By Force Alone
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.