Arthurian Poetry

On Saturday, I discussed some of the history and prose that helped to give rise to the King Arthur legend we know today. As it turns out, Arthur has a long poetic history as well.

It appears that one of the earliest, Welsh literary references to Arthur is in the poem “Y Gododdin,” attributed to the poet Aneirin. It’s unclear when exactly when this was written, though I’ve seen it suggested it dates back to the seventh century. The manuscript we have is from the thirteenth century. In the poem, Aneirin praises the warrior Gwawrddur of the Gododdin tribe, but appears to hold Arthur in even high esteem.

Another early poem is “Brut” by Layamon written circa the year 1200. It appears to be a poetic adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Another poetic adaptation of Geoffrey’s Arthur story is the poem “Morte Arthure” written circa 1265 by an unknown poet.

The poet Chrétien de Troyes wrote several poems about Arthur’s knights in the twelfth century including “Yvain, the Knight of the Lion”, “Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart”, and “Perceval, the Story of the Grail.” The poetry of de Troyes and the poem “Morte Arthure” likely had a strong influence on Sir Thomas Mallory when he penned “Le Morte d’Arthur” in the fifteenth century.

As with two of the early poets I’ve mentioned, I’ve been strongly inspired by Geoffrey of Monmouth. As it turns out, Geoffrey wrote two books related to Arthur and Merlin. The first and most famous is History of the Kings of Britain. His other work is called The Life of Merlin. In History, Geoffrey associates Merlin with Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. However, in The Life of Merlin, Geoffrey associates Merlin with the Welsh king Gwenddoleu and the poet Taliesin who likely would have lived over a century after Uther Pendragon. Geoffrey himself hand-waves this by suggesting Merlin has lived a long time and I wonder if this is the origin of the idea of Merlin living backward in time.

Two of my poems inspired by Geoffrey’s works appear in the current issue of the webzine Eye to the Telescope published by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. As it turns out, Geoffrey’s History is not just the story of King Arthur—though Arthur’s story takes up the lion’s share of the book. It’s also the story of Arthur’s ancestors. One of those is about a fellow named King Coel. I’ve seen some suggestions that Geoffrey’s King Coel is the inspiration for the King Cole of the nursery rhyme. “Old King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was he.” I admit many dispute this, but it still inspired me to play with Geoffrey’s telling of the King Coel story in the form of nursery rhyme.

My other poem in the collection is a revised version of a poem I wrote several years ago. It’s called “The Passage of Merlin” and combines stories found in “The Life of Merlin” with stories from “History of the Kings of Britain to create a picture of a more dynamic Merlin than the trope of an old man in wizard’s robes that we’ve grown accustomed to.

You can read my poems plus other great Arthurian poems by such folks as Mary Soon Lee, Marge Simon, F.J. Bergmann, and Vince Gotera at: EyeToTheTelescope.com

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Owls from the Dark Side

With the first novel in my Clockwork Legion series titled Owl Dance and the fourth, in progress, tentatively titled Owl Riders, you might think I have a fondness for owls, and you would be right. I find them fascinating, elusive creatures. They do an important job, eating vermin. A few years ago, a family of burrowing owls nested in a field near my home. Going by their nests on my daily walks, I developed something of a rapport with them. I would whistle at them and they would whistle back, sometimes doing a little dance going back and forth from one foot to the other. In fact, that’s where the title, Owl Dance came from. The photo below was taken at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson where I’m posing with my daughter and one of the world’s largest owls, a Eurasian Eagle Owl.

David and Myranda

The thing is, owls are not universally regarded as likeable or good. If you look at the photo above, one of the first things you should notice is the size of the owl’s claws. I was very aware when it sat on my arm that that owl was a powerful hunter. When I lived in the small town of Madrid, New Mexico, owls were known to hunt any cats running loose after dark. Sometimes I drive up to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory after dark and see a rather large owl sitting on the road. One time, the owl took off in front of me causing me to slam on the brakes. It was an awesome and terrifying sight.

Many Native American tribes actively dislike owls. They are believed to harbor the spirits of the dead. Hearing an owl hoot at night can be considered an ill omen. The following appears on the official website of the Mescalero Apache: “The owl is a night creature and the Apache people do not have contact with this animal. Avoid having a night owl near you. It is considered a bad omen if an owl hoots near you day or night.” These beliefs have also crossed over into Latino culture where there are stories of owls being associated with witches. In Owl Dance, my character Fatemeh is seen as a witch precisely because of her association with owls.

This brings us to my latest novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. astronomers-crypt-453x680 In Apache lore, there’s a creature known by many names including Big-Owl, Owl Man, or even Owl Monster. He’s something of a bogeyman in Apache stories. Sometimes he’s described as more human like and other times as more monster like. He often appears in the Apache Creation story, such as the version recorded in this post on Noah Nez’s Native Skeptic blog.

When I came upon descriptions of Big Owl, I began to wonder what a real creature that could have aspects of man, owl, and troll would be like. Of course, evidence suggests that birds are the modern dinosaurs. Thinking about the dinosaurs that became owls went a long way to picturing this kind of creature. The protagonist, Mike Teter, has the following vision in the novel’s prologue:

    On the dome floor, next to the telescope, stood a grotesque figure resembling an unholy merging of a predatory dinosaur and some kind of alien creature from a sci-fi movie. Its body crouched atop long talons that looked as though they could easily rip the tiles from the floor. The creature’s nose consisted of two slits above a sharp, beak-like mouth. But it was the eyes that froze Mike in terror. Dark. Mesmerizing. They were like black holes in space. Mike had no idea where the creature had come from or how it managed to get into the dome. But he did know one thing for certain. It wanted to kill him.

To see more of what happens with Big Owl, be sure to pick up a copy of The Astronomer’s Crypt from Amazon, Kobo, or Lachesis Publishing. You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion series by visiting my website.