Monday, May 21, 2012

Arthurian Alphabooks: A is for Arthur

As a card-carrying member of the International Arthurian Society (or, well, journal-receiving; we don't actually have cards), I have decided to attempt an Alphabooks alphabet that is altogether Arthurian. There are lots of options for many of the letters. A, for example, could be Agravain (troublesome brother of Sir Gawain), or Anna (one of several names attributed to Arthur's sister, or at least one of his sisters), or Accolon (who attempts to kill Arthur in a conspiracy with Morgan le Fay), or Amfortas (a Grail king). But come on—it's obviously got to be Arthur, though the image below may not obviously look like Arthur to you:

In fairness, it's not obviously Arthur to me, either, though I think it qualifies as an Arthur. One of the reasons I thought it might be interesting to attempt an Arthurian Alphabooks is because descriptions of characters are often limited, absent, or so conventional as to be unspecific. Another challenge is that some of the more prominent characters feature in decades' worth of narrative events, so that a drawing of Arthur needs to choose a particular age of Arthur: the boy ignorant of his patrimony (in most texts), the young king (who may or may not be bearded), the mature monarch, the dying warrior.

I wanted to focus on not just a particular age of Arthur but a particular moment, when, on the field of battle at Salisbury Plain, he catches sight of his traitorous son Mordred, still alive when almost everyone else has fallen. I made a number of attempts, which were interesting to me in two main ways: first, I discovered that I did have a basic sense of how I thought Arthur might look; second, I realized how devilishly difficult it was going to be to capture in a still image the range of feelings that I imagine Arthur to experience in that moment.

Anyhow, the drawing above is neither exactly what I thought Arthur might look like nor (even remotely) a successful rendering of a face that should register simultaneous regret, rage, hurt, hostility, etc., etc. (An actor would have better luck than a still image, I think.)

Still, I'm satisfied enough to post it here and to have sent it to the good folks at Alphabooks. I will also note that this drawing is the furthest from my original sketches, which were a lot tighter and controlled—and frustratingly stiff. This one I drew freehand with a brush heavily charged with ink, and I began with loose strokes focused on the hooded eyesockets and the drawn cheekbones. (In fact, the original sketch lacked visible eyes, relying just on the solid black area of the upper lids.) I then slowly built up the image, even turning the paper around several times to hold up to the light to check for symmetry and tones. It felt almost like sculpting in ink, and was a fun way to get reacquainted with a real brush dipped in real India ink. (I haven't used those tools in about eighteen months or more.)

Anyhow. My thanks to Isaac for single-handedly keeping the blog alive in a really rewarding fashion over the last long haul. Let's see how or whether I hang in there this time around.


Isaac said...

Man, Mike. That is one haggard-looking Arthur.

But why no crown? That seems like one obvious way to indicate that this is the King of the Alphabet...

Mike said...

For me, the answer to both matters (why haggard? why crownless?) is that this is Arthur at the moment I described in the post, when the battle's lost and won. Just before this moment, Arthur has recognized only two other survivors from among all his knights (one mortally wounded and soon to die himself), while all those on Mordred's side appear to be dead. I imagine him to be utterly exhausted from the effort of this slaughterous combat. I might have liked his hair to look even scragglier, in fact; I want it to look clumped and sopping from sweat and blood. Arthur's also supposed to be pretty old at this point, probably older than I've made him look (though, in fairness, he seems to have kept awfully fit for all his years).

Having fought so hard, and having reached the seeming end of combat, Arthur would very likely have stripped off his helmet to give himself a chance to breathe freely and air out his overheated face. But then, having just now caught sight of Mordred, the last alive of his foes after all, Arthur will have sense enough to put his helmet back on before attacking his bastard son of incest (in most texts, at least; sometimes Mordred is his nephew).

Hence as well no crown, because who would want to wear that after such exertion? (Kings didn't always traipse around in their crowns, after all.) And while one does see manuscript illustrations of Arthur crowned while in arms at battle, the crown sits atop his helmet, so if the helmet's off, the crown comes with it. And I wanted to show Arthur's face, not some helmet.

Of course, there are any number of occasions in Arthur's career when it would be appropriate, indeed correct, to portray him with a crown. But I didn't want to draw any of those moments. I kept finding myself drawn [no pun intended] to this tragic scene of crisis and decision. I may not have been up to the task of portraying what I imagine in that scene, but if Arthur looks haggard, well, at least that part was deliberate!

Isaac said...

Isn't it Sir Bors who is mortally wounded but still clinging to life in the scene you're thinking of?

Dare I wish for some intestines-clutching action in next week's installment? Or will the lure of Bertilak be too great?

Don't answer—I want to be in suspense.

Mike said...

I will not give away, confirm, or deny my likeliest B ideas (though one is indeed a picture of someone who is mortally wounded...clearly I have a soft spot for the harrowing parts of Arthuriana). But it's not Bors in the scene we're talking about here. It's Lucan the Butler whose guts fall out, in Malory's version at least:

"...Sir Lucan felle in a sowne [swoon], that parte of hys guttis felle oute of hys body, and therewith the noble knyght hys harte braste. And whan the Kynge awoke, he behylde Sir Lucan, how he lay fomyng at the mowth, and parte of his guttes lay at hys fyete."

That foaming at the mouth bit is pretty horrible, no? As appealing as it might be to draw that (um, I kid), it's going to be hard to avoid choosing a certain other Arthurian knight whose name starts with L. (Hm, whoever could that be?)

There *is* another, B-named knight in Arthur's company in Le Morte Darthur, however: Sir Bedivere, so memorably portrayed by Terry Jones in Monty Python & the Holy Grail. In the Old French Mort le roi Artu, though, the sole surviving knight is Girflet (Malory's Grifflet), not Bedivere.

Anonymous said...

This is a cool idea. I'm looking forward to being reacquainted with Arthurian legend. I used to read a lot about Arthur and Celtic mythology in college.

Isaac said...

1.) I am embarrassed to have mis-remembered the identity of the aforementioned gut-clutcher.

2.) I will give you some sort of present (I know not what, but it will be good) if you make next week's entry a portrait of Terry Jones as Bedivere.

Mike said...

No fair! You posted your offer of a present after Shabbat had started, and it went directly into a two-day holiday that only ended Monday night after 9 P.M. At that point, I was in such a hurry to get an Alphabooks drawing done on time that I deliberately avoided turning on my computer lest I be distracted and run out of time.

I will tell you this, though: I did consider drawing Terry Jones as Bedivere! (I rejected the idea largely because I'm interested in figuring out how I might visualize these characters without relying overmuch, or at least overtly, on others' versions, particular modern ones.)

Isaac said...

You still have a chance to claim your free gift if you draw Michael Palin as Galahad...

Mike said...

I do like good presents. I may succumb to your tempting offer after all!