When I first read this series, I mostly dismissed it as romance — back when I felt pretty dismissive of romance in general, I’ll admit. Reading it now, I’ve been impressed all over again by the work Zettel did to bring together different Arthurian threads and weave them all into a cohesive story. Reading the end of this book, I kind of want to read her version of how the story plays out.
On the other, I really don’t, because this is a good ending to the story of the four brothers from Gododdin, which lets you imagine they stay happy. And maybe they could, in this version… after all, who could stand against Rhian, Elen, Lynet and Laurel? Forget the men: they’re really the stars of these stories.
In terms of this book alone, I adore how Zettel humanises Agravain, after the rather unflattering portrait of him we get in the other books (apart from the odd moment where his concern and love for his brothers really shows through). And I love the insight on how Arthur and Gawain are both devoted to their whole kingdom, while Agravain only cares about his own land — and that’s why he makes a good king of it.
All in all, a worthwhile series, though if you’re not a fan of romance you probably won’t enjoy them as that is the main thread.
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Although this fits into the Arthurian world constructed by Stewart in The Crystal Cave and the books that followed it, The Prince and the Pilgrim is really a separate story which has perhaps more in common with her romances. She takes a short incident from Malory and expands on it, and dwells on Morgan and her wicked seductive ways (yawn) into the bargain. It’s not a bad story, and her gift for evoking atmosphere and landscape shines through, but I found it very light. The most intriguing aspect involved the references to the Merovingian kings and the way it wove Alice’s story in with a real historical context.
The ending is more or less inevitable, even if you don’t know the original story, and Stewart’s embellishments are mostly pretty tame. A fun light read, but not really a return to the world of The Crystal Cave in anything but name (and that devotion to Morgan being a sexualised, predatory witch).
From my perspective, speaking as an English Lit postgrad who concentrated heavily on Arthurian and medieval literature, Britain AD has two main weaknesses. The first is the fact that Pryor doesn’t understand or attempt to engage with the shift in language to form English. He suggests there is no reason to suspect mass migration of Angles and Saxons into the UK, regardless of accepted work by people like Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza into the way population genetics tends to show that language, identity and genetics move together.
Secondly, he doesn’t know the subjects he’s talking about nearly well enough. I’d be happy to defer to him on the archaeology of King Arthur, but when it comes to the textual history, I know my stuff — and Pryor has enormous gaps. For example, he speaks of Sir Thomas Malory introducing the ‘Holy Blood’ aspect of the Grail legends… heedless of the fact that Robert de Boron pre-empted Malory by two centuries. (And possibly the Vulgate cycle did too — I don’t have my copies handy to check and I don’t trust online sources to steer me right!) He also utterly ignores the existence of the Saint’s Lives that mention Arthur and the Welsh folk tales.
These might not be important to the way Pryor views Arthur, but I think it’s always been clear that the Arthurian legends are more fiction than fact — so if you’re going to talk about them, you really need to understand the fictional aspects and how the legends developed. Pryor simply does not, and that puts all the rest of the book on shaky footing for me.
The same applies when it comes to understanding whether or not there was an Anglo-Saxon invasion or settlement or anything of the kind. He never manages to account for the rise of the Anglo-Saxon language. He talks about the spread of ideas instead, yet if that were the case, we’d expect to see much more influence from the Celtic languages on English in names for basic, everyday things. Why do we say “bread”, then, from Germanic brood, instead of bara? Why is it a “church”, from cirice, and not eglwys?
I’m not an expert on linguistics, but Pryor’s theories don’t accommodate the way languages work at all — and to be convincing, they must.
Then there’s the fact that he picks which genetic study he proves because, and I quote, “It also supports my own theories — which is an enormous point in its favour.” This may be intended as flippant, but still, that is not the way to critique studies, especially ones which are outside your area of expertise. You can’t pick which theories you like based on which one agrees with your own theory, or it becomes horrifyingly circular.
Where he speaks about archaeology, I don’t have the tools to criticise — and he is well known and well thought of, so I’m sure he’s at least along the right lines. But where it crosses things I do understand — genetics, linguistics, and most of all literature — I find Pryor’s grounding very shaky. I enjoy his writing, but can’t give him more stars than this because his thesis is just too questionable. And it really makes me question whether Britain BCwas all that, although it was more deeply grounded in archaeology.
I think I liked The Sunbird best of the series so far. It goes even further from Arthurian myth — the only character from the Arthurian canon is Medraut — but in the process makes an enchanting narrative. Young Telemakos is growing up and showing all signs of inheriting his father’s ability to stalk prey, but he uses his skills politically.
The story of his search for the figure called the Lazarus, and what happens to him there, are compelling. The darkness from the other stories remains here. Telemakos is a very strong character, almost unbelievably so, and yet still believably a child, too. The reactions of the other characters to what happens to him feels real and shocking, and is well-handled.
Medraut as a character develops further here, into someone one can like, or at least sympathise with a little — largely divorced from the Arthurian canon, by this point.
Again, it’s easy to read, well-written, but there are parts at which the soft-hearted will struggle.
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck
Flashback Friday review from 11th October, 2010
Steinbeck’s Arthur novel was never completed, and never even properly edited by him. I enjoyed it very much as it is — I do wish it’d been finished, and edited, and made more consistent. If I rated without considering that, I’d rate it at least one star less. The introduction, claiming that it isn’t changed substantially from Malory, isn’t true: there’s a lot of humanising going on, and some additional humour. If I held Steinbeck to that, too, he’d probably lose a star.
As it is, though, bearing these things in mind, he gets all the stars. I really enjoyed reading his version, particularly after the first few tales — it felt like, after a while, he felt his way into it, and some of the letters of his included at the end suggest that that’s just how it felt to him, which is nice to know. There’s a sort of tenderness in the way he treats the tales, a love for them that still allowed him to see the humour a modern audience might find in them.
I liked his treatment of Kay — a little more understanding than other writers, I think. An attempt to understand him. And the touch of someone catching Arthur crying, which I don’t recall being in Malory. And some of the descriptions of Lancelot, particularly through Lyonel’s eyes. And here was a Lancelot I could like, too, although of course Steinbeck never got to the parts where Lancelot was a traitor. Still, I felt for Lancelot, in the last few pages.
(For those who know of my affection for Gawain: no, I don’t like his portrayal of Gawain. But I’ll pass that over.)
One thing I love specially is something that people tend to find lacking in Malory — knowing what people are feeling, and I’m particularly talking about Lancelot. Malory tells us what he does; Steinbeck tries to tell us why.
And the thing I love best, oh, most of all, is this:
The queen observed, “I gather you rescued damsels by the dozen.” She put her fingers on his arm and a searing shock ran through his body, and his mouth opened in amazement at a hollow ache that pressed upwards against his ribs and shortened his breath.
My breath, too.
It’s rare because it’s a moment that really makes me feel for Lancelot and Guinevere, and for their plight. I think Steinbeck could have caught me up in their story, and hushed my dislike for all they do. I wish he’d written it: I’d like, just once, to be swept up in Lancelot and Guinevere’s story, and to buy into it as somehow justified by passion, just as they do. Other writers tell that without showing me it. (Guy Gavriel Kay perhaps excepted, but Lancelot and Guinevere aren’t the centre of the story he’s telling there.)
I enjoyed it a lot, what there is of it, and this edition also contains a lot of Steinbeck’s letters concerning it while he was writing it. Very interesting to read those and get an idea of what was on his mind.
I think part of what I love here is what the stories could have been, more than what they are.
I can’t remember who recommended me this, but bless you, whoever you were. It was definitely useful for my dissertation, as well as an enjoyable book. Kay-wise, it has an interesting mix of portrayals — the Loholt plotline is from the Cymric material, as far as I can gather, and yet Arthur’s position in the court is very much that of the continental stories. Hmm.
You know how I said Sword at Sunset was homosocial? I think Exiled from Camelot was even more so: it’s all about the bonds between the men of the Table — strained as they are, it’s clear that one has to hope for them all coming together and sorting things out. The bond between Kay and Arthur is so intense that it really excludes any other relationship for Kay: I did like that, though at times I did find myself questioning whether Cherith Baldry thought at all about authenticity. Kay does a lot of grovelling and crying, and acting like a coward, and yet it’s all waved away by the other characters — not likely, I would think, in a culture where merely calling Lancelot a coward is an invitation to a duel…
But whatever, I suspended my disbelief. My two main problems were Brisane — oh can we be more typical, with an evil woman who was rejected by men and sold her soul for power and used her body to gain more? — and Arthur being, well, stupid. He was so easily taken in, so easily led. Headdesk.
Still, more or less carried off, though it’s likely to wear thinner the more I think about it. Ultimately, it distracted me from any such flaws when I was reading it, which is the main thing.
I didn’t think I was going to like Sword at Sunset as much as I typically like Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, even though it was surely combining two of my favourite things — Sutcliff’s writing and realism, and Arthurian myth. It began slowly, I think, and it was a surprising change of tone for Sutcliff — her books are mainly written for children (of any age!), but this book had decidedly adult themes, with the incest and more explicit references to sexuality than I’d expected. It’s also unusual for her in that it’s written in first person, and narrated by Arthur himself.
It also, to my surprise, had a couple of LGBT themes — a gay couple among Arthur’s men, to begin with, and then the relationship between himself and Bedwyr. There’s no Lancelot here, and Bedwyr takes that place in many ways, but with more of a shown relationship than I’ve ever found typical between Arthur and Lancelot. It brought tears to my eyes several times, especially this moment: “I could have cried out to him, as Jonathan to David, by the forbidden love names that are not used between men; I could have flung my arms around his shoulders.”
There’s nothing explicit about them, at all, but their bond has a profoundness about it, even after hurt and betrayal, that defies easy categorisation.
The relationship between Arthur and Guinevere is also an interesting one, and again one that makes no shortcuts using the existing myth, but builds up something believable alone. His relationship with her, the odd barriers between them, and the attempts to reach each other, and their love that isn’t quite enough to bridge that gap… It’s all believable.
The whole book takes some pains to be believable, emotionally, and historically. The themes, characters, etc, all seem to have some explanations for how the story could develop later… Bedwyr somewhat in the place that Lancelot takes later, Medraut almost exactly as he will be later, the moment in which Arthur realises how the badge he chooses for battle will be translated into that text which talks about him carrying the image of the Virgin Mary… And they’re all aware of how the stories will be magnified, too. It’s an interesting way to put it.
Oh, and I forgot to mention it when I first wrote this review, but I was fascinated by Gwalchmai, despite his relatively minor role. It’s odd: he isn’t related to Arthur (one of the constants of the Arthurian tradition more generally), and though he is a fighter, his main role is that of surgeon. He’s also disabled. I don’t think I’ve seen a portrayal of Gawain/Gwalchmai quite like this anywhere else.
It took me a while to get into Sword at Sunset, but it was worth trusting Rosemary Sutcliff and going with it.
This week’s theme is ‘Top Ten Underrated Books’ — books with less than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads. Some of these only have a handful of ratings, though some are more popular; I tried to pick a range, because if I just picked the most underrated books it’d all be Welsh fiction, and y’all probably wouldn’t be that interested. (But if you are, go forth and read Kate Roberts, Rhys Davies, Menna Gallie, Margiad Evans…)
The Man Who Went into the West, Byron Rogers. A biography of R.S. Thomas, this was a lovely mix of fact and rather chatty character portrait: it makes R.S. Thomas come alive, as a man of contradictions and contrasts.
The Hidden Landscape, Richard Fortey. Or any of Fortey’s books, really; something about his style made even geology fascinating to me, and I’m not actually that interested in geology. There’s a poetry to the landscape and the long shaping of it which Fortey sees and communicates very clearly.
Cold Night Lullaby, Colin Mackay. Only read this collection of poetry if you want your heart to be ripped from your chest. It covers the poet’s experiences in Sarajevo as an aid worker, and inspired Karine Polwart’s song ‘Waterlily’. The video here includes Polwart’s introduction to Mackay’s life and work.
Dead Man’s Embers, Mari Strachan. Painful in a different way, this book follows the recovery of a man returned to his Welsh village after the Great War. There’s a touch of magic realism, but the emotional heart of the story is very real.
A Sorcerer’s Treason, Sarah Zettel. I haven’t read this in ages, and in fact need to reread it, but I remember it very fondly — and remember passing it round to various friends and relations, hence why my partner has a stack of this series tempting me to reread now…
A Taste of Blood Wine, Freda Warrington. I really didn’t expect to fall so in love with a gothic vampire romance, but it’s so unapologetic about examining the effects of the vampires and the way they choose to live on the people around them that I fell for it all the same. I think fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books would probably be a good fit.
Iron and Gold, Hilda Vaughan. A classic fairytale situation, in a Welsh setting; it humanises the fairytale, making the pain of it really hit you, while also examining human relationships and how they work.
The Complete Brandstetter, Joseph Hansen. I’ve been amazed at how little I’ve ever heard about these books since my housemate wrote a dissertation on gay detectives in crime fiction. It deals with so many issues — AIDs, racial issues, homophobia, and beyond that into aging, relationships in general… and also delivers solid story after solid story.
Exiled From Camelot, Cherith Baldry. I read this for my own dissertation, which probably accounts for how fond I am of it. It’s not perfect, but the bond between Arthur and Kay is painfully real (and something often neglected in other modern fiction). It’s also an interesting mixture of materials, with stuff straight from both the Welsh sources and the much later Continental tradition.
The Fox’s Tower, and Other Tales, Yoon Ha Lee. I love microfiction, and this is one of the few collections I can think of which I would fairly whole-heartedly recommend. Yoon Ha Lee gets the art of the really short story.
I’ll be interested to see what other people have picked out this week — especially if you talk a bit about why. Link me!
Arrrghhh, this book! Okay, on the good side: Stewart knew the Arthurian material well and handled it with confidence, often bringing in small details in ways which were a delight to spot (but which didn’t particularly harm the narrative if you didn’t spot them). And it’s an interesting take on Mordred: a loyal son to Arthur, once he knows about it, taking up much the same sort of relationship as between Merlin and Ambrosius, or Arthur and Merlin. His emotions are for the most part really well done: his ambition, his determination, how he fights against his fate and ultimately serves it.
But. Arthur. In the last quarter or so of The Wicked Day, Stewart breaks her entire previous characterisation for Arthur. He becomes irrational, forgets who he can trust, takes advice from the wrong people — ignores the advice of people like Nimue, whose power comes from Merlin. He forgets what’s important — forgets important plans that he made — and just gives way to suspicion and slander. He endangers everything, and for what? For suspicions that just chapters before he knew were unfounded.
The way I read it, Stewart broke her own story’s backbone by insisting that everyone (except the women) remain blameless. She didn’t want to blame Arthur or Mordred or Bedwyr, so she palmed some of it off on Gawain’s rash nature, some of it on Mordred’s latent ambition, and… some on Arthur being an idiot in ways he hasn’t been at any other point in the series. She couldn’t resist heaping calumny on the women: Morgause committed incest knowingly with her brother, and then wanted to commit incest again with the son born of that union. What the hell? The other books well-established Stewart’s near-inability to handle the women of the Arthurian mythos (more surprising given the relatively active and capable heroines of her mystery/romances), but this is just… desperate. It reeks of pushing everything off onto the female characters, but she had to do it because she decided that it “didn’t make sense” for Mordred and Arthur to do things they do in some branches of the mythos — in some kind of wrong-headed attempt to marry it all together, or to follow the example of others (cough, Malory) who didn’t manage to bring it all together. It just won’t go.
And I can kind of get it. I did enjoy the little references I noticed, for example to other sons of Arthur. We want to admire the Arthurian heroes, and we want the best of all of them: the just and strong king, the heroic seneschal, etc, etc. (And I was badly served in this, since Gawain is an impetuous idiot given to murder in this version, and also my favourite knight in the general mythology.) But Stewart tried to get everyone out ‘alive’, or at least their reputations (few of them actually survive, which is kind of a relief given the contortions she went through in The Last Enchantment to keep Merlin alive), and that… doesn’t work.
It’s so frustrating, partially because I get the impulse, and I liked the relationship between Arthur and Mordred here. The treatment of women aside, I quite enjoyed the first three quarters, or even four-fifths. But. But. Stewart broke her own story and characterisation because she couldn’t make a hard decision, as far as I can see, and the story is critically weakened by it.
The Last Enchantment really suffers the most from the fact that it’s written from the point of view of a supporting character. Merlin’s an epic, iconic figure, but he’s not Arthur — and this version emphasises this even more, with Arthur’s seemingly endless heroism, patience, temperance and sensitivity. I love the Arthurian story too, but it feels like Stewart shielded almost all the characters from harm — even, in this case, some of the female characters, despite the misogynistic to ambiguous treatment in the rest of the series. She has surprising sympathy for Guinevere, particularly, considering she had no mercy for Morgause.
Stewart weaves in an astonishing number of the disparate stories — the two Guineveres, Nimue/Niniane/Vivien, Melwas, etc — but, almost because of that, it lacks richness to me. It feels like everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, especially with the way she shields her characters from the consequences; we’ve got Nimue and Merlin in a love story, and Nimue does indeed bury Merlin alive, and yet she didn’t mean to. And Merlin is buried alive and ‘dies’ there, but… he doesn’t die.
The writing is still good, and it was entertaining enough, but… this series falls short of excellence.