The real King Arthur …

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

Arthurian myth and legend is one of my favourite reading themes.  If asked about my favourite movies, Excalibur [1981] comes 2nd (after The Blues Brothers). I saw that film the week it came out at the Odeon Leicester Square and was immediately smitten with the Arthurian bug.  A few years later having read much of the source material and also inspired by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s brilliant The Mists of Avalon, I applied to Mastermind with this as my specialist subject – but didn’t get an audition unfortunately.

Back to the present. I was recommended Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve by pal Julia in my local bookshop (Mostly Books – see link on the sidebar) and couldn’t resist. It was a great choice and I enjoyed it tremendously – in fact it’s one of the best Arthurian novels I’ve read. It also won the Carnegie Medal in 2008.

Reeve’s book for teens presents a totally different take on the stories that is highly original, and uses the Welsh Mabinogion as the basis for the tale rather than Mallory or any of the later romances. What’s more this interpretation of the story could so easily be the real thing! The land it portrays is one of warring tribes; Arthur could be the one to pull the tribes of the west together to face the Saxons, and Myrddin (Merlin) his mentor is doing his best to make it so. However, Myrddin’s chief weapon is not the dragon’s breath or Earth magic of the romantic tradition – it’s SPIN! Yes, you heard me right, ’twas ever thus.

Myrddin comes from the bardic tradition and is a master story-teller, embellishing and embroidering Arthur’s exploits to the masses to put his man forward as the natural leader. He’s also good at creating illusions and using any opportunity to promote the would-be king. As the novel opens, a young servant girl Gwynna, is hiding from Arthur and his war-band who have just slashed and burned her master’s home. She swims to avoid them, and is spotted by Myrrdin who immediately sees that he can use her to shine light on Arthur, and persuades her to become the Lady of the Lake and present him with a new sword (here named Caliburn). As all eyes will be on Arthur, no-one will notice that the Lady is just a girl who can swim like a fish. As he says “Men see whatever you tell them to see“. Gwynna is a bright girl and does well, and Myrrdin could use an assistant, so she joins him – dressed as a boy for safety and becoming Gwynn.

And thus begins the story, told almost entirely from Gwynna/Gwynn’s point of view. It takes us from the episode of the Lady of the Lake through to the deaths of Merlin and Arthur. As everything is seen from Gwynna’s slightly removed perspective it reveals the politics and spin underneath and the legacy it creates is clear. It’s a sophisticated version of the age-old tales and I loved it. Even more so, when I read the author’s note and found out that the film Excalibur smote him too! (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve, Marion Lloyd Books, paperback
Excalibur [1981] [DVD]
The Mists of Avalon (Mists of Avalon 1) by Marion Zimmer Bradley, paperback.

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