Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Arthur, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Today I'm looking at the third and what, according to my research anyway, was supposed to be the final book in the Pendragon Cycle, Arthur. This book finally gets to the reign of King Arthur, which is at least what I've been waiting for this entire time and as I said I felt like the series was building up to this. The book is told from three perspectives, by Pelleas Merlin's servant and companion, and by Bedwyr (aka Bedivere) one of Arthur's knights, both of which are set early in Arthur's reign. The final section is told from the perspective of Aneirin, a page and fosterling of Arthur well into Arthur's reign and is present at the very end.  The book therefore covers the entirety of Arthur's reign but since the first two sections deal with the very early years the latter part feels very rushed.

We join Arthur when he is a mere fifteen years old and led by Merlin to London so he can retrieve the Sword of Britain from the stone where Merlin placed it. As Arthur is the rightful heir to the high kingship of Britain he has no trouble pulling the sword out. (After all, we know how the story's supposed to go.) But Arthur is not immediately recognized by the petty kings of Britain and some demand further proof of Arthur's right to kingship. After some deliberation it is decided not to grant Arthur, who is after all fifteen, the high kingship but the largely meaningless title of Dux Britanorum and the duty of protecting all of Britain from the Saxons, Picts, Irish, Angles, Jutes, Scots, Picts, and other barbarian tribes that have been raiding and invading Britain.

Over a period of years Arthur is ultimately successful in defeating not only the barbarian invaders, but also in crushing the final pockets of rebellion among the British lords, some of whom decide working with the barbarians is better than swearing fealty to Arthur. Arthur marries Guinevere, and a new period of peace and prosperity begins in Britain. Of course eventually a Mordred character shows up, although the weird thing is he isn't actually Arthur's son. He's still Morgan's son and is clearly there to ruin everything for Arthur and Britain, but he doesn't seem to worm his way into Arthur's court and causes trouble. Morgan gets caught by one of Arthur's knights and executed, and Mordred immediately runs away, swearing he'll get his revenge.

Arthur's downfall is caused largely through his own hubris. Arthur has himself crowned emperor in the west, which results in the Byzantine emperor immediately saying Arthur can't truly call himself emperor in the west if he hasn't liberated Rome from the barbarians. Despite Merlin saying mounting a campaign to liberate Rome is a bad idea, Arthur decides to do so anyway and leaves with most of his soldiers. Mordred immediately gets the Picts to rise in rebellion and sacks Arthur's capital, taking Guinevere and Merlin hostage. Arthur has to come back and engages Mordred and his followers in combat. As anyone who knows the Arthurian myth knows, many of Arthur's best knights are killed, Arthur slays Mordred, but not before Mordred fatally wounds Arthur. Merlin then takes Arthur to the isle of Avalon with the fair folk (The survivors of Atlantis who have been hanging around) and they then disappear off the face of the earth.

There is one thing that I can appreciate about this book and it's the effort on the part of the author to include some of the older knights in the mythos such as Kay, Bedivere, and Bors and completely excluding Lancelot who is a later addition to Arthurian lore. As I mentioned in my review of Gwenhwyfar, it's kind of weird to see Lancelot in a semi-historical retelling of Arthur because he was basically grafted onto the story later. So on that level I really appreciated the exclusion of Lancelot from the story.

That being said, there are a lot of problems with this book and I'm almost left with the feeling that Lawhead wasn't entirely sure what he wanted to do with the story. At one point Merlin is blinded by Morgan after engaging in a magical battle with her. Merlin is not only blinded physically but also magically and is no longer able to determine the shape of future events. I was left with the feeling this was a permanent change to Merlin and Lawhead's way of making Merlin less powerful and less able to aid Arthur in years to come. However, when we jump ahead to the final third of the book, Merlin has his sight again, both literally and metaphorically. So it felt like there weren't really any consequences for Merlin.

I also didn't understand the decision to make Mordred not related to Arthur, especially after Lawhead incorporated a prophecy Guinevere heard where Arthur's son would kill him so Guinevere has been taking efforts to avoid conceiving a child with Arthur. Granted this information is coming from Morgan and Merlin immediately dismisses everything she says as lies, but Guinevere certainly reacted as if what Morgan was saying was the truth. But Lawhead then turns around and has Merlin say that Mordred's father is one of Morgan's children through Lot of Orkney. Assuming Merlin is correct, then why even mention the prophecy? The prophecy exists to create a Mordred-shaped hole in the narrative for him to slip into. If Mordred isn't Arthur's son and is just some guy, why even include the prophecy? It just doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

Another thing I didn't quite understand was how the Grail Quest was included. Lawhead has taken a very pro-Christianity stance throughout these books and he went through the effort of making the Fisher King, a prominent figure in Grail lore, not only a main character but also Merlin's grandfather. You would think that the Grail Quest would be central to Lawhead's story of Arthur's reign but it's mentioned exactly twice. Once, when the quest is first given and Arthur announces they have been chosen by God to seek the Holy Grail. At which point it's immediately forgotten because Arthur wants to crown himself emperor and another emperor said he isn't really an emperor if he doesn't control Rome. The Grail Quest is only mentioned again in a post script where the narrator basically says, ''Oh yeah, after Arthur disappeared, some of his knights went to find the Grail which we forgot about. They didn't succeed.'' So I'm puzzled by Lawhead's decision. He went through so much effort to include Christianity and the Fisher King and when it comes for the most Christian quest of all, he totally drops the ball on it. I assume it's covered in more detail in the next books, Pendragon and Grail, but I honestly can't say I'm really interested in reading it.

Overall this book feels like a lot of missed opportunities or confusion. Lawhead's obviously making an attempt to include older parts of the Arthurian mythos but the result feels inconsistent or incomplete. And for whatever reason, the Grail Quest, which should have been the centerpiece, is almost entirely forgotten. And with Arthur gone, with no heir and Britain falling to barbarian invaders, I'm not sure where the series can go from here. I'll probably look at the summary of Pendragon and make a decision, but I'm not sure if I want to keep with this particular Arhturian re-telling.

- Kalpar

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