The Enchanted Tower: A Week at the Centre for Arthurian Studies
In romance, Lancelot is trapped in a tower by Morgan Le Fay, where he amuses himself by drawing on the walls. In July 2016, I, too, became pleasantly ‘trapped’ in an enchanted tower, where I was in no danger of being bored, as my ‘prison’, located in a tower of the Bangor University Library, was full of books. My week of study was a prize awarded for a post (https://academicbookfuture.org/2016/02/17/iasbb-competition-winner) written for the Academic Book of the Future blog, and it was better than any prize a knight has ever won in a tournament: a week at the newly opened Bangor Centre for Arthurian Studies, with its astonishing collection of Arthurian texts, editions and critical studies.
The terms were simple: after a week of studies, on any Arthurian theme that would catch my fancy, to present a free-form report. The fluidity of the terms was at once liberating and intimidating. I did not know what I would find in the collection, and I was not sure if I was expected to make a ‘discovery’ – or what to report if I failed to do so.
Eventually, I did make a small discovery. I found a spectacular book, which was a poem on Parsifal’s Grail quest, inspired by Richard Wagner, the well-known composer, and, allegedly, unspecified Celtic sources. It was T. W. Rolleston’s, Parsifal or the Legend of the Holy Grail retold from Ancient Sources with acknowledgement to the ‘Parsifal’ of Richard Wagner, presented by Willy Pogany (London: Harrap, 1912). The poem was presented in a limited-edition version, complete with monochrome art nouveau decoration and colour plates, making it nearly as visually impressive as a medieval ‘display copy’ of Arthurian romance. Following my ‘discovery’ the book was included in the virtual exhibition ‘Malory and his Followers’ http://arthurian-studies.bangor.ac.uk/exhibition/bangor/21.php, and I was delighted when, a year later, my research into this text and its illustration was accepted for publication in the Journal of the International Arthurian Society(JIAS) https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/jias.2017.5.issue-1/jias-2017-0007/jias-2017-0007.xml.
Meanwhile, when I arrived at Bangor, I had no action plan, and I could not have possibly prepared one. The collection in the ‘tower’, the Flintshire Harries Arthurian Collection, previously held at the Flintshire County Library, was new not only to me, as it had only been brought to the Centre recently, and I was warned that the paper catalogue might be inaccurate in certain details.
I began with the catalogue and noted some works that I wanted to look at. Then I simply went around the room and browsed the shelves for any books that would catch my eye, based on the title, the author or even the spine. Very soon, a pile of book formed yet another tower on my table: there were works in areas I always wanted to find more about but never had the time, or on the themes that I started to work on and abandoned during my doctoral research, as well as some primary sources that simply looked compelling.
Naturally, I selected far more books than I could read in such a short space of time, let alone study in depth in a week, but even so I continued to add more books to the pile over the next few days. Had I been in Lancelot’s position, I would have gladly allowed to be locked up in the tower; however, the University Library operated on the summer schedule. Despite this slight drawback, I looked through all the books, and made notes on each. I also kept a kind of journal, where I noted the work I had done over the day and any interesting ideas I had, to keep track of where I was.
In fact, my progression was far from linear: like a knight errant, I wandered through the forest of books, and some paths did not lead anywhere. It was only towards the end of the week that I started reading Rolleston’s Parsifal, and I was at once hypnotized by it: the slow cadence of the poetry, and the monochrome decorations and drawings that blazed on every page were and remain very different from the kind of Arthurian literature I was used to: either medieval romances in manuscripts and modern scholarly editions, or modern fiction in paperbacks. Rolleston’s book spoke of a different place, and a different set of cultural values: if it was not a masterpiece, it certainly was beautiful.
The uniqueness of the collection offered at the Centre for Arthurian Studies is that it includes many late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century works inspired by Arthuriana, as well as editions and adaptations of medieval Arthurian and Celtic material and scholarly works produced in the same period. In the post-medieval period, Arthurian material was adapted for and read by different audiences, for instance, the ‘general reader’, antiquarians and scholars of literature and folklore. The Arthurian Centre contains examples of these various uses of medieval Arthuriana. To mention but one example, the Bangor University Library and Special Collections hold several early translations and editions of the Mabinogion: William Owen Pughe’s translation, first published in the Cambrian Register in 1795, the first and second editions of Lady Guest’s translation (1838-1849 and 1877), later pocketbooks edited by Alfred Nutt as well as Sidney Lanier’s adaptations The Boy’s Mabinogion (1881) [https://archive.org/details/knightlylegendso00lani].
These and other Celtic sources inspired early-twentieth-century authors, many of whom are little known today: T. W. Rolleston, but also Thomas Evelyn Ellis, who wrote The Cauldron of Annwn (1922).
These editions and adaptations of Arthurian sources, as well as the works of fiction and art they inspired, influenced subsequent generations of readers and scholars and their responses to both Arthuriana and original medieval Arthurian texts. During my week at the Centre, I took this fascinating path of research through a forest of these earlier products of creative work and scholarship produced between the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century: further research by scholars, conducted at the Bangor Centre, will shed new light on the past – and future – of Arthurian literature.
Dr Anastasija Ropa, University of Latvia
Publication date: 1 April 2017