Parke Godwin,
(Doubleday, 1980; Bantam, 1982)

The best Arthurian novels tend to be out of print. The best of the lot is Catherine Christian's stirring novel, The Pendragon. A very close second is Parke Godwin's Firelord.

Firelord is a highly detailed imagination of Arthur's life in war-torn Britain. Arthur, rising from a lowly soldier's post to complete military command and eventual kingship over all Britain, comes to dramatic life in this fast-paced, believable tale. Set after the Roman legions withdrew and left Britain defenseless before the Saxon and Pictish hordes, Firelord details the rise and inevitable fall of the one man who can unite the disparate peoples of Celtic Britain.

Some elements of the familiar tale are presented here in the best light I've yet seen. These include the notorious Grail quest, the infamous lovers' triangle, the desperate battle at Mount Badon and, best of all, the lifelong relationship between Arthur and Guinevere. The familiar names of legend -- Bedivere, Gawain, Agrivaine, Gareth, Lancelot, Peredur, Trystan, Morgana and Modred -- are given distinct personalities and tales of their own in one of the richest renditions yet published. Even Cerdic, Arthur's erstwhile Saxon foe, gains new dimensions, even grudging respect.

Battle scenes are laden with tense details and elaborate strategies that place readers right in the midst of the action, lances couched and horses thundering over the field of combat.

Only a few unusual choices -- Godwin's "imaginary friend" portrayal of Merlin and the manner in which a young Arthur forgets himself and settles comfortably into a Stone Age lifestyle -- cause this book to stumble. Otherwise, the story is devoid of the magical elements that usually place Arthur more in the province of children's fantasy than historical fiction, where he belongs. Attitudes toward religion seem realistic as well, at a time when old and new faiths clashed.

Firelord is an incredible book not to be missed by any fan of Arthurian fiction. Hopefully, it and other deserving novels will come back into print soon.

by Tom Knapp
17 September 2005

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