Thursday, September 21, 2023

Culhwch and Olwen.


I have loved this story since I first read the Jones and Jones translation many decades ago. Now I'm working my way slowly through this magnificent edition, which has the text in Middle Welsh but the introduction, notes and glossary in English. (The same two scholars produced an all Welsh edition but I despite the ongoing effort I still can't read Modern Welsh.)

The story begins as a folk tale which wouldn't be out of place in the Grimm's world, and then the hero gets on his horse to ride to Arthur's court.  You can almost sense the anonymous genius who put this together realising here was an opportunity to show off, and the prose shift gears. (Marked for me by the sudden increase in the number of words I have to look up).

I particularly like this description of Culhwch's dogs, gambolling around him:

And before him, two white breasted brindled greyhounds

each with a gold collar from shoulder to ear

And the one that was on the right would be on the left

And the one on the left would be on the right

Like two sea swallows frolicking about him.

After this, the porter scene which is another favourite. 

Friday, September 1, 2023

Jeremy Hooker, Diary of a stroke. Shearsman (2016)

Jeremy Hooker, Diary of a stroke. Shearsman (2016)


Memory, narrative and identity. 


Are your memories like the panel of a cartoon, that’s been torn from the rest of the strip? A scene from a film where the credits have gone missing? Vague images glimpsed from the wrong angle, a collection of shade and colour and movement? What happens to them when you try to put them into words and tell them to someone who wasn’t involved? 


Beyond the obvious idea that writing memory is always a work of reconstruction, there is the lurking problem that although the event can be described in words, the writer is on the outside looking in. Whatever emotion that incident evoked at the time, or no matter how important it seems in retrospect, it slips away or is distorted in the attempt to write it. 


Freud claimed that some of his patients could not ‘narrate themselves into coherence’. And what is a memoire, if not a retrospective rearrangement of events to produce a coherent character who shares a name with the narrator? 


But the key term is ‘narrate’. We all have memories. But putting them into words, even for the most eloquent, is never straight forward.


The English poet and critic, Jeremy Hooker suffered a stroke in July 1999, and kept a journal of his experience, first in hospital then when recuperating, until his return to work in January 2001.


As the book progresses  the entries integrate record, observation and memory and gently develop into a memoire of his early years. The awareness of the problems of writing memory make this book far more interesting than a well-written memoire would be on its own. 


The book begins with short entries which record the world of the hospital, his return home, and his adjustments to a body that was no longer to be taken for granted. The entries record encounters with friends, old and new which provoke reflection, and Hooker, refusing to sentimentalise, is candid about himself and his life. However the book turns on his unexpected desire to write about his past. 


‘Since lying in hospital I have thought that I would like to write something-call it a memoire or autobiographical sketch-about my childhood…. I doubt I could do it formally since it would confront me with problems of public persona & literary occasion-problems in my own mind about my ‘rights’ as an author.  

What I might do , though, is give way to the impulse when it occurs and use this journal space , in which I feel most free as a writer, to sketch a memory or an impression. (P.93. November 10.)


For a writer who had refused the ‘confessional’ and ‘autobiographical’ in his own poetry the desire was not straight forward. How to avoid what he had called ‘the sludge of nostalgia?’ More significantly,  if a memory is a first person narrative, the writing of it becomes tangled in problems of subjectivity. In a previous essay, Hooker had reflected on ‘the lyric I’ and written ‘quite simply, I might look at a tree or any living thing and know its reality would always be beyond my words’. The past may be factual. But in narrating it, it becomes a thing, to be described, ‘to be always beyond words.’  


In the same essay he wrote:


…’One problem with Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry as originating in emotion recollected in tranquillity is it’s tacit assumption of a stable ego in the act of recollection’. Against this he juxtaposes D.H. Lawrence’s ‘ If I say of myself, I am this, I am that!-then, I stick to it, I turn into a stupid fixed thing like a lamp post. I shall never know wherein lies my integrity, my individuality, my me.’


Comparing such disparate figures as Keats, and David Jones, he wrote: ‘Each involves self or soul as more process than fixed identity, as something one works with and realises in the making’.    

A memoir is not just a straight forward account of past events. It is the construction of one possible version of a life, a fixing of identity in retrospect. In Hooker’s case, an activity qualified by a critical awareness:


‘It seems to me that a lot of ‘inner experience’, offered as the subject of poetry, isn’t interesting. For a start it tends to be conventional, with more sameness (but less common depth) than its advocates are prepared to allow. The individual is a bourgeois concept , a commercial asset in a society given to buying and selling ‘lifestyle’ products. The person by contrast turns away from convention and instead of idolizing the psychological, as though it were a precious private property, is sensitive to the unique and relational aspects of human being.’ (p. 81. October 24)


He is therefore, wary. If our past is something we narrate into coherence, then what is a genuine memory? How much of our idea of our past is constructed around  stories other people have told us, or photographs we have seen. How do we know our memory isn’t a story we have told ourself so often we now accept it as something that ‘really did happen’.  In retrospect do we freight incidents and people with a significance they didn’t have at the time? 


One of his memories is off sitting in a car, waiting for his father, and sketching what he could see outside the window. The image becomes a symbol of what he’s not trying to achieve.

Often the memoire seems to the writer, looking out at a world that is ‘over there’, as if the world was a painting without people. Or that what mattered was his or her reflection in the glass. ‘But what I want to see is the life  out there, not my face reflected in the glass, or an empty landscape, but the quickness and the plenitude in this common place.’ 



As with Hooker’s other Journals, his reading and reflection are contained in the diary. During the period covered in Diary of a Stroke, he was also working on Imagining Wales and these two books complement each other. Imagining Wales is the publicly endorsed critical approach, Diary of A Stroke  contains a personal response to these writers that is no less interesting. For readers of his critical work, the journal references provide a perspective on these authors: these writers give him a way of orientating himself, or navigating his way through the experience. It is a model of literate critical reading in the best sense, of taking what can be learnt from books and folding them into his life.  


Hooker’s long engagement with the work of John Cowper Powys, David Jones and Richard Jeffreys, provide threads through the journal. Two of those writers  provide unusual models  for anyone writing about his or her past. In his Autobiography Powys carefully manufactured a version of himself. It’s an astonishing performance but he left his biographers the task of untangling the fact from fiction. Jefferies’s Story of my Heart is an autobiography mostly lacking in the kind of dated events one might expect. Hooker’s approach is less programmatic, more conventional but no less interesting


If you take into account class, geography and time, most childhoods, barring traumatic events, are similar. Like it or not, we are cliches. What makes Diary of a Stroke more than just an eloquent record of memory and recovery is Hooker’s reluctance to simply record his past. There’s an honest tension between the desire to write about memory; the critical sense that self-revelation is usually not that interesting to a third party, and an awareness of the technical difficulties of writing about the past that elevates the book above the merely self-referential and provides a stranger with much to think about. 

Monday, July 10, 2023

Transformation, magic, the conception of Arthur, a digression.


At some point, things that people accepted as real pass into their stories, and survive only as ‘something that can happen in a story’. The idea that human beings could transform, or be transformed, into other humans or other animals, seems to have been almost universal. But gradually the idea passes into the world of the storyteller. 

This doesn’t happen at a specific time in a culture’s history. And it happens at different times for different groups and different individuals within the same culture. If you are one of those who believe in the ‘contextualising of texts’ to identify ‘values and attitudes and beliefs’ this should make you reconsider what you’re doing. 


The stories in The Mabinogion were written down in the 14th century.  


in 2023 Amazon is selling books of magic spells, and if the reviews are anything to go by, people not only buy them but expect them to work. ('Where am I supposed to get wolves teeth?' asks one reviewer.) 


A very tentative google search reveals that on Fiverr I can hire a powerful practitioner of black magic (his sales pitch) to cast a transformation spell for less than ten dollars. For fifty dollars, another expert will transform anyone into a physical beauty. 


Astrology is still popular, not just in the free versions that turn up in most papers, or online, but in versions that require payment for a horoscope. Tarot readers flourish.


So before tracking ‘contemporary’ attitudes to magic and transformation, and puzzling over what it means to ‘believe a story’, it’s worth pointing out that while the stories in the Mabinogion were written down in the 14th century, a belief in magic is not something that disappeared from our society at some vague point in the past. 




Thursday, June 29, 2023

What's great about Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur

My attempt to explain why I admire Malory's book, and why I've been rereading it since the late 1970s, is published on The Brazen Head Website. Clicking on the link below should take you there. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Conception of King Arthur. Transformation, magic, belief. 2/3

What is the audience being asked to believe when Uther becomes Gorlois?


The first Branch of the Mabinogion illustrates two types of change: disguise (Pwyll pretends to be a beggar) and transformation (Pwyll is Arawn for a year while still remaining Pwyll) (see previous post).

The Fourth Branch offers several examples that refine the concept of ‘transformation’. 


The first of these is illusion. This is the explicit use of magic to confuse two things for effect. Gwydion offers Pryderi 12 horses and twelve hounds, with saddles and bridles and collars and leashes and golden shields. The story teller inserts the comment ‘y rei hynny a rithassei ef o’r madalch’ which Sioned Davis translates as ‘He had conjured those up out of toadstools’.  

Fleeing Pryderi’s court, Gwydion tells his companions they must hurry because the magic will only last ‘until tomorrow’. Later, he creates the illusion of an invasion fleet to scare his sister. In neither case does the illusion last.


The second type is transformation as Pwyll experiences it in the First Branch. Gwydion and his brother are turned into three animals over three years. In this case they are specifically told they will have the nature of the beast they have become, but the implication is that they remain conscious they are men and they only return to human form when Math wants them to.


The most famous transformation in the story is Math and Gwydion’s taking flowers and turning them into a woman. This is not an illusion. The Flower Lady is fully human, and as she is human she has speech, and free will, and the power to choose. When Gwydion punishes her, she isn’t changed back into petals, but transformed into an owl.


So a suitably threefold division. 

Disguise (without magic)


Genuine transformation, permanent. (With Magic)


Illusion ( A Magic trick.)


What this allows us to do is now is to look at what people seemed to have believed about transformation at the time these stories were circulating. It's not at all straightforward. And it should eventually bring us back to Laȝamon and Uther. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

The Conception of King Arthur. Transformation, magic and belief.1/3



The story of Arthur’s conception may have been Geoffrey of Monmouth’s invention. (See previous posts about how was King Arthur's father.)


Uther, love sick for Ygraene, and at war with her husband, Gorlois, is transformed by Merlin into Gorlois and as Gorlois, Uther is able to enter Tintagel castle and spend the night with Ygaerne. 


The story opens Malory’s 15th Century version. There are classical, biblical, mythological and folk tale examples that might have inspired Geoffrey, but most academic commentators seem to note the parallels, discuss possible sources, or how it fixes Arthur into ‘The Hero Paradigm’ and then move one. 


But the longevity of the conception story obscures how bizarre it is. It’s worth stopping and considering just how bizarre.


Looking at another literary example makes explicit what the audience is being asked to believe. 


In the First Branch of the Mabinogion, the story of Pwyll consists of three episodes. In the first two, Pwyll adopts a disguise. 


In the first episode, Pwyll becomes Arawn, and lives as him for a year.  

In the second, he arrives at the wedding of Gwawl and Rhiannon in disguise. 


The second is an example of ‘being disguised’ that most people would accept as credible. 


Someone acts a role, altering appearance superficially to avoid recognition. At a time when even Kings would not have been recognised outside the limited circle of their close acquaintances, Pwyll can easily hide his identify by wearing a disguise (rags) which he can throw off. He is playing at being something else. The charade is made easier because he’s playing ‘generic beggar’. This disguise hides his real appearance without in anyway altering who he is. Pwyll is not a beggar, but a Prince pretending to be one.  


The first transformation, however, is much more complicated.


Pwyll doesn’t just take on Arawn’s appearance and pretend to be him. This would be impossible. There would be so much he couldn’t know. 


Before they change places, Arawn reassures Pwyll that he will have the fairest woman he’s ever seen (Arawn’s wife) to sleep with every night, and neither she, nor the chamberlains, nor the officers of the court, nor anyone of his retinue, will know it’s not Arawn. In other words, the people who know Arawn intimately, will not notice the deception over the course of a year. 


So Pwyll becomes Arawn, not just in his appearance. He knows the court and its inhabitants, and its rituals. He must therefore have access to Arawn’s memories. Even when he acts ‘out of character’ Arawn’s wife does not suspect it’s not her husband, but that something is wrong with him.  


For a year.


But he also remains Pwyll. Although Arawn has essentially given him his wife for a year, and judging by his reaction at the end of the episode he fully expected him to take that offer in all the ways it could be taken, Pwyll turns his back on her every night, and doesn’t even speak to her until the morning. 


Pwyll remains Pwyll in the body of Arawn, with access to Arawn’s memories. This is the  transformation that occurs when Uther becomes Gorlois so he can spend the night with Ygraene. (Euphemisms are wonderful things. ) 


And like all good stories, it raises interesting questions.  Which will take us via the Third and Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, to Saint Augustine and others, and then back to Uther. 

Monday, June 12, 2023

'Layamon's Last Interview': Publication in Long Poem magazine


'Laȝamon's last interview', published in issue Twenty Nine of Long Poem Magazine, will be the final chapter of the last book in the series that runs from A Presentment of Englishry, to A Man of Heart. (Both published by Shearsman in the UK). 

After he finished his book, what did he do next? There's no evidence he wrote another line. Was he proud of his work? Was he disappointed by its limited reception?  Was he bitter?  To contrast two very different story telling traditions,  Gwydion son of Don meets the old man who wrote the Brut, and 'interviews' him. 

Long Poem Magazine, published in the Uk, is one of the few print outlets for someone like myself who writes very long narrative poems.  So i am delighted to have work published in this edition. This is the third time this has happened, and if I ever finish this project I will owe the editors 'a debt of gratitude'. 

A short extract.....

Gwydion, stooping to enter, 

‘You’re a hard man to find.’


‘I didn’t know anyone was looking.’


The woman blocks the doorway;

her shadow and the priest, 

two darker stains on the rough wall.


One stool, one bed, two bowls,

two wooden spoons.

No books. No writing materials.

He can taste the damp.


‘She looks after me. I don’t know why.’


‘Because you need looking after.

Don’t wind him up, sir, please.

He’s a bugger to settle.’


‘The Lateran council forbade the priest his wife or concubine.

Gerald made the usual Latin puns so few could understand.

But why shouldn’t a man hold someone in the dark?

And how could I survive without her patient charity?’


‘They called you latimer, not priest.’


‘I translate at those sad times 

m’lord shouts at his tenants

and they need to understand

or when he’s feeling threatened 

by the written word. 


You’re Welsh? Kyuarwydd? 
A professional storyteller.

Trained in the tradition. 

Valued. Honoured.

How very easy for you. 

How very lucrative.’


‘You know as well as I,

no one stands on the summit

who hasn’t sweated the slopes. 

I read your history. 

I liked it very much.’


‘You must be the only man who has.’


‘You wrote in English. 

Did you expect an audience to rival Monmouth’s?’


The woman interrupts.

‘They feed us; bread, cheese, honey. 

Sometimes meat and wine if he’s been useful.

I’d offer you some but there’s nothing in the pot.’