Arthur has destroyed and made the reputation of many writers. The British Historian John Morris wrote a history of the King who held back the Romans in the fifth century. His reputation was destroyed, although the book itself sold well.
John Heath-Stubbs’ – blind poet, gay icon and an acolyte of the writer Julian Ross-Maclaren (characterised as X Trapnel by Anthony Powell) and admirer of David Jones – own stab at immortality was the long poem Artorius.
Published in 1974, it tells the story of Arthur with the accretion of later ages removed. Here, the original Welsh names are used and the earlier traditions are emphasised, at times looking back to the Mabinogion, at other times to writers pre-dating Chretien de Troyes.
In the poem, Artorius is the leader of Romano-Britains fighting off both Saxons and Picts. He also acts as the convenor of various synods and meets Early medieval saints such as Cadoc. For all the detail added in later retellings of the myth, historical specificity was lost. Camelot ceased to be a beleaguered land facing what must have felt catastrophic change and instead became a fairy land.
Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur is a consolidation of various Arthurian traditions. Written towards the end of the Middle Ages, it still evokes a mostly morally unambiguous world. Mallory wrote it whilst in prison for rape and so perhaps he understood that such a world never existed. It is nevertheless the book to which most people return to.
According to Mallory, Arthur’s first adventure as King is the reconquest of the Western Roman Empire up to Rome. He then becomes a passive figure as other Knights go on adventures. In Artorius this continental intervention is the penultimate adventure.
This adventure is perhaps the nub of the story. A myth denuded of the fairy tale details, presumably, most have some basis in truth. It has sent writers off in search of the historical Arthur, a creature more allusive than the Questing Beast itself.
An aesthetically satisfying gesture
The poetry has a consonance, the sprung rhythm favoured by Gerard Manley Hopkins, similar to the early medieval poetry of the Welsh and Saxons.
At other times there is a gorgeous lyricism which refreshes with lush images of the English pastoral, itself another long tradition:
The swallow and the swift, and the sylvan warblers
Have moved off on migration; no more is heard
The note of the nightingale, nor the nightjar’s churning;
The calling of the cuckoo, nor the dry-voiced corncrake;
Inevitably perhaps, the shade of Milton falls on these pages. The great long poem in the English tradition, the images and cadences of Paradise Lost flow through the poem like leaves through an autumnal forest.
Another major influence was David Jones, whose long poems In Parenthesis and The Anathemata are densely interwoven and rich retellings of national myths, The Matter of Britain. Like Jones, Heath-Stubbs is fascinated by how legends change, but he is much more interested in the substance, the grit of truth, rather than the pearl of legend.
The central drama is a search for truth, sifting of sources in which the shaking of the pale becomes more important that the gold.
Heath-Stubbs is also less partisan than Jones, for whom the history of Welsh defeat in battle had resonance and a beauty. (It certainly has as long a history of Arthur. The first mention of Arthur anywhere is in Y Gododdin, a series of elegies to warriors lost in a major defeat in the Seventh century. One warrior, it is said, “was not an Arthur”).
Heath-Stubbs has a character gloss this history:
They go to battle and they always fall
An aesthetically satisfying gesture.
The most primitive form of the story
The poem begins with conflict. The Siege of Mons Badon is followed by a poetic challenge between a British bard and a Saxon bard.
Gwion the welsh bard says:
I paid the reckoning in the inn of Deptford.
And was with Tamberlaine when Bajazaeth was taken;
I marked the curfew in the churchyard of Stoke Poges;
I saw the ladder between Heaven and Charing Cross;
I howled liked a dog in the cloisters of Chichester;
Allusions to various writers of the English tradition (Marlowe, Gray and Thompson). The last line alludes me, but perhaps nods to Allen Ginsberg’s great poem Howl.
The tradition of claiming to have been in particular moments of history was long established in Medieval Welsh poetry. Taliesin a poet of the late sixth century, whose work possibly survived, wrote a boast.
David Jones was also inspired by Taliesin’s boast. In In Parenthesis the character of Dai Greatcoat (who some see as a projection of Jones himself) makes a claim to have been present at key military events of history.
Unlike Jones however Heath-Stubbs foregrounds the act of literacy itself. In the middle of the poet a new figure appears, identifying himself as Professor of History in the ancient University of Fenbridge, and what a hidebound old bore he is. Presumably he is speaker later identified as Professer Chelifer. He meets Guinevere in a desolate space on Hallowe’en who tells him her account of the adultery. The professor responds “That, I think, is the most primitive form of the story”.
This is perhaps a warning to not lose the subjective beauty of literature in a search for objective truth. Yet as Heath-Stubbs knows quite well this search is beautiful in itself. The stuffy professor’s public speech (followed by coffee and mincepies) is full of references to various key works of Arthurian literature.
Much of the pleasure in reading Artorius is spotting the allusions to various traditions and works of literature and the marriage between history and poetry.
The guide of souls on their last journey
The world of Artorius is not totally depleted of magic. The landscape is mapped by saints, standing stones and the places of holy men.
Merlin, or as he is called in the book, Merddyn – “last master of the magician traditions” – is equally at home with the secrets of Druids, ancient mystery religions and the teachings of the Gnostics.
He initiates Artorius as King and Emperor by giving him a vision, just as Aeneas in Vergil’s Aeniad, via a journey through Annwn, the underworld.
His guide is Anubis.
‘Accept this towser –
Hermes, Psychopomp of the highroad to Hades,
Acknolwedged anciently in Egypt As Anubis.
Anubis (in a role similar to Vergil in Dante’s Divine Comedy) leads the startled King through seven circles of hell, each ruled by various rulers or Archons. In one circle he sees Egyptian judgement.
In the final circle, at the centre of the world, he speaks to Ceridwen, a goddess with a headress of snakes and a chain of skulls around her neck.
By numerous names I am known among men,
In many lands, and in multifarious languages
These are of course the words which the goddess Isis speaks in the many praise poems found to her from across the Greek and Roman world.
It may seem strange to some for the Egyptian gods to be mentioned in a poem about King Arthur, but this not wilful anachronism. It is important to remember that the Egyptian gods were worshipped widely across the Roman Empire, including in Roman Britain were several objects have been found.
In the period when Arthur would have reigned, the religion and teachings of Egypt was merging into a more palatable form for Christians called Hermeticism. The magical teachings of Hermes Trismegistus an amalgam between Hermes and Thoth, the Egyptian Baboon god.
Much earlier Hermes, or Mercury to give him his Roman name, was identified with Anubis. Both ferried the dead to the afterlife. Anubis is portrayed holding the symbols of Hermes. Anubis’ name means “He who opens the ways”. Whereas, in the words of the Heath-Stubbs, “Hermes, master of the roads, is the tutelary of all those who cross frontier”.
Mercury was one of the most popular Roman gods in Britain, possibly because he protected merchants.
It is not so strange then that Anubis lead Artorius through the levels of hell.
A brilliant book. Heath-Stubbs witty and learned verse trills with a blunt rhythm.
He understood intuitively that Arthur was not just a historical figure, but an amalgam of the ages and it is in the alchemy of poetry, that he comes alive.