Author: Giles Kristian
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.
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.