The essence of good storytelling

Philip Reeve Here Lies Arthur Scholastic 2007

glastonbury_crossMy 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.

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4 thoughts on “The essence of good storytelling

    1. It’s a little slow going at the beginning, and a little bit depressing at the end (not surprisingly, as the Arthurian story arch is essentially a tragedy) but worth sticking at; a tangential but poetically valid look at the mythos, which I rather liked.

  1. Aha! One I’ve read. And I pretty much go along with your thoughts. At first unhappy with the way he seems to be playing fast and loose with the legend and even feeling that he’s stealing the magic by providing this version of Merlin. But I too am glad I persisted. He is a good story teller and I think this version is a good point of entry for twenty-first century young readers. The myth/legend/history is safe in good hands.

    1. Always good to have one’s critical instincts validated, Simon, so thanks! I do like innovative but intelligent takes on familiar legends instead of imitative novels ploughing the same old furrows.

      In the last few decades these have largely been on the one hand ‘historical’ (I use the word advisedly) fictions espousing one Arthur identification theory or another, or on the other hand in the ‘feminist’ (also used advisedly) fantasy genre popularised by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Neither satisfy me at all.

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