Fantasy Reads – `To the Chapel Perilous’

This week I’m back to the theme of Fantasy written by remarkable women. They don’t come much more remarkable than Scottish novelist, poet and political activist Naomi Mitchison, who was born in 1897 and was nearly 102 when she died. Among many other things, Mitchison was the daughter and sister of famous scientists (the Haldanes), a nurse during World War I, a campaigning feminist, a foreign correspondent, a botanist and farmer, a peeress who never used her title, the mother of seven children and an`honorary mother’ to a whole African tribe. Much of her work was intensely serious but I’m recommending her witty and charming Arthurian novel, `To the Chapel Perilous’. It was first published in England in 1955 with a delightful cover by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien’s favourite illustrator, Pauline Baynes. You will be lucky if you can find a copy of this edition. Fortunately, `To the Chapel Perilous’ was reprinted by American firm, Green Knight in 1999, with a helpful introduction by Arthurian expert, Raymond H.Thompson. This edition (with its unappealing cover) is still easy to get. There doesn’t seem to be an ebook version yet but there certainly should be.

The novel is set late in the reign of the legendary King Arthur, at the time when the Knights of the Round Table are competing to find the Holy Grail. Journalists have been covering the Grail story for several years, writing about knights who have died or been driven mad during the quest. Now Lienors from the Camelot Chronicle and Dalyn from the Northern Pict are stuck on the edge of the Wasteland, with only a hermit for a company, as they watch the mysterious Chapel Perilous which may contain the Fisher King and the Holy Grail. The two young journalists are attracted to each other but they represent newspapers with very different points of view. Merlin, the chief editor of the Chronicle is a staunch supporter of King Arthur and the ideals of the Round Table, though not of Arthur’s unhappy wife, Guinevere. Lord Horny, the devil who owns the Pict, favours Arthur’s powerful half-sister, Queen Morgan-Morgause and wants less Chivalry and more Capitalism.

There is supposed to be only one winner in the quest for the Holy Grail but Lienors and Dalyn see a succession of knights, including Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain, Sir Bors, Sir Perceval, Sir Lancelot, and Lancelot’s son, Sir Galahad, emerge triumphantly from the Chapel Perilous, each carrying something that might be the Grail. The hermit warns the journalists that the knight they choose to write about `will be generally considered to be the Grail winner’. As  naive Galahad gives them an exclusive interview, they pick him. The Church approves of chaste and virtuous Galahad but the awkward fact is that other knights are soon performing miracles with their Grails. Strangest of all is the desire-granting Grail which Sir Gawain brings home to his mother Queen Morgan-Morgause at Spiral Castle. Lienors and Dalyn cover this and the other Grail stories but find that less and less of what they see and report is getting into the papers. Forces beyond their control are manipulating the news and stirring up trouble for Arthur and his court.

Dalyn regards Lienors as `a hard-boiled dame’ but, like almost every other woman in Camelot, she has a crush on Sir Lancelot. Tragically, Lancelot loves no-one but Guinevere, the wife of his best friend, Arthur. Lienors’ sympathy for Lancelot and Guinevere leads her to break the first rule of journalism – don’t get personally involved. This, and the fact that she is suspected of being a follower of the White Lady, gets Lienors into trouble with the Church. Dalyn is soon in danger too as the feud within the royal family deepens and Arthur’s realm lurches towards civil war.

If I describe `To the Chapel Perilous’ as a humorous story with serious themes set in an idealized medieval world with some modern elements (such as newspapers and cameras), it will sound very like a much more famous Arthurian novel, T.H. White’s `The Once and Future King’. Both authors use Thomas Malory’s `Le Morte d’Arthur’  as their main source for the events of Arthur’s reign and both quote some of Malory’s distinctive 15th century dialogue at key moments. So, was Mitchison copying White? It turns out that Mitchison had only read White’s original 1938 version of `The Sword in the Stone’ (see my post of December 2012) when she started writing her own Arthurian novel. `The Once and Future King’, whose final section deals with the period of Arthur’s reign that Mitchison covers, was published several years after `To the Chapel Perilous’ came out. I think that Mitchison was somewhat influenced by White’s unforgettable portrayal of Merlin but her approach to the legends of Arthur and his knights was different from White’s in several important ways.

Firstly, Mitchison wasn’t much interested in Arthur himself and doesn’t put him at the centre of the story, as White does. Secondly, `To the Chapel Perilous’ has two major female points of view – adventurous `news-girl’ Lienors and motherly senior reporter, Ygraine la Grande. Mitchison’s Queen Guinevere is far stronger and cleverer than White’s – and a much more sympathetic character than the last Guinevere I wrote about on Fantasy Reads (see `The Stolen Lake’, 15th January, 2014). Her rival, Queen Morgan-Morgause, is almost as sinister as she is in `The Once and Future King’ but is treated as the embodiment of a pre-Christian, goddess-centred religion. Thirdly, Mitchison makes more of the strange episode of the Grail quest than White does by using a wide range of early medieval and Celtic sources. One of her cleverest ideas is to combine the brutal Peredur of Welsh legend and the sanitized Sir Perceval of later medieval texts into a knight with a split personality.

A unique feature of `To the Chapel Perilous’ is the way that different interpretations of the Grail from different eras are shown manifesting simultaneously. So, for example, Gawain’s Grail is close to the `Cauldron of Rebirth’ of Celtic myth, while Lancelot’s blood-filled chalice and spear are like something from the Mithras cult, but the`Dish of the Last Supper’ which devout Sir Bors brings back to his beloved wife Julia creates an idyllic garden and a harvest so bountiful that nobody in the kingdom need go hungry. Lienors comes to understand that she is witnessing `different patterns that people can make themselves into’ and that, `each pattern uncovers a different aspect of the heart; a different means of wisdom.’ She also learns the hard way that it is dangerous to go against the dominant pattern of the age you are living in because, `Most people are much too frightened to be tolerant.’

According to an interview which you can still read on the internet (, the character of Lienors was partly based on one of Mitchison’s daughters, who was a reporter in love with a young man from a rival newspaper. Mitchison also made use of her own experiences in journalism; particularly the frustrations of trying to find out and expose the truth of what was going on in Europe before World War II broke out. If you thought that the way the media spin stories for or against people in public life was a recent development, you will find out from this book that it has been going on for a long time. Mitchison obviously cared deeply about journalistic integrity and independence but she has wise old Ygraine say to Lienors, `Even when it is something you really care about, keep light if you want to get it across. In fact – yes, especially if it is something you care about.’

The love story of Lienors and Dalyn is full of amusing touches, such as the jounalists sharing their packets of sandwiches with the hermit who may be St Joseph of Arimathea or Lienors fending off randy Peredur by hitting him with her typewriter. Just because she is female, Lienors is expected to come up with `human interest’ stories (resulting in a disastrous interview with Galahad’s mother) and is even required to cover the fashion angle on the Grail quest. Dalyn becomes increasingly disillusioned by the cynical machinations of Lord Horny and longs to tell, `The straight story. All of it’. By the end of the novel, Lienors and Dalyn have stopped being mere observers and embarked on their own quest for the truth. A crucial part of the traditional Grail quest was to ask the right question at the right moment and that is what Mitchison wanted all of us to do. Have you picked your question yet? Until two weeks time….



Leave a reply

Geraldine Pinch