Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Arthurian Review, Issue 5

A few months ago, I received a package in the mail. It came all the way from the States and contained a 104-year-old book – a 1906 reprint of an Edwardian bestseller. My friend Karina's SO had spotted it at a book mall, “sandwiched between Cajun Cookery and How to Clean Most Everything”, as she tells me, and rescued it. I am very grateful that he did so, because I did not know either the book or its author, and as it turns out, Uther & Igraine holds a few surprises.

Uther & Igraine (1903)

Warwick Deeping

It had been a while since I had last read a baroque Victorian novel, and it seems that I had all but forgotten what it is like. Reading the first few pages of Deeping’s prose was a little like receiving a blow to the head. I was dizzy with the overwrought imagery. Here is a taste:

“A wind cried restlessly amid the trees, gusty at intervals, but tuning its mood to a desolate and constant moan. There was an expression of despair on the face of the west. The woods were full of a vague woe, and of troubled breathing. The trees seemed to sway to one another, to fling strange words with a tossing of hair, and outstretched hands. The furze in the valley – swept and harrowed – undulated like a green lagoon.”

Mr Deeping (1877-1950), it is clear, likes his Aesthetes. He harnesses the worst affectations and most artificial phrasing of Wilde and Swinburne to write a romance novel. He adds positively lethal doses of alliteration and superfluous adjectives to the mix. In fact, his writing reminds me painfully of my own prose style :P. To do myself justice, I don’t insist on using “panier” when I could write “basket”, or “potage” instead of “soup”. Deeping does. As soon as I got used to it, I actually found his pedantry funny and went along with it.

Uther & Igraine is pure historical romance. When I say “historical”, I mean it in the widest possible sense. The story is set in what looks like post-Roman Britain, but the author adds all sorts of elements that evoke chivalry and courtly love and do not match the timeframe at all. Everything in this novel serves the romance. Characterisation, historicity and background: they are all (mostly cardboard) props to decorate the stage on which the Passionate and True Love of Uther and Igraine is shown. But if you can accept the novel for what it is, it is quite an enjoyable read, and much less silly than many of its modern counterparts.

“The true love of Uther and Igraine”? You heard it right. In Mists of Avalon, Uther is young and a hottie, and Igraine falls in love with him because her husband Gorlois is old and considerably less hot. Deeping’s scenario is somewhat different. In 1903, an adulterous love affair could not possibly have a happy ending, and happy endings are what romance novels are all about. The solution to this problem is to turn the source legend on its head. In Uther & Igraine, it is Gorlois who calls upon Merlin to trick Igraine into marrying him when he finds that she is not responsive to his advances. (This despite the fact that he has such romantic notions of wooing, including stalking his beloved, manhandling her, and showing her a lot of crucified Saxons.) If Igraine rebuffs Gorlois, it is not only because he is vain, cruel and insensitive, but also because, just before, she has fallen in love with the mysterious Pelleas. That intensely honourable, valiant and (quite maddeningly) devout knight turns out to be none other than Prince Uther. Igraine and Pelleas part, due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, and do not meet again until after Gorlois has perpetrated his dastardly deed. In the service of the happy ending, the Duke of Cornwall eventually pays for his awful treatment of the heroine by kicking the bucket (forcefully) and leaving Uther free to marry his widow with a clear conscience.

My little summary might lead you to assume that Igraine spends the entire novel playing the part of damsel in distress. If it is true that she has to suffer violence, trickery and death threats, it should nevertheless be mentioned that she is also a brave girl with a sharp tongue who is not content to let other people decide her fate. She fires arrows at Saxons, lies and tricks, jousts if she has to – no, she is no wilting lily. Of course she becomes “as a child” when Pelleas is near, and she goes insane at one point, as Victorian conventions demand, but in general she is rather more emancipated than her sisters in the pseudo-feminist Arthurian novels of the 1990s. Take that, Rosalind Miles!

Should you feel like reading this cute, quirky little romance, I am happy to report that it is widely available in digital form on the Internet.

On the Gawain-o-meter:

Zero! There is no trace of Gawain, which is not surprising seeing as Igraine is very young and has no children yet. If there is neither a Morgause nor an Anna, there is not going to be a Gawain either. I have no idea how Deeping envisions Arthur’s family tree.

To prove how much fun I had reading this book, I doodled three characters while on the train. Please note that Morgan is not Morgan le Fay – she is Morgan la Blanche, who does not seem to have a counterpart in the source legend (or not that I can see).



Cecilia said...

I have recently finished re-reading Le roman de Silence by Heldris of Cornwall (XIII cent.) and towards the end Silence has to capture Merlin, who lives like a savage man in a wood. When she catches him, she says she wants revenge because Merlin tricked her ancestor, Gorlois (spelled Gorlains). I found it was a nice touch ;)

Cecilia said...

Ah! By the way. This is from a short story I have to judge for a dA contest:

"Tears gave it birth upon a december's night. It swirled from the shadows and the howling wind. Fur of snowflakes melting in the liquid and viscid blackness of its bluish scales. My soul called for it - for him. My lips formed hushed words.
He sang to me the way a whale could while taking his place in my laps, curling up there like a cat would. His sleek body fitted pefectly. He absorbed sadness, fears and doubts. His tail circled my wrist and fingers, the silky scales smooth against my skin and the brush of the thin feathers, ending the two splits, tickling. In silence we both fed our ataraxia upon each other's presence. The two pieces of the same puzzle, together at last. The wheel of destiny rumbled."

ampersand said...

LOL at the story! I think I prefer Deeping though - probably because he doesn't use words like "ataraxia" ;-).

I don't know Le roman de Silence. It sounds intriguing though! Must look for a copy. -At this moment, I'm reading a study about marriage in the middle ages. It's most interesting...

Cecilia said...

I saw you were able to read Michel Foucault's History of sexuality. I'm starting to wonder if I have to read it too. Mmh.

Le Roman de Silence is the story of a girl, Silence, brought up as a boy by his/her parents in fear of losing their feud due to the impossibility of inheritance for women. Silence lives for 18 years dressed and acting like a boy, first becoming a minstrel, then a renowned knight. Unfortunately, she/he is the victim of the unwanted attentions of the queen, who lusts after her...
It's a throughoutly enjoyable little book that seems written for a scholar in gender studies ;)