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Archive for December, 2017

Barnard Faraday’s novel Pendragon (1930) is one of the earliest novels to treat King Arthur as a historical person living in the sixth century and fighting the Saxons. It’s a departure from the Arthur of Malory and Tennyson and helped mark a trend toward realistic historical Arthurian fiction as opposed to fantasy.

The novel is not without its faults. The few reviews at Amazon on the novel complain about its verbosity, stale characters, and lack of action—these are all fair criticisms. It’s really not a long novel—only 272 pages in its first edition, and it is a small sized book, about 4 x 5, so there should not be a lot of room for verbosity, but there is.

However, Pendragon has many good points. While we have to acknowledge that it is not always historically accurate and that Faraday did not have access to all the historical research that has been done in the nearly a century since he wrote it, he does try to give us a good feel for a Britain abandoned by the Romans, in which the tribes are squabbling among themselves while trying to fight off their enemies—in this case the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Picts, and Irish are all amassing against the Britons.

When the novel opens, Aurelian claims to be ruler of all Britain because he is a scion of the Proconsular family of Imperial descent. Aurelian’s father, Ambrosius, was the first to call himself king of Britain, realizing Rome had fallen. The novel takes place in 502/3, a generation after Rome fell in 476. Aurelian claims to be king of all Britain, but there are many other petty kings who claim their own territories. Most significantly, Guitolin was the ruler of Cornwall, but when the novel opens, he has been abducted by the Saxons and it’s not known whether he is dead or alive.

Artorius (King Arthur) is the general of Aurelian’s armies and the novel’s narrator. Early in the novel, he comes upon Princess Gwendaello of Cornwall, a niece to Guitolin. She has survived the attack that Guitolin was taken in and gets protection from Artorius as he escorts her home. She is quite uppity and sure of herself, and eventually, she makes it clear she is “Pendragon,” the rightful ruler of all Britain because that title belonged to her ancestors before the Romans came to Britain.

Artorius also meets Gildas and Mereddin (Merlin). Mereddin has apparently been plotting against Gwendaello, but Artorius decides to protect her. Meanwhile, Gildas is condemning the rulers of Britain as sinners, but before the novel’s end, he will show he is not just a crazed religious fanatic but capable of acting when needed and doing what is best for Britain.

There are some treasonous plots Artorius gets involved in that need stopping, and in time, he manages to convince the Britons that they must all band together to protect themselves from their enemies. Eventually, it’s learned that Guitolin did survive his abduction, and he is seeking to betray his people into the hands of the Saxons, letting them have portions of Britain in exchange for recognizing him as overlord. Fortunately, he fails in his mission and ends up being killed when he tries to attack Artorius.

A great conference is now held in which the kings argue among themselves. By this point, Artorius has fallen for Gwendaello and supports her claim to be Pendragon and rightful ruler of Britain. The novel culminates in the Battle of Mt. Badon, in which the Saxons and their allies are driven from Britain’s shores. Artorius is wounded in battle and wakes when it’s over to find himself lying in Gwendaello’s arms, and she telling him they have won the day, and then she kisses him.

The ending doesn’t make it clear whether Artorius is dying or whether he will live and presumably marry Gwendaello and become Pendragon himself through right of his eventual marriage to her. I suspect the latter, but Gwendaello cradling Artorius in her arms just resembles Morgan le Fay coming to take King Arthur to Avalon too much to make the reader not wonder whether Artorius is dying.

The novel does suffer from digressions and a lack of dramatic action. At one point, a major battle is described in a letter from Gwendaello to Artorius, which weakens the dramatic effect. There is a lot of arguing among the Britons, which slows down the plot. There are also a lot of characters to keep track of, although most of them are relatively insignificant.

The most fascinating character in the novel is Gwendaello because she is a strong woman, determined in a man’s world to assert her right to rule. Ultimately, she is able to convince Artorius, the strongest and most righteous of the men, to support her claim. I don’t believe another depiction of such a strong Guinevere would appear for decades, and that a man wrote this novel makes her depiction all the more remarkable.

Gildas is a complete anachronism in the novel. He’s described as being about eighty years old, and yet he wasn’t actually born until about 516 AD, some thirteen years after the novel ends.

But altogether, the novel is readable, and it is not as wordy and slow as it might have been had it been written in the Victorian period, even if it’s not fast-paced enough for the twenty-first century reader.

The biggest question is what is to be gained by such a novel that does not depict Arthur as a king but just a warrior, a general? Obviously, we gain a better understanding of who the original King Arthur may have been and what conditions he had to deal with, but we lose the magic of Camelot, of the knights and quests and mysteries. Personally, I prefer the historical fantasy approach where magic is still allowed in the Arthurian world while trying to be historically accurate. That said, Faraday’s novel is significant for how it blends not only history but also Welsh myth and British legend into the story—for example, a crown is found and worn by Gwendaello that belonged to Dynwal Moelmud, a legendary British king mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Faraday is trying to recreate the mindset of sixth century Britons who still believed in their ancient history and legends. Such beliefs are at times brought into question, but eventually Mereddin convinces Artorius to let the people believe what they want because when their beliefs die, it leads to sorrow and loss, which is why Artorius eventually agrees to support Gwendaello as Pendragon.

It seems then that Faraday wants to have it both ways—to create a more historical version of Arthur, and at the same time, let his readers continue to believe in their legendary Arthur, and perhaps make them into one and the same. This debate over how to depict Arthur—historical or legendary—continues on today as two schools—historical fiction and fantasy—have arisen among Arthurian fiction. But this literary division is wonderful because it provides diversity and room for creativity, and it will likely continue on as two schools of Arthurian fiction until the day the truth about King Arthur is known, and even then, it is questionable whether the fantasy versions of the Arthurian legend will cease to be read, and loved, and even rewritten again.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, 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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This latest volume of the Prince Valiant comic strip is largely concerned with Prince Arn’s visit to North America. About three-quarters of the volume details his journey there and back. The last section mostly concerns Prince Valiant trying to stop a plot by Mordred to take the throne.

Prince Valiant 15 — the the bottom right panel is from a storyline in which Val enters a crypt in Scotland and uses a skull to scare off a druid following him.

I hate to admit it, but this was one of the dullest books so far in the Prince Valiant series. The illustrations, as always, were splendid, but something was missing in terms of the storyline.

It all begins well enough. Arn hears tales of how his parents had once gone to North America and visited with the Native Americans. His mother was regarded as a goddess and the Natives were sorry to see her leave. When she did leave, she told them someday her son might return to lead their people to greatness.

Foster is playing on the myth of the white man being thought of as a god by the Native Americans—a myth that goes back to the first white explores to the New World like Cortez. However, Foster is writing in the 1960s, so he’s a bit more up-to-date.

In any case, Arn decides it’s time for him to fulfill this prophecy, even though he’s only just shy of fifteen, and his parents agree to let him go, with a shipload of warriors and Tillicum, his Native American nurse.

Once they arrive in North America, however, the plot gets dull. Foster understands whites have a tendency to think themselves better than Natives, and Arn is no different. He wants to bring civilization to the Algonquins, but with the guidance of his nurse, Tillicum, herself Native American—he learns to appreciate that Natives good qualities.

There isn’t much else to the story. There are a few skirmishes between the Algonquins and Iroquois. Arn finds himself in some sticky situations, having to hide out from Natives searching for him. Eventually, he helps the Algonquins defeat the Iroquois, and then the Ottawa come to befriend the Algonquins so they won’t be hurt like the Iroquois. In the end, Arn does succeed in leading the Algonquins to greatness, not by civilizing them, but by causing them to create a federation with other tribes that leads to the birth of the Algonquin nation.

I don’t have much else to say about it. What I’ve said about Foster’s depiction of Native Americans can be read in my previous blog on Val and Aleta’s first trip to North America:

https://childrenofarthur.wordpress.com/2013/04/13/prince-valiant-vol-6-1947-1948-the-north-american-journey/

Bottom line, however, more work needs to be done on Foster’s treatment of Native Americans. Volume 6 in this series, as noted in my blog from that volume, has a preface about how Foster tried to treat the Natives with respect, but I doubt Native Americans today would find it so respectful. Foster could also let racism seep into his depictions of other peoples, such as Arabs. Ultimately, he was a product of his time. I wish this volume had addressed Foster’s treatment of Native Americans in more detail. Instead there is an interview by an author who helped make Prince Valiant books for Dell—interesting in itself, but perhaps not as suitable for this volume.

That is not to say there are not breathtaking images in the book. The scenes of canoes on the lakes and rivers were particularly striking to me. Foster’s plots, however, are repetitive and leave much to be desired. Part of the problem is reading the strip in two year groupings. The strip at the end of 1966 ends in the middle of a new plot, and then we must wait several months for Fantagraphics to bring out the next book so we can continue the story. The strip itself has a serial, soap opera feel as a result of its weekly rather than yearly grouping of its storylines. One wishes Foster had more thought to how the strip might be packaged in book form down the road, but of course, he could not foresee that when he began it in the 1930s.

And so, this book left me disappointed, but I’ll go on to read the next volume regardless.

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