Wednesday, September 10, 2008

King Arthur, Lout.

It's said history is written by the winners, but who writes the legends?

The Legend of King Arthur is one that weaves fact and folklore into an irresistible tale of medieval knights, battles and romances, intrigue and mysticism. As legends go Arthur's is as mailable as they come. Defender of Britons against the Saxons, crusader for the Holy Grail, the Arthur of legend is of a man who speaks both to and for a Christian God while receiving gifts from Pagen mistresses in lakes.

Playing against the backdrop of familiarity, Philip Reeve's Here Lies Arthur takes the legend of Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, and presents him as he might have been: a boorish, petty warrior with a thirst for conquest and the gift of a good Public Relations man.

Arthur, nicknamed the Bear, and his band of knights roam the countryside like Medieval Mafia offering protection from the Saxons in exchange for tribute. Those who remain loyal to others find their villages laid to waste. To ensure a smoother, more peaceful transition (and to avoid fighting wherever possible) Arthur has his storytelling friend Myrddin arrive in advance telling tales and spinning yarns about the man who will unify them once and for all. There is magic woven into this spin doctoring, a cheap magic designed to fool the superstitious, and Myrddin has dedicated his final years toward convincing one and all that Arthur is the leader they need in these troubled times.

Ah, but the thing here is who is telling the story of the creation of the legend.

When Here Lies Arthur opens we are in the midst of a raid on a small village. In the chaos a young girl named Gwynna escapes by slipping into the river and swimming downstream. When found by Myrddin, this girl with her ability to hold her breath underwater provides him with the opportunity to help the Bear unify a local band of knights behind him. After that, Myrddin decides to take Gwynna as his servant but must pass her off as a boy in order to keep her close by. It's Gwynna - now the boy Gwyn - who tells the story of Arthur as she knew him, from the height of his limited empire, through his days with Gwenhwyfar and a preposterously creaky round table, to his last sad, almost pathetic moments. It's a great adventure, full of battles and questionable alliances, and it lays down a nice little spin on the idea that great legends often mask the ugly truths behind those tales. In this case the clue is in the title's verb.

It's an interesting take on the power behind the throne. Myrrdin has but all his eggs in one basket and is willing to overlook Arthur's weaknesses because he feels that his importance as a polarizing figure are more important. Sometimes it's difficult not to see the parallels with modern politics where, say, a presidential advisor might be the one secretly behind the scenes pulling strings and diverting public attention. As Reeve has Gwynna/Gwyn slip in and out of various circles on influence we see the legend as it might have been, from the eyes of dull villagers trying to survive, through the adreneline charged eyes of the knights, to the cloistered whispering of the ladies of the house.

A few words of caution here. Yes, I realize this story is told from the perspective of a girl, but anyone who ditches this book because of the fact is doing themselves a great disservice. Gwynna is a tough, resourceful narrator who discovers she is much happier being one of the boys (especially later when Myrddin has her become a girl again in order to keep eye on Gwenhwyfar for him). She's a keen and wary observer, full of mischief, and a a growing sense of consciousness that allows her to question what she sees as clearly wrong.

It's easy to want to go looking for connections with previous tales, to match the Old English names with the ones we know today. Reeve plays with all the elements anew, almost deliberately seeming to debunk as much as he can, so for those who find the legend of Arthur sacrosanct you may wish to take a pass at this. You'd be missing out on a great yarn, but you'd wind up arguing with the book's recombined narrative.

Also, don't go looking for this book with the awesome UK cover (top) because Scholastic decided to wimp out and go with something a little more fantasy looking. I can understand not wanting the face of a boyishly handsome Arthur on the cover of a book narrated by a girl, but did Scholastic have to go with the dull electric sword (middle)? Couldn't they at least have been bolder and gone with the German cover(bottom)? Hmm, maybe that German cover wouldn't work either.

Normally I like to wait until a book is out before reviewing it, but this one has me busting at the seams. I'm sure advance copies are floating around already, but otherwise keep an eye peeled around the end of October.

Here Lies Arthur
by Philip Reeve
Scholastic Press


Gabrielle said...

Nice review, David! I'll definitely check it out. I read the first two books of Crossley-Holland's Arthur series, but couldn't finish the third.

The interview you did with Alex, Justin and Edward is up on

Sherry said...

I don't much like any of the covers, and I'm not into iconoclastic hero-bashing. But I'm intrigued nevertheless. I may have to check this one out.