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