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Norma Lorre Goodrich, 89; Shed New Light on King Arthur

September 30, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

With all the patience of an archeologist excavating an ancient site, writer Norma Lorre Goodrich spent years unearthing the story of King Arthur.

For centuries the story was thought to be a fable, with British roots and a powerful appeal to generations. But beneath the legend of Camelot and Queen Guinevere, the Knights of the Round Table and Lancelot, Goodrich discovered what she called the true story: King Arthur was not a myth but an actual person, born to a royal family. He did not live in Britain or Wales but in Scotland.

Though her findings clashed with years of scholarship and conventional wisdom, Goodrich was confident:

"Time to clean house in Camelot," she said at the time her book was published.

Goodrich, a prolific author and former USC and Claremont Colleges professor who surprised students and colleagues with her sometimes controversial discoveries, died Sept. 19 of natural causes at her home in Claremont, said her friend and longtime assistant, Darin Stewart. She was 89.

During her 45 years of teaching comparative literature and writing, Goodrich viewed writings not as staid, already discovered treasures, but as dynamic works that kept yielding truths.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 93 words Type of Material: Correction
Norma Lorre Goodrich: The obituary about writer and professor Norma Lorre Goodrich in the California section on Sept. 30 said her book on King Arthur concluded "he did not live in Britain or Wales but in Scotland." The article should have said he did not live in England or Wales but in Scotland. The name of Goodrich's book is "King Arthur." The Section A briefing Sept. 30 on Goodrich's death noted that she taught at Claremont College. Goodrich was dean of the faculty at Scripps College, one of the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges.

"Literature has the answers to the problems of our times," Goodrich told a Times reporter in 1967. "Young people study literature because they are looking for answers, and if they come for that reason, they're going to be writers."

Much of her professional career was spent journeying through literature and the places that gave birth to it. Goodrich was ably equipped for her travels, both literary and actual. She spoke numerous languages, which aided her as she pored over ancient works.

"All my life I've been reading Latin and French," she said in the Times interview. "I read my whole childhood away, and I just always wanted to be a writer."

Goodrich was born May 10, 1917, in Huntington, Vt., the daughter of Charles Edmund and Edyth Annie Falby. When she was 5, an aunt gave her a copy of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's book "The Idylls of the King," and set her on a literary path.

Goodrich graduated from the University of Vermont in 1938 with a bachelor's degree and continued her studies at universities in France, where she lived for many years and once owned and directed a school.

She married Joseph Lorre and the couple had a son, Jean-Joseph Lorre. They divorced in 1946. In 1965 she earned doctoral degrees in French and Roman philology from Columbia University.

Using the pen name Goodrich, she began publishing in 1960, with "Myths of the Hero," an exploration of myths from ancient and medieval times. In it she wrote, "The hero myth may be the one that has most influenced culture down the centuries."

A Times critic called the myths as retold by Goodrich a "remarkable collection" that generates a sense of universal connectedness, a link with the heroic thrust in all men.

In 1964 Goodrich married John Hereford Howard and began teaching French and comparative literature at USC. She continued her practice of writing a book a year, "always beginning her writing the day after Labor Day," said Stewart.

"Writing is a very solitary business," she said in the 1967 Times article. "But the problem is how to keep in touch with the real world. If I sit in the house and just write, I lose my tongue."

Teaching allowed her to keep in touch and offered her an opportunity to consort with young, optimistic students, "the nicest segment of society," she said. For them she made literature relevant.

"She totally captured my imagination," said Kate Mueller, a former student of Goodrich's who is now dean of students at Orange Coast College. "She had a passion for exciting your brain. It wasn't ever just rote memorization."

Goodrich approached ancient writings with a fresh eye, allowing herself to be surprised by what she found.

"I have only recently discovered this, to my own chagrin: Great literature has always hated women as inferior, and even much worse," she told the Times in 1971, the year she became dean of the faculty at Scripps College, a women's college in Claremont.

The image of women in literature was a recurring theme of Goodrich's writings and teaching.

In Greek mythology and fairy tales, which Goodrich considered literature, the message sent to little girls was often unhealthy.

"The status of women in the fairy tale is experienced as an inferiority, and this inferiority is definitive," Goodrich told The Times. "There is no way for the little girl in the fairy tale to transcend it, except by marrying the prince."

By 1986, Goodrich was professor emerita at the Claremont Colleges and had turned her attention to the legend of King Arthur after discovering a void in the scholarship: "All the books on Arthur have been on the mythology, the legend," she told a Times reporter then.

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