Memorable female characters

Helen Hollick The Kingmaking
Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner trilogy
Heinemann 1994

Why does the Arthurian legend attract so many women writers? Rosemary Sutcliff, Catherine Christian, Marian Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, André Norton, Vera Chapman, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken and Jane Curry (to name but a few) have all mined that rich seam, producing gems in various genres including fantasy, historical fiction and children’s literature. Does the work of another exponent, Helen Hollick, provide an answer?

Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner trilogy in its 600-plus pages charts seven years of Arthur’s life, from AD 450 to 457, and ranges from Greater to Lesser Britain (as Brittany was then known) and from Gwynedd to Kent. The opening pages begin slowly, full of euphonious alliteration and lyrical descriptions. Like a musical composition the structure is well defined. For example the novel begins with a public recognition of Arthur’s paternity and ends with his acclamation as de facto ruler of Britain by victorious troops. In addition, each half begins in Gwynedd, finds its way to Brittany and ends in the southeast of Britain.

The story itself is well plotted, and the action carefully paced. The effect is like reading pages from a journal or watching scenes from a subtly-edited film. After the initial establishment of the main characters in their setting, the build-up to each climax is inexorable. And whether or not you know the literary, historical or legendary background of the story, there are surprises at every turn, from the neat solution to the medieval tradition of the two Guineveres to the suggested origin of Cerdic, one of the legendary early Saxon leaders.

But the key to good novels is whether you believe in the characters as people, and whether you care what happens to them. Is this the case with The Kingmaking? Certainly some of the male characters are recognisably still with us, a millennium and a half later, and Arthur’s misogyny is given a psychological basis which sadly rings true (though there are signs of a potential New Man there). But it is the women of this book that leap out of the pages: the pious Igainne, the insufferable Branwen, the scheming Rowena (not that one from Ivanhoe!), the cruel Morgause, the pathetic Winifred. And finally the brave Gwenhwyfar, who more than any other must represent not just Everywoman but the writer’s personal ideal of the rounded individual.

There are some weaknesses, I feel. producing a racy vernacular which avoids contemporary colloquialisms and yet gives a sense of another time is never easy, and the attempt to do this here is not always successful. Also, while much of the bloodthirstiness and violence inevitable in troubled times is vividly recreated, the language of the warriors is rather mealy-mouthed. But given that Stevenson complained about his inability to reproduce pirate oaths for the Victorian readers of Treasure Island, this fault is readily forgiven.

The stereotypical male is said to be absorbed with things and the female to be attracted by personal relationships. But stereotypes tend to deny us our individuality and limit our potential for change. In The Kingmaking Helen Hollick displays an interest in both the nuts and bolts of living in the historical period she has chosen and in the personalities she has created, as any good writer should, and in so doing renders largely irrelevant the question posed at the beginning.

Slightly revised version of review published in 1994 in the Journal of the Pendragon Society

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17 thoughts on “Memorable female characters

  1. I was relieved to read your footnote – the apparent sudden perusal of a volume of some 600 pages had me wondering. Is the style a narrator jumping between different characters, all in third person?

    1. In short, yes!

      I’ve a number of books on the go at the moment, necessitating a few reviews from my back catalogue (as it were) in case you thought I’m ceasing trade. But normal service will be resumed soon — just as soon as I stop mixing metaphors.

  2. Interesting opening question. When an ex colleague of mine and I ran school story telling trips the Arthur one, (where we visited Cadbury Castle, and Glastonbury among other places) always attracted lots of female students.

    1. Good point, Simon. In more recent years the helpless damsel-in-distress meme seems to have been overtaken by female figures empowered by innate wisdom, attributes (sometimes martial, frequently magical)) and social resilience, while still retaining ‘traditional’ feminine traits (viz the Pre-Raphaelite look, as with the Cameron photos I headed this post with). This new meme is set to run and run.

  3. Thank you for the nice review. Your readers might like to know that my original books are now republished in the UK by SilverWood Books Ltd & in the US by Sourcebooks Inc. (also available as e-books)
    I wrote the trilogy quite a few years ago now (1994! My Goodness!) and one of the things I would like to do is give the three books a re-edit, because I think the fashion where style is concerned has changed in the intervening twenty years. The mammoth task is on the to do list!
    Your readers might be interested to know that one of the reasons why I wrote the trilogy in the first place was because I have never been over-impressed by the later Medieval tales of Arthur, and could not come to terms with Guinevere being such a ninny! Choosing Lancelot over Arthur? No way! I wanted my Gwenhwyfar to be more resilient, to fulfil her role as ‘Queen’ (and wife and mother) with honour and loyalty. My Gwenhwyfar is a lady who possesses a sword – and knows how to use it!
    Thanks again for this interesting article.

    1. Thanks, Helen, for the updated info on your trilogy and I’m glad the review met with your approval. Revisiting a work one’s done recently, never mind something from two decades ago, nearly always tempts a few tweaks at least!

      It’s always daunting to have responses from authors you’ve critiqued, so thanks for letting me off lightly, Helen! For readers who are interested, details of Helen’s other work, and more besides, can be found at http://www.helenhollick.net

  4. Maybe women writers are attracted to re-telling the Arthurian tales so that they can rescue female characters from two-dimensionality? Maybe it’s an innate fannishness (one could argue that all these re-tellings are good fan fiction!), which leads women to interact with these texts in a creative way. The versions of Arthurian legend with which I’m familiar are Roger Lancelyn Green’s and T. H. White’s – I have MZB’s The Mists of Avalon on my bookshelf but haven’t managed to get past the first hundred pages yet. I might try that first before getting into a trilogy!

    1. Hello Ela – You might be interested to know that my motivation for writing my trilogy was Mists of Avalon! I enjoyed the story, but the character of Guinevere drove me mad – in the end I threw the book aside & went off and wrote my version of how I thought Gwenhwyfar’s story should be written!

      1. Ha ha, nice to know! I remember a short story by Jane Yolen which treated Guinevere completely differently, which was a very interesting take on the character (and especially memorable, given that I probably read the story 25 years ago!).

      2. Helen, what a brave and wonderful thing to do! I enjoyed Mists, but agree the Guinevere in Bradley’s book was a little too much.
        Men, I am afraid do not treat her much better. Robert Nye had her bed both men at the same time.This might be an original idea but it does nothing for her reputation. Maybe this is why the stories are better told by women.
        Your take is now on my list of must reads. So glad you stopped by.

    2. It’s a big subject, isn’t it? Victorian and early 20th-century treatments of Arthurian women generally seem more vapid to me in comparison with medieval portrayals, and it’s only right that the balance has been redressed in recent years to go beyond the distressed-damsel-or-femme-fatale stereotype that for example Hollywood, taking its cue from 19th-century attitudes, espoused.

      The innate fannishness of authors seems a good starting point — the legends are too rich to leave to chauvinist retellings — but I have to admit I never got round to MZB.

  5. Thank you so much for the book review! I’m an avid fan of Arthurial legends and the most recent female-empowering adaptation I’ve read was The Three Damosels by Vera Chapman. I’ll have to check out this book.

    1. I’m ashamed to say I had Vera Chapman’s book on my shelves for many a year unread, no longer there probably due to a weeding-out at some stage.

      I’m not a great fan of High Medieval retellings of the legends unless they have something profound to say — I’d much rather read the originals in translation or with parallel text for authenticity and/or insight. Modern versions can come across as mere pastiche or whimsy, or at worst as gross distortion.

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