisdom were already dying, no-one could stand in the way of that darkness - except a man such as Merlin, its very product.



7. The Intercession of Trefor

This is a conjectural work that would unify the events of the other stories, showing them from the perspective of the King of the Angels, into whose care Sir Trefor was given at the end of 'Aurorielle'. 'The Intercession of Trefor' returns to the issues exposed in 'Aurorielle', completes Trefor's romance with the Fairy of the Dawn and reveals the hidden depths behind the events spoken of in the other books.



Samples from the work so far

I am well pleased with the quality of 'Aurorielle', which was revised throughout four times in a continual search for perfection. Yet I would be no kind of poet or artist if I did not continually seek to extend my capabilities. Some poetry has already been written for the other stories, scattered around one intended book or another. It has been written to help develop key ideas and plot elements. Two of the parts I have most enjoyed writing are found below; they are, I hope, just the beginning of something wonderful.

The Voyage of the Wild Argyll

This is a song composed by King Lot following his voyage along the west coast of Britain, returning to the Orkneys from France. In it, he describes the events which took place on the way. This song was then written down by Lot's wife Morgawse when she wrote to her father, King Uther, asking help for Lot in regard of a strange and terrible danger which arose during his voyage.

The contents refer to features of the seas and islands near to the Orkneys, as well as various mythologies unique to that area. Those mythologies are at least as old as the Arthurian legends, probably considerably older. Space does not allow a full explanation of those places and myths, but the names and legends in this poem all refer to real places and ancient stories, not places or stories of my own invention.

~ Dave Knight.

The Voyage of the Wild Argyll

Whisper, you winds, on the cold, slow ocean;
talk to the waters, calling for home.
Rip at the mists from the North Walls falling -
glide o’er the tides as we ride the foam.
My fathers still frown from the stone-rowed coastline,
like countless mountains crowding the sky –
lost kings that were cursed from their birth; first turning
to ghostly stones where the bone-men lie.

I have taken the way to the far French forests,
and sailed on the sea to the southern shores,
where I sought for a lord of Gaul’s great nation
to save all my sons from the serpent’s jaws.
For the tide has turned in the hard heart’s hollow;
the fire of my forbears flamed like a brand –
but I knelt to the gentle warm, wise woman
my father fetched from a foreign land.

Morgawse was the gift of the king, cruel Uther,
to Meginland’s Master, a maiden mild –
to the northern court of the high wild islands,
a seed he sent for the sea-king’s child.
And marry her merry did I, right blindly -
my lady’s love for her other Lord
made this pagan crave what her whole heart hallowed -
to God I offered my soul and sword.

My life as King Lot had been swift, sweet splendour -
a rising tide, or a giddy game;
from Irish isles to the ice grim grinding,
from Orkney to Norway fared my fame.
But cold was the throne that I held; men’s vengeance,
the bitter chills of our yester-years,
could guide with the bile of the heart’s hot hatreds,
when tales of old terrors were told with tears.

My conscience was clear as we sailed so slowly;
my heart was high with the hope of peace,
when the wind that I wished for blew back banners
of mist, and I moaned for my soul’s release.
For the stars stood still in the stark skies shining -
but green was the glint of the grinning glow
on the wild horizon, where death’s dawn-dancers
flickered and flamed on the foam below.

Then the souls that had sailed to Ban’s bright Benwick -
that Christian king in his fair free fane -
cowered and cringed ‘neath the dread high heavens,
afraid of a fire in the angel’s lane.
Some muttered the sun in fox-fires flashing
had come to curse us for courting Christ;
but others in wonder mocked men’s madness,
and told them boldly their faith sufficed.

Then fumbling I fingered the cold calm cross
Morgawse had given; on chain of gold
‘twas hung by my heart by that same brave lady
when first I followed her faith, so bold.
But dreadful the dream that our wide eyes watched there,
while Hether-Blether, the rising isle,
groaned as it rose from the sea’s deep keeping -
vexing the voyage of the “Wild Argyll”.

As if at a whim, the moist mist lifted;
then high in the night, that shining orb
the moon came mournful to light my nightmare –
that ghostly globe with its gleam did daub
beaches of seaweed, with streams soft sucking
the brine from the isle, as high she rode,
up from the cover of cold cross-currents –
a fell and dreadful Elves’ abode.

The tide that had tarried whilst all sought Orkney
now leisurely lapped on this ghastly strand,
steering us near to the Finfolk’s fastness,
calling us close by occult command.
O’er slippery slopes of grim grey granite
a lonely lane sought the centre-stone;
no word was heard in the ear’s clear hearing –
inside the mind rose a mournful moan.

“Courage!” I cried. “In tales told truly,
the hero Hector claimed Hildaland
where Finfolk frolic no more, for surely
they ran from that Master of Meginland.
Thus did it come to be high Eynhallow,
a place where the hated race of Elves
yearn to return with singing wicked -
but Hether-Blether they kept for themselves.”

Ignoring warnings from men made mindful
of former fables, and scorning fear,
I carried the sack of salt such sailors
as worked these waters now kept near.
For Hector’s tale showed salt slew spell-men;
he made his way to the centre-stone,
then scattered and strew, to the Finfolk’s fury;
on Hether-Blether, I strode alone.

Comment

The first wonder of Pentecost

This poem is from my version of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'. Early writers speak of Arthur holding a feast each year at Pentecost, at which he would refuse to eat until God had shown him some wonder. To me, an appearance of the Green Knight is just the kind of thing Arthur would be waiting for. I have supposed it to occur at the first of those feasts.

The story of the Green Knight is derived from a legend older than Arthur himself; the 'beheading game'. This featured in a well-known medieval tale written in verse, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'. That tale, the last flourish of the alliterative revival, was penned by an unknown author. Today it is almost incomprehensible to modern English speakers without translation; yet the story of Green Knight is far older than that medieval poem.

Translations of the medieval original vary in quality. Also, the alliterative verse is unfamiliar to most modern ears. I find no merit in using that form for this tale - because it is a Saxon form for the ears of the descendants of Saxons ruled by descendants of Normans, whereas the story it tells is of the early British, later known as the Welsh.

Perhaps, then, I should retell such a tale in a verse form suited to the Welsh? But I think it better to use forms which are familiar to the reader, just as the author of the medieval version did.

The rhyme scheme of this poem was deliberately designed to be a mystery. Green Knight is a mystery to Arthur's court; so I present this story of his appearance with a mystery inherent in the form of the poem. I hope it will give the reader as much pleasure looking for the rhyme scheme as it gave me to write in it.

The scene is the Round Table, met at Pentecost, with the boy-king Arthur awaiting a wonder. His knights are unsure what he means by waiting for 'wonders from God' before he will eat. A descriptive poem handling that situation remains to be written; so this poem begins as it does, presuming the scene has already been set.

~ Dave Knight.

The first wonder of Pentecost

Click to hear (.mp3)


But as the gathered knights await the feast,
a whistling wind blows open heavy doors;
the startled guardsmen struggle with the gusts,
and beech mast scatters all around the hall
with sundry other out-of-season fruits
that never should be seen in leafy spring.
All turn to see what else the breeze will bring -
untimely yellow leaves and straggling roots
come skidding in. A heaven-zephyr’s call,
one might have thought. The company mistrusts
this wind, that scorns all nature’s normal laws
and acts as if the natural seasons ceased.

A whinnying sounds loud, but far; deep beats
of hooves across the ground announce some knight
comes galloping amidst the murky mists,
and every muscle tenses round the hall
except the king’s. “Stay, knights; what shall God bring?
This Pentecost, some wonder did I seek
to test our mettle; so we must expect
the unexpected. Let the peril come.”
No sooner had he spoken than a form
appeared in mist afar; some devil’s work?
But just like any normal, mortal horse
it gallops, canters, trots, then slows to walk,
ent’ring the hall. Then no one dares to talk,
who laughed at life, however fierce the force
of war, and never sought from strife to shirk,
who sallied from his castle through the storm;
but each and every knight sits still, struck dumb,
in shock; before the portal sits erect
a man of war in panoply unique,
of whom the minstrels' riddle is to sing
some song to summon up his form at all.
For none that now compare with him exists,
and every one that saw him swears the sight
all manner of description still defeats.

The doors bang loose; the horseman bends to bow,
green as the laurel wreaths around the wall.
The fire quails in its grate. The noble knights,
sat by the table weighted with the feast,
stiffen their sinews. Gallant is their guest,
‘tis clear; but by what soul his form’s possessed
that fills a speaking tree, or by what beast
his form is guided, no-one now recites.
Except his shadow, black and standing tall,
all else of him was green, from toe to brow.

His horse, all brown as chestnuts dressed in spikes,
was clothed with cloth all steeped in deepest jade,
and arched its mighty neck as if the air
blew in the boughs of hoar, enormous trees;
yet by those knightly crooked, creaking knees
might rest the heads of lords in armour fair,
so great that stallion’s lofty limbs were laid,
beyond the reach of foemen’s ready pikes.

No cobbles clack; no shoes adorn this horse;
no bit of iron checks the mighty steed.
No reins to train the creature, nor to guide,
no stirrup, neither saddle ease the ride.
Metal, or any leather are indeed
not in the rider’s nature - all of course

proceeds as trees would dream of making man,
resisting every inch the iron’s strike,
except one brazen bright and blazing blade -
a shining sword star-sparkling from his arm.
Knotted and gnarled, his staff bears many scars,
tall as the lords in armour sat beside
the table made of trees that once grew green,
grew great and green and leafy in the land.
This stranger might have been some brother bold
of forests fresh and far where Fay roam free,
living ‘midst friends, a mighty creature-tree,
by leaves alone kept free from winter’s cold,
‘midst evergreens no woodsman ever planned,
in forests deep and dark no Celt had seen,
nor Saxon sought a hall in which to bide
beneath the solitude of circling stars.
No, not for him the fetters of a farm,
formed by a man despite what nature made;
if anything should cause his cold dislike,
then that would be whatever men might plan.

With all the knights still staggered by the sight,
he rests his staff against the cobbled floor,
giving the shaft a swift and twisty spin -
then springs like bending bough to grasp the ground
between his toes, like roots that sink through stone.
His legs, twin trunks, support his heavy bole.
What heart should beat within so strange a soul,
no man of Logres yet had ever known.
Thick sinews like the mistletoe surround
his throbbing arms that pulse with sap within;
and no one cares to ask his name – far more,
he is his name; his name, Green, greenest Knight.

Thick twigs all twirled together form his beard;
moss-green, the leafy shadows swathe his face.
Grey-green, like trunks of trees, his noble neck,
his eyes all lit with em’rald sparkling light.
And thus he comes to seek the strangest fight -
to find a knight whose honour knows no speck,
and calls it worse than death to know disgrace,
or let another know just once he feared.

Comment


I hope you have enjoyed this little dip into my Arthurian Project. My heart is set on writing a greatly expanded version of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". To write all that has been sketched out is as large a project as a writer can realistically conceive of. Yet given time and a living, I hope and intend to do just that.


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