Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture.

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Pleasant Frittering of Time

For a writer, one of the dreadful things about the internet is that it’s so full of amusement and distraction. So this morning I have wasted a perfectly good hour reading interviews from Raymond’s Thompson's Taliesin's Successors: Interviews with Authors of Modern Arthurian Literature. He has collected all sorts of interesting people, including Robertson Davies and Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, and I have succumbed to mere eavesdropping

Alan Garner: I grew up, as a child, with the Arthurian legend as part of my cultural background. I grew up in a rural working-class family in Alderley Edge, a hill sticking up out of the Cheshire plain just seven miles from where we're sitting now. My family were rural craftsmen. My grandfather could read, but didn't and so was virtually unlettered. The family did, however, have the last remains of a genuine oral tradition, which was the story of the King Asleep Under the Hill, being guarded by Merlin. The story is so deeply embedded in my psyche that I can't tell you when I first heard it. I've always known it, and it came to represent the whole of that rural, working-class part of my background.

It's a British phenomenon which is still a problem: the problem of the first-generation educated child. What happened to me, and what is still happening to other children, is that I was selected by our educational system as being worthy of education. The effect of this was to remove me from my cultural background, but to enable me to understand the price that was being paid, for this removal produces enormous tensions within the individual. So, as I learned formal, analytical, rational, and academic disciplines, I became aware, rationally and academically, of all that I was losing. My family could not cope with me, and I could not cope with my family. Emotionally, "my" legend came to stand for all that was being lost, and so it took on a poignant tone, Perhaps that poignancy is not there in the Matter of Britain, but I think it is. I was set firmly on an academic career when the writer in me, who I think was there from birth, started to emerge, to wake up and kick and say no, there are other things which you have to do, which are uniquely yours.

Robertson Davies: The Arthurian legend has been a part of my life since childhood. My father, of course, was Welsh, and the story of Arthur is very dear to the Welsh people. Britain, both during and after the Roman occupation, has always been important in my mind because I visited Wales a good many times with my father. I knew it well and visited many places with Arthurian associations. Glastonbury I've known for a very long time also.

As a boy I had a book of Arthurian legends, and about the age of sixteen or seventeen I became very interested in the work of that now rather neglected writer, Arthur Machen. He draws a good deal on Arthurian legend, often without writing about it directly although the feeling is there. Not very long afterwards, I fell under the influence of an author I consider a neglected master of the English novel, and that is John Cowper Powys. I read A Glastonbury Romance which is soaked in Arthurian feeling; then later Porius, which is about a young man who encounters Arthur and Merlin. Both figures are seen with great imaginative splendor. Powys has a marvelous feeling both for the ambience of the legend, and for what we can guess about the historical figure of the "dux bellorum" who took control after the Romans left Britain. His vision seized my imagination very strongly, and I became interested not only in what Arthur had meant one way or another to a wide variety of people, but also what he had not meant to some of them.

Susan Cooper: The struggle between the Light and the Dark in my books has more to do with the fact that when I was four World War II broke out. England was very nearly invaded by Germany, and that threat, reinforced by the experience of having people drop bombs on your head, led to a very strong sense of Us and Them. Of course Us is always the good, and Them is always the bad.

This sense must have stayed with me, and it put me into contact with all the other times that England has been threatened with invasion. We are such mongrels: we have been invaded over and over and over again from Scandinavia, from Ireland, from the Continent. This same fear and resistance--usually unsuccessful-- has been repeated throughout British history. All that goes into the collective subconscious, and, especially if you come from a generation which went through this experience in childhood, it becomes very much a part of your own imagination. So there is this sympathetic link between my growing up and what it must have been like when the real Arthur--what we know about him--was alive. You find this reflected in the books, especially the last.

*****
Wasn't that good company and good frittering? And it reminded me that I dearly love that odd, magical giant of letters, John Cowper Powys... Maybe it's time to reread Wolf Solent and The Glastonbury Romance.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.