Legacy of Kain Retrospective: Soul Reaver



Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver was released in Autumn 1999 for the Playstation, PC, and later Dreamcast. At the time it was roundly described, accurately of course, as a sequel to Silicon Knights’ Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain (1996), but for mainstream gamers it might as well have been a new IP, so obscure was Blood Omen at the time and so different Soul Reaver seemed in comparison. Original developer Silicon Knights had tentative plans for a sequel of their own, but Crystal Dynamics, who helped finalise the original game, were also developing Kain 2 themselves. The intricacies of the subsequent litigation between the two companies have been largely secretive even to this day (Neogaf and LoK community legend Divine Shadow/MamaRobotnik has written a detailed post surrounding the various battles between the two studios) but the pertinent fact is that Crystal Dynamics were eventually given control of the series by the courts and the freedom to commence with a new Kain game.

Having been shepherded into existence at Silicon Knights by Denis Dyack and Ken McKulloch, the new creative figurehead for Kain 2 would be Amy Hennig, an English graduate and film enthusiast who had turned her talents to videogames in the late 1980’s. Hennig was part of Crystal Dynamics when they had paired up with S.K. to finish Blood Omen, so she was already well-versed in Nosgoth when the mantle was, so to speak, passed on to her. Seth Carus, another of Soul Reaver’s lead designers and writers, had also polished the scripts for Blood Omen.

At the time Hennig was already busying herself with a novel game idea of her own: a third-person action/puzzle solving game called ‘Shifter’ where the undead lead character could alternate between the worlds of the living and the dead. The higher-ups asked Hennig to adapt this embryonic idea to the Kain series, causing some consternation, but she and her small team mapped out and plotted what would eventually blossom as Soul Reaver.

“The original idea,” Hennig explained in 2012, “was very loosely inspired by the rebellious angels of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The spiritual structure of the world was based on the philosophy of Gnosticism, the belief that the cosmos is ruled by a malevolent ‘pretender’ god, that humans are prisoners in a spiritual lie, and that mankind’s struggle is a fight for free will in the face of seemingly insurmountable Fate.” Indeed, the names of Kain’s lieutenants –and the game’s bosses– all derive from fallen angels and other agents of Heaven or Hell: Dumah, Zephon, Turel, etc.

“Like all games, Blood Omen had its share of technical shortcomings – what made it memorable (and what inspired such a loyal fan following) were its original storyline, complex characters, high-quality writing and voice acting, and its fresh approach to vampire mythology. These are the aspects we want to perpetuate as we carry the Kain franchise into the future.”
~ Amy Hennig, Gamerweb, 2000.

I first encountered Soul Reaver sometime in 1998 when a short trailer (below) was included with an issue of Official UK Playstation Magazine. I recall being drawn to its look and feel – the only games that seemed to have the same tone were the two Resident Evil installments available at the time (halcyon days, they were) and 1998’s Metal Gear Solid. The same magazine later issued a demo of the Sunlight Glyph area which I played repeatedly, intoxicated by what it promised to offer: a player character utterly unique in both design and personality; multiple spells that weren’t bogged down in fantasy wizardry; steampunkish weaponry and locales; monstrous and inventive enemies; and a plane shifting and health replenishment system that was completely innovative at the time. Not only that, but unlike practically every other game at the time (and in an extreme contrast to Blood Omen) Soul Reaver had no loading times between rooms or levels; instead, the map streamed ahead of time, disguising load times and making sure the player’s immersion was not interrupted. Easy to overlook now, but nearly revolutionary at the time.

Storywise, Blood Omen had circulated around a world-in-jeopardy scenario and explored themes of perdition, martyrdom, madness, and the consequences of time travel. It even managed to turn a subplot and what seemed like ancillary material (that is, the rise of the Nemesis and the attendant apocalyptic prophecies, not to mention the whisperings of human possession and demon worship) into a clever springboard for its genocidal third act. But while the first game examined notions of redemption and damnation, Soul Reaver was a straight up revenge story.

But what, in the interest of clarity, has happened in the long interim between the two games? Kain, having refused to sacrifice himself for the supposed good of the world, ensures the collapse of the Pillars of Nosgoth and raises six lieutenants from the grave. They provide him with an army, and the conquest of Nosgoth begins. After a series of wars they eventually defeat humanity, pushing them into the fringes of Nosgoth or into walled citadels entrenched within mountain passes. Slaves construct the Sanctuary of the Clans around the ruins of the Pillars, and the Balance Pillar is fitted as Kain’s throne. Unfortunately, the empire soon becomes bored and decadent.

Concept artist Daniel Cabuco speculated that amongst the clans “Lust for power, hubris, greed and jealousy would cause them to begin plotting against each other … As the empire fell apart, outright war would occur between clans, and Kain would simply wash his hands of them all … I really think of it like the Roman Empire, with Kain as a Caesar. As long as they had a unified enemy, they acted together. Once that threat ceased, they fell upon each other in a mad grab for power.”

A thousand years after Blood Omen the vampire Raziel, Kain’s first-born lieutenant, has the “honour” of surpassing his master in evolutionary terms, having sprouted a set of bat-like wings. In LoK long-lived vampires enter brief stages of pupation from which they emerge, in Raziel’s words, “less human and more… divine.” Raziel, for having the temerity to enter a state of change before Kain, is swiftly condemned to death in an apparent fit of jealously. The wings are torn from his back, leaving only a ragged patagium, and he is thrown into the “swirling vortex of the Abyss” by his brothers-in-arms — only to be resurrected at its bottom by a mysterious ‘Elder God’ who instructs him to eliminate his former master and brethren and return their souls to the Wheel of Fate so that Nosgoth may be restored once again.

It is really worth checing out the game’s opening FMV. I distinctly recall game store displays playing it repeatedly and catching eyes, and it’s short, punchy and exciting to this day and is also an excellent demonstration of not only the game’s visual designs but the excellent score by Kurt Harland:

Raziel emerges to discover that in the centuries between his execution and resurrection the vampire empire has collapsed. He learns that the corruption of Kain’s soul by Nupraptor has been passed down to his vampire descendents, like a form of Original Sin, and they have long devolved into creatures whose cognizance is barely above that of animals. Any organisation among their ranks has long collapsed, allowing some plucky vampire hunters to venture into the various clan territories to pick off fledglings or to engage in skirmishes with the elder brutes. The victory of the vampires was ultimately pyrrhic and it seems the beleaguered humans are too few to ever overwhelm their oppressors and reclaim Nosgoth. Raziel himself has undergone transformation: no longer a Lestat-esque beauty, his body is warped and emaciated and, unlike our favourite hematophage, Kain, he now has to devour the souls of his enemies to sustain his life. It is, he boasts, “an even darker hunger.” Driven by rage and further emboldened by an inflating self-righteousness, Raziel seeks out his vampire brothers and former master to slake his thirst for their souls.

The game elects not to dwell on either the events of Blood Omen or the centuries of history that predate the introductory FMV. Instead, the player is thrust into Nosgoth and must slowly acclimate to that world. Helpfully, so too must the main character, having emerged from a spell in the underworld to a new, tumultuous era in Nosgoth’s history. The Pillars of Nosgoth, the hub of the first game and the series as a whole, do not take primacy in the plot and at this point in Raziel’s quest the state of the world barely figures into his desire to revenge himself on Kain and his brethren. In terms of character development the game leaves him practically where he began: desperate to kill Kain to whet his fury. Kain’s motivations are not elaborated on and we, through the prism of Raziel, assume that he is purely nefarious. This was not to Soul Reaver’s detriment – by remaining so bloody-minded the game allowed newcomers to the series (who in 1999 were the great majority of players) to comfortably settle into Nosgoth and sop up its tangle of mythology and history.

While the game decided to pare down the storytelling (at least for this instalment) the characters were no less effective. Kain was already wonderfully drawn in the first game, but the sequel would have to bring him back in a way that felt true to his incarnation in Blood Omen and as though a millennium of experiences had been infused into the character since players last met him. There was not much in the way of dialogue to convey this (again, in this instalment) but Daniel Cabuco’s design for Kain hits the money – it is immediately evocative and innovative: the ‘crown’ adorning his head and the hard lines and scars tracing his body. It is strange — I had never encountered the character before Soul Reaver, and yet the design felt right. Having played Blood Omen and returned to Soul Reaver, the effect has not diminished in the slightest, but has instead been bolstered. Those involved in bringing Kain to life can rest easy. Simon Templeman again provides his vocal chords and though he only gets two brief speeches he again channels Kain’s power and haughtiness. Ariel, the spirit of a murdered Balance Guardian and Kain’s advisor from the first game, also returns, with Anna Gunn (of Deadwood and Breaking Bad fame) lending her voice yet again.

Raziel is another wonder. His design remains unique to this day, almost sixteen years and two ‘console wars’ and a whole lot of here-today gone-tomorrow IPs since his debut. His voice was provided by Michael Bell, who may be familiar to fans of the Transformers and Rugrats cartoons or perhaps Metal Gear Solid aficionados, and who is generally soft-spoken as Raziel but can lace his voice with indignation and rage and sorrow and even awe like no other (I love lines like his furious ‘Damn you, Kain! You are not God!’ and his sinking ‘My God…’)


Another pivotal character in the series, the Elder God, first appears here as a disembodied voice, though in later games he manifests as a mass of tentacles rooted throughout the Underworld and other subterranean environments. Appendages aside, his other notable features are his eyes -giving Argos of Greek lore a run for his money- and his stentorian voice (omnipresent and yet sourceless), which was provided by magisterial British actor Tony Jay (1933 – 2006).

Jay manages to give the Elder God a multitude of inflections: he can spur Raziel on with a fiery proselytisation; he can quietly threaten or dismiss or mock and he can bellow with rage. The Elder God develops as an antagonist throughout the series but his omnipresence in Soul Reaver can almost feel like a comfort: every death in the spectral plane sees you saved from annihilation and teleported back into his bosom, and he is constantly at hand to provide Raziel with directions and context about the current era. Soul Reaver 2 raises and explores the notion that such directions serve only to further the Elder God’s own goals rather than Raziel’s, and that the context he provides is ultimately prejudiced. But for Soul Reaver, the Elder God is unquestionably your advisor and ally.

Nosgoth itself oozes personality: whereas Blood Omen was indebted to typical European medieval fantasy for its look, the designers here successfully amalgamated steampunk, post-apocalypticism, and traditional medievalry into the world’s environments. It is also successful in implying a deeper backstory through its level design. Areas like the drowned abbey, the Dumahim city and the silenced cathedral all have unspoken backstories that hint at more fortunate times. The abbey and cathedral were once obviously religious hubs and sanctuaries, and the ruined city of Dumah an imperial capital (Dumah’s throne room is desperately ornate – compare it to Kain’s throne at the Pillars and you can see how highly the former prizes himself.)

Speaking of Dumah, the bosses (Raziel’s devolved vampire kin: Turel -absent from this game-, Dumah, Rahab, Zephon and Melchiah) are commonly acknlowledged as being one of the game’s strongest elements in terms of both design and function. They are still, in my opinion, some of the most evocative bosses of the last few console generations, from Melchiah’s Jabba-if-he-were-constituted-from-corpses look and Zephon’s Alien Queen-ish form. The game is essentially built around the bosses, with Raziel’s task being to reach them one-by-one, overcome a puzzle that allows the player to kill the boss, absorb their souls for new abilities, and then move on. By working this way the player always has a goal, and each new area and boss is regular enough (separated by a couple of hours of gameplay, for a first-timer) that it’s hard to lose track of what you’re doing (Soul Reaver 2 in comparison tended to meander). It also helps that defeating each boss unlocks useful new powers (phase through barriers, wall climbing, swimming, telekinesis, etc.) that encourage further exploration of Nosgoth: there are a host of glyph spells that you needn’t ever come across to complete the game that are hidden throughout secret tunnels and play areas.

The different stages of the game are not simply ‘level 1’ or ‘level 2’ but distinct areas and scenarios in their own right with their own histories and unique design elements – the arabic-inspired architecture of the Sanctuary of the Clans, the corrugated industrial structures within Melchiah and Dumah’s dwellings, the pipes and mortar and webwork of the silenced cathedral, and on and on. Occasionally you can find etched murals or headstops or corbels depicting bearded figures – designs that are purely decorative but fire up the imagination with long-lost human saints, demons and chthonic beings. Nosgoth is infused with history, much of it lost or forgotten. Finding the tumbled remains of Nupraptor’s Retreat, one of the first and most memorable locations from Blood Omen, is a particular treat.


Soul Reaver, like other titles in the series, was not short on ambition. Not only were multiple story threads truncated or cut, but entire areas and bosses were, too. Mama Robotnik provides an extensive overview of deleted material in Soul Reaver May Have Been the Most Ambitious Game Ever, and for perusers with more time on their hands The Lost Worlds has long been the go-to resource for deleted LoK materials. The consensus seems to be that while fans would love to see more deleted material from the game, like its original ending, the rush to release it allowed Soul Reaver 2, which arguably contains the series’ most mindbending and satisfying story since Blood Omen, to emerge.

In 2008 Legacy of Kain creator Denis Dyack spoke to 1UP about the appropriation of intellectual properties and the effect he believed this had on the integrity of the IP: “As soon as you take something away from an author, ” he said, “you’re immediately diluting it, and you’re hurting the industry. As an example, I’ll talk about Legacy of Kain. We created the first Legacy of Kain. We came up with all the content, all the story, but in the end we moved away from that series. Crystal Dynamics tried to take it over. A lot of people liked [Soul Reaver]. But if you look at Legacy of Kain where it is right now -so diluted, so dysfunctional as a property itself, it’s pretty much gone in a completely different direction than we would have ever taken it.”

“When we were doing Legacy of Kain, we had a lot of research into vampire mythology and a lot of ideas on where we were going. Crystal Dynamics merged in this entirely different game that had nothing to do with the series and then slapped the IP on it, and that’s where Soul Reaver came from. That was just a weapon in the game. Even if the developer’s good, and I think Crystal Dynamics is not a bad developer, you get this dilution of the content, because the original author is gone.”
~ Denis Dyack

I feel that Dyack is certainly correct about diminishing returns and the dysfunctionality of the series after a point, but I also feel that for all of the Legacy of Kain series’ hampered ideas and hobbled concepts (imposed on Crystal Dynamics by a mixture of budgetary and time limitations rather than any sort of malfeasance or incompetence) the sequels managed to expand upon the premise of Blood Omen with very, very few narrative missteps. In terms of adding to the mythology, the Crystal Dynamics games are an embarrassment of riches, and Soul Reaver proved that Hennig and her team could not only carry the series but build something worthy upon its foundations too.

And then, two short years later, there was Soul Reaver 2


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Three Perspectives on Poetry (and What It Is… or Isn’t)


“Great poets are often proverbially ignorant of life. What they know has come by observation of themselves; they have found within them one highly delicate and sensitive specimen of human nature, on which the laws of emotion are written in large characters, such as can be read off without much study.”
John Stuart Mill, What Is Poetry? 1833

So says Mill (not a poet himself) in his analysis of poetry. To Mill, poets are men and women forged almost purely of introspection, of cloistered self-study. “Other knowledge of mankind,” he continues, “is not indispensable to them as poets”. Poetry is, after all, “the natural fruit of solitude and meditation”. Whilst Mill makes some fine points about how poets approach their work, and finer points about art-as-artistry and art-as-commodity (or perhaps, ‘art-as-commodity-isn’t-art’), and although he makes it clear that poetry is not limited to verses and stanzas but can be found in music, painting, sculpture and architecture, his notion of what a poet actually is seems both expansive (they can be artists, actors, etcetera) and restrictive (they are purely introspective beings). He seems to be telling us that poets, in all of their forms, are intrinsic supermen, capable of great artistic achievement by will alone.

Whilst at it Mill, a great philosopher and humanitarian in his own right, also takes an unfair shot at novel readers (“the shallowest and emptiest [of people]”), dismisses the French (“the least poetical … the vainest… and the least self-dependent [of nations]”) and implies that epic poetry, such as the work of Homer or Virgil or Dante Alighieri, is not really poetry at all. His reasoning for the latter isn’t clear, but he does explain that artwork created with an audience in mind will ultimately be lacking. To demonstrate, he uses a stage metaphor: “The actor knows that there is an audience present; but, if he acts as though he knew it, he acts ill.” This he applies to all the arts.

At first glance, it seems fair enough; but considering that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on a commission (it’s been said he was even strong-armed into creating it) would Mill tell his readers that there’s no poetry or true artistry behind the paint? He does concede that, “That [such work] should be poetry, being [created] under such purposes, is less probable, [but] not, however, impossible.” This admission comes with a disclaimer: the performing poet/artist/actor must never be “tinged” by the “desire of making an impression upon another mind”.

Austrian-Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke was at odds with Mill’s definition of a poet and his poetry, defining them instead as the result of immersing oneself in the world: “You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime,” he says, “and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines,” (thankfully, Rilke did not wait until his latter years to write anything, though his best work, the Duino Elegies, did come forth in a burst of creative spontaneity in his middle age.)

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke continues, in opposition to Mill: “For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) – they are experiences.” He sums up the ingredients for making poetry as:

For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gestures which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighbourhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained … to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars – and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labour  and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”

Rilke’s explanation, unlike Mill’s, does not gloss over the process of turning the interior of oneself into a poem. Mill seems to suggest that poets are these intrinsically talented people who can disappear inside themselves and produce great insight upon returning. To Rilke, a poet is not a closed system, he does not merely read off the wall and report what he has seen. A poet actively, painfully and blissfully lives in the world, and it in him.

Thousands of years before both Rilke and Mill, another philosopher, Plato, set his critical sights on poetry. In Book X of The Republic he argues that poets merely mimic reality, and the readers of poetry absorb this mimicry and mistake it for reality, before going on to propagate these illusions. Thus begins a spiral of imitation breeding imitation, with each iteration potentially wandering further from Truth.

“When we hear persons saying that the tragedians, and Homer, who is at their head, know all the arts and all things human -virtue as well as vice, and divine things too, for that the good poet cannot compose well unless he knows his subject, and that he who has not this knowledge can never be a poet- we ought to consider whether here also there may not be a similar illusion. Perhaps they may have come across imitators and been deceived by them; they may not have remembered when they saw their works that these were but imitations thrice removed from the truth, and could easily be made without any knowledge of the truth, because they are appearances only and not realities?”

Plato sarcastically adds: “Or, after all, they may be in the right, and poets do really know the things about which they seem to the many to speak so well?” He goes on to conclude that “all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach.”

Michelangelo Buonarroti, the sculptor of David and painter of the Sistine Chapel, said that “the true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection,” though he was never troubled by it, as is Plato, who continues: “The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colours and figures.”

Plato then explains that the poet, along with that other great imitator, the painter, would have no place in his titular republic, because he “implants an evil constitution” upon the populace. Rather dramatically, he threatens that if the rulers of the Republic “allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind … pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State,” (Plato’s student, Aristotle, may have been less of a killjoy ruler: “Poetry and politics,” he said, “do not have the same standards of correctness.”)

Though Plato does express legitimate concerns, in that many people are happy to take fiction as fact, no matter how ludicrous the depiction –imagine Birth of a Nation was the sole artifact of mankind after a hypothetical apocalyptic scenario, and what that could lead our successors in this world to think of us– he brands poets and artists as being guilty of nourishing irrationality; worse, they enslave their readerships to the baser parts of themselves and distance them from reality. It’s rather ironic that Plato presents his philosophy through his own stylised version of his teacher, Socrates, and that what we know of the latter comes almost entirely from the former.

Most would agree that Plato’s ‘imitation’ of Socrates is preferable over the void that his absence from the dialogues (and thus, history) would leave — and taking a small step away from the Truth ain’t all that bad after all.

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The Roots of American & British Crime Fiction



British and American detective fiction share a common origin in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but by the time they were enjoying their respective Golden Ages in the early twentieth century they had already become quite distinct from the other, with each possessing its own unique tropes and clichés. This article will look at the development of the hard-boiled and ‘soft-boiled’ genres, and provide an explanation for the British preference for the countryside and the American predilection for stories set in the ‘mean streets’ of L.A., San Francisco, etc. It will demonstrate that the differences between British and American crime fiction can be attributed not only to obvious matters of geography but also their social milieus, and that both the British and American detective were designed to fulfil very different purposes: stability and the preservation of the status quo in the case of the former, and a study into moral complexity and blue-collar sympathy regarding the latter.

The first literary detective was Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Poe is the font from which all future crime writers drew their inspiration, but Dupin has more in common with British creations like Hercule Poirot than he does Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Dupin is European, eccentric, aristocratic, arcane in his pursuits and, like Sherlock Holmes, is best characterised as a ‘consulting detective’. Unlike later American detective stories, whenever Poe utilised miasmic streets and labyrinthine alleys he turned to London (The Man of the Crowd) or Paris (Murders in the Rue Morgue) as backdrop. Mid-to-late nineteenth century American fiction, when dealing with their own cities, tended to portray them as “urban-pastoral world[s] of primeval novelty” rather than “a city anyone ever inhabited.” The “mean streets” of Chandler and Hammett had yet to emerge from the turmoil of the new century.

The classic British detective story, according to P.D. James, was concerned with “bringing order out of disorder” and was typically “a genre of reconciliation and social healing”. Though detectives like Poirot sometimes found themselves jaunting between Britain, Egypt, Iraq and the Continent, the typical location for these stories was the countryside, often represented as “an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration”. Readers could be assured that whenever a story’s mystery was resolved the countryside would be restored to its previous “prelapsarian tranquillity” by an omnisciently-observant gentleman detective.

These detectives were typically aristocratic and included doctors, solicitors, spinsters, and pastime sleuths. They were “never frightened or appalled, never himself (and occasionally herself) a victim of events, never outwitted or daunted” and their ultimate purpose was “to build and uphold a firm structure of social and moral values.” Stephen Knight noted that some societies in early crime fiction were “so tightly knit that escape will not be possible … If there has been a murder, ‘some gentleman’ will come along and take the criminal to a magistrate.” If the police themselves are ever hostile or condescending towards the private investigator then by the tale’s resolution they are “humbly amazed” by his singular brilliance. The idealised British detective therefore was a paragon, especially equipped to remove crime from the countryside. In his book British Writers of the Thirties author Valentine Cunningham puts forward that the detective genre “doubtless owed a lot to its ritualized acts of determining order and significance amidst the seeming randomness of the murderer’s bullet or cut-throat razor.”

British crime fiction’s predilection for posing murder and mystery in the countryside rather than the city are manifold. Firstly, the early detective novels sprang from the country-house genre. Raymond Williams writes that “the true fate of the country-house novel was its evolution into the middle-class detective story … with some of its roots in George Eliot and Hardy but with a significant limitation of scope.” ‘Country house’ novels typically explored small, interlocked communities where social and personal familiarity were key themes. These concerns were transposed more or less directly into the detective novel, even if only to be exploited.

Secondly, English rural writers and poets had long denigrated London and its “insolent rabble” and the “idle, profligate and debauched” therein. They came from a tradition that insisted upon the “very powerful myth of modern England in which the transition from a rural to an industrial society is seen as a kind of fall, the true cause and origin of our social suffering and disorder.” That cities were chaotic and polluted was a given, that they were troubled by incessant crime a certainty. For many intellectual and refined detectives the criminals in England’s cities were too common and their crimes too conventional. Crime fiction put knives and poisons in the hands of zealous parlour maids, butlers, housekeepers, fortune hunters and remaindermen. It took the strange and terrible and transposed it into the mundane and ordinary.

In Agatha Christie’s short story collection The Thirteen Problems a writer, a clergyman, a solicitor and a former police commissioner all debate on whose profession and “what class of brain” is best suited for solving mysteries. Each would become a British mystery novel archetype, as would the victor in their debate – an elderly spinster called Miss Marple. Marple is an inconspicuous figure. Her modesty disguises a sharp intellect and a peregrine’s eye for details. Her long life has made her a storehouse of knowledge, but she conducts herself with a disarming Socratic humility.

“I think it would be very interesting,” said Miss Marple, “especially with so many clever gentleman present. I am afraid I am not clever myself, but living all these years in St Mary Mead does give one an insight into human nature.”
“I am very sure your co-operation will be very valuable,” said Sir Henry, courteously.

In true parlour fashion, the mysteries in The Thirteen Problems are merely mental exercises, solved from the comfort of an armchair, the stakes no higher than the loss of face during a guessing game. The book’s main device is what Poe called “ratiocination” (and what Christie’s own Poirot would refer to as his ‘little grey cells’); it is the unique ability to soak up details and turn out precise observations that reveal deeper or hidden truths. It is this class of brain, and this stock of character, Marple’s companions realise, that is best suited for solving mysteries.

Williams found it fitting “that a mode of analysis of human relationships which came out of Baker Street, out of the fogs of the transient city, should find a temporary resting-place in this facade way of life, before it eventually returned to its true place in the streets.” To suggest that the streets are the ‘true place’ of deduction and syllogistic reasoning is to suggest that it has no place in the countryside at all: that the people there have no need for it, that they are intrinsically trustworthy and devoid of iniquity. This assumption highlights why the countryside was the perfect environment for a mystery story: the notion that a butler, vicar or maid could be a murderer is more likely to surprise a reader than if the suspects were a pickpocket, a burglar or any other felon. The detective novel’s purpose was to provide the stimulant of a puzzle and the thrill of revelation. It was not designed to remind readers of the squalor of the inner cities, but tease them with the exciting prospect that there was something hidden amongst the picket fences and cropped grass and familiar and genteel smiles of their neighbours. “Very painful and distressing things happen in villages sometimes,” Miss Marple teases in The Thirteen Problems.

Even the most famous city detective found the demure countryside landscape chilling. Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, utters that “The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” And we must remember that London, as Watson tells us in A Study in Scarlet, is “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.”

Holmes and Watson. Parlour games and exercises of the mind.

Holmes and Watson. Parlour games and exercises of the mind.

While the British detective held court in the parlour rooms of the country house the hard-boiled detective stalked through the mean streets of a rapidly expanding and yet decaying Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago. His origin is to be found (or is lost) in the dime novels of the early twentieth century.

These ‘grey papers’ or pulp magazines specialised in making heroes out of “cowboys, soldiers, explorers and masked avengers” before branching out to crime detection. They were sparely-written, flecked with slang and colloquialisms, and peopled by tough and unsentimental detectives who were routinely referred to in the new street lingo as gumshoes, snoopers or sleuths. The bumbling or inept constabularies of British detective fiction were also replaced by corrupt or indifferent police departments, and disillusionment with the police force was usually a compelling factor for the sleuth to become a private detective in the first place. American detectives weren’t afraid to go knuckle-to-knuckle with an adversary, even before introductory words can be exchanged. Their clients include the spurned and the desperate (only the British detective can call aiding the King of Bohemia a “small matter,” as is the case with Holmes). The American detective frequented flop houses and clip joints. They fought against and walked amongst finks, juicers, dips, goons and two-time losers as well as gangsters and plutocrats. The gumshoe has no villainous arch-rival, no Moriarty or Dr. Fu Manchu, because he himself is largely unspectacular. “He is a common man,” Raymond Chandler wrote of the hard-boiled hero, “or he could not go among common people.”

The American detective owes his roughhouse distinctiveness to, of course, America. In the fifty years between Poe’s death and the new century a calamitous civil war had been settled, the nation had “doubled its geography”, and the number of “foreign born, suicides, industrial labourers, divorces, gross national product, and white-collar workers all doubled.” Thomas J. Schlereth writes of early twentieth century America that “A country in transition was also in transit. Everyone seemed en route: emigrating and immigrating, removing or being removed, resettling and relocating in many directionseast to west, south to north, rural to urban, urban to suburban.” Architecture also went its own way: ‘Queen Anne’ styled housing went out of fashion and the rise of the skyscraper gave big city skylines a distinct appearance (notably, in Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Miss Marple, suffering the passing of old friends and strange new villagers, finds comfort in “the little nest of Queen Anne and Georgian houses, of which hers was one”. Rural England’s architecture being the only constant anchor for an aging and archaic mode of life).

The end result was that by the early twentieth century Americans, transformed by inescapable upheaval and progress, were beginning to make “strident claims for ‘100 percent Americanism’”. Inevitably the country’s literature began to evolve into new and distinct forms. Detective fiction, despite its progenitor’s rejection of “the idea that there should be a specifically national character to American writing,” also became distinctly American or, as the genre came to be called, hard-boiled. Chandler wrote of the hard-boiled creed:

The realist in murder writes of a world in which the gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the finger man for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket.

Though American writers were undoubtedly aware of, and had extensively read, the work of their British counterparts, the hard-boiled did not arise as a response to it, but as the natural consequence of a domestic social revolution. Ian Ousby writes:

The hard-boiled school came not in reaction against Golden Age fiction, or indeed as the result of any programme of rebelling, but simply as a separate and rival development in the USA – a country which was anyway bound to tire of borrowing from the Old World to find its voice.

British detective fiction, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly archaic and stereotypical. The post-First-War period was increasingly an age of “mass-production, mass-demonstrations, mass-meetings, mass sporting occasions, mass-communications, mass-armies, a time when things would be done in, and to, and for crowds.” But while hard-boiled fiction took to the city streets the ‘soft-boiled’ equivalent stayed comfortably rustic, to its eventual detriment. “Even the exterior setting of the thing is in danger of becoming stereotyped,” complained Ronald Knox, “If I walked into the detective-story house, I believe I should be able to find my way about it perfectly; it is always more or less the same in design.” Incessant sequels and a glut of knock-offs diluted the bourgeois detective until he was no longer remarkable and no longer effective. Writer William Trevor remarked that

All over England, it seemed to me, bodies were being discovered by housemaids in libraries. Village poison pens were tirelessly at work. There was murder in Mayfair, on trains, in airships, in Palm Court lounges, between the acts. Golfers stumbled over corpses on fairways. Constables awoke to them in their gardens.

The British detective was fast losing his relevancy and potency. He was trapped in an unending cycle of locked rooms and exotic poisons and contested wills and perfidious servants. He was ageless and static and increasingly becoming a figure of fun. “Society was becoming corporate and efficient,” wrote William Marling. “The erudite Victorian hero wasn’t; he lost potency as alter ego, and eventually he became an anachronism.” P.D. James surmised that:

The omni-talented amateur with apparently nothing to do with his time but solve murders which interest him has had his day, partly because his rich and privileged lifestyle became less admirable, and his deferential acceptance by the police less credible, in an age when men were expected to work.

As the British detective was declining the American counterpart was quickly confirming his relevance. The gumshoe’s motivation would be employment, not leisure; he is vexed and frustrated, rather than thrilled or invigorated, by elaborate puzzles and ruses. If the aristocratic pastime detective finds himself taking on cases as a result of his immense free time and wealth then the gumshoe is a victim of his economic circumstances. “He is a relatively poor man,” Chandler wrote, “or he would not be a detective at all.”

The prototype for the hardboiled detective is arguably Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, who first appeared in Black Mask serials before being transported into novels like Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. The Op is short, portly, and not particularly erudite. His namelessness and unremarkable demeanour mark him as an everyman. “If you know all you should know about ceramics and Egyptian needlework,” Chandler later wrote, “you don’t know anything at all about the police.”

Hammett’s later creation Sam Spade is another bold deviation from the classic mold. His physical description is given at the beginning of the novel, and he is described as an impossible variety of ‘v’ shapes (chin, mouth, nostrils, brows, and hairline) and even his body seems “conical”. His description as a “blond satan” evocatively sets him apart from his forebearers and contemporaries. He is handsome, but not upstanding. William Marling contends that “Hammett, designing a new hero for new readers in a new era, tells them by this design that Spade is no Victorian detective. Spade is modern, seemingly amoral, rather than a synecdoche for any reassuring quality, as, say, Sherlock Holmes was for reason.” But despite any of his drawbacks, the typical cocky gumshoe was also an idealised figure. Hammett, in the 1934 introduction to The Maltese Falcon, explained that:

[Spade] is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander or client.

Spade is no gentleman, and isn’t particularly compassionate either. At the story’s beginning we see him feign politesse and compassion: “Spade nodded his blond satan’s head, frowned sympathetically, and tightened his lips together.” He operates from his office, rather than a parlour room or apartment. His workspace is merely one cell in a series of interconnected capillaries and he can never feel, even when isolated, truly alone: “The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighbouring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully.”

Veteran actor Howard Duff portrayed Sam Spade in the radio show The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Veteran actor Howard Duff portrayed Sam Spade in the radio show The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Ronald Knox and other British crime writers had decreed that the detective is not to fall in love or even toil with it. Though that rule had been sporadically bent before, it was in the American tradition where love or lust could be convincingly utilised as more than an aside or distraction. Spade’s quandary when giving up Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the police is not incidental to The Maltese Falcon’s drama; it is the culmination of it:

 “You didn’t–don’t–l-love me?”
“I think I do,” Spade said. “What of it?” The muscles holding his smile in place stood out like wales. “I’m not Thursby. I’m not Jacobi. I won’t play the sap for you.”

Spade explicitly rejects revenge or love as motivating factors. He hands Brigid in not because he distrusts her, but because “I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.” Brigid may have killed Spade’s partner, but her arrest is not personal. His desires are secondary. His moral code is a natural one. He is, ultimately, a deontologist. But this is not a reassuring or all-encompassing morality: for one, though it drives him to solve his partner’s murder, it does not stop him from sleeping with the man’s wife; secondly, sending Brigid to her inevitable execution horrifies his secretary, Effie, who can’t bear to have Spade touch her. Though his moral code does not protect him from acting immorally, and even though it damages, if only temporarily, his relationships with other people, it must be abided by.

Though the British detective seems mired in a never ending cycle of peace and disruption, they at least have the consolation of harmony, however brief. In The Dain Curse the Op is told that he is “A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same.” The Op and his ilk may often act in the greater moral interest, but they are not entirely likeable. Conversely, Sherlock Holmes can regularly be told that he has “saved England from a great public scandal”. But the gumshoe is not a solution to the world’s problems and there is no ‘prelapsarian tranquillity’ to restore it to. The effort to return a crime-ridden city into some semblance of serenity was explored in Hammett’s Red Harvest, and in typical hard-boiled fashion required gangsters and corrupt policemen to be gunned down to achieve its (arguably impossible) goal. The American detective could never set the world right. His was too primitive and yet too complex.

If the British detective can only amble on into irrelevance or retirement, the American sleuth, the perennial poor man in an onerous profession, must die in the gutter or keep his doors open for business, as Sam Spade is doomed to do in The Maltese Falcon’s closing moments:

“Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly. ‘Yes,’ he said, and shivered. ‘Well, send her in.’”


  • Cawelti, John G., Adventure, Mystery and Romance, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).
  • Chandler, Raymond, The Simple Art of Murder, (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).
  • Christie, Agatha, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, (New York: HarperCollins Ltd, 1977).
  • Christie, Agatha, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).
  • Christie, Agatha, The Thirteen Problems, (New York: HarperCollins Ltd, 1932).
  • Conan Doyle, Arthur, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892).
  • Cunningham, Valentine, British Writers of the Thirties, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
  • Deforest, Tim, Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America (Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc, 2004).
  • Hammett, Dashiell, The Maltese Falcon, (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2000).
  • James, P.D., Talking about Detective Fiction, (Oxford: The Bodleian Library, 2009).
  • Marling, William, The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain and Chandler, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).
  • Marx, Leo, ‘The Puzzle of Anti-Urbanism in Classic American Literature’ in Graham Clarke (ed.) The American City: Literary Sources and Documents, (Hastings: Helm Information ltd, 1997).
  • Ousby, Ian, The Crime and Mystery Book, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997).
  • Reidhead, Julia (ed.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007).
  • Schlereth, Thomas J, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915, (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).
  • Symons, Julian, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, (London: Faber & Faber, 1972).
  • Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City, (London: Chattos & Windus Ltd, 1973).

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Monty Python and the Holy Grail and its Arthurian Antecedents

posters 08-29-2008

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the story of a divinely-appointed king, his initial quest to recruit followers for his court, their ordination from God, their battles against enemies both domestic and foreign, human and otherworldly, and an adventure that will test their mettle and put the codes of chivalry and chastity on trial. There are also some jokes.

Despite the film’s farcical quality scholar Norris J. Lacy admits that “There exist well over 100 Arthurian films, but a good many professional Arthurian scholars readily acknowledge that, in their view, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the best of them.” John Aberth makes the same admission, writing that it remains “the best interpretation of both the history and the legend of King Arthur.”

The film earned such a vaunted reputation by remaining faithful to Arthurian and medieval literature despite its reams of absurdity and apparent non-sequitur. Even the animated interludes, drawn by co-director Terry Gilliam, reference and borrow imagery from medieval texts like The Book of Hours. The film’s tone avoids mystical treatments like Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and instead shares more common ground with Mark Twain’s irreverent A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A passage from the book can almost be read as a synopsis for the movie itself:

The boys all took a flier at the Holy Grail now and then. It was a several-years’ cruise … though none of them had any idea where the Holy Grail really was, and I don’t think any of them actually expected to find it, or would have known what to do with it if he had run across it […] Every year expeditions went out holy grailing, and next year relief expeditions went out to hunt for them.

The opening tells us that the film takes place in 932 A.D., five centuries too late for a historical treatment of Arthur and centuries too early for Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, or Sir Thomas Malory. The film elects not to mention, let alone focus on, the familial relations between the Knights of the Round Table or the internecine conflicts between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. In fact there is no Guinevere at all. Co-director Terry Jones reveals in the director’s commentary that “In most of the Arthurian legend, they’re actually told in the 14th century about the 10th century, so really the period of the film is 1350s or something like that.”

This allows for a fair amount of anachronism but, as it demonstrates with its conversations about coconuts and swallows, plus the inclusion (and swift removal) of ‘A Famous Historian’, the film is not concerned with the pedanticism of actual logic or history. Holy Grail instead occupies a mythological rather than historical space; where great tracts of England lie undiscovered, where each village and castle is isolated unto itself, and where literally every hill, plain and gully is flooded with rolling mist. It is, in effect, the Middle Ages of the common imagination.

In one of the first scenes King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his squire Patsy (Terry Gilliam) ride alongside a peasant called Dennis. Arthur asks who the lord of the nearby castle is, but Dennis, an apparent Marxist, questions Arthur’s legitimacy as king. Aberth writes that

The joke is that some medieval historians, such as R.H. Hilton, C.H. Brennen, and Guy Bois, really do apply Marxist theory to the Middle Ages […] Monty Python is only carrying to extremes the misguided attempts of Marxist scholars to impose their thoroughly modern historical models on the medieval past, where Dennis’s obnoxiously combative jargon would sound just as foreign as in a medieval film.

Another joke, parrying with Dennis’ anarcho-communist diatribes, is the apparent ignorance of his fellow peasants, one of whom enters the frame by crawling through the mud and calling, “Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here!” Python regularly exploit as much lunacy as they can by pairing up absurdities and juxtapositions that both play on and defy audience expectations. Dennis’ “See the violence inherent in the system!” is not merely a mockery of twentieth century protest but a winking critique of a very real ‘might is right’ ethos that can be found in the literature. As Merlin advises the young Arthur in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur: “Come out boldly and speak with them, and spare them not, but answer them as their king and chieftain, for ye shall overcome them all, whether they will or nill.” Despite the apparent conclusiveness of Arthur’s kingship and divine sponsorship, he has to fight many battles and wars to quell any objection, starting with King Lot and his men:

King Arthur on horseback laid on with a sword, and did marvellous deeds of arms … Sir Arthur turned with his knights and smote behind and before … Then he drew his sword Excalibur … And therewith he put them aback, and slew much people.

As hysterical as Dennis’ sloganeering sounds, there is real criticism to be made behind the laughter, so long as it remains, in true Python style, behind the laughter. Dennis and his partner later cameo during ‘The Tale of Sir Robin’, and can be overhead bickering: “Oh Dennis, forget about freedom. What about that mud?”

In the next scene Arthur encounters a black and green knight battling near a small river crossing. The Black Knight skewers his enemy and Arthur approaches, congratulating him for his prowess. The Knight makes no response except to deny Arthur passage. Scenarios such as this were popular in the 14th century, where knights would engage in a pas d’armes with other wandering warriors. The pas d’armes “was an aristocratic game”, the purpose of which was “to give the individual knight a formalised means of earning ‘worship’, that is, honour,” but it could take on deadlier forms, as it does here. The outrageous violence of the scene mocks the dismemberments and spurting blood from Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, released the year before, but also honours the brutality of medieval literature. For example, the end of Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot or The Knight of the Cart features a bloody battle between Lancelot and Meleagant, the action of which is reminiscent of Arthur’s battle with the Black Knight:

[Lancelot] gives him a great hard blow past his shield directly onto his mail-clad right arm, severing it at a stroke. Feeling the loss of his right arm, he declared that Lancelot would pay dearly for it […] He runs towards him, trying to grapple with him.

Lancelot quickly puts the stubborn Meleagant out of action by cutting off his head, though Arthur’s dismembered opponent is defiant even after Arthur has rode off.

Arthur eventually gathers his band of knights, including Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Galahad the Brave (Michael Palin), and Sir Robin the not-quite-as-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle). They stumble upon a castle where they are harangued by the French guards upon the battlements. This scene with the French taunters references not only the historic and military rivalry between England and France but also the shared responsibility in shaping the legend of King Arthur himself, since staples of the Arthur canon, such as Camelot and Sir Lancelot, were inventions of de Troyes. The French were also the creators of the Grail legend in relation to Arthur, with it first appearing as a device in literature in Perceval, the Story of the Grail by de Troyes. It is only fitting that they “already have one” of their own, and also appear as the castellans of Grail Castle in the finale.

After the Knights of the Round Table split up to seek the Grail the film processes each of their stories in the style of book chapters before rounding them up again for the final approach towards the Grail’s alleged location. The first of these chapters is ‘The Tale of Sir Robin’, which follows the knight as he travels through a forest with his favourite band of minstrels. They pass a signpost pointing to ‘Camelot’ in one direction and ‘Certain Death’ the other. In the literature leaving Camelot to go questing is always greeted with fanfare and some sorrow – the questing knight will inevitably come into great danger, and if he can persevere then glory and acclaim will be his. If not, then he is merely another corpse to be added to the piles littering the Arthurian landscape. Sir Robin’s minstrel acknowledges this danger in his song:

He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp,
or to have his eyes gouged out and his elbows broken,
to have his kneecaps split and his body burned away,
and his limbs all hacked and mangled, brave Sir Robin!

Robin is an invention of the film, having no direct precursor in Arthurian canon. As the film establishes earlier, he is a coward whose only fame stems from having “personally wet himself at the Battle of Badon Hill”, some four hundred years before the chronology of the film, and having almost “stood up to the vicious chicken of Bristol” (tellingly, Sir Robin’s sigil itself is a large chicken). Though the other members of King Arthur’s troupe are at times feckless (“Run away!” being a repeated line throughout) Sir Robin is the most spineless of the lot. As Chrétien reminds us in his tale Yvain, cowardice is a cardinal sin for the ordained knight: “There’s no valour in a man who fears too much.”

Hapless Sir Robin.

Hapless Sir Robin.

In his segment Robin and his band cross paths with a three-headed giant who demands that they halt and state their purpose. His minstrels answer for him in verse (“to fight!”) but are told by a shaken Robin to shut up. The hilarity comes from the obvious dichotomy between the minstrels’ song and Robin’s actual cowardice, but there’s also a point to be made about the reliability of the oral legends when contrasted to a knight’s actual prowess, especially when said tales and songs depicted their heroes as veritable supermen. Robin is obviously pompous and in love with his own legend, which is quickly and publicly dismantled. The encounter with the giant is likely derived from Chaucer’s likewise heckled Sir Topaz, a bumbling knight mentioned in The Canterbury Tales who “had got to fight a monstrous giant whose heads were three,” though the battle itself consisted of the knight being chased off by his adversary:

Sir Topaz beat a quick retreat;
This giant pelted him thereat
With stones from a terrible sling;
But he escaped, did Childe Topaz,
And it was all through Heaven’s grace,
And his own noble bearing.

Terry Jones, in his book Chaucer’s Knight, wrote that he had started studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1972, shortly before writing for Holy Grail began. The unfortunate Sir Topaz found himself (or elements of himself) transposed into the movie. The minstrels’ song follows the same pattern as Chaucer’s text, ironically singing enthusiastically of Robin’s “brave retreat.”

Brave Sir Robin ran away, bravely ran away, away,
When danger reared its ugly head he bravely turned his tail and fled,
Brave Sir Robin turned about, undoubtedly he chickened out,
bravely taking to his feet he beat a very brave retreat,
Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin!

In ‘The Tale of Sir Galahad’ we find Galahad the Chaste being lured into Castle Anthrax, which just so happens to have a “Grail-shaped” beacon. Inside he finds a score of young girls “between the ages of sixteen and nineteen-and-a-half” whose retinue, he is informed, consists of “bathing, dressing, undressing,” and “knitting fuzzy underwear”. The women flock to Galahad and insist he rest and succumb to their massaging. The chaste knight at first resists and then relents before being ‘rescued’ by Lancelot. John Cleese relates in the DVD commentary that he felt the Galahad segment was more focused on technical proficiency (cinematography, lighting,) than communicating a good joke, but every component of the scene has an analogue in Arthurian literature, making for subtler hilarity. After all, ‘Castle Anthrax’, as far as names go, is no more on the nose than the ‘Castle of Evil Adventure’ featured in Yvain. The scene itself pokes fun at such a well-known aspect of medieval lore (Christian and knightly vows of chastity) that viewers who are not students of Arthurian literature may not get the references, but they will understand the jokes.

The maiden in the castle trope is recurrent in medieval literature, as are chaste knights being beset by voluptuous women, and its history can be traced to Irish tales like the 8th century legend The Voyage of Bran. In Malory we have Sir Percival’s encounter with the disinherited lady of the ship who gets him drunk and undressed with the offer to “do with me what so it please ye” (the sight of the Cross on his pommel causes him to relent). The trope plays a central role to the Green Knight’s plot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Gawain is beseeched to make love to the Lady of the Manor “while my husband’s far from home.” Gawain’s resistance is described as being akin to combat, he “parried so well that he seemed without fault.” In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal the titular character experiences the kind of delicate hospitality that Monty Python are specifically lampooning:

Damsels in rich clothing and lovely of person arrived, as befitted courtesy’s ways. They washed and quickly smoothed away his bruising with white, soft hands. Indeed, there was no need of him to feel he was in foreign parts, orphaned though he was of wit. Thus he endured pleasure and ease, paying little for his folly with them […] I believe they would willingly have looked to see whether anything had happened to him down below.

The same treatment is doled out on Yvain in Chrétien’s The Knight with the Lion:

But now hear how, and with what kind of welcome and hospitality, my lord Yvain was given lodging. All those in the garden leapt to their feet the moment they saw him, saying: ‘”Come over here, good sir!” […] I do not know if they are deceiving him, but they receive him with great joy and give the impression that they are delighted for him to be very comfortably lodged.”

Chrétien adds that even the lord’s daughter “completely disarms him, and not the least of her attentions is to wash his neck and face with her own hands.”

This segment’s joke and Arthurian critique is arguably the most obvious in the entire film. In the literature women are the instruments of either salvation (if they can be rescued) or damnation (if they don’t need to be, in which case they are a source of division and licentiousness). “But it’s no wonder if a fool should lose his senses and be brought to his downfall through the wiles of women,” Gawain explains in Green Knight, adding that even “the noblest of old, attended by good fortune” were misled and led to ruin by women: Adam by Eve, Samson by Delilah, David by Bathsheba.

In ‘The Tale of Sir Lancelot’ the lord of the rickety Swamp Castle is foisting his unwilling and meek son Herbert into marriage with Princess Lucky so that he may inherit her lands. There is no superlative courtly love here, merely politics and gain. The architectural nightmare that is Swamp Castle alludes to Vortigern’s tower as described by Geoffrey of Monmouth: “However much they built one day, the earth swallowed up the next, and such a way that they had no idea where their work had vanished to.” Herbert manages to send a plea for help (via arrow) that reaches Lancelot (via the chest of his servant, Concorde.) Lancelot, exhilarated by the opportunity to save what he reckons is a helpless maiden, is so caught up in his excitement that he is driven to avenge Concorde, even if he does not need avenged.

Lancelot: No, no, sweet Concorde, stay here! I will send help as soon as I have accomplished a daring and heroic rescue in my own particular…
Concorde: Idiom, Sir?
Lancelot: Idiom!

Of course, the rescue is no more than an unrestrained slaughter, with Lancelot swinging his sword and rappelling through the castle like Errol Flynn. The entire skit is a jab at Arthurian literature’s portrayal of heroism and machismo, where knights trawl the landscape eager to, as Calogrenant relates in de Troyes’ Yvain, “put my prowess and courage to the proof”. Lancelot and his ilk, the film says, cannot exist but as an archetype, blithely cutting his way to glory. “I’m afraid when I’m in this idiom I sort of get carried away,” he offers as way of apology, though Herbert’s father’s anger is allayed by Lancelot’s standing as a knight from Camelot (“Very good pig country!” again spoofing the supposed medieval predilection for grime.)

The segment has a correlation in a chapter from Le Morte d’Arthur, which has Lancelot rescuing maidens from the grasp of two giants: “Then Lancelot went into the hall, and there came afore him three score ladies and damosels, and all kneeled unto him, and thanked God and him for their deliverance.” Cleese’s Lancelot clearly expected the same scene to greet him. Unfortunately, he finds Herbert rather than a helpless woman (one of the only notable women present is the unlucky Princess Lucky, whom Lancelot kicks in the chest.) Mistaken identity is also a source of humour in Malory, where a sleeping Lancelot is mistaken for the lover of Sir Belleus, who “laid him down beside Sir Launcelot, and took him in his arms and began to kiss him. And when Sir Launcelot felt a rough beard kissing him, he start out of the bed lightly, and the other knight after him.”

Another association between the scene and the literature is found in Chrétien, where Yvain chases down and mortally wounds the lord of a castle and is subsequently hounded by his angry servants. Yvain’s declaration that “they’ll never kill me, nor shall I be captured by them” is reflected in the film by Lancelot’s boisterous attitude and second violent outburst. When Yvain spies the dead lord’s wife he quickly falls in love. Luckily, the widow also has a pressing concern to remarry and is convinced to wed her husband’s killer to tie her estates to a strong and renowned warrior. Chrétien writes that the lady “proves to herself that there is justice, good sense and reason in the belief that she has no right to hate [Yvain].” When this line of argument is transposed to Prince Herbert’s grasping father the callousness is preserved but has a new sense of hilarity. When the lord beseeches the wedding guests to spare Lancelot he does so by appealing to their deference for his social status: “This is Sir Lancelot from the court of Camelot, a very brave and influential knight!” But the reality is that respect is not given for its own sake; the lord of Swamp Castle has aspirations of his own, and dashing knights are not often easily separated from murderers.

With the Round Table reunited, they travel further north to seek the Grail, where they meet the pyromaniac Tim the Enchanter, who substitutes for Merlin. Tim is, despite his everyday name, a throwback to Arthur’s Celtic roots. Tim is heavily bearded, clad in rags and wears a headpiece that evokes Celtic horned god Cernunnos. Merlin himself is believed to have been based on a Welsh seer called Myrddin, who after the death of his lord in battle “was so horrified by the slaughter that he went raving mad” and “fled to the Caledonian Forest in the Scots Lowlands, where he lived for years as a ‘wild man of the woods’.” Tellingly, Cleese plays Tim with a rolling Scots accent.

Tim leads them to the Cave of Caerbannog, where they battle a killer rabbit, which is not so ludicrous an enemy when compared to Cath Pulag, a ‘clawing cat’ of Welsh and Continental folklore that fought Arthur and, in non-Galfridian legends, actually succeeded in killing him. After passing through the cave (where they are saved from the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh by a fortunate deus ex machina) and crossing the Bridge of Death, only Arthur and Bedevere remain to storm Grail Castle. Unfortunately, they are arrested by the police in the process for the murder of ‘A Famous Historian’, perhaps representing the crime of being silly and irreverent towards the source material.

The ever-beleaguered Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

The ever-beleaguered Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

The ending is fittingly absurd, but it also says, perhaps serendipitously, that the Holy Grail is, as it is in the literature, ultimately unattainable, destined to always be sought after, and its presence on Earth only transient. Python, consciously or not, mimicked the conclusion of de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail by simply not having one.

If the film can be said to have a ‘mission’ (other than laughs) then it is to play on the expectations of its audience. Characters that are meant to represent the height of chivalry and bravery are exposed as a gang of bumbling and violent fools. And while Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur is “an idealised medieval ruler, a skilful general and a ferocious fighter, proud, impetuous, ardent and inspiring,” Graham Chapman plays him as an easily exasperated and numerically-challenged man whose status as king is not only slighted, but largely unrecognised. Likewise we are introduced to peasants who literally roll and toil in the mud but are also capable of complicated political discourse. Not only that, but the people inhabiting the film are also quite physically hardy too, far removed from the common perception that they led soft, short and atrophied existences. After all, two repeated lines of dialogue are the knights’ cowardly exclamation to “Run away!” and the reassuring “I’m getting better” of the peasants. Co-director and Python troupe member Terry Jones remarks in the DVD commentary that “I think, in the modern twentieth century, we like to believe that the Middles Ages was like that, so, when we showed it, a lot of critics said, ‘Oh, yes. Really authentic looking.’” The contradictions between what we assume to be the reality of the Middle Ages and what the film depicts is a running gag throughout.

Arthurian literature makes a perfect subject for a comedic interpretation because it cannot be read today without an unintended sense of knowing amusement sometimes creeping in. After all, it depicts a world where knights strut like peacocks, where peasants unquestioningly defer to their ‘betters’, where monsters exist to be vanquished and maidens flock to their rescuers. But this romantic view of the age of Arthur never existed in reality, and its outlandishness is both exposed and further spoofed by Monty Python primarily by depicting the literature as faithfully, and cheekily, as they can.


Filed under Written for the fun of it.

Within and Without the Hall: Anglo-Saxons in Exile


The mead hall was not merely a place of retreat from a hostile world but was also the foundation and fulcrum of Anglo-Saxon life – for in addition to obvious benefits such as warmth and safety it was also a hub of group solidarity, where tribute was made and the bonds between lord and vassal were sealed and sustained.

Anglo-Saxon hall society had its roots in barbarian Europe where bonds of kinship were strongly encouraged and enforced. Tacitus noted in his book Germania that men were “bound to take up the feuds as well as friendships of father or kinsman,” and it was considered “impious to turn any man away from your door.” Gift-giving was also a highly cherished tradition: “The leaders take peculiar pleasure in gifts from neighbouring states, which are sent not only by individuals, but by the community as well.” In these societies, as well as in their Anglo-Saxon descendants, homage and condemnation were public, never private, affairs.

In such communities certain laws or customs were expected to be obeyed above all else. Internecine violence within the king’s circle was so repellent an idea that its accompanying punishment was severe – more severe, in fact, than those penalties meted out to anyone who happened to brawl within a holy place such as a monastery. The law code of King Ine of Wessex (composed circa 688 – 695 A.D.) demanded that:

If anyone fights in the king’s house, he shall forfeit all his property, and it shall be for the king to decide whether he shall be put to death or not […] If anyone fights in a monastery, he shall pay 120 shillings compensation.

The importance of keeping the peace in the hall was so vital that King Alfred transplanted Ine’s law regarding the issue, almost verbatim, into his own law codes of the ninth century. De duodecim abusivis saeculi, an anonymously authored tract that originated in 8th century Ireland, lays out twelve social and political ‘abuses’ that kings and their subjects were to be aware of. The tract frowns upon “the young man without obedience”, highlighting the importance of respect between elders and youths (or between ranks), and it also disapproves of “the rich man without almsgiving”, which stresses the importance of putting wealth to good and generous use. Additionally, the article abhors “the lord without strength” and “the unjust king”. It was the king’s duty to secure the safety of his people and to see them amply rewarded for their loyalty – or punished for their disobedience.


I, wretched and sorrowful,
on the ice-cold sea
dwelt for a winter
in the paths of exile,
bereft of friendly kinsmen
~ The Seafarer.

For those living under the protection of a hall and its lord, life was not only potentially prosperous but given heterogeneity as well. In poems like Beowulf warriors introduce themselves as the descendants of great soldiers and as the inheritors of great halls and legacies. The best that kings and warriors could hope for was that their reputations would survive even after their own lives or immediate glories had passed. Beowulf demonstrates to the reader how a good reputation can merit a king in troubled times by telling us that Hrothgar, despite being unable to stop Grendel, is still considered a good king because of his adherence to kingly manners. But unjust men, whether they were thegns or even rulers, like the historical Sigeberht of Wessex, could be deposed and driven from their lands for their iniquitous behaviour.

Such castaways and wanderers were social detritus and were to be treated with suspicion, even according to law. The law code of Wihtred of Kent demanded that “If a man from afar, or a stranger, quits the road, and neither shouts, nor blows a horn, he may be considered a thief, [and as such may] be either slain or put to ransom.” This law was also enforced by Ine of Wessex at roughly the same time.

For Christian soldiers the outcome of unlawful and shameful behaviour was especially stark due to its theological implications: Satan had been damned for his attempt at supplanting God, Adam and Eve were banished for their disobedience and Cain made an outcast and branded for the murder of his brethren. In the poem Christ and Satan the devil himself, the original exile, bemoans that “I shall not be allowed to enjoy a more promising home, neither city nor palace.” Linked to cowards and usurpers, demons and devils, an exile carried nothing but negative connotations. In Beowulf, they are literally monsters: the warped progeny of Cain as well as a dragon.

The precise physical nature of Grendel and his mother have been a point of contention for many years: are they monsters, or merely monstrous? But there is one aspect of their nature that is unambiguous, and that is their status as exiles. Beowulf makes it clear that the many ills and malevolent spirits in the world result from Cain’s murder of Abel and his subsequent banishment:

Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.

Grendel’s fury is instigated by the circumstances of his wretched existence, “he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters,” a condition of living which makes “the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet” utterly abhorrent to his ears. The fact that Grendel cannot be tied to any one homestead or hall, the mere fact that he is a homeless wanderer, inspires fear in the Danes upon whom he preys: “young and old were hunted down by that dark death-shadow who lurked and swooped in the long nights on the misty moors; nobody knows where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.”

When Hrothgar relates to Beowulf the rumours of Grendel and his mother much of the horror is concentrated not so much on their deeds or appearances, but where they dare to roam: “They dwell apart among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags and treacherous keshes, where cold streams pour down the mountain and disappear under mist and moorland.” These creatures live and lurk on the periphery of civilisation, they are the ongoing survivors of a bleak and hostile world who have rejected or been rejected by all the pleasures of the hall. They suffer greatly from the absence of company and direct their fury upon the lucky and loyal retainers inhabiting Heorot. To the Anglo-Saxon mind, an exile was not only a damned spirit but a condemnatory one that would blame and wreak his misfortune on others if encountered.

‘Where has the horse gone? where is the rider? where is the giver of gold?  Where are the seats of the feast? where are the joys of the hall?  O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!  O the glory of princes! How the time passed away, slipped into nightfall as if it had never been!’

‘Where has the horse gone? where is the rider? where is the giver of gold?
Where are the seats of the feast? where are the joys of the hall?
O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!
O the glory of princes! How the time passed away, slipped into nightfall as if it had never been!’
~ The Wanderer.

But the loss of the hall and kinship with other men was deeply felt by the outcasts. Grendel and his mother lurk in an underwater, twisted facsimile of a hall, replete with “hall-roofing” to fight off the water current and a hoard of weapons and treasure. The dragon also dwells in such an environment, an ancient barrow laden with treasure, but he is a stowaway who has assumed ownership of the tomb and its riches. When he attacks the countryside due to the theft of one of his treasures we see that he is powerful and gluttonous, a monstrous counterpart to the worst of human corruption.

One of Beowulf’s other outcasts is not a beast, but the lone survivor of a destructed race. It is this last man who deposits his peoples’ “rich inheritance” in the barrow that the dragon later claims as his own. After burying the treasure hoard this “forgotten person” wanders the earth until his own death:

And so he mourned as he moved about the world,
deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness
day and night, until death’s flood
brimmed up in his heart.

The language here evokes a solitary life as a slow drowning. Dying alone in the wild was an ignominious end for a warrior.

But sometimes fear presents a greater argument than honour, and warriors lose their mettle. At the climax of Beowulf the titular hero’s own war-band struggles to keep brave during their fight with the dragon and eventually flee:

No help or backing was to be had then
from his high-born comrades; that hand-picked troop
broke ranks and ran for their lives
to the safety of the wood.

Only one, Wiglaf, resolves to stay and fight. The text notes that “in a man of worth the claims of kinship cannot be denied.” After the battle ends the cowardly warriors (or as the text designates them, “battle-dodgers” and “tail-turners”) shamefully return to the field, and Wiglaf declares that foreign invasion will be imminent “once princes from beyond get tidings of how you turned and fled and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame.” We can deduce that abandoning the king or comitatus was considered not only a crime against individual members of the group but against the group, and nation, as a whole. Cowardice was a grave offence, and a coward’s lingering presence in a comitatus or hall would not only shame the group but potentially endanger it as well. Warriors in disgrace were obviously feared and hated whenever they came across honourable men.

The bleak and embattled mindset of an exile was often expressed in poems known as elegies; among them are poems like The Seafarer and The Wife’s Lament. Elegies such as these take place nowhere and are narrated by no one – that is, there is no firm geographical locale indicated in the texts, and the characters refuse, or simply neglect, to identify themselves.

However frustrating this may be for a more historically-minded reader (or for those simply wanting to expand upon the narrative and its circumstances) this absence of localisation and identification adds to, rather than detracts from, the sense of being cast adrift in an impersonal and uncaring landscape. It is not surprising that poems such as The Seafarer, which contains no identifiable narrator or any specific seascape, are often thought of as psychological or even allegorical pieces. Critics like John C. Pope, writing in his essay ‘Second thoughts on the interpretation of The Seafarer’, assert that it “is no wonder” that the poem “at its conclusion should allow the literally conceived pilgrimage of the speaker to suggest the broader idea of allegorical pilgrimage.”

That the icy froth and spume could be figurative language denoting an elegiac psychological bombardment is not dissimilar from the use of storms, hail, rain, and thunder as metaphors for battle or weaponry in other Old English texts (for example, arrows are described as raining down in “showers” in Judith.) The Exeter Book’s third riddle speaks of clouds that “do combat” and also portrays lightning as “death-spears” and “a whistling weapon”. There’s no doubt that the outside world was often seen as a brutal and ever-present enemy to be contended with -an army of natural forces whose battlefield was everywhere- and that this assault took place in the mind as much as it did on the body.

"So this middle-earth, a bit each day, droops and decays." ~ The Wanderer.

“So this middle-earth,
a bit each day,
droops and decays.”
~ The Wanderer.

There was one social group that rejected hall society and the practice of ring-giving and instead embraced exile, and that was the monastic orders. The practice of holy eremitism was not as old as Europe’s warrior society, but it did have a long and storied tradition with its own legends and, eventually, literature.

One of the earliest hagiographies of a saintly hermit was that of Martin of Tours (316 A.D. – 397 A.D.), written by Sulpicius Severus during Martin’s lifetime. Martin had left the Roman Army as a conscientious objector and settled as a hermit in Poitiers, France, gathering around himself a devoted group of followers who committed themselves to an ascetic life. Severus’ biography became “an immediate best seller” that “became a model for an immense flood of ‘Saints’ Lives’, popular literature published in Gaul and Britain during the next several centuries.”

The lives of many future saints followed the same guiding principles of Martin as outlined by Severus: the rejection of the world and its wealth, self-imposed exile and frugal living. Soon many hagiographies were borrowing miracles and events from their predecessors with little or sometimes no alteration. 

Their aim was to get away from the ‘society of man’, to live alone with a few companions in caves or ‘desert wildernesses’ […] The saints did not set out to reform society. They gave it up as an evil to avoid.
~ John Morris, The Age of Arthur, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973)

The burgeoning popularity of monasticism among the holy orders (and even among the common folk who felt beleaguered by widespread strife and war) eventually brought paradox to the movement: hermits found themselves settling into the hills and caves of Britain with other hermits, forming small societies in the process. Michael Swanton, in his chapter ‘An Assured Heroism’, noted that “By the end of the seventh century monasticism was well established and even regally endorsed among the Anglo-Saxons as a socially acceptable mode of life.” John Morris writes in The Age of Arthur that:

Place names attest the scale of the movement and its locality. Sixth-century Latin usage calls the monastery claustra, enclosure, whence comes the English word ‘cloister’. Its equivalent in Welsh was llan, whose literal meaning is ‘enclosure’. Well over six hundred Welsh towns and hamlets bear the name Llan.

Gerald of Wales, on his tour of the country in the twelfth century, wrote of the abbey church Llanthony, “originally founded by two hermits, in honour of the eremitical way of life, in solitude and far removed from the bustle of everyday existence.” Social approval had done much to enlarge and institutionalise the monastic lifestyle, though this, as church luminaries like Gerald complained, would eventually serve to undo many of its positive and holy aspects. The brothers at Llanthony had struggled for generations to keep society from invading their solitude, and were:

greatly distressed when it began to be endowed with land and church benefices […] In their desire for poverty, they refused many offers of manors and churches in those early years. Situated as they were in the wilderness, they refused to permit the overgrown recesses of the valley, where it widened out into an impenetrable wood, ever to be cleared or levelled off to make an open meadow, for they had no wish to abandon their eremitical mode of life.

The hermits found themselves resisting well-intentioned lords and kings who attempted to bequeath gifts upon them. However the nobility valued it, the old practice of ring-giving was abhorrent to the monks. It could only invite sin. “There in Gloucester men strive for earthly possessions, “ writes Gerald, “but here in Llanthony let them rather turn their minds towards the promise of eternal bliss. There let them enjoy the company of mortal men, but here let them prefer the concourse of angels.”

In Anglo-Saxon Christian literature the fraternising and frolicking that occurred in the hall were also looked upon with disdain. When the heroine of the Biblically inspired Judith enters Holofernes’ tent she looks at the drunken warriors with scorn. Though words like “gold-giving” are used to describe Holofernes, the text displays none of the admiration and awe that we might expect due to a “powerful man” and “lord of heroes”. Instead it is clearly stated that the cavorting and drinking have made the warriors careless and foolish:

[Holofernes] drenched his retainers with wine until they lay unconscious,
the whole of his troop were as drunk as if they had been struck down
in death,
drained of every ability.

There are similar insinuations in Beowulf, where Unferth’s belligerence is attributed to drunkenness, and the poem does not fail to remind readers that the fate of Heorot is tied directly to its grandeur and the jealousies of those inside and outside its doors.

Both self-exile and the apparently disparate notion of a comitatus-themed community eventually reconciled themselves and came together in the form of the chivalric Christian Knight who leaves his band of brothers and goes into the misty and mysterious landscape, alone, to pursue a holy quest. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there are positive depictions of revelry in King Arthur’s Court, rather than the ominous forebodings and disapproval present in other Christian works.

It was fine to hear such glorious commotion:
lively uproar all day and dancing at night,
the sheerest indulgence in dance hall and bedroom
by the ladies and lords, whatever whim took them.
With all worldly pleasures they dwelt there together:
the most famous knights in all of Christendom
It would be hard nowadays
to find such fellowship.

Gawain tells us that the carousing at the court is not only bawdy and abundant, but also represents a golden age for chivalry and Christianity. When Gawain starts to leave for his journey in search of the Green Knight all of Arthur’s court sees him off with sadness: “Much deep sorrow was felt in the hall, that one as valued as him should go on this quest.” Many tales of the saints describe how crowds wept whenever they took their leave. The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith detailed that “As the ship sailed across the river, he looked towards the brothers mourning his departure and heard the sublime sound of their song mixed with grief.”

"The son of nobles crossed over The steep stone cliffs,  the constricted climb, a narrow solitary path,  a course unknown..." ~ Beowulf.

“The son of nobles crossed over
The steep stone cliffs,
the constricted climb,
a narrow solitary path,
a course unknown…”
~ Beowulf.

Similarly Gawain, like all holy or disgraced nomads before him, ventures out and finds the world unkind:

He struggled up cliffs in godforsaken regions,
as, far from his friends, he wandered as a stranger.

Separated from his band of fellow knights, Gawain is isolated in a world that will grant him no respect or quarter on account of his honour and title. Again, as in earlier literature, the natural world is constantly harassing and threatening our lone wanderer: “At every ford and stream that the warrior passed, it was rare if he found no foe to face him.” However, like the self-exiled saints, Gawain has God to protect him from the harshness of nature: “If he hadn’t been alert, and helped by the Lord, he would certainly have went to his death.” God had certainly intervened to help his most blessed of subjects before. In Bede’s Life of Cuthbert the saint is given a loaf of bread, ostensibly from God, when he is in need. Afterwards Cuthbert resumes his journey without fear of hunger:

now that he knew he had been fed in his solitude by Him […] His eyes are ever on them that fear Him and hope in His mercy, so that He may, in the words of the Psalmist, ‘snatch their souls from death and feed them in time of famine.’

Eddius Stephanus’ Life of Wilfrid gives another example of Divine protection:

So Wilfrid and his companions left their native land and set off in exile for the kingdoms of the south. God, who does not leave his saints to endure alone, sent a kind-hearted man to meet them on their way.

To be stripped of one’s titles and honours, to be sent from the warmth of the hall, or to falter in allegiance during the thick of battle, was more terrible than death – but only for a few. Later Christian saints welcomed the wilderness, loneliness and limerance. They saw themselves as divorced from the pleasures and temptations of the hall; they walked not with men but were companioned by choruses of angels. After centuries of co-mingling the two modes of life found themselves reconciled in the form of the lone Christian Knight, a man loved by many but sometimes accompanied by few: he could find glory alone as well as among a brotherhood.

Art by Zdzisław Beksińsk

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Apocalyptic Angst and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes towards Transience.


“The final sum of days he himself established by his authentic power.”
~ Christ and Satan
(Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11, p 213 – 29)

In 601 C.E. Pope Gregory wrote to King Ethelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity. He began his letter by complimenting Ethelbert, before turning to a gloomier and graver concern: “The end of this present world is at hand,” he warned, “and the everlasting kingdom of the saints is approaching.” Gregory continued by explaining that the first pangs of doomsday would make themselves palpably felt: “When the end of the world is near, unprecedented things occur – portents in the sky, terrors from heaven, unseasonable tempests, wars, famines, pestilences, and widespread earthquakes.”

There were several modes of thought concerning the apocalypse. The version sanctioned by the Church was that doomsday was inevitable but its day of arrival unforeseeable. As Gregory tells Ethelbert, “Not all of these things will happen during our own lifetimes, but will all ensue in due course.” Christ III (The Judgment), a piece contained in The Exeter Book, maintains the same message, and insists that Judgment Day will arrive “with sudden swiftness upon the midnight” like “an audacious thief who goes abroad in the dark … it will painfully cast down those people unprepared.”

This doctrine alone would be enough to incite Anglo-Saxon apocalyptic angst, but another, often discouraged view, held that the world was already in its final stages of life and the apocalypse imminent. In his essay ‘The Ruin of Time’, Michael Swanton notes that, “It was commonplace to contemporary thought that the world as it neared the millennium would show clear signs of decline if not of actual decay.” Swanton points out that, for the Anglo-Saxons at least, the proof of Judgment Day was stamped all over the known world: “All over Western Europe lay the tangible ruins of a once-great civilisation: towns, villas, and public buildings lying desolate and empty.”

Poems like The Ruin do not herald the end of days, but they do catalogue the abundance of buildings “smashed by fate”: crumbled, collapsed, and sinking into the mud. The Seafarer also explains that the world is in a state of disrepair: “The nobility of the earth ages and dries up.” The Wanderer also depicts a world that “each and every day declines and falls.” It elaborates that “The Creator of men thus laid waste this earth,” indicating that the world’s steady dereliction is heavenly mandated. “Here, wealth is transitory; here a friend is transitory; here a man is transitory; here a kinsman is transitory. All the earth’s foundation will become empty.” Neither The Seafarer nor The Wanderer proselytise the end of the world, but they do depict one that is obviously teetering on the brink.

The ruins of Roman and post-Roman British towns speckling the countryside would be an ample reminder that God-sanctioned destruction was a very real (and just) possibility. Christian moralists therefore usually invoked the apocalypse as a means of frightening their wayward congregations into observing good behaviour. Gregory tells Ethelbert that “these portents of the end are sent to warn us to consider the welfare of our souls and remember our last end, so that, when our Judge comes, he shall find us prepared by good lives.” Later in the tenth century Aelfric of Eynsham would write that “men have need of good teaching above all at this time, which is the ending of the world.” The Blickling Homily XI (circa 971 A.D.) asserts that the Day of Judgment “is not far distant, for all the signs and portents which our Lord said should occur before doomsday have occurred, except only that the accursed visitant Antichrist has not yet come into the world.” Afterwards, between 1010 and 1026, an English bishop named Wulfstan wrote The Sermon of the Wolf to the English, which opened with the lines “Beloved men, know that which is true: this world is in haste and it nears the end.” Wulfstan aimed to remind the English that the Britons had been displaced from their land as punishment from God, and that the same fate would befall the descendants of their Anglo-Saxon conquerors if they continued to live in sin.

But the end never came. Judgment Day seemed to be starting and stalling through a succession of disasters and maladies, and after decades of internecine conflict and foreign invasion and doomy portents the English had become well acquainted with the transience of worldly things as a result. Aelfric, in his Second Series of Catholic Homilies, seemed frustrated: “Often people say, behold, now doomsday is coming because the prophecies that were laid down about it have passed. But there comes war after war, tribulation after tribulation, earthquake after earthquake, famine after famine, nation after nation, and still the bridegroom does not come.”

Transience, decay, and the eventual judgment of mankind became familiar themes in Old English poetry. Some, like the aforementioned The Ruin, focus on architectural deterioration, where the “work of giants decays.” Others, like Soul and Body I & II, focus on the posthumous breakdown of the human body and the gratification or anguish of its spirit, as well as its eventual fate on Judgment Day – a date which, importantly, is left ambiguous. In Soul and Body II, the spirit of the recently deceased must visit its corpse every week for three hundred years, “unless the everlasting Lord, almighty God, brings about the end of the world beforehand.” Poems such as these keep Judgment Day distant but certain; in the meanwhile the soul has an untold amount of time to reflect on its eventual doom. Extracts such as Judgment Day II affirm that the end of days will erupt suddenly, leaving mortals in a state of angst and woeful surprise: “I remembered my sins, the crimes of my life and the long-drawn-out time of dark death’s advent upon earth, and I was afraid of the great judgment because of my wicked deeds upon earth.” Later works like Earth upon Earth also focus on bodily decay and the composition of the human form: namely, dust or clay rendered flesh that will, upon death, return to its prior form.

The impermanence of things is remarked upon frequently in Beowulf, where we are reminded that Heorot is doomed (almost as soon as we are introduced to it), and that all great genealogies come to an end, whether they are those of Hrothgar, the monster Grendel, or Beowulf himself. In the 8th century poem, Guthlac A, an angel promises the titular figure that the Kingdom of Heaven will host “edifices which never decay”, and will ensure that life for the saved, in comparison to their prior existence in the mortal world, “grows better for them the longer it goes on”. Later, an angel assures Guthlac that the “whole earth beneath the sky was ephemeral,” and he praises “the enduing good in the heavens,” where things are everlasting. A later story, Guthlac B, attests that worldly existence is merely an “ephemeral span” and “a long wait.”

Apocalyptic language and portents also permeated texts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In 635 A.D. the Chronicle noted that, “This year there was in Britain a bloody rain, and milk and butter were turned to blood.” Compare this to Revelation 16:4, and the language reveals itself as apocalyptic: “The third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters, and they became blood.” As Pope Gregory forewarned in his correspondence with Ethelbert, there would be palpable signs of the world’s end, including war, famine, and signs in the sky, and the Chronicle recorded them all. There was “great famine” in 975, 976, 1005, and 1082. In 678 a comet, another harbinger of doom, appeared in the sky for three months “like sunshine.” More comets appeared in 793, 891, 905, 975, 995, and of course in 1066, when Halley’s Comet arrived along with William the Conqueror. Eilmer of Malmesbury, who seems to have spied Halley’s Comet on its last circuit, was quoted by William of Malmesbury on the topic of the bolide’s reappearance in 1066: “Thou art come! A matter of lamentation to many a mother, thou art come; I have seen thee long since; but now I behold thee much more terrible, threatening to hurl destruction on this country.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle connects many disturbances in the year 975 A.D. with a comet: first, King Edgar dies following the death of “the good bishop Cyneweard,” and this itself is followed by the banishment of Oslac of York. “Many wise servants of God were expelled,” the Chronicle notes, and:

“Then, up in the heavens, a star in the firmament
Made its appearance, which confident sages,
Wise seers, astronomers, and sage scholars
Everywhere call by the name of ‘comet.’
Throughout the nation, the vengeance of the Lord
Was widely evident when hunger reigned
Over the earth.”

There were more catastrophes connected with mercurial weather in 793 A.D.:

“In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, and miserably frightened the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.”

These heathens were the Vikings, and their appearance is tied directly to the chaos seen in the skies, as is the famine, which “soon followed these signs”, the language here being very clear that the stormy weather and dragon sightings were not randomly occurring phenomenon, but very deliberate warnings of coming destruction. Later, in 1066, the Chronicle would tie the appearance of Halley’s Comet with the beginnings of another foreign invasion: “Throughout all England, a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens. Some declared that the star was a comet … Soon thereafter came Earl Tostig from across the sea to the Isle of Wight, with as many household troops as he could muster.” Note the author connecting the arrival of the star with the arrival of Earl Tostig. The comet’s reputation as a harbinger is sealed here: “He sailed thence,” the Chronicle continues, “and did damage everywhere along the seacoast where he could.”

Most of these calamities were not unusual features in the embryonic English landscape. War was certainly common; the shape and make-up of the country was constantly being revised by it. In his book The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn writes that:

“Generation after generation lived in constant expectation of the all-destroying demon whose reign was indeed to be lawless chaos … People were always on the watch for the ‘signs’ which, according to the prophetic tradition, were to herald and accompany the final ‘time of troubles’; and since the ‘signs’ included bad rulers, civil discord, war, drought, famine, plague, comets, sudden deaths of prominent persons and an increase in general sinfulness, there was never any difficulty about finding them.”

Texts such as the apocryphal Apocalypse of Thomas, though written in Latin between the second and fourth centuries and despite its excision from Christian orthodoxy, found some popularity in Old English homilies in the tenth century. In his essay ‘Two Uses of Apocrypha in Old English Homilies’, Milton McCormick Gatch writes that “Anglo-Saxon writers did not subject Latin materials to rigorous tests of orthodoxy and canonicity,” and that preaching an apocryphal text would not be too unusual, especially texts that reminded the laity of their salvation or damnation, whichever was relevant for the moment. The Apocalypse of Thomas is thought to have inspired a post-millennial text known as Fifteen Signs before Doomsday, which promises floods, droughts, earthquakes, and the typical apocalyptic chaos.

The Apocalypse itself was not necessarily dreaded. For the doubtful or guilty-minded it was a source of anxiety and pain; for the pious it was the cumulative moment of their life’s work. Tales of Armageddon are frequently introduced with flashes of terror and torture and hellfire, but conclude with Christ’s eternal reign and joy for the blessed. Saintly figures were often depicted as going to their deaths in a jovial mood. As Bede died he did so “on the floor of his cell singing.” Guthlac A ends with Eden-esque imagery, as the saint retires to a tranquil plot of land where fruit is plenty and the animals eat from his palm. Eventually his spirit is lifted to Heaven. In Guthlac B he attests that upon his death “my days in the earthly journey will have slipped away, my sorrow will be assuaged.” Christ III (The Judgment) delineates the fates of damned and saved souls, as does Judgment Day II and Soul and Body I & II.

But for many the end of the world still invoked feelings of damnation and perdition. The Domesday Book earned its ominous title through the common feeling of the conquered English people, as, according to one twelfth century Norman writer, “Doomsday is what the man in the street calls it in the English language, that is, to us, ‘The Book of the Day of Judgment’, for its verdicts are just as unanswerable.”

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The Romantics


If you were to merely glance over the work of the first and second generation of Romantic poets then there would seem to be nothing separating the two other than chronology, and in some aspects this is true enough: both strive to escape urban realities in favour of the natural sublime; both tend towards lone figures in scenic environments; and both stress the importance of raw feeling over purely rational thinking.

But wherever the two generations match, they also differ. William Wordsworth, in the introduction to his Lyrical Ballads (1798), dismisses the personification of abstract ideas whereas Percy Shelley uses them to great effect – see Murder and Fraud in The Masque of Anarchy (1819). To Shelley, a poet was an instrument, a lyre over which the imagination blew like a wind, giving it music. Wordsworth strove for accessibility and prose-like poetry that spoke plainly yet deeply. For him, a poet is “a man speaking to men”; a far more rustic concept than Shelley’s metaphoric elaboration. John Keats, a second generation Romantic alongside Shelley, agreed with Wordsworth: “Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts.”

But again, coupled with the similarities were discrepancies in method or style. Keats’ theory of ‘negative capability’ necessitated the disappearance of the poet, with a strong focus on the poem’s object of choice. Negative capability is the ability to detach oneself from your own being; the poet becomes an abstraction who can investigate an object from many differing avenues of thought. Wordsworth however inserted himself into his poetry as a singular, interacting character.

In Simon Lee, not only does Wordsworth address the reader directly (“O gentle Reader!”) he talks to and assists the  poem’s subject matter (an elderly herdsman) in cutting down a tree. In many of his poems the narrator is identified as “I”, who is of course Wordsworth himself. Keats on the other hand claimed that the poet “is every thing and nothing …  he has no identity – he is continually in for, and filling some other body: The Sun, The Moon, the Sea and Men and Women…” With Wordsworth we follow the poet not only as a narrator but also as a guide, a biographer of pastoral life seeking to transpose real rustic scenes into ‘serious’ contemplative literature, hence his focus on the countryside’s ‘small folk’, from huntsmen to leech collectors to “the solitary child … on a wide moor”.

In comparison, the characters inhabiting Keats’ poems are either personified emotions (Melancholy and Joy, Love and Ambition), historical figures like Sappho or Petrarch, or mythological characters like Hermes and Apollo. Interestingly, when Keats focuses on rural figures they are merely representations painted upon an urn, and their stories are ultimately unknowable.

There is however also a sense that what Wordsworth conveys is not a first hand sensory experience; it has been lacquered with what he called “a certain colouring of imagination” in order to make the ordinary interesting. With Keats the object of choice, whether a book (On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer), a series of sculptures (On Seeing the Elgin Marbles) or ancient pottery (Ode to a Grecian Urn) is examined and interrogated entirely on its own merit. Keats would concentrate so intensely on a singular item that the resulting sense of beauty would “overcome every other consideration, or rather obliterate all consideration”.

What mattered to Keats was the raw sensual experience, and not whatever conclusions the poet came to at the end. There was to be no “irritable reaching after fact and reason”, only the object and its effect. In his letters Keats directly noted that poets like Samuel Coleridge lacked the ability to satisfy themselves with “half-knowledge” – the accusation being that Coleridge does not seek to merely experience purity or beauty through nature, but seeks the acquisition of knowledge. Keats suspects that Coleridge places thought over sensation – a betrayal of the Romantic ‘creed’, if there was one.

St. Augustine defined poetry as a pathway to God, “with no mediating Nature between [them],” but Wordsworth, in The Tables Turned, claimed that:

“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.”

The advice here is simply to “Let nature be your teacher”. The trouble was that with advancing age we become saddled with distractions which all work together to detract from our appreciation of (and connection to) nature.

To Wordsworth, a long life had a wearying and detrimental effect on one’s appreciation of nature. In Intimations of Immortality he writes, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream/The earth and every common sight/To me did seem/Apparelled in celestial light”. Wordsworth claimed a belief in the Platonic idea that our pre-existence is a state of perfection, and that “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” As children we can see the glory of nature; we are “Nature’s Priest”, but “At length the Man perceives it die away/And fade into the light of common day”.

In this poem Wordsworth also used prison imagery to describe the human experience:

“Shades of the prison house begin to close
Upon the growing boy …
Inmate Man
Forget the glories he hath known
And that imperial palace whence he came.”

Wordsworth’s only respite from the agony of forgetting the “splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower” is that with age also comes a philosophic mind. He can find “Strength in what remains behind … In the soothing thoughts that spring/Out of human suffering;/In the faith that looks through death.”

In Tintern Abbey he concludes that “The mind within us”, loaded with joyful memories and appreciation of nature, will become a bulwark against “evil tongues”, “rash judgments”, “the sneers of selfish men” and “the dreary intercourse of daily life”. The “wild ecstasies” of youth will transform into “sober pleasure”, and though the “celestial light” dims as the years pass, Wordsworth finds a way to illuminate his brief, transitory existence.

Keats’ approach was far more existential. Death was a worryingly inevitable conclusion and he always felt that time was short. In Ode to Melancholy he rejects suicide and forgetfulness as solutions to melancholy. Instead the sufferer should “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose”, though this solution is temporary: in When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be Keats writes that the knowledge of his mortality spoils his appreciation of the world:

“When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
And I think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance …
Then on the shore of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness sink.”

There is a source of respite for Keats, and that is art. Though man may be ephemeral, an artistic work can survive the ages. In Ode to a Grecian Urn he explores the theme of immortality through art – in this case, a painted Greek urn. “When old age shall this generation waste/Thou shalt remain,” he writes of the urn and its painted figures. But such immortality comes with a price: though the figures painted on the ceramic have survived the centuries, they do not live. Of the trees painted there, he laments: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed/Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu”. Furthermore, anything beyond the characters’ physical appearances remain a mystery: “What men or gods are these?/What maidens loth?/What mad pursuit?/What struggle to escape?”

Keats cannot know these answers – but, if we recall, that is beyond the point. For Keats it is the sensory experience that matters, not his conclusions. He is a poet who, always hoping to delay the future, lives to become lost in the present moment.

A final point should be made: there was certainly more cross-over of ideas and love shared between Keats and Wordsworth than there was between Keats and his contemporaries. Though Wordsworth’s name is inextricably linked to that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the two having walked and mused and collaborated during the span of their friendship, the relationship between the likewise contemporaneous Lord Byron and John Keats was one of unveiled animosity; Byron was a flamboyant, witty and charming poet who “woke one morning to find myself famous”. Keats was “a pale flower”, a troubled and easily daunted young man whose reputation as a great poet was born posthumously.

Personality and fortunes aside, Keats, in his poetical manifesto, Sleep and Poetry, dismissed one Nicolas Boileau, whose Art Poétique (1674) anticipated Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1711) and a whole school of popular critical thought. Byron, an acolyte of Pope, never forgave Keats for allegedly transgressing against his idol. Similarly, though Keats praised Percy Shelley for his individuality, he also eschewed intimacy with the poet to attain and preserve his “own unfettered scope”. The idea that a battle-line was drawn between both generations, with homogenous and allied forces on both sides, is an artifice; a product of our tendency to divide history into easily-perused categories .

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