Tag Archives: Arthurian

Guest post: Illustrating King Arthur

This guest post is from Dr Juliette Wood, School of Welsh. In it, she provides some fascinating background to an item she recently donated to Special Collections and Archives: Mary Alice Hadfield’s King Arthur and the Round Table, with illustrations by Donald Seton Cammell, Dent and Co. 1955.


Illustrated re-tellings of Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur aimed at young readers, but also marketed to a wider reading public, have been popular since the modern revival of the Arthurian legend. Alice Mary Hadfield, born in Cirencester in 1908, educated at Oxford and in the United States, was a long-time friend and correspondent of Charles Williams. An editor, writer, and librarian at Amen House, the London Offices of Oxford University Press, she wrote a biography of the poet, and with her second husband, the historian Charles Hadfield, founded the Charles Williams Society in 1976. Among her many publications is a popular re-telling of Malory published in 1953 by Dent and Co as part of their Classic Series. The book has been republished several times, and the copy now in Special Collections and Archives dates to 1955.

Hadfield’s re-telling has some unusual features. Her sources, according to the publisher’s front matter, include Eugene Vinaver’s edition of Malory, the Jones and Jones translation of the Mabinogion, Sebastian Evans The High History of the Holy Grail, and quotations taken from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. However, she injects some interesting additions to this very respectable list of sources. Incidents from Tennyson, such as finding the baby Arthur on the seashore, are integrated into Malory’s story, but the most striking addition is an entire chapter on the legend of Taliesin (spelled here Taliessin) whom she refers to as Arthur’s chief bard. None of her listed sources contain this material.

It is based on Welsh texts edited by Iolo Morganwg, and appears in Charlotte Guest’s influential nineteenth-century edition, although it was never part of the medieval Mabinogion. The adventures of Taliesin are central to Charles Williams’ poetic world, and the source of the mistranslated, but evocative, title of one of his Arthurian poems, The Region of the Summer Stars (1944). A better reading of this phrase based on a wider selection of manuscripts would be ‘Priffard kyffredin wyf J i Elffin/ am bro gynneuin yw gwlad shieruwbin’ (‘Elphin’s customary chief bard am I / My original country is the land of the Cherubim.’)

The vividly striking illustrations are by the Scottish-born artist, Donald Seton Cammell. Cammell grew up in a very Bohemian environment. His father was apparently acquainted with Aleister Crowley, and the artist’s somewhat chaotic life led to an early death in 1996. Cammell was also a filmmaker, and one of his films, Demon Seed (1977), based on a Dean Koontz novel, is a science fiction reworking of Merlin’s demonic paternity. In the film, a supercomputer eludes its creator’s attempts to shut it down and plots to provide itself with a human incarnation, which it does by trapping and ultimately impregnating the scientist’s wife.

Hadfield’s book opens with ‘The Coming of Merlin’. This includes the introduction of Christianity, its threatened loss through the coming of the Saxons, and the hubris of Vortiger’s tower. Merlin’s character conforms more closely to the image in Malory and Tennyson – but not quite. Christianity is established early in Hadfield’s depiction of Britain, and Merlin’s actions are seen in this light. The failure of Camelot is ultimately the failure of a romantic harmonious Christian world of which Charles Williams was a keen advocate. This rupturing of the social, personal and ecological interrelationships through which society and the natural world function gives this re-telling a somewhat darker quality than many of the versions of Arthurian tradition presented to readers at this time.

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