26 March, 2007

The Bull from the Sea, by Mary Renault. Book review

First published 1962. Edition reviewed: Arrow, 2004, ISBN 0-09-946353-9

It seems a bit of a cheek to review a Mary Renault novel, a little like having the impertinence to review Dickens or Shakespeare. Her novels are classics of historical fiction, and seem rather above my likes and dislikes. However, when I first came across Mary Renault’s Greek-set novels in the town library a couple of decades ago I didn’t know they were classics and had no idea what to expect, so maybe there are people in the same boat now. And certainly her writing was as fresh and vivid to me on a recent re-reading as it was when it was all new to me, so that seemed worth celebrating.

The Bull from the Sea is the second part of the story of the legendary Greek hero Theseus of Athens. The first part of Theseus’ life, covering his boyhood and his defeat of the Minotaur in Crete, was told in The King Must Die. The Bull from the Sea takes up the story when Theseus returns victorious to Athens, only to find that his father has committed suicide in despair (because Theseus forgot – accidentally or otherwise – to change the black sail of his ship to a white one to show that he was returning home alive). Theseus is now King of Athens, a small and comparatively poor city-state with predatory neighbours and internal factions, and as he establishes his rule he finds his adventures are only just beginning. He has to contend with pirates, with a barbarian invasion from the north that threatens the very heart of his kingdom, with the warlike Amazons and their fierce and beautiful queen Hippolyta, who becomes his lover, and with the jealous rage of his wife and the consequent tragedy.

The legend of Theseus belongs to the same sort of period as the Trojan War, perhaps best described as legendary history. How far the legends were based on real events and people is uncertain; what is certain is that they exerted a powerful hold on the imagination and are still being retold now, thousands of years later. The Bull from the Sea is set in Bronze Age Greece, placed a generation or so before the Trojan War – a young Achilles makes a fleeting appearance towards the end of the novel. Many of the characters are familiar figures in Greek myth – Theseus, Ariadne, Hippolyta, Oedipus (yes, he of the complex) – so they are not fictional in the sense that the author invented them, but whether they are historical is debatable.

The writing has a lean, spare, muscular style that makes masterly use of hints and gaps left for the reader’s imagination to fill in. I’m reminded of the economical elegance of classical sculpture, or the figures painted on Greek pottery. The power of Fate is an ever-present thread running through the plot as Theseus sees his destiny unfolding in response to forces beyond his control. But the novel never veers into overt fantasy. The gods never appear in the flesh, and the legendary events like the bull of Poseidon (the Bull from the Sea of the title) are given natural explanations that might have formed the basis for the development of the legends. Action and dialogue keep the plot spinning, and although Fate is always present it is conveyed in hints so the reader is always in suspense – even on an umpteenth reading when you know the end.

Theseus and the other characters are all individuals, sketched in with a few words and actions. Naturally, the reader learns most about Theseus, since the novel is narrated in first person from Theseus’ point of view, but as Theseus is outward-looking and eager for new things the reader gets to learn about other people too. The societies and cultures of Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean are imagined and brought to life in all their wonder and variety. This is probably the aspect that draws me back to Mary Renault, her ability to portray a world that is completely different from ours and to make it real on the page without losing any of its strangeness. This is Theseus’ world, not ours, and entering it is spellbinding. Is it accurate? I have no idea. Is it convincing? Yes, absolutely. Mary Renault has few equals. This is why I read historical fiction.

Masterful retelling of the Theseus legend.

Has anyone else read it?

22 March, 2007

March recipe: Baked bananas in rum

Early spring is traditionally known as the ‘hungry gap’, when produce stored for the winter would either be running low or starting to spoil and the new year’s crops would be nowhere near ready to eat. I rather wonder if Lent evolved the way it did to make a virtue out of necessity. The traditional solution is to eat nettles.

Living in our modern technological paradise of efficient food preservation and international transport, most of us probably no longer notice the ‘hungry gap’. I like seasonal cooking, and since there’s not a lot of home-grown produce around at this time of year, I find it a good time to eat tinned and imported foods that I can’t grow myself no matter what the season.

Bananas fit the bill nicely. Most are transported by ship rather than air freight, as they’ll obligingly ripen in the hold on the way, and the Fair Trade foundation promises to pay reasonable prices to the producers. Baked bananas in rum makes a delicious dessert to remind you of sunnier climes when it’s cold outside. It’s hot, sweet, not too heavy, and simplicity itself. Here’s the recipe.

Baked bananas in rum

Serves 2.

2 large ripe bananas
2 tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoon) demerara sugar
2 tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoon) dark rum
About half an ounce (about 10 g) butter

Butter a shallow ovenproof dish.
Halve the bananas lengthwise and put in the dish, cut side up.
Sprinkle the sugar over the bananas. Pour the rum over.
Dot with butter.
Bake for 15-20 minutes in a hot oven (180 C, about 375 F) until the bananas are soft.
Serve hot with cream, whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

If you don’t like rum, you can use the juice of half an orange instead.

18 March, 2007

Spring flowers

My first day off for a fortnight and it's blowing a gale here this afternoon, with sleet and snow forecast for later. Ah, well. It was spring last week, while I was buried under a technical report. Robins warbling from every tree-top, and crocuses and daffodils and celandines in flower among the remains of the snowdrops by the church.

Hopefully spring will be back again by next weekend....

11 March, 2007

Pendragon, by Stephen Lawhead. Book review.

Edition reviewed: Lion, 1994, ISBN 0-7459-2763-7

Narrated by Merlin (Myrddin Emrys), this is Book 4 of a five-part fantasy retelling of some of the King Arthur legends. The setting shares the geography of Britain and Ireland some time after the end of Roman government, but as there is a colony of refugees from Atlantis living at Glastonbury I think it’s best regarded as a parallel universe sharing some geography and place names, rather than as a depiction of historical post-Roman Britain.

Arthur is brought up in the north, in the area around what is now Edinburgh and Lothian, and the Battle of Badon (Baedun in the novel) is apparently set in the same sort of area. Apart from a lengthy description of a stag hunt during Arthur’s childhood, the story effectively starts shortly after Baedun when Arthur goes to Londinium to be crowned High King of Britain. Gwenhwyfar, an Irish warrior princess, comes to Londinium to claim him as her husband and they are married there on the same day. On a visit to Gwenhwyfar’s relatives in Ireland, Arthur and his companions fight a fearsome Vandal war host led by Amilcar, nicknamed Twrch Trwyth or the Black Boar. The Vandals are driven out of Ireland, only to land in Britain and burn their ships showing that they intend to stay. Merlin, Arthur and their allies from the kings of Britain and Ireland have to pursue Twrch Trwyth and his war host in a deadly chase, culminating in a single combat on which the future of Arthur’s kingdom depends.

Stephen Lawhead’s style reminds me of Tolkien in some ways, even down to having a rhyme of lore at the front of the book:

Ten rings there are, and nine gold torcs on the battlechiefs of old
Eight princely virtues, and seven sins for which a soul is sold
Six is the sum of earth and sky, of all things meek and bold
Five is the number of ships that sailed from Atlantis lost and cold
Four kings of the Westerlands were saved, three kingdoms now behold
Two came together in love and fear in Llyonesse stronghold
One world there is, one God, and one birth the Druid stars foretold

Make of the rhyme what you will. There are further parallels with Tolkien in the presence of other races of people who seem different from ordinary humans. Earlier volumes in the series told how refugees from Atlantis sailed to Britain and established a colony at Glastonbury, led by their king Avallach (The Fisher King) and his daughter Charis (The Lady of the Lake). Merlin is the son of Charis and the great bard Taliesin, gifted with mystical powers and long life, and is Arthur’s chief bard and advisor. The Atlantis refugees are known as the Fair Folk, and another race of people, the Hill Folk or the Little Dark Ones, live in secret places in the hills of the north. Merlin has links with both races, as well as with the human world. So the tale is firmly planted in the realm of fantasy.

The story itself moves at a pace best described as stately, punctuated by fast action sequences in battle or hunt. Sometimes the narrative flips into present tense for a page or two during an action sequence, which is quite effective at conveying a sense of tension and speed. Battle scenes are vividly drawn, particularly the climactic single combat that lasts for three chapters and yet doesn’t drag.

The device of borrowing the legendary boar hunt from Culhwch and Olwen and making it a metaphor for a military campaign, with the Vandal leader as the ‘boar’ Twrch Trwyth and his warbands as his ‘piglets’, is a neat idea. Animal motifs are a not uncommon feature of names, so a name with an animal element could easily have found its way into folklore. The stem Cuno-, meaning ‘Hound’, appears in numerous Brittonic personal names over a long period, including a Cuneglasus (Blue Hound) attacked by Gildas and a Cunobelin from the time of the Roman invasion. Gildas also refers to a place called ‘receptaculum ursi’ (stronghold of the bear) and describes Maglocunus as ‘insularis draco’ (dragon of the island), which might be either a title or an insult depending on one’s interpretation.

Merlin narrates the tale in first person throughout, though as Merlin is an observant and somewhat detached character with wide knowledge and a tendency to comment on events, it feels more like an omniscient narrative. Certainly I didn’t get the claustrophobic feeling of being confined inside one person’s head that I often get from first-person narrative. There’s a clear distinction between the good guys (Arthur and his supporters) and the bad guys (Arthur’s enemies), as one expects in fantasy. Some of Twrch Trwyth’s Vandal followers are allowed to see the error of their ways and surrender to Arthur, but there is absolutely no indication that Arthur could ever be wrong in any right-thinking person’s eyes. People who disagree with Arthur are either evil or misguided, and there’s no space for alternative viewpoints.

This may contribute to the impression of rather shallow characters, many of whom seem to be what John Baker describes as embodied traits. So Arthur is noble, Gwenhwyfar is brave, Cai and Bedwyr are loyal, Gwenhwyfar’s father Fergus is quarrelsome but lovable, Bishop Urbanus is corrupt, and so on. Merlin seems to have a little more complexity, perhaps because he is the narrator. Overall, the novel was an easy read but not a particularly involving one.

Fantasy retelling of some of the King Arthur legends mingled with the legend of Atlantis.

Has anyone else read it?

04 March, 2007

Lunar eclipses and the 'Dark Ages'

Did anyone else watch the lovely lunar eclipse last night? I gather it was visible across a lot of the world, including all of Europe and eastern parts of the Americas. The BBC has a handsome picture gallery here if you missed it.

Eclipses are strange and eerie phenomena, even with a rational explanation for their cause. It’s tempting to assume that past ages regarded eclipses with superstitious awe, explaining them as magic, or monsters eating the sun, or something similar. Particularly in post-Roman Europe, whose popular sobriquet “The Dark Ages” implies an image of savages huddled in mud huts burning cakes and waiting for some external agency – William the Conqueror, or the Renaissance, or whatever – to come along and turn the lights back on. As ever, the reality is more complicated and more interesting.

Bede, scholar and monk at the monastery at modern Jarrow in Northumbria, wrote a treatise in about 725 AD called On the Reckoning of Time. His main purpose was to set out, probably for the instruction of students, the correct methods of measuring time and constructing a Christian calendar. This was far from an academic exercise, as disputes over the dating of Easter provoked endless arguments in the early Christian church, on a few occasions leading to (or perhaps being used as an excuse for) outright schism. Bede’s book is most commonly cited now as the source for the names of the early English months and the consequent sidelight these throw on English paganism, but his treatise displays detailed and accurate knowledge of the motion of the sun and moon, the shape of the earth and the pattern of the tides, derived from other books and from his own observations. For example, Bede knew that the earth was spherical

It is not merely circular like a shield or spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions
--Ch. 32
and explains that this spherical shape governed the difference in day length between summer and winter in the northern hemisphere. Bede’s source for this was Pliny’s Natural History, with a comment that it can be verified by observing the heavens from a village close to a large mountain. Just as the mountain will get in the way of seeing the sun and stars from the village, so, on a larger scale, the spherical shape of the earth gets in the way of seeing the sun from high latitudes in winter. Interestingly, this indicates that Bede, despite being a devout orthodox Christian, was happy to use learning from non-Christian sources (he comments elsewhere in the book that Pliny was a pagan), and that he considered empirical observation to be useful in testing statements found in books.

Bede also explained the tides as the waters of the ocean following the motion of the moon. Earlier sources thought that the high tide was caused by additional water pouring into the ocean and thus that the high tide occurred at the same time in all places. Bede, however, had information that the tide along the coasts of Britain rises in some places at the same time as it falls at others, and thus he argued that the idea of extra water pouring into the oceans was wrong. He did not know how the waters of the oceans could follow the moon around (there was a while to wait before gravity was discovered), but he could observe that they did and that this observation could be used to test a theory and prove it wrong (Ch. 29).

Bede knew that solar eclipses occurred when the moon came between the sun and the earth, and lunar eclipses when the moon passed through the earth’s shadow, and that as a result solar eclipses can only happen when the moon is new and lunar eclipses can only happen when the moon is full. He quotes Pliny’s Natural History as the source, with a rather rueful comment that Pliny was a pagan, and then backs it up with a Christian commentary from St Jerome arguing that the daytime darkness recorded in the Gospels at the time of the crucifixion could not have been a solar eclipse because the crucifixion occurred at Passover, held at full moon, and solar eclipses can only happen at new moon (Ch. 27).

So it’s fair to say that Bede would have understood last night’s eclipse as a natural phenomenon. It’s also fair to say that Bede was at the intellectual apex of his society – probably his nearest modern equivalent would be an Oxbridge professor or maybe a top-flight consultant – and his ideas may not have extended very far into the rest of society. Quite possibly much of the population did see eclipses as terrifying supernatural portents. But it's not justified to assume that everybody did.

Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3