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?