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Here Lies Arthur

Style: Average

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Unobjectionable

In Brief: Revisionist take on the Arthurian canon, suggesting the truth behind the magical elements of the stories. Slightly disturbing questions of sexual identity. Marital coldness and subsequent infidelity. Some brutal deaths and a little earthiness & indelicacy.

Cover of Here Lies Arthur

Author: Philip Reeve

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published in: 2007

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Dark Ages

Setting: Post-Roman Arthurian Britain

Genres:  ArthurianGrowing-UpHistorical


Characters:

  • Gwyna is a young girl used by Merlin to trick impressionable warriors and later taken under his wing disguised first as a boy and then as a girl.
  • Merlin is a travelling bard, astute and used to helping Arthur get his own way by impressing his erstwhile allies.

Synopsis:

Gwyna, escaping from raiders, is rescued by Merlin from the river and in turn helps him to deceive the impressionable warriors into believing in a Lady of the Lake, guardian of a mystical sword she bequeathes to Arthur. To avoid suspicion, she then dresses as a boy and joins Arthur's camp as a distant relation and apprentice of Merlin. Later, when that disguise is impossible, she reverts to a female role until needing to make her escape after Merlin's death.

Notes:

An interesting revisionist take on the Arthurian stories. I say “revisionist” as though there were an accepted historical canon which of course there isn't. That said, stories of Arthur tend to fall into two categories: the romantic variety, verging on the fairy tale and involving magical assistance, mystical swords and the promise of another coming; and the more prosaic variety, styling Arthur as a more-or-less dignified post-Roman war leader struggling to unite warring British tribes against the Saxon invaders. Some authors, such as Rosemary Sutcliff have written the story both ways. This book falls solidly into the “prosaic” camp, but goes a step further. Not content with simply ignoring the more fanciful aspects of the stories, it actively debunks each one, explaining that Merlin was a travelling bard-cum-trickster and Gwyna his willing assistant and follower.

It all makes for an interesting story with the usual elements, including: Arthur's struggle to form some sort of unity among the warring tribes; his marriage to Guenevere and her infidelity; the wiliness of Merlin and his eventual downfall; Sir Kay as Arthur's brother and lieutenant. Arthur loses any semblance of dignity or nobility and is really one more war-leader among many, allowing politics, religion and trickery to achieve his ends. His marriage to Guenevere is cold and loveless which leads her to an affair with one of his men with the connivance of Gwyna, whose secret she knows. Kay is given a more humane treatment than usual, a worthy and level-headed second-in-command rather than a peevish brother, but it is he who liaises with Merlin over the latter's tricks and devices while Arthur remains half-ignorant of the subterfuges which win his allies over.

The title of the book refers obviously to the famous inscription supposedly to be found on Arthur's tomb: Here Lies Arthur, the Once and Future King. Presumably, though, the author wanted to play a little on the words since the book is very much about the lies which are told about Arthur, although never in fact by Arthur himself in this story. A principal theme is that stories grow in the telling and that people are ready to believe — want to believe — a story even when they know it not to be true. That people need heroes even when the reality of those heroic figures is more mundane and even ignoble. We see Gwyna and Merlin both telling legends with which their hearers are more than familiar. Yet by dressing them up in a topical guise, they somehow give a new life and a new credibility to them, as though they, the listeners, had actually witnessed the events themselves. Slyly the storytellers tell their listeners what we, the 21st century readers, already know: that it is the epic story and not the bald truth which will come down to future generations.

One theme I've found only in this telling is that, not only is Gwyna/Gwyn a girl dressed as a boy — a commonplace device — but Peredur, known elsewhere as Percival, is a boy dressed as a girl! (Although the author does mention that this is part of the mediaeval legend of Percival). After some time, he sorts himself out and joins Arthur's band as a slightly unconventional warrior. But after the final battle, we see him and Gwyna sailing away together, she as a boy and he as a girl. Not sure if the author was trying to make a point about sexual identity or merely wanting an offbeat tableau for the final act.

Themes:

  • Truth in historical legends

Tuesday 16th October 2007