The Story So Far ...

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Many Faces of Arthur - A Reader's Viewpoint

King Arthur: real person, a myth, a legend, a Welshman? A Northerner? A novelist's delight?

My grandfather was an English teacher, and subsequently the headmaster of a boys' grammar school. That's all I need to tell you for you to imagine the number of books he had in his house. Periodically he would have a partial clear-out, and he used to give me the lion's share of his books about the early medieval world. Consequently I became the owner of several books about the Celts, and not a few about King Arthur, almost all of them written by Geoffrey Ashe. 

My A Level project was about the Celts, and I have continued over the years to research and take an interest in them. But Arthur? Not so much. Beyond scarcely believing that he was ever even a real figure, I thought about him only when I got cross with interpretations which focused on the magical, the medieval, the Malory version of the tales. Nope, Arthur wasn't for me.



And yet, on one shelf alone, I have six novels, by four authors, and they are all stories of Arthur.

So, why? What is it about these books that caught - and held - my interest? I've tried to list these books in the order in which I first read them, but memory plays games, doesn't it? 

The only one I can pin down with any certainty is Parke Godwin's Firelord, because I remember my sister recommending it to me, along with Sharon Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, for something to read to fill the evenings when, having recently graduated and in my first job, I was living on my own for the first time.

I know I read Helen Hollick's books after I'd discovered Sharon Penman, and the date inside my copy of the first in her trilogy suggests that I came to them nearly a decade later. I would swear I read Persia Woolley while I was still a student, but I graduated in 1985, and my copy is dated 1988.



Thus, I think the first of these books to entertain me was The Mists of Avalon by Marion Bradley (my copy is dated 1983)

Now, despite what I've just said about not liking too much magic and mysticism, this novel is told from the point of view of Morgaine, who has the gift of 'sight'. In some respects this is a fairly faithful recreation of the Arthurian legend, but there are twists, most of which I can't reveal for fear of spoiling the plot. 

Morgaine is not an evil witch, and although she remains responsible for much of what happens, she is given a believable and poignant backstory. Some characters from the legend are fused, so that Galahad is also known as Lancelot, but others become three dimensional; in particular, Gwenhwyfar, who has a more powerful reason for her betrayal of Arthur than simply being smitten by a dashing knight. The clash between the old and new religions adds a powerful dimension to the story, too, and roots it more firmly in its historical context.

Bradley's story is told through the eyes of the women, but Parke Godwin went completely the other way and made Arthur the narrator. My copy of Firelord is dated 1980 but I must have read it around 1986-87.



Arthur lies dying, and looks back over his life, dictating to the young monk, Brother Coel. It's a surprising reworking of the story: 
"Damn it, I haven't time to lie here. Whatever comes, there's more for a king to do than squat like a mushroom and maunder on eternity."
Godwin gives Arthur a distinctive voice, and his tale is one based on such history as consensus suggests we have; that Arthur sprang from the dying embers of Roman Britain. Again, Morgana (as she is called in this version) is a sympathetic character. The love stories do not play out quite as expected, and while there are still certain elements of the legend, I recall that my sympathies ended up lying in unexpected places. The characterisation was sharp, different, and refreshing. 


Persia Woolley's Child of the Northern Spring shifts the focus back onto the female perspective. This is volume one of a trilogy, and for reasons long-forgotten now, I didn't ever read the other two volumes. Much of the first volume is taken up with Guinevere, daughter of the Cumbri, whose leader is the king of Rheged. She journeys from her homeland to marry Arthur, recounting tales from her past as she goes. Characters from the legend appear, such as King Mark and Tristan, along with Uther, King Lot and Igraine. I remember as I read this book that it didn't feel like I was reading the tale of Arthur necessarily, but a book set in similar times and with similar characters. Years later, watching the film First Knight, with its emphasis on Guinevere having come from a different country, I was reminded of Woolley's book.

Helen Hollick's Pendragon Trilogy dispenses with all the fantasy/magic elements of the tale. In this version, Gwenhwyfar is still the daughter of a foreign king, but in this instance she is the progeny of Cunedda, king of Gwynedd. To describe Hollick's Gwen as 'feisty' is to do her a disservice. She is courageous, and she is more than a match for Arthur.

The love story is far from simple and is satisfying, but what really struck me about this telling of the legend is that it simply didn't feel like I was reading about fictional characters at all. Removing the sorcery and leaving behind just the swords, the author paints a picture of a time in history, just as believable as anything from the pages of a Penman or a Chadwick historical novel. 

Unlike with Child of the Northern Spring, I never lost sight of the fact that this was the Arthurian tale, but I believed in these characters as real, historical figures. It was an indulgent delight, too, that just as with Penman's Welsh trilogy, I was able to settle down with not one, but three chunky volumes. I stayed with these people so long, that they occupied my thoughts for a long while afterwards.

So, no, I'm still not a huge fan of the non-fictional Arthur. I make a vague mental note when yet another theory emerges about him, that he was a Welshman, a Scot, a Yorkshireman, but where his appeal lies for me, is in his capacity to be so many things to so many different authors, and the proof that a tale can be retold in numerous ways, and always have something new to say.

Which Arthurian novels have you read, and loved, and why?

19 comments:

  1. Bernard Cornwell's Derfel Cadarn series is the best reworking of the arthurian myth, I've read. Again it strips away the magical in favour of a realistic 5th- 6th century setting. Love the books on here I've read - not the Sunne in Spleandour, though. I have read it, great writer, but...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've not read the Cornwell series, although I know many people who only came to his Uhtred books because they'd read his Arthurian series. It is fascinating how many different ways the same story can be told.

      Delete
    2. Richard Tearle6 July 2017 at 05:31

      I actually read the trilogy before I read Uhtred. At that time I had never read any Arthur stories that were so - how can I put it? - 'dirty'. By that I mean that it was so far removed from TH White and certainly Mallory. Derfel is well worth the read, Anjnie - I think you'd like him....

      Delete
    3. I'll definitely add them to my list of summer reading!

      Delete
    4. I completely agree about the Warlord series from Bernard Cornwell. Although Bradley's Mists of Avalon is a favorite of mine, my favorite version of the Arthur story is Cornwell's. He's apparently admitted that the trilogy was his best writing, and I agree with him.

      Delete
    5. Ah, so he thinks they are better than his Uhtred series? Interesting. I will definitely have to read them.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for the mention Annie! (I note you've got that awful cover for Kingmaking - I hate it but was at the mercy of the publisher - that's the good thing about now being Indie, my choice for covers!) It's hard to believe that I was accepted by Heinemann for the trilogy back in 1993 one week after my 40th birthday. I set out to write a 'what might have really happened' novel because so much of the magical stuff and the knights in armour side just didn't catch my attention for believability. I get quite a bit of grumbling from readers (US in particular) because my Arthur is not a 'good Christian king', but I never saw him as that. To me, Arthur was a rough, tough warlord who had to fight hard to gain his kingdom, and fight even harder to keep it. (My one concession by the way is the word king/kingdom both English terms not Romano-British, but I decided to use them as they are more familiar to the general reader.)
    I remember a chat I had with Bernard Cornwall soon after my Kingmaking and his first Arthurian book came out. He told me his wife thought mine was the better story! (I treasure that anecdote!:-) We also compared notes and I mentioned that there is no Merlin in my trilogy, to which he answered that he'd tried writing his without this character but couldn't make it work - so I'm one up on Bernard in that I _did_ make it work! *laugh*.
    Maybe one of the reasons my trilogy reads as 'believable characters' is because to me, while I was writing, they were very much alive and real people. Indeed Arthur would get himself into situations and I swear I heard him laugh and say 'now get me out of that one!" I was utterly bereft when starting to write the third part, as I knew Arthur had to die, but I found I couldn't kill him off! In the end I wrote the last chapter first then went back to the beginning, my own version of feeling that Arthur will never die. He was the love of my life for the ten years it took me to research and write those books. Now, he has been replaced by my pirate character, Jesamiah Acorne from the Sea Witch Voyages - but I wonder how many readers have realised that these two characters are very similar?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What a great anecdote! I know what you mean about trying to come to terms with the fact that your characters have to die. But I've not lived with one for as long as ten years - that must have been difficult. Yes, I remember that your Arthur was very 'human' - and how odd that, in the same way that Bernard Cornwell's Arthur has led people to his Uhtred, your Arthur led me to your Emma and Harold, and then wow - who'da thunk it - 1066 Turned Upside Down!

      Delete
  3. It was good to see such different interpretions of the story. I liked 'The Once and Future King' by T.H. White, don't be put off by the Disney rendition of it as The Sword in the Stone. But my favourite is Rosemary Sutcliff's 'Sword at Sunset' which sets Arthur firmly in the post-Roman period, not as a King but a military commander. It's heroic, tragic and very moving.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've always loved that title - "The Once and Future King". Titles are the hardest part of novel writing for me; I'd have been so pleased with myself if I'd come up with that one!

      Delete
  4. Richard Tearle6 July 2017 at 05:07

    In whichever form they take, the stories of Arthur are always popular, I feel. I have read Helen's trilogy and Bernard's trilogy and they stand out for me. Both are gritty and real - no shining armour, no chivalrous deeds, no magic in one and little in the other. Marion Zimmer Bradley was another good one, but didn't quite have the same impact. Reserching 'Arthur' is a nightmare - dates differ, characters differ, battles differ and locations vary widely. I have been looking at writing a story around Ulfius, a companion of Uther and who was said to have accompanied Merlin in taking the child Arthur to Ector. I am trying to avoid magic - but not the belief in it, for I think that would have been very real at the time. I have chosen Gloucester as the main location and no more from 50 years after the Romans left. Because, as you say at the beginning of your blog, there is so little known that a writer can almost make everything up!

    ReplyDelete
  5. One of my earliest encounters with King Arthur was as a child reading Alice M Hadfiield's King Arthur and the Round Table (pub 1953). My great aunt gave me the book in 1960 when I was aged seven - I still have the book even after moving from UK to US. It certainly influenced my traditional take on the stories - until I read Mists of Avalon. I have to admit Helen Hollick's version is still in my To Read file on Kindle - (at least I bought it, Helen).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've not come across that book, Roland - I'll have to see if I can pick up a copy.

      Delete
    2. I did a search on Amazon and it is only available through third party sellers on the .com site - https://www.amazon.com/Arthur-illustrations-CAMMEL-DONALD-HADFIELD/dp/B002BSLHEC/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1499447430&sr=8-2-fkmr0&keywords=Alice+M+Hadfiield%27s+King+Arthur+and+the+Round+Table . There is a 2014 abridged version for schools with short notes in the text - like what Stonehenge is

      I suspect that a good second hand shop might be better for the unabridged original. The book is fairly old - same age as me.

      Delete
    3. I'm always buying up books from third party sellers -and they often arrive much more quickly than if bought direct from Amazon. Will investigate - thanks!

      Delete
  6. I have many books about Arthur and his knights, but very few of them are fictional. I was fascinated by the myths and legends at a young age and loved the stories by Chretien de Troyes when I studied them at university, but no one else's take on the legends has grabbed me, although I got on fairly well with Stephen Lawhead's Pendragon books. I think I'm more interested in where the stories came from and why they've gripped us for hundreds of years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't realise myself how many fiction versions I had. They are all so different that it's easy to forget that they are all takes on the same story. Like Robin Hood, the myth endures, and again, one can only wonder were they came from and why they have continued to fascinate.

      Delete
  7. I have read a number of the Arthur books, falling in love with the main character each time, some being more memorable that others. The most memorable include the following: Mallory, of course; Marian Zimmer Bradley; Bernard Cromwell; T.H. White (liked all four, but the 1st and last were my favorites); and Helen Hollick, whose version, because it was so realistic to me touched me the most. I love her Arthurian series! She is aware (I told her!) that I couldn't put it down after I finished the series, so I just re-read the series! I will have to say that White's ending was unforgettable when he notes that we are all just "drops on the sun-lite sea, but some of the drops do sparkle." I will never forget that quote because it is so true.
    I, too, was an English teacher at a high school in East Texas and loved teaching English literature.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Mary Beth. I've always been aware of TH White's book but never read it. Now I feel I must. Interesting that you say that you fell in love with the main character each time; I did, too - but they were almost like different people in each retelling. This is down to the skill of the storytellers, of course. One fine day I would like to investigate further why this legend endures, and speaks to so many people.

      Delete