30 January, 2010

King Arthur: Warrior of the West, by MK Hume. Book review

Edition reviewed: Headline, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7553-4868-8. 488 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Sequel to King Arthur: Dragon’s Child, this is the second in a trilogy retelling the Arthurian legends. Set in south-western Britain shortly after the end of Roman rule, most of the characters are familiar figures from the legends, including Artor (King Arthur), his second wife Wenhaver (Guinevere), his cousin Caius (Kay), his foster-father Ector, Myrddion Merlinus (Merlin), Nimue, Morgan, Morgause and her husband King Lot, Gawayne and Bedwyr (Bedivere). Other characters, such as Artor’s veteran swordmaster Targo and the spy Gruffydd, are fictional.

Artor, raised in Roman ways as the anonymous ward of the Roman nobleman Ector, is now established as High King of Britain with his capital at the rebuilt hillfort of Cadbury. He has one more battle to fight, against the Saxon chieftain Glamdring whose stronghold is at Caer Fyrddin (modern Carmarthen) in south-west Wales, for which Artor will need the help of his reluctant ally King Lot and an ex-slave named Bedwyr. Artor also knows he must marry again to beget an heir, but he is still traumatised by the tragic death of his beloved first wife (told in Book One). Eventually he weds Wenhaver, the beautiful, brainless, spiteful, blonde daughter of the powerful king Leodegran – reckless of Morgan’s long-ago prophecy that a woman with yellow hair will destroy his kingdom…..

This version of the perennially popular King Arthur story takes as its premise the inscription reported to have been found by medieval monks marking the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey. The inscription is now lost, and different sources give different versions of its wording (see the Wikipedia article on Avalon for discussion of its historical authenticity, or otherwise]). Gerald of Wales, a contemporary chronicler who apparently saw the inscription at or shortly after its discovery, gives the wording as:

Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the isle of Avalon
--Quoted in Wikipedia article

If Guinevere was King Arthur’s second wife, legend is silent on the subject of his first wife so the novelist’s imagination has free rein. In this retelling, Artor’s first wife Gallia was a sweet Roman lady and the love of his life. Artor has never recovered emotionally from her cruel murder, so although Gallia is dead before Warrior of the West opens (her story is covered in Book One), the memory of her still shapes Artor’s feelings and behaviour. I thought this was an interesting premise.

Warrior of the West seemed to me to have a strong flavour of unreality, perhaps fantasy. This is not because it features magic – the book is refreshingly free of supernatural happenings – but comes from the general tone. For example, the name of Artor’s stupid and dastardly Saxon adversary in the first half of the novel is Glamdring. Fellow Tolkien geeks will immediately recognise this as the name of Gandalf’s elven-forged sword in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, meaning ‘Foe-hammer’ in Tolkien’s invented language Sindarin. The elements aren’t obviously present in the Old English dictionary, so it doesn’t immediately appear to be an Old English word that Tolkien adapted to his own purposes (as he did with ‘orc’). Even if it is derived from an Old English name, calling a major character ‘Glamdring’ certainly gave me a strong impression of a fantasy setting. This is reinforced by setting Glamdring and his Saxon stronghold at modern Carmarthen in south-west Wales, a place that isn’t usually associated with Saxons in Arthuriana. The author’s note credits The Keys to Avalon by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd as inspiration and/or source for the locations. I have to say I have not found this particular theory terribly convincing (for details, see Keith Matthews’ critique, available online), and this no doubt contributed to the impression of a fantasy setting.

As regulars will know, I enjoy ‘invented history’, so I have no problem with stories set in entirely imaginary worlds, with or without historical parallels. So the chief weakness of Warrior of the West for me was not in the setting but in its structure and its prose style. The book falls into two scarcely connected parts. The first part features Artor’s military campaign against Glamdring, and has a starring role for a courageous young ex-slave and warrior called Bedwyr with a prophetic destiny. Then at the end of this campaign Bedwyr disappears from the narrative entirely and is, as far as I can recall, never mentioned again in the rest of the book. The second part focuses on political chicanery and a sadistic serial killer at Arthur’s stronghold at Cadbury, with apparently little or no connection to the first part. Perhaps Bedwyr’s story will be taken up and integrated with the rest in Book Three; all I can say is that Warrior of the West felt disjointed. The style seemed to me to be excessively wordy, reminiscent of the more ponderous types of academic writing, or of the reports of Victorian antiquaries. Some readers might find this gives the book an archaic olde-worlde feel. I found it lifeless, especially in the second part of the book where there is less action and more court bickering.

Since I found the style dull, this probably explains why I also found that most of the characters never really came to life for me. Artor is an interesting mix of cold, calculating ruthlessness and passionate loyalty to his friends, and the Roman Army veteran Targo is sympathetically drawn as a no-nonsense salt-of-the-earth old soldier. Wenhaver is memorably portrayed as a spoilt, selfish, spiteful brat with no redeeming features whatsoever except that she has the face and figure of a Barbie doll (and about as much brain).

A couple of useful sketch maps at the front of the book show the arrangement of Glastonbury and Artor’s stronghold at Cadbury, and the Author’s Note provides an interesting discussion of the various sources for the legend and the author’s take on the characters.

Retelling of the Arthur legend based on an interesting premise, but the style isn't for me.


Rick said...

My first thought was that a Saxon chieftain in Wales was in line with some of our speculation about blurred or shifting identities in the post Roman period. If a Cerdic could bubble up as founder of an English kingdom, why couldn't a Saxon bubble up in Wales?

Alas, it sounds as if the author merely picked up on an eccentric theory, and a rather needless one. Even by conservative standards the Arthurian period offers an awful lot of flexibility, so to speak.

Carla said...

Rick - Saxons in south Wales, fair enough as a premise; I personally don't find the cited source terribly convincing, and I thought 'hmmmm' as soon as I saw it in the Author's Note (which I read first, as I usually do), but unless there's definite evidence against (which in Arthuriana there mostly isn't), all's fair in fiction. I did wonder if the book was going to build something really interesting on the location, since it's quite a major departure from the conventional Arthurian locations, and I might well have got on better with the novel if it had. But because of the book-of-two-halves structure as soon as the battle's over it vanishes from the scene (like its hero Bedwyr) and hardly even gets mentioned again, so nothing is made of the location and it could have been placed almost anywhere. Maybe I'm missing something.

Saxons, or indeed anyone else, called Glamdring, made me think 'hmmmm' redoubled in spades. There are plenty of Old English names attested in sources dating from only a few hundred years later (e.g. Bede), so a name with such a strong flavour of Tolkien seemed really weird to me. Both those together got the book off to a bad start.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I think I'll give this one (and the prequel) a pass. I've grown a bit tired of the Arthurian stuff and it takes something more outstanding to make me read it these days.

Rick said...

'Glamdring' rang a bell, but I didn't quite make the connection till you spelled it out. I could buy some Tolkien references, but that one seems kind of arbitrary.

(I've considered having Catherine's court jester play a turn as 'Hob Baggins,' vanishing with a bang and flash at a court banquet. But that is a riff I can sort of justify from Tolkien's own text.)

The split personality of this book may be a problem of trilogies, with the Bedwyr thread being picked back up in the next book. There is a tension between trilogies as linked novels and as one big novel split up.

Constance Brewer said...

Well, you can never have too many books about Arthur - I think that's the theory. Maybe why I've grown disinterested in him.

Carla said...

Gabriele - there are certainly plenty of Arthurian novels to choose from :-)

Rick - given that 'Baggins lived on as a character in folklore long after the real events had been forgotten', or words to that effect, you could get away with that, provided your Lyonesse is in some way a successor to Tolkien's Middle-earth. (The Tolkien estate might have something to say on the subject, though).
Indeed, there is a tension between the parts and the whole in a trilogy (or any closely connected series), and the structure may reflect that. I still would have liked the two parts to have been more connected.

Constance - you may well be right about that :-) There are certainly plenty to choose from.

STAG said...

Arthurian books are like watching last week's hockey game...you know who is going to win. The lack of phoney baloney magik is a clearly positive mark of distinction IMHO.

Annis said...

I've read "Dragon's Child" (of course I had to give it a go, with Marilyn Hume being an Antipodean author).

There's an interview with her here, if anyone's interested.

I found it initially intriguing, but lost interest a bit as Artorex grew older and became a grim, super-human figure. I did bring home 'Warrior of the West", but my heart wasn't in it, and it became a DNF. Come to think of it, I've had this happen a few times with Arthurian series- the first one seems fresh and original, but further stories seem to lose the plot (or maybe it's me who's losing the plot :)

Marg said...

I had this recommended to me not all that long ago, I think in part because the author is from my part of the world. I can't get the books from the library though, so I wouldn't have been reading it even before I read your review.

Rick said...

The line you paraphrase is exactly what I had in mind. Tolkien implies that Middle Earth lies in our own misty past, so it can as easily lie in the misty past of a doppelganger.

last week's hockey game

Intriguing little observation! I suppose the Arthurian cycle is supposed to be the equivalent of a 'legendary' game that continues to be talked about indefinitely.

Carla said...

STAG - Hello and welcome! Up to a point that's true; you know pretty much how the story is going to go. That said, some of the Arthurian novels I've read manage to make the story fresh and exciting, even though the end is known. Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, for example. So some writers can make even last week;s hockey match gripping :-) Agreed that the absence of magic is a definite plus.

Annis - I'm glad it wasn't just me who wasn't hooked! I did finish it, partly to see if it got any better, and partly because it was a review book and I never write a review unless I've read the whole book at least once. I think the weight of legend tends to acumulate on Arthurian stories as they progress and eventually it flattens the story to the ground. Even Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy gets noticeably weaker in the third book, I think, and Helen Hollick's Pendragon trilogy does the same. It may be compounded by trying to split a story over multiple books, because I don't find that single-volume Arthurian retellings (Sword at Sunset being the best) flag towards the end.

Marg - I'd say it's definitely a library book (though of course your opinion might be different from mine!). Can the library order it or use inter-library loan? It's with one of the big publishers, so it ought to be available in Australia eventually.

Rick - depends whether the fiction and folkore is synologous in the doppleganger as well.
In some ways I suppose the Arthurian legend is subject to the same 'what if' and 'could it have gone differently' (not to mention 'we wuz robbed') that can sustain discussions about sports matches indefinitely :-) On top of which you also have disputes over the venue, the participants, the date, and even whether it was all made up wholesale in the first place...