This final volume of Helen Hollick’s trilogy took me a little while to get into, and I thought it dragged a bit in the middle, but while reading the last couple of hundred pages, I didn’t want to put it down as I waited to find out how it would all turn out, and despite my not being crazy about the writing style, overall, I felt satisfied with the ending, and it certainly fulfilled my interest in depictions of King Arthur’s children.
When the previous volume, Pendragon’s Banner, ended, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar’s three sons were all dead but Gwenhwyfar was pregnant. When this novel opens, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar have a little girl, Archfedd.
Arthur has two other children (not counting all the bastards he apparently has who don’t figure in the story): Medraut, who lives with his mother, Morgaine, and is just a small child; and Cerdic, son to Winifred (Arthur’s divorced first wife), who is entering his teen years.
Arthur goes to Gaul to fight for Rome, and in the process, gets involved with a woman named Mathild. He is then believed to have been killed in battle, and his own men believe him dead, but some women realize the king is still breathing so they bring him to Morgaine, who cares for him but then also drugs him so he stays with her. Arthur has no desire to leave her anyway because just before his battle, he had heard in a letter from his uncle Ambrosius that Gwenhyyfar had died. He doesn’t know that Gwenhwyfar recovered from her illness, so his spirit is broken and he has no desire to return to Britain to reclaim his throne. Everyone in Britain assumes he has died and Ambrosius rules the country now.
Meanwhile, Mathild, whom Arthur had an affair with, returns to Britain and immediately marries Arthur’s son, Cerdic. She soon after has a child named Cynric, whom it is believed is really Arthur’s, not Cerdic’s. When Cerdic’s mother, Winifred, accuses Mathild of the child being Arthur’s and not Cerdic’s, Mathild reveals that Arthur is not dead. This news spreads to Gwenhwyfar, who travels to Gaul to find her husband and try to understand why he has never returned to Britain. She, in the meanwhile, has taken Bedwyr as her lover because she has believed Arthur to be dead.
This section of the story where Arthur doesn’t return home and they search for him drags on for a couple of hundred pages, and although it is revealed Morgaine is drugging Arthur, I still found it hard to understand why he has no desire to return home. Of course, once Arthur and Gwenhwyfar meet, he decides to return to Britain and being king, taking his son Medraut with him.
What interested me from this point was how everything would turn out and whether Arthur’s children would outlive and succeed him. Cerdic has by this time turned against Arthur and they end up waging war against each other. Meanwhile, Archfedd taunts Medraut that he will never be king, and even when he marries, he doesn’t have any children. Archfedd marries a man named Natanlius, by whom she has first a son named Constantine and then other children. While the text doesn’t state so at the end, obviously Constantine is the successor taken from most endings of the story although his role is never stated to be significant in this novel.
Meanwhile, Cynric also grows up and has three bastard daughters as well as a wife who gets pregnant. He and Cerdic have a falling out in regards to waging war on Arthur, but nevertheless, it is obvious that Hollick intends them to be depictions of the historical Cerdic and Cynric, founders of the royal house of Wessex.
Hollick ends the novel with a Battle of Camlann. While she changes around some things, in the end, Arthur dies and his descendants do live on. (I have left out a lot of the story details here so as not to give it all away but simply to discuss how Hollick treats Arthur’s children.)
Significantly, this novel makes Arthur’s descendants the future royalty of England. The royal family of England has, at least since the twelfth century, tried to claim descent from King Arthur (I have an entire chapter about these claims in my book King Arthur’s Children). Geoffrey Ashe proposed more than a quarter century ago that Cerdic might be the son of Arthur-Riothamus (a contender for the historical King Arthur). Cerdic’s Celtic rather than Saxon name has been a reason for such suggestions. Cerdic doesn’t appear in the early versions of the legend, but he is of the correct historical period so such suggestions are plausible. Hollick is the first novelist to take these suggestions and apply them to her fiction.
Because King Arthur’s descendants become the established royal family of Britain, I think Hollick’s trilogy is significant for that reason. In addition, while I didn’t care for the writing style, the characters are quite interesting and well-developed. Hollick’s versions of Winifred and Cerdic are two of the strongest villains I have encountered in Arthurian literature, and while Arthur is not very likeable—really Gwenhwyfar was the only character in all the books I did like—she creates some very interesting characters and twists upon traditional characters. It probably isn’t a series I would read again, but it is worth reading.
For more information about Helen Hollick and her Arthurian novels, visit www.HelenHollick.net
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com