The title of Sarah Woodbury’s The Last Pendragon intrigued me because of my long interest in King Arthur’s descendants, although the title character is actually Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, the last of the Welsh kings, as mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Cadwaladr is not actually a descendant of King Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Woodbury does not make him such in her novel, although he is continually referred to as Arthur’s heir and compared to Arthur in greatness.
I assumed Woodbury would not make Cadwaladr Arthur’s direct descendant, but I was still interested in the novel because few authors have tried to treat the Welsh version of Arthurian times, save for people like Nikolai Tolstoy in The Coming of the King. Woodbury does not try to recreate the Welsh world to the extreme level of authenticity Tolstoy attempted, but she introduces the Welsh gods who rarely make it into Arthurian legends. As she notes in her afterword, the conflict between pagans and Christians was more commonly a medieval issue, and I found her Welsh world and their gods a refreshing change in Arthurian fiction.
The gods play a major role in this novel. Cadwaladr, more commonly called Cade in the novel, is the son of the late king Cadwallon, who was killed by his enemy Cadfael, who then married Cadwaladr’s mother. Taliesin, the bard, took Cadwaladr to safety as a child, but now Cadwaladr is grown; he has just done battle with his men against Cadfael and lost. He is imprisoned at Cadfael’s court but is rescued by Cadfael’s bastard daughter Rhiann, and together they escape the castle.
Following the escape, the gods enter the picture. Cade was chosen by Arianrhod, the goddess of time and fate, to be her champion so she has given Cade the power of the sidhe, the godlike beings, sometimes fairy folk, of the Celtic world. The power makes Cade stronger and gives him special powers, although he is the opposite of a solar god, being stronger at night and weaker during the day.
Meanwhile, darker problems are afoot. Teragad, another Welsh leader, has obtained Arianrhod’s cauldron and used it to unleash the gods into the mortal world. A great war ensues in which Arawn, Lord of the Underworld, and his son, Mabon, enter the fight. Humans go to battle against demons and only Cade seems able to save the day, but to do so, he must reveal his sidhe power and that the price for that power has been the loss of his immortal soul. Rhiann finds herself attracted to Cade, but once she learns the truth about his powers, will she be able to love him?
I loved the concept of this book—a historical novel about a minor character in the Arthurian world who is rarely given attention to. The introduction of Welsh gods and magic into the story makes it more fantasy than historical reality, but it also offers a sort of magical realism for how the Welsh people might have viewed their world. I was not as fond of the actual writing itself, although Woodbury is a competent writer and at times entertaining, but I found the book less than gripping at times and sometimes skimmed over the descriptions. That said, the book stirred my interest in Cadwaladr and made me want to learn more about the Welsh world that preserved the Arthurian tales.
I had some small qualms with the printed book itself. I ordered a paper copy from Amazon with no knowledge that the book was part of a series. I only discovered that at the end of the book in the historical note where Woodbury referred to The Last Pendragon Trilogy. There had to have been printing or layout problems. My copy says below the title “A Tale of Dark Age Wales” but the cover image on Amazon now says “The Last Pendragon Saga: Book One” so the error must have been corrected recently. I also found the book layout a tad subpar with the left margin unjustified, some extra pages or pages where text was a line or two shorter on certain pages, and a few more typos than normal in a book, although not as bad as many a self-published book I’ve seen.
Overall, The Last Pendragon is a refreshing twist on the Arthurian canon without being focused primarily on King Arthur. Readers who enjoy a blending of fantasy and historical fiction should enjoy the book, although it weighs more on fantasy since so little is known of the historical Cadwaladr. Woodbury has also published The Pendragon’s Quest, the second book in the series, while the third book is apparently still to come. In addition, she has published several other novels including Cold My Heart about two characters who foresee Mordred’s attempt to destroy King Arthur.
For more information about Sarah Woodbury and her novels, visit www.SarahWoodbury.com where she has several interesting articles and an educational blog besides information for ordering her books.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com