Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)
The legend of King Arthur, reimagined
A vicious, beautiful, profane and wickedly funny take, without the chivalry, divine right or holy quests
THERE are no in Lavie Tidhar’s Arthurian epic fantasy
By Force Alone.
parfit gentil knights
It is a vicious, beautiful, profane and wickedly funny reimagining of the rise and fall of King Arthur without the chivalry, divine right or holy quests.
No one is pure of heart, no one is destined by God to rule; the right of kings is determined solely by the might of kings.
Arthur begins his career in a world that has moved on, a Londinium rebuilding itself from the wreck of Roman retreat, by establishing himself as a precocious gang leader and cornering the drug market; the sword in the stone is a publicity stunt.
Guinevere, so far from the shy and delicate “white shadow” of Sutcliff or Lancelyn Green, leads her own all-female mercenary band, hired to take out King Pelles.
Lancelot is a Judean assassin who studied kung fu under martialarts master Joseph of Arimathea. Galahad runs a brothel.
Merlin, inhuman and deeply cynical, is only in it for the power, which creatures like himself desire above all else.
Tidhar is playing what-if with the legend: What if these people were just people, rather than long shadows thrown across invented history? What if King Arthur were not High King because he was chosen by destiny so much as that he fought for it and won?
What if women were not just abstract objects to possess, but people with their own agency and motive force and career goals?
What if the Grail were not a holy Christian relic but something entirely different, alien, with its own compelling and corrupting power?
This kind of retelling offers a wealth of opportunity to examine aspects of the familiar story in a new light, and is both exciting and enormously satisfying to read.
It reminds me of Katherine
Addison’s recently released
in the level of creative insight and detail involved in the reimagination of a well-known narrative.
Of particular interest is the way Tidhar flips Arthur and Merlin on the moral axis. His Merlin is manipulative, parasitic, using both Uther and subsequently Arthur to get what he wants, drumming up xenophobic hatred among the locals to support Arthur’s cause, while Arthur is a murderous gang leader who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
Despite the complete break with the original version, their relationship works: king to trusted magical adviser.
The prose style is half of what makes the book so powerful. Tidhar is both clean and poetic, elegantly sparse but deeply evocative.
Every phrase is load-bearing.
The profanity serves its purpose. He switches between point-of-view characters and authorial voice seamlessly, using short almostchoppy sentences to give a sense of inevitable forward movement, events lensing into one another.
The frequent references to Greek philosophy in the narration both serve to underline the post-Roman intellectual landscape of the time and to create a kind of distance between the reader and the text, which increases that slightly dreamy sense of inexorable direction.
This story is going to happen; the terrible ending is going to occur, and we and the characters are swept along with it.
The narrative slows down a little and becomes less clear once we approach the Grail, but picks up again afterwards, accelerating toward Camlann: inevitable, not just because we know the plot but because by now Merlin and Arthur have fought, schemed, murdered, lied and antagonised their way into a corner.
There is no way out but one, and that is the ending of the story. |
of the Crows