Catherine Christian, |
(Knopf, 1978; Warner, 1984)
The story of King Arthur has been unalterably tied to magic and mystery. Merlin was a wizard, Morgan was a sorceress and Arthur's reign was mystically -- perhaps even divinely -- sustained through an endless parade of magical, holy and wonderous events.
Or, no. Beneath the shiny veneer of Arthur's legend lies the bare truth of 6th-century Britain and a valiant, brutal struggle for peace in the years between the Roman evacuation and the Saxon conquest. It is of this era -- unpolished but inspiring nonetheless -- that Catherine Christian writes in her novel, The Pendragon.
I first stumbled upon this book in 1984, six years after its initial publication. It was the finest Arthurian novel I'd read to date -- and nothing in my experience has exceeded it since. Christian's interpretation of the story is rooted in the historical context of Britain's own Celtic twilight. And, while much occurs that might seem magical to the casual observer, it can all be explained by the Merlin's sense of showmanship and a credulous, superstitious society.
The story is told through the eyes of Bedivere, Arthur's close companion from childhood on. Couched in a dry recounting of facts and dates to a Saxon monk as Bedivere lies on his death bed, the story unfolds as the hero's mind wanders into deeper, more personal memories. The narrative is rich, at times almost poetic, but unflinching in the face of the gritty realities of a nation at war, and where the primary weapons are the sword and horse.
The tale is exhilarating and sad, and deeply satisfying. You close the book believing that Arthur's saga should have happened in just this way -- and, more importantly, perhaps it could have.