It was the silent “W” that made my childhood love of Arthur fade.
English is a strange language:
- “gh” and “ph” and “f” can make the same sound
- what rule does “their” follow in the vowel placement?
- what does “c” do, really?
- “g” and “k” can be silent when followed with “n” but not when followed by “m”
- where I live, there is a silent “z” (the name Dalziel is pronounce “Dee-el”)
And this doesn’t even get into the sounds my Celtic heritage makes.
So it shouldn’t surprise me that there is a silent “w” in “sword.” The “w” is silent in wriggle, wrinkle, wretch, and wridiculous. But when it came to the word “sword,” I couldn’t read the word on the page without pronouncing the “w” in my head. Here I am saying it in this clip when I was much younger:
I knew it should be pronounced “sord,” but I couldn’t do it. After all, we don’t pronounce “swarthy” as “sarthy.” True, we almost never say “swarthy,” considering the wracist implications (it comes from the old word for “black,” i.e., black person = bad). But, of course, the word “sordid” comes from swarthy, and there is no “w” in “sordid.” Also very wracist.
I know, I know. I was all very in my head about the whole thing (what’s that “w” doing in “whole?”). But it made a huge difference. I started T.H. White’s Sword in the Stone, but soon set it down. You can’t read Arthurian legend if you can’t stomach the word “sword.” That’s when I moved into my Black Stallion phase. It was a pistol grip generation of books.
One cannot study the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams without getting back into the Arthuriad. It was actually Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry that drew me back in, and a perfect storm of little events has thrown me back into Camelot.
I’ve come to the point of reading C.S. Lewis chronologically to know that King Arthur is a profound influence on this Oxford Don. Lewis began a poem on Launcelot early in the 30s, but soon abandoned it. His academic book, The Allegory of Love (1935), dealt fairly extensively with early Arthurian legend, so I found myself drifting into that world. But in 1944 Lewis wrote That Hideous Strength, which (surprisingly) has Merlin appear to help battle a pseudo-scientific apocalypse. Since I’m working on the Ransom Cycle, I need to figure out why Merlin has awakened.
Also, in May 1945 (where I am in reading Lewis), Charles Williams dies (also suddenly). In the wake of his good friend’s death, C.S. Lewis gathers some of Charles Williams’ unpublished Arthuriana together. Williams was working on a series of Arthurian poems, but never finished them. Of this larger project, he published Taliessen Through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), two difficult collections. He had also completed five chapters of an Arthurian history, called The Figure of Arthur. Lewis had a lot of notes on Williams’ Arthuriana after long discussions about the poetry beside a fire. Lewis used Williams’ death as an opportunity to publish his commentary on Williams’ poetry with the Figure of Arthur fragment. Together they make up the book Arthurian Torso (1948).
Williams and Lewis are not the only ones to leave Arthuriana incomplete. J.R.R. Tolkien began an epic poem in Old English style alliterative verse called The Fall of Arthur. Last year Christopher Tolkien published the poem and a few chapters of commentary. I finally had the chance this spring to pick it up, and just finished it.
One of the reasons I picked it up is because of Sørina Higgins’ Call for Chapters for a new book, The Inklings and King Arthur. My proposal was accepted, so I began reading Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). It is a dense, repetitive volume with awkward phrasing that isn’t just about shifts in language. It lacks a lot of artistry, and can be dull. But there are other moments where the language and the narrative shine. I get lost a little bit in the long lists of knights battling other knights—I’ll probably read the slight abridgement by Michael Senior next—but for the most part I am enjoying it. I’ll be presenting my findings at Mythcon 45 in August, and then writing the chapter this fall.
But I am also reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s adaptation of Le Morte d’Arthur to my son at bedtime. Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1953) is readable, keeping some of the archaic language and customs, while highlighting the best of the stories for children. As I’m thinking about it, it is probably my son’s interest in Arthur that was partly responsible for drawing me back in. But Green was a friend of Lewis’, and it has turned out to be a great way to grab the story.
Well, all of this has led me to Arthurian overload. Here’s what I’m reading simultaneously:
- J.R.R. Tolkien & Christopher Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur (1934?; 2013)
- Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485)
- Roger Lancelyn Green, King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1953)
- C.S. Lewis & Charles Williams, Arthurian Torso (1948)
- Charles Williams, Taliessen Through Logres (1938)
- Charles Williams, The Region of the Summer Stars (1944)
- C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1944)
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what I could read! We’ll see what comes. After Green, Nicolas and I will probably read Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954). But after that I may pick up T.H. White’s The Sword In the Stone (1938) once again. We’ll see. I might, for sanity’s sake, have to read something a bit more modern. I’ve been struggling with this sudden urge to challenge people to duels. Especially people who disregard the silent letter rules.
A bonus, a great documentary with poet Simon Armitage, who translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2007) in modern alliterative verse.