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Archive for July, 2017

And yet another novel has been written featuring King Arthur’s children. This one focuses on the child from Welsh tradition, Amir or Amr, here named Amhar. He is one of the main characters in Aenghus Chisholme’s 2014 novel AD 517: Arthur the King.

AD 517: Arthur the King makes King Arthur’s son Amhar its hero.

Actually, two of Arthur’s children are in this novel. Amhar is the legitimate son of Arthur and Gwenhwyvar, and heir to the kingdom. Mordred is the illegitimate son of Arthur and Morgan. For most of the novel, Mordred is a bit in Amhar’s shadow, and the two act together, which is not surprising given that Amr’s story is one in which he is slain while fighting his father, and he may likely have inspired the development of Mordred’s role as the son who slays his father. (In the original Welsh legends, there’s no indication Mordred and Arthur are even related to one another. For more on the development of both of these children in early Welsh sources, see my book King Arthur’s Children.)

Aenghus Chisholme has previously written three other Arthurian novels, the stories of which are occasionally referenced in the novel, although AD 517: Arthur the King can be read as a stand-alone novel. Amhar appears in all of the earlier novels, but he is just an infant and small child in them and not a major character.

Before I describe the plot of AD 517: Arthur the King, I will give a spoiler alert here since it’s impossible to discuss this novel without giving away the ending.

The story begins with Arthur defeating the Saxons at Badon. He now rules more of Britain than any previous king. That said, he has not driven away all the invaders of Britain. The Saxons, Jutes, and Angles still exist on his shores. Arthur wants to rid the island of all these invaders, but his son Amhar is against this, trying to convince his father that many of them were born in Britain and are as much Britons as the Britons themselves. Arthur does not want to hear this and begins a program of ethnic cleansing that enrages Amhar. Arthur is upset by his son’s attitude, even though Gallahalt tries to explain to him that Amhar, who is twenty-five, is too young to remember the earlier years when war was necessary.

Meanwhile, a sorcerer named Ivorwulf has been spying on Arthur’s castle at Caerleon. Morgan eventually realizes this and warns Merlin. They decide they will kidnap Ivorwulf to prevent him from aiding their enemies. Ivorwulf is working for the Saxons, Jutes, and Angles, who are forming an alliance against Arthur. However, before Morgan and Merlin can get Ivorwulf back to Caerleon, they are themselves abducted by Nimue and other fairies. Ivorwulf manages to free them and tells Merlin and Morgan he realizes they must be allies against the fairies who are the true enemies of Briton. (There’s a lot of stuff about fairies in the book and how they can no longer reproduce because Christianity is weakening them. The fairy stuff was a bit much for me. I like a little magic in Arthurian novel, but these fairies were over the top, especially in their sexual appetites. A couple of sex scenes with fairies were nothing but erotica and too gratuitous in my opinion since they added hardly anything to the plot.)

Arthur continues his ethnic cleansing program. Amhar and Mordred decide to go to Camlann to rally the people to pledge their loyalty to Arthur and show they are true Britons, even though many of them are Saxons, Jutes, or Angles. Arthur accidentally learns of their plans and takes a troop to Camlann to punish them or at least quell their rebellion, as he sees it. Ivorwulf, Merlin, and Morgan accompany him. Ivorwulf is pretending to be on their side, but upon arrival at Camlann, he shows his true colors. Through various spells, Arthur and Mordred end up fighting each other, each thinking the other a Saxon. Of course, they kill each other and regret it when they realize what they have done.

As he is dying, Arthur then gives Excalibur to Amhar, making him king. Meanwhile, Ivorwulf reveals to Merlin and Morgan his plan not to betray the invader kings so he can become Caesar of Britain himself. Merlin and Morgan become prisoner to his spells, but in a last act of strength, they help Amhar defeat Ivorwulf.

Here is the most interesting part of the novel. Amhar is now King of Britain, but rather than stay king, he wants all people to live in freedom in Britain, so he abdicates and goes to live in Galloway. He gives Excalibur to Sir Pellus to return to Matrona, the Lady of the Lake.

The novel’s ending is idealistic, and while I sympathize with its message, I’m afraid it’s not very realistic. I’m left thinking Amhar a bit of a fool. After all, who ever heard of him? By abdicating, he leaves Britain ripe for chaos and the resulting Dark Ages.

I also find the date of the novel strange. Only probably a few months at most pass during the time of this novel. Camlann was fought in 537 or 539 traditionally, certainly not 517, which is a year after the traditional date of 516 for the Battle of Mount Badon.

Overall, AD 517: Arthur the King was a bit over the top for my tastes, but I did like the treatment of Amhar and Mordred and the twist on how Camlann happened. The book is a fast-paced read and never dull, although it has more typos than it should. Arthur is a bit too much of a hot-head, but that’s to be expected in a novel that tries to explain how his sons were not the villains history has made them out to be. Some of the scenes felt a bit pointless, especially Arthur’s showdown with a witch, which did nothing to advance the plot. Even so, it’s a fun read and does make you wonder yet again what really might have happened at Camlann.

Those interested in reading Aenghus Chisholme’s other Arthurian novels can visit his website at www.AenghusChisholme.com.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other historical novels. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

 

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Thomas Love Peacock was a writer of the Romantic Age known for his friendship with writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley and for books such as Nightmare Abbey (1818) a parody of Gothic novels. Being a lover of the Gothic, I read Nightmare Abbey many years ago, found its satire tedious, and never read another Peacock book until I heard that The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829) was an Arthurian novel.

An early edition of The Misfortunes of Elphin – note the peacock design – a tribute to the author’s name.

In fact, The Misfortunes of Elphin may be not only the first modern Arthurian novel but the first historical Arthurian novel, a designation that often goes to Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset (1963). Actually, several other authors wrote historical Arthurian novels in between, including William H. Babcock (Clan of the Chariots, 1898), W. Barnard Faraday (Pendragon, 1930), Edward Frankland (The Bear of Britain, 1944), and John Masefield (Badon Parchments, 1947), but it wasn’t until Sutcliff that a real effort to create a historically accurate Arthurian world became popular.

Regardless, Peacock is the first to make the effort, though that is not to say that he uses the same criteria a historical novelist would today, but nor does he set Arthur in a vague medieval period in England. Instead, he goes back to the Welsh legends to create an Arthurian world akin to what we find in the Mabinogion. Not until Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King (1988) would another author try to be so loyal to the Welsh legends in his depiction of the Arthurian story. For that reason alone, I find The Misfortunes of Elphin remarkable.

I was also surprised that Peacock does not mock his subject matter but treats it sincerely. The only really flaw in his style is that in a few places he has digressions where he compares the past to the present, thus breaking the fictional spell for the reader. Unfortunately, the story itself is a bit weak and disjointed, but Peacock’s use of the Welsh Triads and other Welsh sources still makes it of interest to the student of Arthurian literature.

The story begins with Gwythno, King of Caredigion, who has working for him Seithenyn, Lord of the Embankment. Seithenyn is not good about maintaining the embankment and eventually it fails and causes the land to flood, leading to the destruction of Gwythno’s kingdom. Gwythno’s son, Elphin, tries to prevent this from happening, but he is too late. Nevertheless, he falls in love with Seithenyn’s daughter, Angrahad, when he goes to speak with her father. Both Gwythno and Seithenyn feature in Welsh tradition (although Jenifer Westwood in Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain suggests that Gwythno is really Edward I “Longshanks”).

“She gave him a supper” an illustration from the novel. The scene shows a trick played by Angrahad to deceive Maelgon’s man into thinking she is not as virtuous as Elphin claims.

Living in new quarters because Gwythno’s castle has basically been destroyed—Elphin and Angrahad marry and Gwythno goes to live with them. After the destruction of the kingdom by the flooding, Elphin is reduced to fishing for a livelihood to feed his family. One day he rescues from the water the baby Taliesin, who will grow up to become a great bard. Elphin regrets rescuing the child because now there will be another mouth to feed, but Taliesin, who can talk as a baby, tells him someday he will rejoice for having done it. The rest of the novel shows why Taliesin is of value to the family.

One day, Maelgon, a neighboring king, raids the land but pretends to be a guest to Elphin. He then invites Elphin to his castle, but when Elphin returns the visit, trouble ensues when they argue over whose wife is better. In the end, Maelgon imprisons Elphin. By now, Taliesin is grown up. He goes to King Arthur, who is overlord of Britain, to ask for help to rescue Elphin, but Arthur has troubles of his own—Gwenyvar has been captured by Melvas. Taliesin aids Arthur in helping to negotiate Gwenyvar’s release. In exchange, Arthur then helps to free Elphin. All ends well, of course, and even Taliesin finds love to add to the happy ending.

For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the book is that Gwenvach is a character in the novel. She is Gwenyvar’s half-sister and Mordred’s wife in the novel. She makes a remark after Gwenyvar is rescued that suggests Gwenyvar was not virtuous while Melvas’ captive. As a result, Gwenyvar slaps her, which Peacock says is one of the Three Fatal Slaps that caused the battle of Camlann since it increased the enmity between Arthur and Mordred. I love this inclusion of Gwenvach because in my own Children of Arthur series, Gwenvach is the primary villain, also based on this statement from the Welsh Triads, although I spell her name Gwenhwyvach. Peacock is digging for legitimate legends here and not just making up his storyline like too many modern Arthurian novelists. Another scene refers to one of the Three Chaste Kisses of Britain, a kiss given by Taliesin.

It’s also noteworthy that Peacock intersperses a lot of poetry throughout the novel. It is not great poetry, and most of it is sung by Taliesin, including a song of Ceridwen’s Cauldron. The poetry takes up a huge portion of the book and acts like filler for the undeveloped plot. It largely reminded me of opera, with a little plot, and then a bunch of songs that don’t really advance the plot, but it is an interesting mix of poetry and storyline anyway, and also a bit reminiscent of Mrs. Radcliffe’s use of poetry in her novels. Peacock was just as well known for his poetry as his novels, and he had already published a longer Arthurian poem, “The Round Table, or King Arthur’s Feast” (1817) in which King Arthur is in Avalon and Merlin allows him to view all the monarchs who have sat on his throne up to the time of George III. The poem can be read online at: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/peacock-round-table.

Thomas Love Peacock, known today chiefly as a satirist and friend to Percy Shelley.

Ultimately, Peacock ends up being a mediocre poet and a mediocre novelist, but his writing is not completely without interest. The Misfortunes of Elphin is not a masterly novel, even though some critics have said it is Peacock’s best. I can’t say it has made me eager to read more of Peacock, but I think it a remarkable novel nonetheless for its early treatment of Welsh legends. It may seem surprising to us that it gives such a historical treatment to the Arthurian legend, considering no other writer will do so for another 130 years; however, it really isn’t that surprising given that Peacock was writing in the age of Sir Walter Scott, the great antiquary who not only wrote some of the first and most popular historical novels but collected ballads and legend and folklore, and so Peacock is following in his footsteps. It also predates the popular translations of the Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest (1838-1845), which shows Peacock likely read the early Pughe translations of 1795 and 1821 and early translations of the Welsh Triads by Iolo Morganwg published in 1801-1807. The Misfortunes of Elphin, then, is very much an Arthurian novel ahead of its time and yet of its time as ancient Welsh literature was being rediscovered in the early nineteenth century.

(Note, I am indebted to Howard Wiseman for providing me with the list of early writers of historical Arthurian novels between Peacock and Sutcliff.)

______________________________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other historical novels. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

 

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