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The Once and Future Arthur

Here Lies Arthur

By Philip Reeve
Scholastic, 2010

Lyonesse: Darksolstice

By Sam Llewellyn
Orchard Books, 2010

   

The legend of King Arthur is the gift that keeps on giving. Countless writers, such as Thomas Malory, T.H. White, and Marion Zimmer Bradley have reshaped the stories in their own words, updating the adventures of Arthur, Guinevere, and the Knights of the Round Table to speak to readers of different generations. The genre of young adult fiction is no exception with two new and fairly disparate adaptations recently published. Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur and the second volume in Sam Llewellyn’s Lyonesse series, Darksolstice, offer fresh perspectives on this venerable and beloved tale.

With Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve has reimagined the Arthur tale with a political spin. Instead of the magic of Merlin, he presents Myrddin, trusted advisor to the hotheaded and ambitious king. More than that, though, Myrddin is Arthur’s PR man. Through song and storytelling, Myrddin spreads the oversized legend of Arthur throughout the land with tales of bravery and destiny. As seen through the eyes of the narrator, Gwyna, however, these stories are puffery, meant to accelerate Arthur’s rise to prominence among the warring landowners of England. Myrddin rescues Gwyna during Arthur’s raid on her master’s land, and she is quickly pressed into service to orchestrate the famous Lady of the Lake legend. Gone is the ethereal hand reaching out from the Lake of Avalon to present Arthur with Excalibur. Reeve’s take is a clever introduction to Myrddin’s manipulations on Arthur’s behalf:

“Do it slowly, gracefully,” Myrddin had told me. But when I tore the oilcloth wrapping from the sword, it almost floated free, so I had to snatch it down and stuff it between my knees and poke the sword up with my spare hand. I felt it break the surface. My hand, out in the air, felt even colder than the rest of me. The sword was too heavy. I could feel it wobbling. My fingers were so numb that I knew I couldn’t keep a grip much longer on the wet hilt.

Myrddin’s ruse succeeds in convincing Arthur, his men, and his enemies that Arthur has been entrusted by the gods with the sword Calipurn. In a moment that made me snicker, Myrddin admits to Gwyna that he bought the sword “from a trader down at Din Tagyll. But we can make men think it is from the gods.” Here Lies Arthur is filled with these irreverent departures from the familiar tale and succeeds greatly with its jaded tone.

In Myrddin, Philip Reeve has created an endlessly fascinating character who delivers some of the best lines of the book. When Gwyna questions his faith, he replies that the talismans and charms he wears are merely to convince others of his belief in higher powers. Reeve has Myrddin himself summarize his character: “It’s a freedom, not believing. It gives me the power to look clear and hard at what other men believe and use it to steer them.” It could easily be a line out of “Mad Men,” or from the mouth of a political operative. This is a far cry from the lovable magician and mentor found in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. There are no spells that allow Arthur to experience life among ants or geese, and no instruction on how to fight honorably. Myrddin creates the image of the King, his heroic stories glossing over the violent reality of Arthur’s battle for power.

Smoothing out the edges of this great manipulator, however, is his gruff but sincere caring for Gwyna. In order to look out for her, he cuts her hair, renames her Gwyn, and passes her off as his boy servant. Gwyna slowly adjusts to life as a boy, telling the reader that she grew to prefer it since “[t]he things boys do – even the chores – are better fun than women’s work.” Gwyna can’t stay one of the boys for long, though, and eventually Myrddin brings her to a family where she can learn those womanly chores anyway. Always seeking an opportunity to protect Arthur’s image, Myrddin sends Gwyna to spy on Arthur’s wife, Gwenhwyfar. Anyone familiar with the legend of Arthur knows that it’s not really a spoiler to say that this marriage is doomed. For a young adult book, Arthur’s reaction to his wife’s adultery could come across as excessive – he beheads Gwenhwyfar’s young lover, Bedwyr – but it in this respect it keeps in line with other portrayals of Arthur’s anger at his wife’s betrayal.

Ultimately, it’s the theme of storytelling – and its ability to outlast its subjects – that courses through the novel. As narrator, Gwyna has the ultimate authority of the book, to relay the exploits of Arthur, his knights, and Gwenhwyfar, providing insight into the man behind Myrddin’s myths. To the reader she tells the truth of the man, but as she ventures out on her own at the end of the novel, she continues Myrddin’s work of propagating the legend of Arthur:

At first I felt ashamed to be telling lies for a living, and it stung me that I could not tell the truth. But as the year ripened and our road wound west I came to see it didn’t matter any longer what the truth had been. The real Arthur had been just a little tyrant in an age of tyrants. What mattered about him was the stories.

Philip Reeve takes a creative angle with this old story, stripping away Arthur’s magical ascent to the throne and replacing it with a narrative more grounded in realism. The ability to pull a sword from a stone takes a backseat to effective spin doctoring.

Merlin and Vivien (the Lady of the Lake), painted by Gustave Doré

Sam Llewellyn’s version of the Arthurian legend, while firmly rooted in high fantasy, is steeped in the stories he heard as a child. In the Author’s Note to Lyonesse: Darksolstice, he discusses growing up on the Isles of Scilly in Great Britain, near Lyonesse and the legendary one-time home of Arthur. Llewellyn’s obvious enthusiasm for the old legends show in this intricate and richly imagined novel. The heroes and villains are clearly defined, and the world they inhabit is filled with fantastical creatures. It’s a departure from the sarcastic, real world setting of Here Lies Arthur, but I found myself captivated by the vivid setting and adventures of the young knights.

As the second volume in the series, Darksolstice picks up where The Well Between the Worlds left off. Here, we have a thirteen-year-old version of Idris (Arthur) who has been cast out of Lyonesse, the kingdom he is destined to rule, by the evil Fisheagle. Far below Lyonesse lurks an underwater realm filled with monsters that threaten to flood Lyonesse, unless Idris can find a way to stop Fisheagle from installing her son Murther as king. Forced into exile, he must also deal with the kidnapping of his sister Morgan by slave traders who have taken her to far off Aegypt.

The novel comes alive when Idris embarks on his plan to save Lyonesse from destruction. Idris makes a deal with the neighboring kings: if he can rescue Morgan, then they will help him battle Fisheagle’s army. In his travels he meets his future Knights of the Round Table: Tristan, Gawaine, Bors, Galahd, Lanz, and Merk. The camaraderie between the young men drives the story, each of them distinct characters with their own strengths. Idris tries to find the balance between being a king and enjoying the company of his new companions, which leads to this very famous decision:

Idris walked to the head of what would have been the table if there had been one. He said, “It is true that I am a King. And I am happy to sit at the head of the table. On condition that the table is round.”

They stared at him, jaws hanging. Then Bors slammed his palms together and gave a great bellow of laughter, and everyone else started to laugh, too. And from that time forward they sat around the hearthstone in a circle, and were knit by the circle, so that the strength of one was the strength of all.

As exciting as the adventures of Idris and his knights are, the novel loses steam when the characters eventually separate. After successfully rescuing Morgan, Idris sends the knights to appeal to the other kings to honor their promise of help in the coming battle. Llewellyn does a fine job of rendering the brother-sister bond between Idris and Morgan. Their scenes together are tinged with the sadness of what they have lost, as well as the playful banter of siblings. A lull in the action is perfectly understandable as Llewellyn builds to Idris’s final showdown with Fisheagle, with the future of his kingdom in the balance. However, the climax of the book falls a bit flat, with a plot twist that doesn’t allow for a satisfying, be-all-end-all confrontation between the two enemies. In the end, Idris is forced to make an enormous sacrifice that ends the novel on a bittersweet, but ultimately moving, note.

While the final chapters of Lyonesse: Darksolstice don’t quite have the energy of Idris’s earlier adventures, Sam Llewellyn does a fine job creating a vividly imagined world, the product of a childhood spent immersed in the stories of Arthur and his knights. He has put his own entertaining stamp on the ancient tale, and his depiction of the rollicking quests of Idris and his knights kept me riveted throughout most of the novel. Here Lies Arthur, with its more nebulous take on heroism and villainy speaks more directly to the current state of the world, while still maintaining the element of adventure that fans of King Arthur stories come to expect.

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Kristin Brower Walker received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston. She currently lives in Cooperstown, NY where she still can’t escape Red Sox fans.