Giles Kristian, Lancelot (2018)

Lancelot

Author: Giles Kristian

Title: Lancelot

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 500

I will start with an honest admission, as befits a review of the retelling of Arthurian mythos. Arthurian myths are very important to me – as are Greek and Norse, Slavic and Celtic, Sumerian and Egyptian myths, which all together form a still incredibly significant foundation of European culture. And within the wide realm of Arthurian myths, rooted in Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which in itself was a reworking of earlier tales, I have pledged my allegiance to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I don’t care it’s misogynist. I don’t mind that parts of it are not on par with the rest (I’m looking at you, The Book of Merlyn!). I fully believe it’s the most beautiful and heartfelt retelling of the Arthurian mythos, full of passion – and compassion – and understanding of human nature.

And so I approached Kristian’s recent retelling, Lancelot, with no small amount of trepidation. Armed with a glowing recommendation from Aaron at the Swords and Spectres I hastened to read it, but remembering our previous differences of opinion, O gentle friend, I remained wary. And indeed, it took me some time to warm up to this reimagined Lancelot, from his difficult, heart-breaking childhood to his equally troubled adolescent years on Karrek Loos yn Koos, the island of Lady Nimue. For Kristian spins the story in the one direction that had been relatively less explored before – Lancelot’s past. We see him as a child cruelly and early bereft of childhood, only barely escaping the fate of his family – with an angry hunting bird and a promise of revenge as his sole possessions. We see him as a wild teenager, stubborn and prideful, separate from others and self-unaware to the point of naivety. We see him grow, and learn, and as we do, we begin to see the promise in him, the seed of the future first knight of Britain and the leader of men. We see him triumphant, we see him defeated, but to the end unbroken. What we see most clearly, however, is the unwavering love and loyalty that had become a staple of this paradoxical knight – and in this, Kristian’s retelling is as faithful to the spirit of Arthurian myths as it only could be.

To the spirit, not the letter: for there are several significant changes to Lancelot’s story from the usual canon of the Matter of Britain – as well as several important differences to the whole imaginarium surrounding Arthur and his knights. Let’s start with the latter: in Kristian’s version there are no spindly Mediaeval castles with tall, white towers. There’s no Round Table. Nor giants, dragons, or anything like that, I’m afraid – the main, and the only enemy, are the Saxons, swarming the shores of Britain every year, and making more headway into the contested lands with each passing season. Instead of the late Mediaeval accoutrements we’ve been accustomed to there are cavernous halls, built of scavenged Roman stone and timber, and predominantly wooden, or adapted Roman, fortresses raised in easily defensible places – hills, crags, high and windswept plateaus.  The material culture of Kristian’s retelling is closer indeed to the historical British one in 5th or 6th century than to the courtly imaginings of the 12th or 13th century, and this time shift is also noticeable in his image of the culture, which is predominantly pagan, with a few remainders from Roman times – Excalibur key among them. And so, the gods of Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere, Nimue and Lancelot are a mixture of Celtic and Welsh gods, and Christianity is only slowly making headway into this refugium of pagan beliefs – with sword and cross, with gold and fire. The ‘realism’ of Lancelot goes even further than that – Arthur is never crowned a king, the seat of Pendragon always remaining beyond his reach through a confluence of fateful events and decisions.

Sutton_Hoo_helmet_reconstructed

Perhaps the most significant change – at least for me, for that was the one that took me the longest to get accustomed to – was the backstory of Lancelot and Guinevere. In Kristian’s tale, the two meet very early on, as kids on the cusp of adolescence, and the bond they forge in those early years influences nearly all of their future decisions. As much as I would like to believe that tale, for it is indeed very neat and plausible, and takes away the guilt, making of the pair victims of circumstance, I can’t. I think that it overly simplifies the overarching psychological conflicts of the Arthurian myths and needlessly excises most of their inherent tragedy, in consequence rendering them somehow less universal and less true. Myths are true inasmuch as they show us ourselves in our moments of trial. They are true when they give us tools to deal with ethical and moral problems of our existence. Kristian is a storyteller. He wants the readers to like Lancelot and Guinevere, and this need is clearly perceptible in all the big and small ways in which he structures and leads his story. His mistake, I believe, is in thinking that we wouldn’t like Lancelot and Guinevere as they are in the Arthurian canon: simple human beings, deeply imperfect and yet always striving for perfection, for moral absolution, yearning for personal happiness – torn between conflicting emotions and loyalties, between honor-bound duty and different loves, caught in an inescapable trap of hurt and betrayal. I might be representing views of a minority, but I believe this imperfection is exactly what makes them truly believable and relatable.

And on a related note, my only other woe is that most of the novel focuses on Lancelot’s childhood and adolescence. As a result, his bond with Arthur remains sketchy and incomplete throughout the book: something taken for granted, as a fixture in the ever-changing landscape of events and emotions – and as such, it not only deprives Arthur of many aspects of his personality, but it also negatively impacts the underlying conflict, which normally would transform the myth into tragedy. In short, the betrayal is more of a misunderstading, a happenstance instead of conscious decision. In my opinion such treatment significantly impoverishes the story. For all that, however, I enjoyed reading about Lancelot’s childhood days. His perspective, his personality, wouldn’t be complete without it. And as the book is already on the lengthy side, adding the more known events in a way that would do them justice would result in a real behemoth of a novel. I would surely read it now, already knowing Kristian’s indubitable skill and talent, but would I have read such a brick of a book before? 😉

Kristian skillfully inserts all the crucial characters and scenes from the story of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot – some early on, like Melwas, some late, like Mordred and Morgana, but all are eventually there, playing their parts with a fresh energy and a welcome twist to their motivations.  As I noted above, Arthur got the short straw here, and I’m still inconsolable about it 😉 But to be fair, Mordred got the same treatment, and that conflict between father and son, despite its significance, is something played out in the background, far beyond Lancelot’s awareness or interest. Yet for all these faults, which in a different novel would make me grit my teeth, I confess I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel.

Lastly, a few words about language. Lancelot is written from the knight’s point of view – and his persona, conforming to the canon, is a heartbreakingly simple one: straightforward, painfully honest, innocent and thus easily manipulated, incredibly sensitive and loyal. Lancelot’s no courtly knight, no wordsmith or bard. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is incapable of deception. Kristian’s narrative reflects his personality splendidly, but the language of the novel is far more ornate and sophisticated than a warrior’s limited education would allow. However, after a short period of adjustment, during which I indeed paid attention to some of the more purplish turns of phrase, I didn’t have many issues with it – more, I came to deeply appreciate the heartfelt, simultaneously brutal and poetic depiction of the legendary story and this is a great testament to the author’s skill and his deep passion for the subject.

In short, I ended up cherishing this retelling. Different than any I’ve read before, and not without faults, yet incredibly powerful in its own right. Highly recommended.

Score: 9/10

24 thoughts on “Giles Kristian, Lancelot (2018)

  1. Excellent review! I knew that my lack of knowledge on the Arthur legend would have made me miss out on certain things and I think experiencing this as my first instance is perhaps why it got full marks from me.

    I wish I could be so in-depth as you, Gentle Friend.

    Glad you enjoyed one of my suggestions 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! 😊

      Arthurian mythos resonates with me on many levels. I was intrigued by Kristian’s note in which he revealed that his motivation to write about Lancelot stemmed in part from the unfair treatment of that character by Cornwell. I always felt deeply moved by Lancelot’s story and couldn’t imagine him as a villain – but then, I haven’t read Cornwell 😉

      I enjoyed it very much indeed, and another one of your suggestions is waiting on my shelf – Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve developed an allergy to modern Arthurian romances—whether, tragic, comedic, pseudohistorical or, indeed, romantic. No doubt many are well written, with deep psychological insights, or imaginative twists on the old tales, or with an SFF slant that gives a new perspective; but I’ve read too many cod-awful rehashes of the love triangle type, or the ones about the Old Religion versus nasty Christianity, to want to read any more. I know there are still many medieval Arthurian texts I’ve yet to tackle properly, not to mention the genuine post-Roman historic and archaeological material to explore, and I’d rather spend time on these than in investing in, say, Lancelot (who, after all, may be simply Chrétien de Troyes’ pun on l’ancelot, Medieval French for ‘the male servant’, a jokey title for Guinevere’s mystery lover).

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    • I can absolutely relate to what you write, Chris – I’ve been burned many a time on modern retellings, and I loathe some of them with a passion. Incidentally, the name or fame of the author is no indication of good literature in that case.

      I must admit the nasty Christianity trope was present here, albeit not dominant – but as my review was quite lengthy already, I decided not to include that particular woe.

      Having said that, and fully aware of supremacy of your Arthurian expertise (to which heights I aspire and would humbly ask you for some pointers and recommendations) I nevertheless believe that a good retelling of myth offers something intangible to the modern reader: a chance to experience something unique; a brush with transcendence, the witnessing of the transformation of an abstract universal into emotionally resonant concrete.

      I wouldn’t go as far, though, as to recommend this particular retelling to you – if you’re anything like me, Chris, you’d probably be furious with the author for taking the liberties he did with the material you love so much 😆

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      • Thanks for your forbearance over my rant, Ola! I think we’re pretty much on the same page: I really appreciate works which go into what you rightly describe as “a good retelling of myth” — universal perhaps, as opposed to trendy novels that are so personal as to merely reflect the author’s own wish-fulfillment aspirations (you know, the doughty but flawed warrior for many male writers, the flawed romantic lead for many a female writer in romance mode — I’m stereotyping, of course).

        Some time I might / must post a list of fiction titles (https://wp.me/P2oNj1-49 lists mostly non-fiction works) but first I ought to revisit and review authors like Sutcliff, Treece and others I remember enjoying in the past to see if my then assessments remain true! Frankly, my favourites now are modern fantasies that explore the mythic dimensions you mention — eg Peter Dickinson, Alan Garner or C S Lewis for Merlin’s reawakening spring to mind, and 20th-century authors like Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken, John Masefield or Diana Wynne Jones have taken Arthurian themes and run with them without just conjuring up a fake historical retelling.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I always treasure our discussions, Chris 😊 and your emotions here are just a proof that this topic is dear to you – as it is to me.
          I will definitely be visiting your Pendragonry blog soon – and I have started reading DWJ and Aiken based on your recommendations, so thank you for that! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’ll be looking forward to it! 😄
            I did wonder if I didn’t get the updates because I didn’t properly set up notifications… But with your many blogs, Chris, I’m very impressed that you’re able to juggle them all, and your posts are always such a pleasure to read 😀

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  3. I think I added this book to my TBR based on Aaron’s recommendation too! I haven’t read it yet, but I have it slated for my Pop Sugar challenge on 2020 (book with a bird on the cover). I’m doubly excited to read it now with such a thorough and glowing endorsement! Fantastic review!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! 😊

      As an expert on all things Cornwell, have you read his take on the Arthurian mythos? Kristian refers to Cornwell’s treatment of Lancelot as a direct inspiration for his own book, feeling Lancelot was unfairly treated as a villain.

      Good reading, then! I’ll be looking forward to your review! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • No but it’s on my list! I own the book and plan to read it next year. I’ve heard good things, but that it can be dense at times and has a different feel than Cornwell’s others books. I would expect that Cornwell’s version is impeccably researched and truer to history than mythology (meaning it will be firmly not in the fantasy category, don’t expect magic in terms of waving wands- if there is magic I’d expect it to involve omens and pagan gods, and interpretations of various signs, maybe some lucky coincidence). Cornwell is a master of historical fiction! Darn you have me excited for both of these now!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Those are the dangers of visiting fellow book blogs! 😆
          To be honest, I’m eyeing his trilogy as well – I am quite intrigued by Kristian’s note and now I want to check it out for myself – though I know I’ll hate seeing Lancelot as a villain 😅

          Liked by 1 person

          • I can’t remember if you’ve read Cornwell before? I wouldn’t recommend starting with that one- just because I know how different it is from his other stuff (based on reviews I’ve read)! I haven’t had a chance to vet it yet to say go for it.

            I just think sometimes the difference between liking an author and not is where you start. Some people say to me : “I don’t like Stephen King,” and then I ask them what books they’ve tried and they list out like Dreamcatcher and Bag of Bones. And then they don’t want to try him again even though they are missing out on lots of good stuff! Lol.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I haven’t read Cornwell yet – and his The Last Kingdom is on my shelf already, waiting to be read after I finish with Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred 🙂

            I couldn’t agree more! Though to be fair, I started reading King with Misery and Salem’s Lot, and didn’t like any of them, so there’s that 😉 I still want to read Colorado Kid, though – maybe I’ll change my mind and even go for Dark Tower afterwards! 😉

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  4. Arthurian myths are indeed fascinating, and I keep promising myself that I will explore them one of these days: I feel they requires some time to be appreciated and therefore must not be read “on the fly”, but rather savored, as your review makes quite clear. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting review, I’m surprised there’s “9” at the end of it… I have too many classical retellings to read before I reach for this one, but one day I might.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m surprised as well, as after all I mostly point out things that would normally make me foam at the mouth in this review, but the novel is so we’ll written and somehow so honest in its contagious passion for the topic, that I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would 🙂
      It’s a weird thing with retellings – sometimes they are chock-full of inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and yet they somehow remain true to the spirit of the original – and this is the case here ☺️

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Lashaan! 😊

      Oh, The Once and Future King is a marvel. I actually envy you the opportunity to read it for the first time! 😉 The Book of Merlin could easily be erased from the face of Earth for all I care, but the rest… An amazing masterpiece, despite it’s flaws.

      This one might not be on par, but is nevertheless a very compelling story. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on both! Hopefully within the next two to five years… 😆

      Liked by 1 person

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