March 17th, 2011

The Joys of Badness

I often enjoy enjoying the badness of something, when a truly horrible something comes upon me unexpectedly—like when I go to a movie I thought would actually be good, and it’s far, far from it. (For more on this, check out my homage to “The Wicker Man.”)

But when I’m working, I actually far prefer to enjoy enjoying the goodness of stuff. Like sources that are reliable.

Yesterday, in the course of researching Merlin for a project I’m working on, I tripped over a resource that I thought would be good, but which was actually ridiculously dreadful—and I didn’t mind a bit. It was so bad, it was fabulous. It was so asinine, I thought about photocopying a few pages just to keep them around for dreary days when I need a laugh.

It starts off with a kick, when the author declares that he discovered the true identity of the historical Arthur (historians seem to agree that there are several figures who might have been the inspiration for the Arthur of legend)—and then the historical Merlin. (Is the writer a historian? No. Just a genius, he says modestly.)

He gets attitudier and attitudier with every page of the introduction. By the time I hit Chapter 1, I was starting to feel cranky. The author bashes ancient historians and writers like Malory for their flights of fancy (yet, all too soon, he reveals that he's not above taking a few flights himself). He believes that he has made discovers that modern historians have simply ignored. His cleverer-than-thou stance soon made me want to fling a flagon of mead in his face.

But that was before things really got rolling.

While writing of Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow and (according to the author) Merlin’s arch-enemy, the author discusses at some length the legend of Mungo’s virgin birth... and what the author thinks is the truth behind it. He refers to other historical sources to deduce the name of Mungo’s father, and abridges a tale that the man dressed as a woman and then had his way with Mungo’s mother, resulting in the saint’s conception.

“What trick would work in these circumstances?” the author writes. “A literal reading makes no sense. The evidence suggests that Ewen did not dress as a woman to have sex with Taneu; Ewen dressed as a woman and had sex with Taneu. That is, Ewan [sic] dressing as a woman was not a ruse; it was simply something that he did.”

He then launches into a synopsis of historic transvestitism. (Seriously! He does!)
That was when I knew I was in for the long haul—and the author did not disappoint. Later, in a section that dwells at some length on Merlin’s twin sister, a then-famous, now-forgotten queen, he deduces that the queen’s husband, the king, was gay.

“This, I emphasise,” he writes, “is speculative.”

And then he speculates for a page and a half.

“Just as Mungo’s father had possibly been a gay man who was bound to play the part of a prince and marry a neighbouring princess, so too was [the king] bound to marry [the queen] although in a sexual conection this may not have been entirely to his taste. ...
“Obviously,” he goes on, “there is no direct evidence that [the king] was gay.”

But if there’s no evidence, why in the name of all that’s literary is he going on about it?

This book is stunning—not because of its focus on sex. (Despite these stellar examples, the nearly 400-page book doesn’t focus on the sexual habits—real or imagined—of Arthurian figures; but it could have been forgiven if it did. Lancelot and Guinevere? Arthur’s own conception as the result of a deception? The legends are a virtual soap opera.)

It’s stunning because the author, feeling pretty dang proud of himself, has drawn conclusions that have no basis. It’s stunning because it’s like a high school term paper written by a student who hasn’t yet learned how to select quotes to support an argument. It’s stunning because a major house published this piece of tripe (part of a three-book look at Arthuriana), and apparently did not mean it to be a satire.

It’s stunning because I haven’t laughed that hard in a while. And definitely not while I’m working.

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