15 September, 2010

Hawk of May, by Gillian Bradshaw. Book review

First published 1980. Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks, 2010, ISBN 978-1402240706, 356 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy supplied by publisher.

Hawk of May is the first part of a fantasy trilogy retelling the Arthurian legends, focussing on Gwalchmai as the central character. Gwalchmai translates literally as “Hawk of May”, hence the title, and in later legend he becomes the character Sir Gawain. Other key figures in the legend feature as major characters – Arthur, his evil sorceress sister Morgause, her sons Agravain and Medraut (Mordred), Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere) and Cei (Sir Kay). Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), not yet Arthur’s wife, gets a walk-on part near the end, and will no doubt reappear in the later books. The historical king of the West Saxons, Cerdic, makes an appearance. So do some other figures from the scanty historical records, such as Maelgwn Gwynedd and Urien Rheged, although they are displaced in time by half a century or more from their actual positions in the mid to late sixth century. The setting for Hawk of May is post-Roman Britain at approximately the end of the fifth century, taking the dates for Arthur’s major battles from Annales Cambriae and for Cerdic’s reign from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, as the author’s note says, “...since the novel is only partially historical, geography is not that important.” and neither is chronology. The novel works best when read as a story set in the timeless world of “once upon a time”, rather like the medieval Arthurian legends themselves.

Gwalchmai is the second son of Queen Morgause and her husband King Lot of the Orkney Islands. To his father’s disappointment, he shows no noticeable talent as a warrior, although he is a skilled horseman and harpist. Bullied by his elder brother Agravain, Gwalchmai leads a lonely existence until his beautiful mother, whom he worships, offers to teach him reading and, later, black magic. After witnessing some of its cruelties, he comes to fear and hate sorcery, renounces it, and after an adventure in the Otherworld he comes into possession of a magic sword and the skills to wield it. Magically returned to the real world in southern Britain, Gwalchmai sets off to offer his services to Arthur – but Arthur has his own dark reasons to hate and mistrust Morgause’s son. Will Gwalchmai ever persuade Arthur to accept him, and will either escape the shadow of Morgause’s evil magic?

Hawk of May is a fantasy novel, centred on a supernatural conflict between the forces of good (the Light) and evil (the Darkness). Gwalchmai undertakes a supernatural journey on a magic boat to the Otherworld, where he obtains a magic sword and later acquires a fairy horse. He has superhuman strength in battle, and has to physically fight and kill at least one real demon. The magical elements are key to the plot, whereas the approximate historical setting in somewhere in post-Roman Britain is incidental.

Within this fantasy environment, Hawk of May is a coming-of-age story, as the young Gwalchmai has to break free of his mother’s influence, make his own choices and earn a place for himself in the world. The plot mainly follows his upbringing and the circumstances that bring him to Arthur’s warband, so is fairly slight. Perhaps this reflects the book’s position as the first in a trilogy, setting up characters and situations for the novels to come.

Characterisation is effective, with most of the major players clearly drawn as individuals. Gwalchmai is endearingly humble, ever ready to attribute his battle success to supernatural favour rather than to his own prowess as a warrior. He grows from a child to a young man without losing his youthful idealism. Arthur, as portrayed here, is a charismatic battle leader, human enough to win his followers’ affection as well as their admiration. I can see why men would have been drawn to fight and die for this Arthur (something that isn’t always apparent in Arthurian fiction). Among the secondary characters, Cei and Agravain are archetypal ‘Celtic’ warriors, boastful, quarrelsome, flamboyant, cheerful and always ready for a drink or a fight, preferably both. Bedwyr is an intellectual as well as a warrior, with an interest in philosophy and a disinclination to take sides in petty quarrels. Morgause is pretty much pure evil, but given her traditional role in the legend it might have been rather tricky to make her a nuanced character. Gwenhwyfar is attractive and realistic, as far as I can tell from her very brief appearance, which bodes well for the rest of the series (assuming it is going to develop along the traditional lines).

Fantasy retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of Gwalchmai, describing how he came to Arthur’s following as a young man.


Gabriele Campbell said...

I like that trilogy.

Now you make me want to reread it, and what with that big TBR pile and all. ;)

Nicola Griffith said...

I've loved these books since they were first published. Great stuff.

Bradshaw's straight historical fiction is just as good as her fantasy--some perhaps even better. One of my favourites is The Sand Reckoner, the story of Archimedes. It reads like lived life, not fiction (only, y'know, more exciting and better organised...).

Constance Brewer said...

"Gwalchmai undertakes a supernatural journey on a magic boat to the Otherworld"
Count me in. You had me at Otherworld. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - I must have missed these first time round, because the reissue didn't seem familiar when I was reading it (or at least, no more so than would be expected from any Arthurian tale where so many of the characters and themes are well known). I'm impressed so far. Sorry about adding to your TBR pile :-)

Nicola - many thanks for that recommendation! I'll see if I can find it. I haven't read any of her straight historical fiction, and I generally prefer HF without the fantasy. 'More exciting and better organised' - a good description! Who was it said that the difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense?

Constance - you should have no trouble finding the reissue in the US. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it!

Meghan said...

I like the idea of Arthur being an accessible character as opposed to an over-the-top super hero or some aloof king. Need to read this one!

Kathryn Warner said...

Something else for my tottering TBR pile...;-)

Carla said...

Meghan - Arthur can be tricky, as he has to be exceptional to justify his legendary status, but not so exceptional as to be unbelievable. I thought this novel portrayed him very well, perhaps because we see him through Gwalchmai's eyes.

Kathryn - so many books, so little time :-)