Raymond H. Thompson and The Return from Avalon: An Appreciation
by Eleanor M. Farrell
Raymond Henry Thompson, Scholar Guest of Honor at this year's upcoming Mythcon XX, is Professor of English at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. An Arthurian scholar, his interest in the incorporation of this literary theme into modern fiction makes him an ideal participant in a Mythopoeic Society conference. Professor Thompson has published widely on this and other aspects of fantasy literature, with articles in such varied journals as the Forum for Modern Language Studies, Extrapolation, and Fantasy Review, discussing the works of Thomas Berger, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Gordon R. Dickson, among others. (A brief bibliography of Thompson's publications is included at the end of this article.)
To date, Thompson's major work has been his book The Return from Avalon, published in 1985, which discusses the treatment of Arthurian themes in modern fiction. Citing the substantial growth of Arthurian literature in recent years, especially in the field of prose fiction (over one hundred novels published between 1954 and 1985), Thompson states his aim as updating earlier studies of this field as well as looking at changes in literary tastes.
In The Return from Avalon, Arthurian novels are divided into five major categories: retellings, realistic fiction, historical fiction, science fiction/science fantasy, and fantasy. The groups are distinguished by their attitude toward setting. The first two categories are discussed only briefly, as being the least popular or significant in recent literature. Retellings are translations or modernizations for readers unfamiliar with the language of the original texts; they can serve to maintain the audience which keeps the legends alive, or serve as sources for creative writers. Translations of many texts originally in Latin, Old French or Middle English are now readily available for the casual scholar to capture the flavor of medieval accounts. Thompson mentions some of these but does not cover this field in any detail. Other retellings, aimed at younger audiences, often simplify the material, which can weaken the power of the original stories (a common trend is omitting any traces of sexual immorality, which certainly leads to confusion in understanding character motivation!). And even the best retellers (Thompson cites Rosemary Stucliff's series of Arthurian novels for young readers) will change the sprit of the story in their selection process.
In the category of realistic fiction, events are placed in a contemporary setting, usually as mystery thrillers or analogies using the Arthurian elements as archetypal patterns. This approach does not appear to be very common, especially among recent novels. As an example of this form done well, Thompson mentions Castle Dor, a transposition of the Tristan and Iseult story begun by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and completed in 1961 by Daphne du Maurier.
Historical Arthurian novels fall into two main groups, those set in the Dark Ages of the fifth and sixth centuries and those taking place during the High Middle Ages of the romances. In both groups, settings are carefully constructed and much attention is paid to authentic detail. The books may be bleakly realistic, optimistically romantic, or somewhere between these two poles. The chapter here on Arthurian historicals, still a very popular form, offers a fascinating description of remarkably varied and mostly obscure twentieth century novels. In particular, Thompson praises A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys (1932), Percival and the Presence of God by Jim Hunter (1978), Tristan by Hannah Closs (1940), and Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff (1963).
Science fiction (presenting rational explanations for apparently supernatural powers) and science fantasy (with the focus on magical rather than scientific causality) are covered rather briefly in the next chapter, partly because of the relatively small number of such novels dealing with Arthurian matters, and also because Thompson considers only one of them to be of merit. This is Port Eternity by C.J. Cherryh (1982), a very original science fiction novel incorporating Arthurian plot structure into a tale of a spacecraft marooned in another dimension and threatened by aliens. (Read Thompson's treatment of Port Eternity, or, better yet, read the novel.)
Finally, fantasy, by far the most popular and varied form. Thompson subdivides this category into four groups: low, heroic, ironic, and mythopoeic (these last three combined as "high") fantasy. Low fantasy rarely uses Arthurian legend, possibly because this genre often relies on the frightening effects of the supernatural upon our world, whereas the Arthurian world both accepts and integrates such elements. Heroic fantasies are the most popular, focusing on the struggles of one or more heroes and their attainment of knowledge about their worlds and themselves. In this group, Thompson singles out Parke Godwin's Firelord, T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, as successful representations. Ironic fantasy, emphasizing the gap between expectations and results to comic effect, has its roots in the medieval romances such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here the author recommends Thomas Berger's 1982 novel, Arthur Rex, as being the most impressive example of this form. Finally, mythopoeic fantasy, which Thompson considers the 'most interesting and thoughtful" form of high fantasy, focuses on the struggle between good and evil, with the events in the novel often "but one minor skirmish in an eternal conflict" (p. 93-4). Such novels often take place in a contemporary setting, such as Charles Williams' War in Heaven, C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, or the juvenile fantasies of Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, or Penelope Lively.
In the conclusion of this survey, Thompson notes the areas of growth within the prose fiction form, and mentions some major trends in the newer novels, particularly in humanizing the traditional figures. Finally, the author expresses optimism in assessing the quality of modern Arthurian fiction, in spite of the existence of poor books, as are found in any field.
Since the publication of The Return from Avalon in 1985, Arthurian fiction remains at least as popular a theme for writers: I can think of over a half-dozen new titles, including one by the other Mythcon XX Guest of Honor, Guy Gavriel Kay. I hope that Professor Thompson will be willing to share with us, at the conference, the latest findings of his quest and their place in Arthurian literature. Meanwhile, I thoroughly recommend, to anyone interested in this field, that you seek out a copy of The Return from Avalon: it is filled with long-buried treasures, lovingly collected and burnished as bright as Arthur's sword.
Raymond Thompson: A Selected Bibliography
"Gawain Against Arthur: The Impact of a Mythological Pattern upon Arthurian Tradition in Accounts of the Birth of Gawain", Folklore, 85 (1974), p. 113-121.
"Muse on thi mirrour: The Challenge of the Outlandish Stranger in the English Arthurian Verse Romances", Folklore, 87 (1976), p. 201-208.
"Shai Dorsai: A Study of the Hero in Gordon R. Dickson's Dorsai", Extrapolation, 20 (1979), p. 223-229.
"Arthurian Legend and Modern Fantasy", in Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, ed. Frank N. Magill (Salem Press, 1983), vol. 5, p. 2299-2315.
"King Arthur in Modern Fantasy", Fantasy Review, Dec. 1985, p. 12-13.
The Return from Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction (Greenwood Press, 1985).
The Arthurian Encyclopedia, ed. Norris J. Lacy (Garland, 1986). (Thompson is one of four associate editors, and a major contributor to the book.)
"An Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff", Avalon to Camelot, Vol. 2 No. 3 (1987), p. 11-14.
Reprinted from Mythprint 26:6, June 1989.