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M for Merlin

Helen Cooper: Chrétien de Troyes, 25 November 1999

Perceval: The Story of the Grail 
by Chrétien de Troyes, translated by Burton Raffel.
Yale, 307 pp., £22.50, March 1999, 0 300 07586 3
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... from the knight who is questioning him, as it indicates high status. He determines to go to King Arthur and get himself made a knight. Before he sets out, his mother gives him instructions on how to behave in the world, and tells him something of his own history how his father and brothers were killed in combat and she had withdrawn to the forest to ...

Fill it with fish

Helen Cooper: The trail of the Grail, 6 June 2002

Parzival and the Stone from Heaven: A Grail Romance Retold for Our Time 
by Lindsay Clarke.
HarperCollins, 239 pp., £14.99, September 2001, 0 00 710813 3
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Merlin and the Grail: ‘Joseph of Arimathea’, ‘Merlin’, ‘Perceval’ The Trilogy of Arthurian Romances Attributed to Robert de Boron 
translated by Nigel Bryant.
Boydell and Brewer, 172 pp., £30, May 2001, 0 85991 616 2
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Le Livre du Graal. Tome I: ‘Joseph D’Arimathie’, ‘Merlin’, ‘Les Premiers Faits du Roi Arthur’ 
edited by Daniel Poirion and Philippe Walter.
Gallimard, 1993 pp., £50.95, April 2001, 2 07 011342 6
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... in this manner?’ ‘No word came from my mouth.’ She then tells him that the maimed Fisher King will remain unhealed as a result of his failure to speak. Perceval’s unfulfilled task, in fact, was not to find an answer, but to ask a question. So far as he is concerned, the answer is beside the point. Several thousand lines later, he is told, without ...


Helen Cooper: The maverick poetry of John Skelton, 14 December 2006

John Skelton and Poetic Authority: Defining the Liberty to Speak 
by Jane Griffiths.
Oxford, 213 pp., £50, February 2006, 9780199273607
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... off poems of congratulation to his former pupil. Within three years he was back at court, as king’s orator. In addition to his official duties, he produced further poems of praise, lament and vituperation, the latter often in the form of ‘flytings’, the object of which was to be as insulting to an enemy or rival as the wit could manage. They ...


Bernard Knox, 11 May 1995

The Husbands: An Account of Books III and IV of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ 
by Christopher Logue.
Faber, 55 pp., £6.99, October 1994, 0 571 17198 2
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... level of discourse is often villainous low – ‘cunt-struck Agamemnon!’ says Achilles to the King, ‘O cheesy Lung’). But what follows is pure Logue. Nestor pays a visit to Achilles in his tent and in a long speech that has tiny particles of Homer from different contexts woven into the invented whole, tries to persuade Achilles to relent, to rejoin ...

King of Razz

Alfred Appel Jr: Homage to Fats Waller, 9 May 2002

... Modernists such as Picasso begot paper collage, wood assemblage and metal sculpture. ‘I’m king of the ragpickers!’ Picasso proclaimed gleefully around 1930, after he had created Woman in a Garden, his first welded tin and scrap iron sculpture, proof that machines and Tin Can Alley do not ‘rule the world’, as Leopold Bloom laments over noisy ...

How to be a queen

David Carpenter: She-Wolves, 15 December 2011

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth 
by Helen Castor.
Faber, 474 pp., £9.99, July 2011, 978 0 571 23706 7
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... Helen Castor describes She-Wolves as ‘an attempt to write the kind of book I loved to read before history became my profession as well as my pleasure. It is about people, and about power. It is a work of storytelling, of biographical narrative rather than theory or cross-cultural comparison.’ At the heart of the book are accounts of the careers of four women who ‘ruled England before Elizabeth ...

Adam to Zeus

Colin Burrow: John Banville, 11 March 2010

The Infinities 
by John Banville.
Picador, 300 pp., £7.99, March 2010, 978 0 330 45025 6
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... almost all-knowing superiority, acts as pander to his father, Zeus, and enables him to seduce Helen, the beautiful wife of Adam Godley’s son, Adam. Zeus comes to her in the shape of her husband, but with a divine potency that makes the encounter seem a dream. This Helen, as we are never allowed to forget, is a golden ...

Somebody reading

Barbara Everett, 21 June 1984

The Odes of Keats 
by Helen Vendler.
Harvard, 330 pp., £15.70, February 1984, 0 674 63075 0
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... artist – sometimes, like himself, they seem smaller than a mastiff, sometimes larger than their King and Queen; and these perspectives release them from the indignity of their normal social selves. A Keats poem too may have liberating perspectives. The ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is much liked by most people who read any poetry at all, yet it is not obvious ...

Blood Running Down

Helen Cooper: Iconoclasm and theatre in early modern England, 9 August 2001

The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theatre in Early Modern England 
by Michael O'Connell.
Oxford, 198 pp., £30, February 2000, 9780195132052
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... flagrant contravention of the Second Commandment. But it’s much less obvious why Dr Faustus or King Lear, As You Like It or Volpone, should come under the same ban. O’Connell never does come up with a final answer; but his quest constitutes one of the most interesting explorations yet made, not just of the theology of the theatre, but of the connections ...

At the British Museum

James Davidson: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’, 23 January 2020

... game (c.535 BC). Of course the actual Troy has always existed alongside another Troy, the Troy of Helen, of the horse, of the war, of the imaginaire. Thankfully it’s mostly the imaginary Troy that is the subject of the BM’s exhibition. It begins with two top-quality artworks: a smooth salmon-buff amphora from around 530 bc, painted by the black-figure ...

The Suitcase: Part Three

Frances Stonor Saunders, 10 September 2020

... they changed, overnight, the language in which they had all lived together. Elena was now Helen, Mummy not Mami; Papa became Daddy; the boys were still Donald and Peter, of course, but they had far fewer words at their disposal by which to express themselves. They were now British – British refugees, to be exact – not just because their identity ...

Flattery and Whining

William Gass: Prologomania, 5 October 2000

The Book of Prefaces 
edited by Alasdair Gray.
Bloomsbury, 639 pp., £35, May 2000, 0 7475 4443 3
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... is, without puffing a sail loose. An introduction is an introduction, not a nomination. ‘This is Helen Hoho, she teaches at Heehaw,’ is quite enough. Not: ‘This is Helen Hoho, and despite what you have heard, she isn’t bad in bed, is rather good with pilaff, and can darn cotton socks like crazy.’ Indiscreet praise ...

Fronds and Tenrils

Helen Vendler: Mark Ford, 29 November 2001

Soft Sift 
by Mark Ford.
Faber, 42 pp., £7.99, May 2001, 0 571 20781 2
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... immediately successive alliterating words: ‘I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon.’ We’re also drawn into Ford’s poems by his conviction that his experience is no different from ours: ‘Our errands merely seem/ average and natural: every second is underwritten/by an invisible ...

Writing French in English

Helen Cooper: Chaucer’s Language, 7 October 2010

The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language and Nation in the Hundred Years War 
by Ardis Butterfield.
Oxford, 444 pp., £60, December 2009, 978 0 19 957486 5
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... especially technical words, regardless of the language. Chaucer, taking over as clerk of the king’s works, was given an inventory of dead stock at the Tower of London that included ‘i ramme cum toto apparatu excepta i drawying corda que frangitur et devastatur, i fryingpanne, i lathe pro officio carpentarii’: a battering-ram with a winding-cord too ...

Number One Id

Hilary Mantel: Idi Amin (Dada), 19 March 1998

The Last King of Scotland 
by Giles Foden.
Faber, 330 pp., £9.99, March 1998, 0 571 17916 9
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... Perplexing questions hung in the still air. Some hung there year after year: who killed the nurse Helen Smith? Some were of immediate import: where has the main post office gone this week? Some were insoluble, questions almost too puzzling to pose: where, oh where, is Idi Amin? The Uganda dictator, driven out by Tanzanian troops in 1979, had been offered ...

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