I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s due out in April 2022.
I adore the Arthurian mythos, and in particular that it can keep being reworked by different authors with different intentions and get completely different results that are still clearly linked. Most recently I read Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone, and it shook me to the core… and now Nicola Griffith gives me something completely and utterly other.
( Which begs the question, Can you read and enjoy this with no knowledge of the Arthur stories? Absolutely. And in fact it would mean that you wouldn’t have the same looming dread / fear / second-guessing that I did, trying to figure out who was meant to be who and would Griffith include that particular thing and oh noooo…. )
This was nothing short of amazing.
To begin at the end: I really enjoyed Griffith’s Author’s Note at the end, explaining both her choices and her inspirations. It wasn’t necessary, but it shows very nicely how Griffith sees herself fitting into the existing canon, and how her choices were influenced by archaeology and other sources. Also, her acerbic “crips, queers, women and other genders, and people of colour are an integral part of the history of Britain” – yes indeed.
Griffith has set her Arthur in the very early medieval period – the Romans are gone but the Normans aren’t there (it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise who the Redcrests were (Roman soldiers)). It’s the beginning of Arturus ruling a fairly small area; he is gathering Companions to help him fight off invaders and also to try and give some sort of peace, and lack of banditry, to his area. But the focus of the story is not on him: it’s on Per, Peretur, who has many names and none, who is on a quest to figure out who she is and where she fits. Because oh yes, this is Perceval / Parsifal as a woman, following in that grand tradition of “women have always fought” and having the same adventures as any of the men might. Griffith uses some of the medieval stories as a starting point – her love, and deep knowledge, of the genre is clear; and she tells a rich and compelling and human story that I just devoured.
One of the most intriguing things from an Arthurian perspective is where Griffith chooses to stop the story – which I’m not going to spoil. But it does make me hopeful of more in this world; she herself mentions the possibility in the Author’s Note, so now I guess I just have to sit here and wait. Because shut up and take my money already.
I have a long and increasingly cynical relationship with King Arthur, and all the stories around him. I read a fair bit of it as an adolescent – I even did subjects at uni about the mythology and so on. But as sometimes happens, I got cynical and impatient as I got old, and I haven’t read much new Arthur stuff in a long time.
I did re-read Susan Cooper recently, which was an excellent choice and is a bit more left-field than other Arthuriana so doesn’t really count. (Also, not new to me.)
And then a friend started raving about this book and while he’s not prone to hyperbole I was a bit like… really? That good? But I was intrigued and so I bought it and…
I’m not sure I can read another Arthur book ever.
This is it. This is everything.
Tidhar knows Arthuriana intimately. He’s referencing medieval romances. I’m pretty sure there are Mists of Avalon references, and Sword in the Stone. There’s the grail, sure, and the Green Knight, which is obscure but not that obscure… but there’s also the Questing Beast, and… and… yeh. So this is in no way someone coming in and thinking they’re reinventing Arthur (which has been done, and oh so badly). This is someone who knows Arthuriana deeply.
The thing I kept thinking of when reading this was A Knight’s Tale, that Heath Ledger break-out film. It used modern(ish) rock music in order to make the point about how people in the 14th century (the time of Chaucer) would have perceived music that 20th century ears hear as weird and ‘old’, and it used utterly modern language. By Force Alone is simultaneously utterly set in the 5th or 6th century – the Romans are gone, Britain is a by-water and non-existent in political terms, the Anglo-Saxons are coming (ignore the historical reality here) – but feels in some ways very 21st century: Arthur screaming ‘Come at me if you’re hard enough!’ Bully boys in London who want to be knighted, talking about being ‘made men’. Picts on the northern border being vicious.
Everyone, actually, being vicious.
This is a vicious book. There is no gallantry. There is no courtly love – which is right because the notion wasn’t really a thing until at least the 12th century and then honestly becomes part of nostalgia basically the next day. There is no honour except for what you can get; kings hold power by force alone; Galahad gets him nickname for quite, um, different reasons from how it’s usually told.
This book left me dazed. It starts with Vortigern and ends where every Arthur story ends. It covers so much at a break-neck speed that honestly it’s all you can do to hold on and see where this beast is going to end up. But it’s all completely controlled and Tidhar knows exactly what he’s doing. And what he’s doing is amazing. He’s setting a monumental myth in context, and exposing some of the nasty underbelly of nationalism and the Matter of Britain, as well as writing intriguing characters out of characters who are just so well known (what he did with Lancelot was… unexpected, and I’m curious to chase up whether it was based on stories I don’t remember or know; the Green Knight was the most amusingly outrageous). And he keeps the fantastical nature of Merlin and Morgan and makes that part of Britain itself… but in such a way it almost feels realistic. Almost.
This book is incredible.
Well, call me naive, but I did actually think that this movie would be at least partly based on history, which is why I was interested in watching it. Perhaps that indicates how little TV I watch, because clearly I hadn’t watched the theatrical trailer for it. Otherwise, I would have known that while the beginning is based on historical fact – the Goths being nasty buggers on Rome – the rest was a glorious fantasy.
Spoiler Alert! Stop here if you don’t want it a bit spoiled!
Once I saw little Romulus go for the sword, and read the ‘Latin’ inscription there, I realised vaguely in which direction it was heading… hello, Caliburnus! Not for nothing am I an Arthur tragic. Mind you, it did take my fuzzy little mind a while to realise the teacher was Ambrosinus and the captain Aurelius, so maybe it has actually been too long since I thought about it.
Anyway, once I realised that this was an Arthur-fantasy, I switched expectations and really quite enjoyed it. One one level, anyway, it was miles better than poor old Clive Owen’s Arthur, by which I was utterly disappointed (except for Hengist). To be honest I had been enjoying this one even before I realised what was going on: the nice prince/pauper moment at the start; Colin Firth in general; John Hannah… and the sets were quite nice too, except for that utterly CG statue the kid insisted on moping about on top of. (And as kid actors go, he wasn’t too hopeless.)
A couple of things disappointed me. Mira – well, it was cool to have a chick warrior (always is!), and it was obvious why she was included, but I thought the romance was a bit rushed. Vortigern – cool mask, but not enough back story. I was hoping to find out he was Ambrosinus’ evil brother; that would have been cool.
It does fascinate me that so often Rome is equated with either America or Britain… Firth’s not-particularly-rousing speech about Roman warriors and Roman hearts sounded like something that would appear in a patriotic movie today (it could almost be dubbed into Independence Day). Seriously, it makes me wonder whether these writers/directors know anything about that empire. Probably not.
So I’ve been listening to some BBC podcasts recently – the “In Our Time” series. I really enjoy them – the interplay between the three interlocutors, the broad range of topics they cover within the topic itself: it’s all glorious. What I do often find drives me nuts, though, is Melvyn Bragge himself. He so often seems to think he knows everything about the topic after his preliminary reading – I’m happy to admit that he probably spends a number of hours in doing so, but still, he’s talking to people who have spent large amount of their professional lives, at least, thinking about the stuff! He particularly annoyed me in this episode, but I’ll get to that.
I had a most exciting moment in listening to this episode, which has never happened before: I knew one of the people! Well, ‘knew’ in the loosest possible sense; I’ve read most of one of his books, when I was researching for an essay on Robin Hood; and I heard him speak once on the figure of Merlin – Stephen Knight. An Aussie, who teaches in Wales on Arthur-y type things, among other topics. Anyway, it was a very cool moment for me.
So, the episode itself: focussing on the Fisher King, which I think is very cool in and of itself, that you can talk for 40-odd minutes on a fairly obscure literary figure/convention. Awesome. They looked at when the Fisher King first appears – in connection with Arthurian stuff; what his figure represents, pagan and Christian; and what he came to mean, in the 19th and 20th centuries (and they did indeed mention, if only briefly, the movie – which I was waiting for!), in Eliot (I might have to re-read The Waste Land… scary thought) and others.
All up, it was a great deal of fun to read, as I pounded along the path….
You can even, as they say in the business, listen again!