Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Arthur's Round Table Discovered!

The Winchester 'Round Table'
What? Really? When the hell did this happen? After about fifteen-hundred years, it has finally come to light. King Arthur’s Round Table has been found…in the gardens of Stirling Castle, Scotland.

Oh, come now. Really? I’m sorry to say that I heartily disagree with the Daily Telegraph which interviewed archaeologists from Glasgow University on this discovery. Talk about the media twisting things to get sensational headlines! Glasgow University has been working in the gardens of Stirling Castle and carried out geophysics on the circular part of the gardens called the ‘King’s Knot’. What the geophysics found was a much older, circular feature beneath the visible 17th century remains.

The 'King's Knot' Stirling Castle
 Yes, there has been reference in the past linking Stirling Castle with ‘King Arthur’. The same can be said of almost every other corner of Britain. Arthurian associations are everywhere; Colchester (Roman Camulodunum), South Cadbury, Winchester, Tintagel, Wroxeter (Roman Viroconium), Caerleon…the list is endless. That is not to say that none of these have any claims to linkages with the historical Arthur. On the contrary, my studies over the years (Arthurian studies was a main focus of mine) lead me to believe that a great many sites likely did have a link to Arthur, possessing archaeological, historical and toponymic evidence. This is a massive topic into which I can not delve here. This is just to say that all the claims for association with Arthur show, at the very least, what a powerful tale it is and how something that has its base in fact has been so embroidered and elaborated upon over the centuries. There is real power in the fusion of history and storytelling.

In my thesis work on theories about the location of Arthur’s ‘Camelot’, I looked at a variety of theories that placed Arthur at South Cadbury Castle in Somerset, Wroxeter in western England near the Welsh border, and Roxburgh Castle in the Scottish Borders. This was fascinating research and it showed how much archaeology contributes to such work. Pottery sherds don’t often lie. At the time, Cadbury Castle, a former Iron Age hill fort of the Durotriges, still comes closest with its finds of timber hall post holes and Mediterranean pottery. The period was right but still, one can never be certain. Wroxeter, a former Roman city with a Dark Age timber hall/villa seemed more likely to be the base of Vortigern rather than Arthur’s seat of power. The theory by a Scottish historian on Roxburgh castle, near Roman Trimontium, was also a bit of a stretch and had more Roman connections than anything. That said, Roman sites were often reused in the Dark Ages. A great deal of horse tack was found in the area of Roxburgh but other than that, the remains on the mound were of the medieval castle. Nothing is for certain, history being the most exciting kind of detective work, to my mind anyway.

South Cadbury Castle
But what about the Round Table? Well, that certainly is a catchy headline. However, a round feature could have been anything from a Roman signal tower, to an Iron Age roundhouse, to an oven of sorts. Stirling was definitely strategically positioned, being the gateway to the Highlands for centuries. Countless invading armies have marched through there in their attempts to conquer what is now Scotland. There are other round features with Arthurian associations, of what could be the correct date. In Cornwall, where there are a great many Arthurian sites, you’ve got Celliwig where, as mentioned in the Mabinogi, Arthur is said to have held court. Winchester castle contains the huge, oak Round Table that is on the wall. The painting on it is from the time of Henry VIII in order to back the Tudor claim to descent from Arthur. Though the table at Winchester is older than the paint, is it the Round Table? Doubtful but, what of it? It’s the symbol of the Round Table that was first mentioned by Robert Wace in the early 12th century that is important. Wace wrote that after twelve years of peace:

Arthur had the Round Table made, about which the British tell many a tale. There sat the vassals, all equal, all served. None of them could boast he sat higher than his peer; all were seated near the place of honour, none far away.”

Roman Amphitheatre Caerleon, Wales
A shame he does not mention where it might have been. Another candidate for the Round Table, and a very likely one for a council of equals at the time of the historical Arthur is the Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon in southern Wales, mentioned as the site of Arthur’s court by Geoffrey of Monmouth. That is a magnificent site, as are all mentioned above. It is likely that the historical Arthur spent some time Caerleon, where the II Augustan Legion was stationed. Was that the Round Table? Who knows?

The situation that Wace describes regarding tales of Arthur fits with our current dilemma:

In this time of great peace that I speak of… the wondrous events appeared and the adventures were south out which, whether for love of his generosity, or for fear of his bravery, are so often told about Arthur that they have become the stuff of fiction: not all lies, not all truth, neither total folly not total wisdom. The raconteurs have told so many yarns, the story-tellers so many stories, to embellish their tales, that they have made it all appear fiction.”

This is where the historical novelist can let the imagination take over and fill in the gaps in the historical record. If you are going to write an Arthurian epic, there are more than enough romantic, mysterious and inspiring sites in every part of Britain. The trick would be to find the perfect blend of history and myth to make the world one creates authentic and entertaining at the same time. I’ll write more about this topic at a later date – I have loads of photos from visits to many of these sites that I can share with all of you.

For the moment I would like to say “Kudos!” to the Daily Telegraph for printing that story for in doing so, they have helped to rekindle interest in Arthurian studies (always a good thing) but have also helped to up the chances of further funding for the archaeological work going on at Stirling Castle.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Midnight in History

The other night I went to see the new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. Go see it. This is a great movie and, as ever, Woody Allen’s writing is simply brilliant. The story is basically this: a writer and his fiancée go on a vacation to Paris. He is working on his first book and just can’t get it right. He’s in love with 1920s Paris. When his fiancée goes off with some of her friends, he heads off on his own to walk the streets (at midnight, of course) in search of inspiration.

The writer is taken in by the beautiful scenery of the city, the Seine, the streets and the way they look when wet at night. When the bell tolls midnight an old car pulls up and some folks dressed in 1920s clothing and sipping champagne pull the writer into the car and boom, the he is instantly transported into 1920s Paris. When he catches on, he can’t believe his luck and the fact that he is mingling with some of his favourite, and some of the greatest, artists of the time; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Earnest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter and Salvador Dali to name a few. Every night after that he spends time with this crowd and comes to know them quite well. He even gets Gertrude Stein to review his manuscript!

There were some amazing shots of Paris (Roman Lutetia) in this film and I’m sure I spotted some Roman ruins in one of the great director’s shots. One of the ideas explored by the movie is that people always yearn for something other than what they have, usually something (or some time) in the past. GUILTY! My hand is up. I suspect that most of us who read and write historical fiction, whatever your period, feel that we were born into the wrong century. I’m not talking about medieval medicine (nope, could do without that, thank you very much!) or the sureness of getting murdered in the lawless streets of ancient Rome’s Subura after dark (I guess that one depends on where you live). What I mean is that many of us perhaps wish for times when the air and water were cleaner (imagine the Great Lakes before the Industrial Revolution), or when monuments were not ravaged by modern war and pollution – the Parthenon must have been a miracle to behold before it was used as a Turkish powder keg.

Alexander the Great
Acropolis Museum

Midnight in Paris also made me think of what people of the past I would like to meet and interact with for a time. Who would I populate my screenplay with? The old Who would you invite to dinner? question. I think it would be nearly impossible for me to narrow it down to one person in particular. But, I have thought of a few I would like to meet.
I would definitely like to meet a couple of generals; I like military history after all. Alexander the Great would be up there. I would like to talk world travel with him and get his take on all the wonders of the world that he beheld on his travels. I’d also like to know what exactly he did ask the Oracle at Siwah. I don’t feel a need to speak with Julius Caesar – I’ve read his memoirs of the campaign in Gaul and read so much historical fiction about him that I feel I know the man pretty well by now. We’ve got to be selective in this exercise. Maybe I would speak with Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Governor of Britain (A.D. 78-84) and ask him what exactly happened in Caledonia and where is Legio IX Hispana?
Julius Agricola
Bath, UK

Eleanor of Aquitaine
There are a few women I would like to meet too. Stop that sniggering! You know what I mean. Eleanor of Aquitaine would be up there, a true force of nature by all accounts. As someone who focussed on Arthurian studies, how could I not want to speak to the host of the Courts of Love in southern France? Marie de France too; together, Marie, Eleanor and I could have quite the literary discourse, jongleurs, wine and all. Perhaps William Marshall, the Flower of Chivalry, could add to the discourse? Another woman I would like to meet is Empress Julia Domna, wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and by all accounts a brilliant, widely respected patron of learning. Perhaps I could ask her to read my horoscope (something she did with utmost regularity for herself) and ask her what exactly went wrong with Caracalla.

William Marshall in Combat
from a manuscript of Matthew Paris

Empress Julia Domna
Pythagoras and I could talk about reincarnation. I would also like to hear what inspired Phideas and Praxiteles to create masterpieces that were wonders of the ancient world. I would not leave out any mythological figures either. Remember, every legend has its base if fact. Hector, Odysseus and I could sit around a fire on a beach beneath sacred Ilium, sharing meat and wine and talking about our wives and children and what it means to be away from them. I would also speak with Herakles and get him to tell me a good few tales about his labours – there’s got to be some great storytelling there!

The Death of King Arthur
by John Mulcaster Carrick

A couple more. I would certainly like to spend a fair bit of time with Arthur, the Pendragon or Dux Britannorum, the Romano-British warlord that kept the Saxons at bay for a short time. Taliesin could play the harp in the background. I would like to know the whole story from Arthur himself, leaving nothing out. What happened? Did your friend really betray you? What did Merlin teach you? Where was Camelot? Are you going to come back?

Finally, I would speak with Homer himself, the father of western literature. I would sit on the ground with all the people mentioned above who would have been familiar with his work (Herakles, Hector and Odysseus could fill in any possible gaps) and listen to him. We would likely be sitting on the shore of the island of Chios, the sea at our backs. Looking up at the wrinkled pockets where his eyes had once been I imagine that he would still convey the emotions of his tale perfectly: the anger of Achilles, the courage of Hector, the fall of high-walled Troy, the wanderings of long-suffering Odysseus. It might take days to hear the tales in full but how it would be worth it. Perhaps I could relate to him my own first novel, Children of Apollo, and get his take on it. Of course, a tale about Romans might seem distant and strange to Homer but with the Poet himself there, I would have to try. 
Odysseus and the Sirens

It’s fun to think about this and it is no easy task to pick a few. I could go on and on and on. That’s the nice thing about historical fiction, you can spend time in the lives of the people you admire, love, even fear or hate. At the end of the day, or the story, we do have to go home but that doesn’t mean we can’t take something of what we have learned with us.