Gwyna, a young girl escaping from raiders, is rescued by Merlin from a river. She helps him to deceive the impressionable warriors into believing in a Lady of the Lake, guardian of a mystical sword she bequeathes to Arthur. To avoid suspicion, she then dresses as a boy and joins Arthur’s camp as a distant relation and apprentice of Merlin. Later, when that disguise is impossible, she reverts to a female role until needing to make her escape after Merlin’s death.
An interesting revisionist take on the Arthurian stories. I say “revisionist” as though there were an accepted historical canon. That said, stories of Arthur tend to fall into two categories: the romantic variety, verging on the fairy tale; and the more prosaic variety, styling Arthur as a more-or-less dignified post-Roman war leader struggling to unite warring British tribes against the Saxon invaders. Some authors, such as Rosemary Sutcliff have written the story both ways. This book falls solidly into the “prosaic” camp, but goes a step further. Not content with simply ignoring the more fanciful aspects of the stories, it actively debunks each one, explaining that Merlin was a travelling bard-cum-trickster and Gwyna his willing assistant and follower. It all makes for an interesting story with the usual elements, including: Arthur’s struggle to form some sort of unity among the warring tribes; his marriage to Guenevere and her infidelity; the wiliness of Merlin and his eventual downfall; Sir Kay as Arthur’s brother and lieutenant. Arthur loses any semblance of dignity or nobility and is really one more war-leader among many, allowing politics, religion and trickery to achieve his ends. His marriage to Guenevere is cold and loveless which leads her to an affair with one of his men.
The title of the book refers to the famous inscription supposedly found on Arthur’s tomb: Here Lies Arthur, the Once and Future King. Presumably, though, the author wanted to play a little on the words since the book is very much about the lies which are told about Arthur. A principal theme is that stories grow in the telling and that people are ready to believe a story even when they know it not to be true. Another possible theme has to do with the fact that, not only is Gwyna/Gwyn a girl dressed as a boy – a commonplace device – but Peredur, known elsewhere as Percival, is a boy dressed as a girl! After some time, he sorts himself out and joins Arthur’s band as a slightly unconventional warrior. But after the final battle, we see him and Gwyna sailing away together, she as a boy and he as a girl. Not sure if the author was trying to make a point about sexual identity or merely wanting an offbeat tableau for the final act.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.