Romancing  The Stone
'King Arthur' by Charles Ernest Butler, Art Renewal Center

Romancing The Stone

This October, Mark Scarbrough, author of "Bookmarked: How The Great Works of Literature F*cked Up My Life," is leading a weekly workshop on Arthurian romances at The Cornwall Library in Cornwall, Conn. We spoke ahead of his first lecture.

Alexander Wilburn: This is the latest in a series of literary seminars you've led. In George Eliot's "Middlemarch" we're talking about social reform and civic duty; when we go to Woolf's "Lighthouse" we talk about women's rights and mental health. Why take us to Camelot?

Mark Scarbrough: I do this incredibly deep-dive podcast "Walking with Dante" and it has developed an international following. So part of it comes from my obsession with the Middle Ages. But Chrétien de Troyes's works are not the high Middle Ages, we're talking about the middle Middle Ages. He's alive right when Henry II has Becket killed. I think my interest in all of this is the giant social upheaval that Europe is going through, entering France with Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose daughter through the King of France is one of Chrétien de Troyes's patrons — so it's all very connected to the growing Holy Roman Empire, the waning Eastern European Empire, or as we say, Byzantium. I think this is an incredible period of social shift. Something like "Sir Gawain and The Green Knight" is so removed from us that it's hard to catch the tonality of it. So we're left with a fog of interpretation. It's very hard to look at something that's almost 900 years old and figure out what the author's stance is. These are works where people had no notion of time as we know it now. It's the cusp of our world but it's still not yet our world.

AW: Where is T.H. White in all of this?

MS: The great populizer. To me, the story of the Arthurian legends is the story of straightening them out. Chrétien de Troyes was the author of the first five romances, and they were very confusing and contradictory. When you get up to Tennyson with "Idylls of the King" and White it becomes much more linear. It's a move from disorder to order, and they're ironing out the contractions. 

AW: I'm going throw out some adaptations, and you give me your first thought. "Camelot" the musical.

MS: My first impression is to laugh. Midcentury gender war.

AW: "The Mists of Avalon."

MS: Oh god… steps over the boundary — transgressive. Such a feminist look at the Arthurian legend.

AW: "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."

MS: First thing that comes to mind is "audacious." It's using Arthur to make this really hyper-strident criticism of American capitalism.

AW: King Arthur flour.

MS: The best.

Latest News

Thru hikers linked by life on the Appalachian Trail

Riley Moriarty


Of thousands who attempt to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, only one in four make it.

The AT, completed in 1937, runs over roughly 2,200 miles, from Springer Mountain in Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest to Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park of Maine.

Keep ReadingShow less
17th Annual New England Clambake: a community feast for a cause

The clambake returns to SWSA's Satre Hill July 27 to support the Jane Lloyd Fund.


The 17th Annual Traditional New England Clambake, sponsored by NBT Bank and benefiting the Jane Lloyd Fund, is set for Saturday, July 27, transforming the Salisbury Winter Sports Association’s Satre Hill into a cornucopia of mouthwatering food, live music, and community spirit.

The Jane Lloyd Fund, now in its 19th year, is administered by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and helps families battling cancer with day-to-day living expenses. Tanya Tedder, who serves on the fund’s small advisory board, was instrumental in the forming of the organization. After Jane Lloyd passed away in 2005 after an eight-year battle with cancer, the family asked Tedder to help start the foundation. “I was struggling myself with some loss,” said Tedder. “You know, you get in that spot, and you don’t know what to do with yourself. Someone once said to me, ‘Grief is just love with no place to go.’ I was absolutely thrilled to be asked and thrilled to jump into a mission that was so meaningful for the community.”

Keep ReadingShow less
Getting to know our green neighbors

Cover of "The Light Eaters" by Zoe Schlanger.


This installment of The Ungardener was to be about soil health but I will save that topic as I am compelled to tell you about a book I finished exactly three minutes before writing this sentence. It is called “The Light Eaters.” Written by Zoe Schlanger, a journalist by background, the book relays both the cutting edge of plant science and the outdated norms that surround this science. I promise that, in reading this book, you will be fascinated by what scientists are discovering about plants which extends far beyond the notions of plant communication and commerce — the wood wide web — that soaked into our consciousnesses several years ago. You might even find, as I did, some evidence for the empathetic, heart-expanding sentiment one feels in nature.

A staff writer for the Atlantic who left her full-time job to write this book, Schlanger has travelled around the world to bring us stories from scientists and researchers that evidence sophisticated plant behavior. These findings suggest a kind of plant ‘agency’ and perhaps even a consciousness; controversial notions that some in the scientific community have not been willing or able to distill into the prevailing human-centric conceptions of intelligence.

Keep ReadingShow less