18 September, 2011

Kingdom of Summer, by Gillian Bradshaw. Book review

First published 1981. Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4022-4072-0. 329 pages. Advance review copy supplied by publisher.

Kingdom of Summer is the second in Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy, sequel to Hawk of May (reviewed here earlier). The story still revolves around Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain in the later legends), though it is narrated by his (fictional) servant Rhys ap Sion. Many of the characters are figures from the legends, including Morgause, her husband King Lot of Orkney, their sons Gwalchmai and Agravain, Morgause’s illegitimate son Medraut, Arthur’s knights Cei and Bedwyr, and Arthur himself. Maelgwn Gwynedd, historical king of Gwynedd in the early to mid sixth century, appears as a secondary character*. The central character, Rhys ap Sion, and an Irish servant girl called Eivlin are fictional.

Rhys ap Sion is a freeborn farmer, peaceably working his family’s land near the River Severn. When a wounded warrior, Gwalchmai ap Lot, seeks hospitality at the farm in a bitter winter, Rhys feels drawn to him and goes with him as his servant to Arthur’s stronghold at Camlann and then on a diplomatic mission to Maelgwn Gwynedd. There Rhys encounters Gwalchmai’s sinisterly beautiful mother Morgause and suave brother Medraut, not to mention their attractive Irish serving girl Eivlin. As Rhys learns more of the dark secrets haunting Gwalchmai’s past, he comes to realise that the schemes afoot threaten not only Gwalchmai but Arthur’s kingdom itself.

Fantasy is less dominant in Kingdom of Summer than in Hawk of May, a plus point for me. Gwalchmai still has his magical Otherworld sword and horse, and supernatural duels and healing miracles feature in the plot, but for me the strongest aspect of the novel was the interplay between the characters. Apart from Morgause, who is evil incarnate (as expected from her role in the previous book), everyone has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Gwalchmai is at first sight the ideal hero of legend, brave, courteous and near-invincible in battle, but he is haunted by his not-entirely-honourable treatment of a woman several years earlier, and he is endearingly hopeless at practical matters such as obtaining food and shelter. Agravain is a complete contrast, brash, arrogant, inclined to casual violence and not given to thinking if he can help it, but also likeable in his ebullience. Medraut is a contrast again, charming, subtle and persuasive. The conflicts between the three Orkney brothers are sharply drawn, and test Rhys’s loyalty to Gwalchmai.

Rhys himself, as the narrator, is a central character in the novel, and the tale is as much his as Gwalchmai’s. A hard-headed farmer – both literally and figuratively – he is rather out of his depth in the world of warrior honour and Otherworldly weapons, and his down-to-earth common sense is both a support and a contrast to Gwalchmai’s rather abstract concerns. The Irish girl Eivlin is a delight. Her first line, on being asked where she got that kettle, is to reply, “A hen laid it in the rafters, having been affrighted in a coppersmith’s shop”, which sold me straight away. In her own way, she demonstrates as much courage and loyalty as any of the warriors.

There are two distinct plot strands, Gwalchmai’s search for the woman he wronged and Morgause’s evil schemes to destroy Arthur and all he stands for. The first is resolved – although there is, I think, scope for it to reappear – and the second is clearly setting up for a climax in the last book of the trilogy. I shall be interested to see how it plays out.

There’s a sketch map in the front for anyone who is unfamiliar with the geography of Arthurian Britain, although not all the place names are marked and Less Britain appears to be placed in modern Picardy and Normandy rather than its more usual location in modern Brittany. The ARC has no historical or author’s note, although there may be one in the finished version. Not that it matters greatly, because the Arthurian legends have been told and retold so many times that they have near-limitless scope for interpretation.

Second in an engaging fantasy trilogy retelling the story of Gwalchmai (later Sir Gawain) of Arthurian legend.

*Although Maelgwn is dated to the early to mid sixth century (died in 547), I’m not sure that Kingdom of Summer is intended as set in the same period; Maelgwn may have been displaced earlier in time to make him contemporary with Arthur’s heyday. The author’s note for Hawk of May commented that ‘the novel is only partially historical’, so chronology is not that important.


Rick said...

Regarding Maelgwn Gwynedd, my impression is that Arthurian chronology is uncertain enough to allow a possible overlap - though whether the historical contexts quite fit could be its own issue.

Carla said...

Chronology is not that important in Arthuriana, as the author says. My feeling is that Maelgwn was probably a generation or two after the historical Arthur (usual caveat; if there was a historical Arthur). Gildas treats Maglocunus (usually identified with Maelgwn) as a contemporary ruler, and the victory at Badon as having happened a considerable time in the past (in the year of his own birth, he says, which must surely mean at least 20 years previously for Gildas to be old enough to be writing his sermon, and probably more like 40 or more). If Arthur was the victorious general at Badon, that tends to place Arthur a generation or two before Gildas and Maelgwn. As usual, this is by no means definitive; Gildas' sermon can be interpreted in lots of different ways.

Rick said...

Speculatively (is there anything else, on this subject?), Maelgwn / Maglocunus is 'post-Arthurian' on the basis of what he was doing - securing his control regionally, not trying to establish himself overlord or defender of the entire island, or even the ex-Roman part of it.

Having said that, you don't have to squint too hard to argue that Arthur - or anyone trying to fill those shoes - had more problem with breakaways than would-be rivals.

If Camlann is a historical battle, the political landscape must have changed abruptly - central authority went pretty much overnight from program to vague aspiration.

Carla said...

Not a lot - there's the handful of scraps of documentary material, all with their own problems, and beyond that it's pretty much all speculative. Which is no doubt part of the appeal; I can think of no other historical(?) figure where a beautiful story is less likely to be slain by an ugly fact :-)

Depends a bit what Gildas meant when he called Maglocunus 'dragon of the island'. If it's taken as referring to, say, Anglesey, then it fits with a regional power base; if it's taken as referring to the Island of Britain, then it may fit with some concept of overlordship (and that in turn leads on to all sorts of theories about 'Pendragon' etc....).

Explain a bit more about Camlann showing an abrupt change in the political landscape, please? The earliest source (Annales Cambriae) just says it was a battle in which Arthur and Medraut fell; it doesn't say what it was about or who it was between or even whether Arthur and Medraut were on the same side or opposing sides. The Triads call it a 'Futile Battle' and attribute it to a squabble between Gwenhwyfar and her sister, implying that by then (caveat that the Triads is a late source and the history, whatever it was, had had ample time to get forgotten/ distorted/ muddled) it was thought of as a pointless conflict, but even that doesn't say much about the political landscape.

Rick said...

The Trojan War comes close. It surely has some connection to the great Mycenaean collapse c. 1200 BC, but exactly what the connection is, is elusive.

There are a lot of similarities, including the tendency of Sober, Serious Experts to be very conservative about drawing connections between archeology and legend, arguably to a fault.

'Overnight' is probably an overstatement. But if Camlann was an important battle at the time (not purely in bardic retrospect), then the implications probably took a lot less than a generation to sink in.

Oh, hell, let me dive into speculation here.

The Roman political and administrative superstructure apparently left with the legions, already gone when Honorius addressed a letter to the local civitates, not provincial officials.

But Romanitas does not disappear, at least for some substantial part of the elite. For some decades life goes on, the absence of central government merely meaning no tax collectors.

Later, however, disorder spreads, and the still-Romanized elites respond with some kind of 'federal' defense effort, which seems to have been reasonably effective. Ambrosius and Arthur, whatever their exact connection to each other, were both part of this effort, and Badon was presumably a high water mark of some sort.

Then came Camlann. Gildas doesn't mention it, but he is presumably writing somewhat later. And from his ('Roman') perspective everything is going to hell in a handbasket as compared to Ambrosius' day.

'Dragon of the island' does not sound like praise. Of course the difference between 'dragon' and 'defender' is in the eye of the beholder. And can also be a matter of level of success. If a warlord trounces all his foes he can bring peace, and isn't a warlord any more.

I seem to recall some hints in the Triads of anti-Arthur sentiment. Probably not everyone was enamored of the neo-Roman project of a general defense authority.

My guess is that, after the fact, the neo-Roman effort of Ambrosius and Arthur was hijacked by proto-Welsh tradition.

Where they saw themselves, more or less, as 'Romans' pushing back the tide of general disorder in whatever form - Picts, Saxons, local bandits - they are re-cast as 'British' heroes fighting English 'Saxons.'

Having said this, I cheerfully admit that it reflects a very Gibbons-esque picture that no one at the time might recognize.

Carla said...

True - Homer's epic may stand in a similar position to Bronze Age Mycenae as the Arthurian legends do to post-Roman Britain. I have no problem with speculation provided it's clearly identified as such; what I dislike is speculation masquerading as fact. I'm strongly in favour of being conservative about the evidence base so that any speculation is starting from the evidence (if any) rather than from someone else's speculation.

So let's be speculative :-) I like your scenario, with the addition that the situation may have varied by geography as well as over time. So as I see it, Romanitas may have disappeared quicker in some places than others, depending on local circumstances and local reactions. The general picture of increasing fragmentation and increasing disorder seems likely; it may have started before the formal
end of Roman administration in some places. The various usurping generals and subsequent reprisals, and things like the Barbarian Conspiracy, presumably had some disruptive effect.

In which case it also seems very likely that someone may well have had a go at putting the pieces back together again (with himself/themselves at the top, no doubt). Arguably there may be an echo of something like this in Bede's idea of a southern imperium, which the ASC calls 'Bretwalda'. Such a project may well have been seen in various ways at the time, depending on point of view - restoring Romanitas; restoring unity; pushing back the tide of disorder; defending against external invaders; some sort of nationalistic or ethnic conflict; establishing the tyrannical rule of an unaccountable military elite; and no doubt there are more. All in the eye of the beholder (I daresay Sauron would have claimed to be unifying Middle-earth...)

I suspect Gildas didn't mean 'dragon' as a compliment; Gildas doesn't do compliments (except to the long-dead Ambrosius). Although that might have been in the eye of the beholder as well; who knows whether Maelgwn might have chosen to take it as a compliment, especially if a dragon was a military or heraldic symbol.

Rick said...

I think the two legend cycles stand in a very similar position. In both cases, societies with imposing superstructures - but probably rather shallow roots - went pear shaped and fragmented. By a couple of hundred years later, the half-remembered events of the collapse were turned into heroic cycles.

And of course both have had enormous impact on Western lit up to the present day.

Definitely the situation varied by region, even by local district. But one thing that strikes me is that classical features seem to hang on longer to the west and north, along what had been the fringe of Roman Britain.

Of course that is where the army had been, and whatever auxiliaries remained, and in some sense they are Roman as long as they think of themselves as Roman.

So. Around the mid 5th century there is pervasive disorder. And in the Romanized heartland much of the elite bails out, heading west to where there is still some security.

Thus, sad bands of High Elves passing westward, westward.

And in particular the priests and teachers go west. Whoever remains of the elite are basically people who can raise their own troops. 'Rome' has abandoned them once again, or perhaps good riddance.

But the troops they raise may be largely Germanic-speaking mercenaries, so speaking to them in language they can understand is a very good idea.

Thus the inside-outness of 'Rome' hanging on in the old frontier zone after it had gone under in its core.

For the elite refugees, however, Ambrosius-Arthur is one big bust: They never do get to go home. It all looks better in retrospect, even to crabby old Gildas.

Rick said...

Yes, 'dragon' could easily begin as insult and end as praise - roughly speaking the difference between monks and soldiers.

Carla said...

There's a tradition of an aristocratic migration to Brittany, led by priests singing psalms, and by saints who on arrival miraculously create springs of fresh water at derelict Roman villas (surely a mis-remembered or embellished tale of somebody who knew enough engineering to trace and tap into a blocked aqueduct) - so the sad bands of High Elves may have been going at least as much south as west :-)

The transition away from a money-based commercial economy would also (logically) have been a more wrenching dislocation in the more Romanised areas in the south and east that were more dependent on trade and towns. That would probably have affected how things played out. For areas or groups who had been less involved in the money-based economy to begin with, the effect of its disappearance would be correspondingly less.