Monday, February 11, 2013

Ashes to Ashes: Geoffrey Ashe

[Geoffrey Ashe: All About King Arthur (1969 / 1973)]

One of the first books I ever bought off my own bat was Geoffrey Ashe's All About King Arthur (London: Carousel Books, 1973). The other titles in the series included such gems as "All About Football," "All About Money" and "All About Weather," so you can see that it already stood out as a bit of an anomaly. I must have been about eleven or twelve at the time, and I see from the back that it must have cost 95 cents - not an inconsiderable sum for me back then.

While I suppose that there's no really direct connection with strangely lyrical writer of erotica Aran Ashe, whom I blogged about in a post about different modes of narrative construction last year, one could perhaps argue that both Ashes inhabit a conceptual no-man's-land: in Aran's case, between abnormal psychology and straight pornography; in Geoffrey's, between no-nonsense archaeology and New Age claptrap.

There's no doubt, though, that Geoffrey is the easier to recommend of the two. His books are immensely entertaining, and even quite well written (especially the earlier ones). Nor is there any doubting his basic seriousness when it comes to weighing up stray pieces of evidence bearing on his own King Charles's head: the possible historicity of certain aspects of the Arthurian legend.

For a while after reading that book, King Arthur and the Arthurian Legend was everything to me: T. H. White's The Once and Future King, Mary Stewart's "Merlin" trilogy - you name it, if it had anything to do with King Arthur, I was for it.

The obsession abated after a while, but it left me with an abiding taste for the works of Geoffrey Ashe, author (as I gradually became aware) a whole slew of other titles on King Arthur and kindred subjects. In fact, so many have there come to be, that All About King Arthur has dropped off most of his bibliography lists.

Fair enough, really. It is, in retrospect, little more than a précis of parts of the argument of more "grown-up" books such as King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury (1957) and From Caesar to Arthur (1960), not to mention the book of essays The Quest for Arthur’s Britain Ashe edited, with contributions by himself, Leslie Alcock, C. A Ralegh Radford, & Philip Rahtz (1968).

For me at the time, though, it was the door to a strange world of history-cum-romance, a realm bordering on full-on New Age works such as John Michell's The View over Atlantis (first published in that same year, 1969); but also with a strong dose of the dry-as-dust archaeological precision of Leslie Alcock's Arthur’s Britain: History and Archaeology, AD 367-634 (1971).

[Geoffrey Ashe: The Finger and the Moon (1973 / 2004)]

Even then it was a difficult path to tread, but - as I've continued to follow Ashe's career and publications over the years - it's one he's persevered in ever since: continuing to flirt with fringe history and even occultism, but still retaining a solid reputation for his more carefully researched historical works.

[Geoffrey Ashe: The Hell-Fire Clubs (2005)]

Here's a brief list of the Geoffrey Ashe books in my collection. It's more representative than comprehensive, but I think it will give you some idea of the breadth of his interests, and the somewhat disconcerting places those tastes have taken him at times:

  1. King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury. 1957. Fontana Books. London: Collins, 1973.

  2. From Caesar to Arthur. London: Collins, 1960.

  3. Land to the West: St Brendan’s Voyage to America. London: Collins, 1962.

  4. [Ed., with Leslie Alcock, C. A Ralegh Radford, & Philip Rahtz]. The Quest for Arthur’s Britain. 1968. London: Paladin, 1973.

  5. All About King Arthur. 1969. London: Carousel Books, 1973.

  6. Camelot and the Vision of Albion. 1971. St. Albans, Herts: Panther, 1975.

  7. The Finger and the Moon. 1973. St. Albans, Herts: Panther, 1975.

  8. The Virgin. 1976. Paladin. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1977.

  9. The Ancient Wisdom. 1977. Abacus. London: Sphere Books, 1979.

  10. Avalonian Quest. 1982. London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1984.

  11. [in association with Debrett’s Peerage]. The Discovery of King Arthur. London: Guild Publishing, 1985.

  12. The Landscape of King Arthur. With Photographs by Simon McBride. London: Webb & Bower (Publishers) Limited, in association with Michael Joseph Limited, 1987.

  13. Mythology of the British Isles. 1990. London: Methuen London, 1992.

  14. Atlantis: Lost Lands, Ancient Wisdom. London: Thames & Hudson, 1992.

[Geoffrey Ashe: The Discovery of King Arthur (1985)]

I suppose, on the most basic level, an author has to make a living, and some subjects command better sales than others: notably, in the period in question, books of alternate history in what might be described as the Erich von Däniken mode. Ashe is certainly no von Däniken, but then he's not really a Simon Schama either.

All three could (loosely) be described as popular historians, but - while Geofrrey Ashe is clearly acquainted with archival research and the laws of evidence in a way that von Däniken and his ilk will never be - it's hard to imagine him being made welcome in a modern Academic History department, either. It depends on which university it's in, I suppose.

Books such as The Ancient Wisdom (1977) and Atlantis: Lost Lands, Ancient Wisdom (1992) were therefore a little disconcerting to me. He's always careful to hedge his bets, though: and New Age philosophies, particularly the genealogies they construct for certain of their trains of thought, are certainly a legitimate topic of research. At times the line between researcher and apologist seemed a trifle blurry, though.

Then there was his "discovery" of the identity of the "real" King Arthur, outlined in the appropriately named Discovery of King Arthur (1985). All one can say about this is that, though argued passionately and even quit convincingly by Ashe, it doesn't appear to have persuaded the majority of scholars of this period. I guess the jury is still out on that one.

[Geoffrey Ashe: The Mythology of the British Isles (1990)]

Where I think Ashe is at his best is in books such as his Mythology of the British Isles. This beautifully illustrated attempt to apply the layout and approach of Robert Graves's Greek Myths to a British context gives him scope to develop his idiosyncratic approach to the European Dark Ages. In an era whose records are (by turns) unreliable or non-existent, a more creative approach is needed to get anywhere near the approximate mind-set of - say - a fifth-century Briton. This Ashe can provide, and the book remains the perfect pendant to his more celebrated books about Glastonbury and the excavations at Cadbury Castle / Camelot.

Do I think that more people should read Geoffrey Ashe? Well, yes, absolutely. I don't say that you should swallow everything he argues, but the fact that he does argue for his hypotheses: carefully, and with close attention to what written and archaeological record there is puts him in a completely different category from other best-selling "alternative historians" such as the equally entertaining (but far less trustworthy) Graham Hancock.

Somehow, in books such as Underworld: Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age (2002), the ruins turn out never to be accessible that day - whether it be a recent storm, or difficult tides, the dive has to be postponed, the evidence is not quite ready to hand. His books - cogently written thought some parts of them undoubtedly are - do not stand up to scrutiny. They tease rather than reveal.

Geoffrey Ashe is not like that. He means what he says, and he won't go beyond the borders of his evidence, however hard he strains at the leash sometimes. What's more, he has the gift of conveying something of the magic of the unknown, the conjectural ... I think I made a better choice than I knew that day back in the early 70s, when I bought that unassuming little book from that newly opened bookshop in Mairangi Bay.

[Ashes to Ashes (1980)]