Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis

(Warning—some spoilers ahead)

King Arthur: Which is our greatest quality of knighthood? Courage, compassion, loyalty, humility? What do you say, Merlin?

Merlin: Ah, the greatest. Well, they blend, like the metals we mix to make a good sword.

Arthur: No poetry, just a straight answer. Which is it?

Merlin: All right then. Truth. That’s it. Yes, it must be truth. Above all. When a man lies he murders some part of the world. You should know that.

—Excalibur, John Boorman

If you’re a fan of the Arthurian myths, the above exchange of dialogue from John Boorman’s Excalibur—still the best version of the King Arthur myth ever put to film—is probably scored upon your memory. It’s a shame that, in comparison, Clemence Housman’s The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis languishes in obscurity. Published in 1905, Housman’s book presages Excalibur by more than 70 years, and Merlin’s prophetic words of wisdom and warning are at the heart of this fine and all too little known novel.

The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis has for most of its history been a difficult book to track down. In 2000, Green Knight Publishing—a small and apparently defunct firm—republished the story, giving it new life and allowing people like me to finally get a copy. In addition to publishing original and reprinted Arthurian fiction, Green Knight also published the fine Pendragon role playing game, much like TSR and later Wizards of the Coast published a line of novels in conjunction with the Dungeons and Dragons game line. But if you come to The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis expecting to encounter typical role-playing game fan fiction, you’re in for a rude shock. This is not some breezy tale of the Forgotten Realms. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it archaic, the language Housman uses is, even for the (roughly) Victorian Era in which it was written, anachronistic. Housman writes in Middle English in a style deliberately imitative of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte D’Arthur.

In short, The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis is a difficult book to read. I had to go back and re-read opaque sentences and, on one or two occasions, found myself bogged down in the language. But bearing down and continuing on to the end was very much worth the effort.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

6 comments:

David J. West said...

I am gonna have to track this down. Love Excalibur and good Arthurian tales.

Somewhat related, the first publisher I submitted my book to said it was good but a little too Arthurian. ???? I don't think I consciously ever attempted that but perhaps the influence of such a great legend seeped inside anyway.

David J. West said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terry L said...

Glad you liked this Brian. I thought Housman's take on Arthur's court, with all of the implied condemnation mixed in with the acknowledgment of its brilliance, was fascinating and the character of Aglovale, with his unflinching self-awareness, was very moving. I'm sure this won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for my money I still say it's probably the best fictional treatment of the Matter of Britain from the 20th century.

Brian Murphy said...

Terry: I have you to thank for the recommendation. I thought it was a very powerful and moving book, so thanks once again. I would still argue for The Once and Future King as the best 20th century treatment of the King Arthur myth, but I can see why you throw your support behind Housman.

David: Obviously I recommend it, but it isn't an easy read. If you love Arthuriana and in particular the original tales--and if you prefer Excalibur over King Arthur or (yuck) First Knight, you'll probably very much enjoy The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis.

Personally I consider an Arthurian quality to be a positive feature for a work of fantasy, not a point of criticism, but then again I haven't read your book.

Atom Kid said...

Thanks for this post! I'm always looking to read new or old Arthurian novels. I've never heard of this one, it's sounds fascinating. One of my favorite Arthurian tales was Rosemary Sutcliff's "Sword At Sunset", which I didn't realize was part of a series.

David J. West said...

First Knight, thats a laugh. Much as I love Connery I couldn't even watch the whole thing.