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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

02 July 2021

Rereading a childhood book, Malcolm Guite decides to take up the old Arthurian tales

AS WE have gradually gathered all the books in our house from obscure shelves and dusty corners, ready for our move, we have unearthed a forgotten treasure: a wonderful little book which I have since been re-reading with great pleasure. It was Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, in the Puffin Story Book series, with a lovely cover of red-and-blue-coloured woodcuts showing Arthur and Guinevere and some heraldic beasts — among them, the familiar little puffin himself, re-imagined in medieval style.

This particular copy, which was Maggie’s as a child, was printed in 1957, the year I was born. Yet, as I turned the pages, the old stories grew and blossomed in my mind as fresh and green as ever. It is a beautiful retelling, drawn mostly from Malory, and all deftly handled and woven together in a clear narrative arc — something which is sometimes hard to find amid all the meandering criss-cross pathways of Malory himself.

But this find brought more than the nostalgic pleasure in re-reading a childhood favourite. It was timely in another sense. I had, in fact, begun to take up the old Arthurian tales myself, to see if I might retell them for our own age; so, Lancelyn Green stirred me on further to the task, as well as sending me back to the great sources.

There is, of course, no single source, no “original” or “authentic” version of the story. Each writer takes up the tale from another, embroiders, elaborates, develops a theme, and then hands the story on. And each retelling, in every age, necessarily highlights the elements of the primal myth, which that age needs to hear.

When I first thought of writing about “the matter of Britain”, as the old bards called the Arthuriad, I wondered whether it might not be the land itself, the actual matter of Britain, which holds and keeps the story, and will tell it to us afresh if we have ears to hear. That certainly came out in some verses I sketched out as an invocation or prelude to my own retelling of the tale in ballad form:

. . . From where the waves wash Cornwall’s caves
Out to the White Horse Vale
The lands still hold the tale of old
Like hidden treasure, buried gold
Once more the story must be told
Poet, take up the tale.

Tell of the king who will return
Tell of the holy grail
Tell of old knights and chivalry
Tell of the pristine mystery
Of ‘Merlin’s Isle of gramaryre’
Poet take up the tale. . .

. . . Lift up your eyes to see the light
On Glastonbury Tor
Then come down from that far green hill
To where the sacred waters spill
And shine within the chalice well
And listen to their lore. . .

You may yet walk through Merlin’s isle
By oak and ash and thorn
The ancient hills do not forget
And you might wake their wisdom yet
Who knows what wonders might be met
On this midsummer morn’.

So I have taken up the tale
To tell it full and free
The tale that makes my heart rejoice
I tell it, for I have no choice
I tell it till another voice
Takes up the tale from me.

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