Philip Reeve Here Lies Arthur Scholastic 2007
My expectations for a historical-fiction Arthur-type character are rather specific. I don’t rate at all highly any back-projections of Malory, Tennyson or even Geoffrey of Monmouth into a sub-Roman context, with medieval concepts of round tables, grails and swords embedded in stones appearing anachronistically in Late Antiquity. And so my heart sank when I began reading a scenario involving a Lady in a Lake in this young adult fiction book.
But, dedicated Arthurian that I am, I persisted, and am very glad to have done so. For the essence of every good story-teller (and Philip Reeve is one of these) includes the gift of using such motifs sensitively. What we have presented here is a tale within a tale, where Reeve weaves a story of how Myrddin embroiders narratives around the exploits of a minor warlord, so that we almost believe that this was the way the Arthurian legends could have come about: with pagan mythology and imagination hijacked by a bard to boost the reputation of a barbarian chieftain.
In a note the author reminds us that this isn’t a historical novel, nor did he set out to portray “the real King Arthur”. His geography is deliberately kept vague, set somewhere in the West Country, with Bath particularly identifiable. Many of the characters, including the cross-dressing narrator, have Brythonic-sounding names though these don’t all aim to be accurate transcriptions. Still, the feel of both the times and the circumstances is magically conjured up, making this, for me, one of the better evocations of an Arthurian Britain.
My previous experience of Philip Reeve was with his gripping Mortal Engines fantasy quartet for young readers; Here Lies Arthur is an unexpected but welcome departure for the author, inspired, he tells us, by the film Excalibur (John Boorman’s affectionate tribute to Malory) when Reeve was only 15.
Review first published December 2012. The illustration shows a 17th-century artistic impression of the cross claimed to have been found in the late 12th century in an early medieval grave at Glastonbury, identified as King Arthur’s — the wording reads, in Latin, HIC IACET SEPVLTVS INCLITVS REX ARTVRIVS IN INSVLA AVALONIA. This translates as “Here lies buried the famous king Arthur in the Avalonian island”, the first part of which inspired this book’s title.