Thursday, December 8, 2016

All Night At Mr Stanyhurst's - Hugh Edwards, introduced by Ian Fleming


In its issue for May 2, 2008, the Times Literary Supplement ran a feature entitled ‘James Bond’s TLS’ by Andrew Lycett, looking at Ian Fleming's book collecting interests. This noted that he had championed a “little-known 1933 novel, All Night at Mr Stanyhurst’s, by Hugh Edwards, which he caused to be republished by Jonathan Cape.” The TLS described it as a “whimsical book” about “a corrupt eighteenth-century rake” and involving “a nautical adventure centred on a shipwreck.”

In his introduction to the 1963 edition of All Night at Mr Stanyhurst’s (which appeared with his name considerably larger than the author’s) Fleming says: “An essential item in my ‘Desert Island’ library would be the Times Literary Supplement, dropped to me each Friday by a well-trained albatross.” As I have remarked elsewhere, the usual image of Ian Fleming in an evening suit, with smoke spiralling from a cigarette in an elegant holder, doesn’t quite suggest a furtive forager amongst old tomes. But in fact he was a keen bibliophile, and both founded and largely funded the journal The Book Collector.

The title of Hugh Edwards’ book refers to the telling of a story all through one stormy night to the genteel dandy of the title, in the company of his pert young ward and a worldly priest. The tale is told by a sailor, one of the few survivors from a shipwreck off the coast of East Africa. He describes how the few who made it to the shore were then faced with a gruelling trek through inhospitable country to the nearest habitation.

The novel is indeed highly distinctive, and has both a strange atmosphere and a supernatural element. The disaster, we learn, could have been caused by the malefic influence of a plundered Indian treasure amongst its cargo: The Canopy of Heaven, a jewelled cloth set about with many legends. However, it is not so much the plot that makes the book so accomplished, as the author's style: elegant, assured, steeped in its period and setting, rich in nuances.

It is an original and unusual work. The nearest comparison I can make is to Robert Nicholas’ Under the Yew (1928), also about an 18th century rake, or to E.H. Visiak’s romance of sea-witchery, Medusa (1929), but these are only very distant cousins. The Edwards book is spicier and has a few lightly sensuous passages which probably appealed to Fleming. There is also something of the tone, as well as the historical verisimilitude, of the Patrick O’Brian naval books.

In his introduction, Fleming quotes the critics James Agate’a praise for the book: “I will maintain that here is probably a little masterpiece and certainly a tour de force. So far as my reading goes, it is the best long story or short novel since Conrad.” Agate sent a copy of the book to Max Beerbohm, who replied that he had read it twice with the liveliest pleasure.

The book, says Fleming, had “rave reviews” on publication, but despite that, Cape told him, it took four years to exhaust the edition of fifteen hundred copies. A second edition in the ‘New Library’ series took seven years to sell a further three thousand copies. In fact, this is not at all a bad record for an unknown author with an unusual book – contrast it with the fate of David Lindsay’s books, for example. But one can see that to the bestselling Fleming, it must have looked like much less than the book’s due.

Hugh Edwards was the author of four other books, Sangoree (1932), Crack of Doom (1934), Helen Between Cupids (1935) and Macaroni (1938), all from Cape except the last, which was published by Geoffrey Bles. All Night at Mr Stanyhurst’s was also turned into a radio play by a friend of the author, Commander E.J. King-Bull (a name you could scarcely make up with plausibility) and broadcast on the cultural BBC Third Programme on 14 March 1954, with three repeats that year.

Fleming tells us that Edwards “was born in Gibraltar in 1878 of a naval family, was educated privately and at Sandhurst, whence he joined the West India Regiment and saw service mostly in the West Indies and West Africa. After twelve years in the army, he was invalided out and retired to his sister’s cottage in East Prawle in Devon.” Here he “set about writing professionally, but it was some twenty years before Cape accepted his first novel.”

In the “tiny fisherman’s cottage…he lived the life of an eighteenth-century recluse, confining himself to one attic in which there was nothing but a large bed and hundreds of books.” There “he lived the remote life of his imagination for many years, reading, writing and composing albums of illustrated nonsense rhymes for the numerous nephews and nieces and cousins who came to stay.” There was also an unfinished, perhaps lost, autobiography.

After the last of the books was published, says Fleming, “silence! Hobbies: painting, polo, bridge and chess.” Hugh Edwards died in 1952 at the age of 73. There are many elements of autobiography in his books, not only in their settings but also in the characters and their manners and attitudes, and Fleming suggests also in the poignancies of the stories, too. But, he concludes, in a fine epitaph, “these and other secrets of this strange, and in some curious sense ghostly figure have gone to his grave with him and will, I fancy, never be disturbed.”

Mark Valentine

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Fall of the Tower of Moab


In an earlier post I described Jezreel’s Tower, the edifice built in Gillingham, Kent, by the followers of James Jershom Jezreel, a group who took the name of the New and Latter House of Israel. It seems fairly certain that this was the monument L.A. Lewis had in mind in his noted supernatural story ‘The Tower of Moab’ (in Tales of the Grotesque, 1934): there are several similarities. The tower in the story was celebrated by David Tibet of Current 93 in his song ‘Lucifer Over London’.

More information about the demolition of Jezreel’s Tower has come to light in a local history pamphlet. The tower had never been completed after the death of the founder and his wife because the group ran out of funds and no doubt impetus and inspiration. Nevertheless, parts of the tower were used by the Jezreelites for some years for offices, meeting rooms and possibly living quarters. Gradually, however, the group's membership dwindled until the vast structure was left entirely to itself.

A Chronology of the Demolition of the Jezreels Tower
, ‘produced by The Gillingham and Rainham Local History Society’ has no author, date or imprint, but it is a very useful and interesting digest of press reports about the destruction of the tower and, incidentally, about the group.

We first learn that the tower had been empty for about 60 years when in 1957 an association of local cricket clubs “showed an interest in making the Tower into an indoor cricket school” for coaching young players. However, the cost of adapting the building was too great. This is a shame, because the image of pale-clad youths “flickering to and fro” in the great stone halls of the Tower seems suitably eerie. A chapter might have been added to my always-hovering study of cricket and the fantastic.

In 1959, a local builder, H.A. Smith, bought the site and won planning permission to demolish the tower and build three new factories. There were at once rumours in the town and the local press that it would not happen. Previous attempts had failed, the contractors driven into bankruptcy. There was believed to be a curse, or ‘hoodoo’ as it was described, upon any such endeavour. That ban was soon to be invoked in tragic circumstances.

Smith, however, said in a report that “he had no qualms about demolishing the tower and that the path of progress is important to this under industrialised town and it is no good living with the dead.”

Not everyone agreed. Some local people objected to the destruction. The most eloquent opposition was expressed by a 15 year old boy, writing to a local paper:

“…This impressive tower is Gillingham’s most famous landmark and a witness to a strange religious sect which based its teachings entirely on those of the Christian Israelites. This macabre building is, as far as is known, unique and it has its own peculiar character. As time progressed, the tower would have become increasingly valuable and it would remind visitors to the Medway Towns of the initiative and determination of a group of people who nearly succeeded in building for themselves a magnificent and awe-inspiring temple. One can only hope that the giant tower will defeat yet another demolition squad and will stand supreme, commanding the surrounding countryside.”

That boy, whoever he was, had a lively style and should have become a writer, preferably of fantastic fiction. He was also far-sighted: the Tower undoubtedly could have become an eccentric visitor attraction in later years, perhaps converted for some arts and heritage use.

The first blow against the tower, according to the reports, was struck in early January 1960, though the paper repeated the story of the peril this was thought to involve: “Many of the local people believed that the ‘curse’ of the Tower would mean that it would never come down’.

On 19 January 1960, they may have felt vindicated. A lorry driver involved in the work was killed when “about twenty tons of masonry fell over sixty feet” on top of him. Others “ran for safety but he was trapped and could not escape”.

Brown, the owner of the demolition company, explained that he could not account for the accident. The brickwork had been tested the day before and was sound. “It’s a mystery to me,” he said. But he did not accept the local view that it was the ‘jinx’ at work. “It’s a load of rubbish. We shall carry on work as usual. We shall get the Tower down.” But it was not until 25 February, over a month later, that work resumed at the site.

By 26 April 1960, the papers reported, “the supposed ‘jinx’ of the Jezreels Tower seemed to be at work” because attempts to demolish the highest walls, variously described as 85 feet or 95 feet high, had failed. But on that date, “after defying all the laws of gravity” for two hours, while it stood with no support, it finally fell.

An account described the tower’s last moments: “For two-and-a-half hours the process of first heaving, then cutting with pneumatic drills continued without result. Suddenly the great wall moved outwards, it appeared to hang motionless for a moment, then disintegrated in mid-air before it crashed with a dull roar through the two feet thick floor into the deep cellars. A dense cloud of yellow dust nearly reached the Watling Street boundary…”

But this was only the first part of the tower. The demolition carried on for many months, and the walls, some 9ft 6ins thick, were described by the builder as “the toughest job of all tough jobs.” It was not until 3 March 1961 that “the last major sections” of Jezreel’s Tower were finally felled. A task that the builder had said would take two months had actually taken a year longer.

Local legend had speculated about what might be found behind the foundation stone, which had been left until last during the demolition. Perhaps with memories of the group’s Southcottian origins, some believed there would be a box containing important secrets (Joanna Southcott had left behind just such a box, and advertisements often appeared in almanacs and newspapers announcing that ‘Banditry and the Perplexity of Nations’ would continue until all the bishops of Britain gathered to open it).

But in fact when the stone was removed, “in a cavity covered by a copper plate they found a sealed brass jar.” Inside were “two copies of local newspapers dated September 19th, 1885, and a number of coins in new mint condition”, including a gold sovereign, half-sovereign and silver coins: quite conventional foundational mementos.

This was not quite the end of the Jezreelite presence in Gillingham, however. Associated with the tower was a row of shops which had once been used by members of the sect, usually involved with various types of hand-work. These were later taken over by a co-operative and at one point housed a baker, shoemaker and so on. Eventually these premises also fell empty, and they were not entirely removed until much later. There was, however, one further, oddly appropriate set of relics left by the sect.

Though there were no longer any Jezreelites left in the town, the discussion of the demolition of the Tower had prompted local people to send their reminiscences of the group to the newspapers. The most common recollection was that the men did not cut their hair or beard, but rolled up both into a sort of knot kept in place with stout hair-pins. A member of the local history society reported that his family had moved in 1937 to the house that had been owned by the group’s grave-digger, who had died the year before: and “his tools were still in the loft”.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

This Spectacular Darkness - Joel Lane


Announcing This Spectacular Darkness by Joel Lane...

When I started, with Tartarus Press, the journal Wormwood, devoted to literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent, Joel Lane was one of the first writers I asked to contribute. It happened that Joel had already been planning a series of essays, so he was pleased to agree.

Joel told me: "For some years now, I've been tinkering with ideas for a book-length study of horror fiction and the twentieth century. My article ‘This Spectacular Darkness’ (in issue 3 of Supernatural Tales) is an introduction and manifesto putting forward the book’s central argument. I’d love to carry on publishing essays that would eventually be chapters in the book."

It is a great sadness that Joel did not live to complete that book as he wished. But in tribute to his work, we have gathered all of the essays he did complete for Wormwood, together with essays from other sources, to present a collection of his thoughtful and perceptive critical work in the weird and noir fields. This Spectacular Darkness, edited with John Howard, has just been published by Tartarus Press in a beautiful and appropriate design. It is completed by four essays about Joel's work: Nina Allen on his novels, Mat Joiner on his poetry, John Howard on his essays, and my own study of his early stories.

Anyone with an interest in the fantastic in literature will want to read Joel's acute and deeply-considered insights into Lovecraft, Aickman, Leiber, Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, and others, not to mention a meditation on the nature of Nyarlathotep, 'The Master of Masks'. I can't hope to be impartial, of course, but I do think this will come to be seen as one of the most significant collections of studies in this literature.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Literature of Terrestrial Zodiacs in Britain


What is a terrestrial zodiac? One good definition is from John Billingsley, editor of Northern Earth journal, in his The Northern Earth Glossary: “A coherent set of zodiacal or quasi-zodiacal symbols outlined by features of the landscape. Generally not thought to be human-made, their empirical existence is strongly questioned.”

Probably the earliest, and certainly the most renowned, example of a terrestrial zodiac is the Glastonbury Zodiac, identified by the sculptor and mystic Katharine Maltwood in the 1920s. This was a response to the nexus of Arthurian and Grail legends associated with the Somerset town.

Another, again with Arthurian connexions, was put forward by the antiquarian Lewis Edwards around Pumpsaint, Wales, in the 1940s. A number of others were suggested as part of the counter-culture’s interest in ancient places and mysteries in the 1970s and afterwards. More recently, others have been identified as part of the interest in psychogeography, psychic questing, landscape art and performance art. They are now sometimes also called landscape zodiacs.

But the literature of terrestrial zodiacs is often fugitive and ephemeral. Many accounts of them originally appeared only in obscure booklets, now fragile and fading, printed in small numbers, or in similar arcane journals. The leading source, The Terrestrial Zodiacs Newsletter, edited by folklorist Paul Screeton, which ran from 1977-81, was home-produced on a hand-cranked duplicator, and relatively few copies are likely to have survived.

In issue 21 of the Network of Ley Hunters’ Newsletter, I therefore offer Part 1 of a survey of ‘The Literature of Terrestrial Zodiacs in Britain’, consisting of an introduction and a checklist, in chronological order, of publications which feature the subject. Further parts are due to follow in subsequent newsletters, concluding with a list of all known examples of zodiacs in Britain, currently between 25 to 30.

There is no doubt, as John Billingsley's definition respectfully suggests, that terrestrial zodiacs attract a great deal of scepticism. Nevertheless they remain a fascinating example of how the creative imagination may interact with landscape, and also of how certain terrain, as supernatural fiction authors often explore, appears to be particularly charged with meaning. They are also potent as one vivid symbol of the alternative spiritualities of the Sixties and Seventies, and they connect with a mythology and a way of being in the land that is still resonant today.

(c) Mark Valentine 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Into the Green - Joshua Burnell


Like many readers of a certain age, much of my discovery of the fantastic in literature came about through the paperbacks in the Pan Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter. The cover designs alone were alluring, with their gallery of dragons, unicorns, castles, winged things, and occult territory. But they also brought back into print a vast range of vintage Victorian and Edwardian books from the stranger regions of the imagination. Favourites were David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, the Lord Dunsany collection At the Edge of the World, E R Eddison's A Fish Dinner in Memison and his other magnificent epics, and Hope Mirlees' Lud-in-a-Mist.

The aural equivalent of these rich and elaborate volumes was to be found in progressive rock albums, usually with equally fantastical artwork, and titles that echoed those classics in the Carter series. These records had songs as long and convoluted as sagas, words that echoed with images from folk and fairy tales, and sometimes peculiar instruments, or instruments played peculiarly. There was, of course, a further-out borderland in this field, represented by such eccentric groups as Comus, Dr Strangely Strange, the medievalist group Gryphon, and Titus Groan, whose album included a twelve-minute track, 'Hall of Bright Carvings', and a love song to the title character's sister, Fuschia. (There was, indeed, also another band called Fuschia, violin-driven).

There's no getting away from the fact that progressive rock eventually became highly unfashionable, and has never perhaps altogether recovered. No doubt some of it was a bit self-indulgent and portentous. But I can't deny that there are times when, in-between other tastes in music, I like to return to it. Imagine my delight, therefore, when, calling in at the characterful and discerningly-selected record shop The Inkwell in York, I came upon an album bearing a sticker announcing it as, and I quote, 'Tolkien Inspired Progressive Folk!' Well, I mean, who could resist? Moreover, the owner threw in a few other enticing reference points: Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull.

The album was Into the Green by Joshua Burnell and it certainly lived up to the description on the label. After six mostly folk-tinged opening tracks comes an eight song suite with splendid melodies and wonderfully woven instrumental textures from flute, violin, Hammond organ and acoustic guitar. The theme is an ancient one: the mortal who strays into the halls of magic, in this case a shepherd boy whose flocks are stolen by the acolytes of the Gremlin King. Into the enchanted wood, into a deep pool, into a misted valley, and finally into the caverns of the ogre king himself the hero must go.

I found it utterly entrancing, with all the grim ritual of an ancient folk story or Dark Age saga. It must be very tempting to let in a flicker of irony to a work such as this, but I particularly like the way it is written and performed sombrely and authentically. If you are still, secretly or confessedly, fond of high fantasy, faery tales or the full flourish of progressive rock, then I certainly recommend this fine album.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Wormwood 27 - Peake, Lovecraft, De Quincey, Bely & more


In Wormwood 27...

Mervyn Peake…the Gormenghast novels should be considered alongside 1984, Brave New World and Zamyatin’s We as the chronicles of a dystopian world, argues James Butler

R H Benson…it’s 1973. The Thames is controlled by a system of locks. There are electric news-sheets. Volors are used for civil transport and military purposes. John Howard looks at The Dawn of All, a future fantasy where the Roman Catholic church once more wields temporal power.

LeeRoy J. Tappan…a wealthy young man in rural New York state writes decadent verses in the tradition of Omar Khayyam, collects antiquities, and dies young. Gavin Callaghan rediscovers the life and work of a Park Barnitz-like aesthete once regarded as a hoax.

Amyas Northcote
…20 years as a businessman in Chicago, then a retiring life as a Buckinghamshire squire – and one accomplished book of Jamesian ghost stories, closely considered by Mike Barrett

Andrei Bely…the author, according to Nabokov, of one of the four greatest prose works of the 20th century, a symbolist exploration of St Petersburg, beautifully evoked and hymned by Avalon Brantley

Thomas De Quincey
…courted, with his fellow Romantics, “the strange, the bizarre, the transgressive” and was an avowed influence on Poe, Baudelaire, Dickens and Machen. Reggie Oliver reviews a new biography.

Arthur Ransome…wrote a guide to how to get to fairyland, and described the elementals to be found there. “A good idea wasted”, he later judged. Doug Anderson considers this and other forgotten fantasy and supernatural books.

H.P. Lovecraft
…about the Cthulhu Mythos, “controversy abounds as every word is treated with seriousness reminiscent of those councils of the Early Church where anathemas were pronounced, banishments made, and exiles restored. For myself, I love it,” avers John Howard as he reviews a new study by S.T, Joshi, recent Mythos fiction, and other books from the independent presses.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Guest Post: Clemence Housman's THE LIFE OF SIR AGLOVALE DE GALIS and the Psychology of Knighthood by E.L. Risden


reprint from Green Knight, 2000
Clemence Housman (1861-1955), sister of A. E. (Classicist and poet) and Laurence (playwright and illustrator), published The Life of Sir Agloval de Galis in 1905.*  Best known for The Were-Wolf (1896), a novella with a medieval setting, in which a man tries to save his brother from woman-wolf), she also published The Unknown Sea (1898), a third work of medievalism, in which a man falls in love with a sea witch.  While she hadn’t an enormous output as a writer and hasn’t the lingering readership of her more famous poet-brother A. E., she was also famous as a Suffragette and for her wood-engravings.  She shows a literary debt to Malory, but also to the neo-Gothic and to Victorian medievalism generally—and also perhaps to the rise of psychoanalysis.  This brief essays aims not at detailed criticism of Sir Agovale de Galis, but to direct attention to a neglected novel that deserves the status of at least a minor classic of medievalism and Arthuriana.  Just as science fiction is also usually sociological fiction, so is fantasy fiction often psychological fiction:  and Sir Aglovale is a psychological blockbuster.  As a gothicized Romance, it draws the character of Sir Aglovale, very limited in other Arthurian sources, into a captivating story of knighthood’s struggle with itself, of a knight’s struggle with himself for his own soul. 

Aglovale appears in Le Morte Darthur, but not with special significance.  Housman’s incarnation of the character shows a great deal of narrative and psychological complexity.  The eldest legitimate son of King Pellinore, he has brothers who gain much more fame than he:  Tor, Lamorak, Percivale of the Grail quest.  A fourth brother, Durnor, suffers both mental and spiritual challenges—he serves as a version of Aglovale without his brother’s dark, brooding self-doubt, but with a parallel distance from “proper” medieval social world.  Moral and spiritual suffering highlight this novel: desire for penance rather than absolution; self-criticism amidst self-absorption, with a sense of unworthiness leading nearly to despair and obsession with expiating guilt; desire for acceptance and love, but also for truth and order; constant struggle with both natural and illicit desire and human limitations—a strict sense of justice in relief against Christian mercy and unbelievable forgiveness (both offered and practiced); a growing sense of honor of honesty and truth fighting against Courtly notions of honor of the accepted approach to knightly challenges; the contrast of contemplation and doing good—Housman pinpoints the problem of how a self-aware and increasing self-critical knight could learn to live not only, in a fallen world, but within the tainted body of a flawed and self-loathing soul.


This novel has, among Arthurian works prior to the last third of the twentieth century, an unusual if not unique level of psycho-spiritual tension in the exploration of a fallen character who knows himself fallen and hates himself for the fact, but who also must day by day draw himself out of the muck of further mental and behavioral descent:  he is at once postmodern hero, anti-hero, and loathsome abuser of privilege, and sympathetic human being misunderstood by almost everyone he meets.  No one, not even his holy and supportive brother Percivale, understands him very well—even the reader may have a hard time doing so, since few protagonists float in such a mire of ill judgment and mixed intent.  Aglovale lives for the entire novel on the knife-edge of desire to please and sordid self-will, of desire for spiritual attainment dragged down by knighthood’s social privilege and drive for violence. 


Reprint from 1954
In many ways Aglovale may strike a reader as a displacement, a version of a modern reckless business manager or feckless CEO from the early twenty-first century or a Fitzgeraldian tycoon lost in time.  Struggles with spiritual visions both drive him on and hold him back.  He finds himself both admired and cursed—completely misunderstood by most, hated by nearly everyone, nearly dismissed entirely by his parents, and largely friendless—and hates himself for each breach of noble conduct even as he falls into more of them.  Our time would, if not have forgiven, at least have understood those breaches in a real human being, and contemporary readers may find even more sympathy for him than did his creator:  he learns to strive to live nobly and dies so, despite receiving nothing but contempt from Arthur and his retinue.  

Through no error of his own he falls into a familial semi-feud with the Gawain-kin who bear a fierce anger against his father, Pellinore.  Pellinore, a worthy knight and minor king, kills King Lot in Malory’s Romance, and the Gawain-kin don’t care whether that death was justified in battle or not.  But Aglovale’s greatest problem comes not from another family, but from his own:  his parents despise the fact that he hasn’t the noble demeanor of his more knightly brothers (though his mother does come around to a small expression of love for him), and his brothers don’t understand him.  They can’t forgive anything that looks to them less than ideal chivalry, and Aglovale has enough perception of human frailty to realize that the chivalric ideal has its problems and that behavior typical of noblemen can be exploitative and even brutal to those they claim to defend.  Housman compares him serially to other knights (much as Malory does with all the knights throughout the Morte), and Aglovale alternately wants to feel part of their society and shuns it as full of lies and hypocrisy—he is, himself, a recovering hypocrite.  Other knights deplore his “sin” (-ister), fighting with his left hand, and they hate him for recognizing and admitting his own failures of courage, morality, or skill. 



First edition from 1905
Housman, in a technique reminiscent of Shakespeare as well as Malory in the Morte, continually sets up doubles for Aglovale, making him, whether he would or no, the antagonist and infernal version of many other knights, at least from their perspective.  Here are some examples.  The doubling urges readers to compare not only the knights, but their understanding of goodness and chivalry. 
  
Aglovale vs. Launcelot (or Galahad)
Galahad, being pure and so free of spiritual angst, would have no understanding of Aglovale, but Launcelot makes a more interesting comparison.  Of all Arthur’s knights he shows the most understanding and appreciation of and sympathy for Aglovale, perhaps because of his own deep sin, though even he loses patience with Aglovale’s quirks and inability to articulate the reasons for his suffering.

Aglovale vs. Lamorak
Lamorak is the favored son, even though he isn’t the first son, of their parents:  he talks the talk of a proper knight and, for the most part, walks the walk, though he gets into a deadly romantic relationship (with Morgause) that a sensible knight would avoid.

Aglovale vs. Durnor
The younger son actually loves and admires his brother Aglovale, but he hasn’t the wit or intelligence to make anything but a mess of his life:  he is Aglovale without intelligence and self-recrimination, and he is killed early in the novel—something that could easily have happened to Aglovale, eliminating his long and well-earned repentance.

Aglovale vs. Tor
Tor, Pellinore’s bastard son, receives more acclaim and appreciation than his legitimate brother because he adheres more nearly to the chivalric code.  He comes to appreciate Aglovale’s honesty and the goodness of which he proves himself capable at his best.

Aglovale vs. Percivale
Aglovale adores his spiritually upright brother, but even Percivale fails finally in his ability to love his less-than-perfect brother:  while Arthur’s court expects chivalric perfection, the Grail knight expects his own version of spiritual perfection—a fault, as the author points out, of the young and innocent.  Housman also briefly and sympathetically treats their sister, in this book named Saint, sometimes identified in other texts as Blanchfleur.

Aglovale vs. Bors
A Grail knight himself, Bors—exhibiting his own error—shows no patience with another knight he considers infinitely flawed, and he has no understanding of why Launcelot shows sympathy for a knight he considers beneath contempt.  Bors begins to understand Aglovale, but rejects him when Aglovale—knowing Launcelot guilty—refuses to leave Arthur’s court (where he has always been treated badly) and join Launcelot (where he would get better treatment).  More and more through the novel Aglovale tries to determine what he believes is right and to follow it.

Aglovale has only problematic relationships with women (whether ladies or girls, whether by his own faults or by their misunderstandings.  The text draws particular attention to two interesting and contrasting examples.

Aglovale and Gilleis
In one of the saddest episodes of the novel, Aglovale lies and leads a young woman, Gilleis, away from her love of a good young knight.  The knight is eventually killed, and Gilleis dies of grief upon Aglovale’s confessing how he won her affection.  He confesses his guilt to Nacien the Hermit, but in the remainder of the novel never gets over what he has done to someone he truly has loved.

Aglovale and Laykin
This episode parallels the story of Gilleis.  Aglovale rescues a beautiful young girl from freezing to death by wrapping himself around her to keep her warm.  She turns out to be his niece, daughter of his half-brother Tor, and his respectful treatment of her saves his life, since Tor’s family would otherwise have killed him.

At one point late in the novel, Sir Griflet describes Aglovale as “the bravest man that ever I saw fail; yet so cursed” (164).  Near the end Sir Ector observes to Launcelot that “for all you say Sir Aglovale goes not by the ways of knighthood,” and Sir Launcelot replies, “Alas for knighthood” (265).  This book does not fall into the easy error of praising knighthood as we find it in history, in literature, or in our imaginations; it addresses, sometimes satirically and sometimes with painful, realistic directness all its flaws and hypocrisies.  It shows the knights at their best and at their worst, and better yet it shows that their best often stands not far from their worst.     

A powerful novel of the kind of the variegated darkness that can haunt a soul, Modern in its medievalism, medieval in its genesis, The Life of Sir Agovale de Galis recalls in its questioning of the institution of knighthood a principle of the Anglo-Saxon world that preceded it.  It directs a reader’s attention much as does the final line of Beowulf in its use of the word lofgeornost, “the greatest of praise-yearning”—one may desire both to get and to give praise, and perhaps most of us do.  The psychological complexity that we think of as springing from the modern and contemporary world, Housman suggests, must have been with us, misleading and tormenting us, all along, even in characters we wish to believe represent us at our most noble.  Not a beautiful novel, Sir Aglovale does something unusual in Arthuriana:  it urges us to think about deep-down human suffering.


* Sincere thanks to Doug Anderson, who gave me a copy with this novel along with a request that I take it seriously enough to write something about it someday.  He was entirely right to praise it, and I have aimed ever since to pass along the favor to other fans of Arthurian literature.  See The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis (Oakland, CA:  Green Knight Publishing, 2000), Introduction by Douglas A. Anderson.


E.L. Risden is a well-known medieval scholar who teaches at St. Norbert College and who is the author of many books of scholarship.  His fantasy fiction appears under the pseudonym "Edward S. Louis": see his website by clicking here.  

(c) 2016 by E.L. Risden