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Marcus Pitcaithly has launched a new fiction series, beginning with The Realm of Albion. This series is sure to be a treat for anyone who loves British mythology and history. Educated at Oxford, Pitcaithly has had a lifelong interest in history, mythology, and the interplay between the two. He has previously written The Hereward Trilogy, set in England just after the Norman Conquest, as well as scholarly works on Shakespeare and medieval history. While a lot of authors have retold the Arthurian story, Pitcaithly has decided to go back farther and recreate its roots in pre-Roman Britain.

The Realm of Albion, a retelling of the King Lear story drawing on Welsh sources - by Marcus Pitcaithly.

The Realm of Albion, a retelling of the King Lear story drawing on Welsh sources – by Marcus Pitcaithly.

Drawing on an impressive range of sources, including Shakespeare, but also The Welsh Triads, The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, and the medieval French romance Perceforest, The Realm of Albion is a retelling of the King Lear story from the viewpoint of Lear’s forgotten wife, Penarddun. At age fourteen, this daughter of King Belin is sent to be wife to the elderly King Llyr, and the night before her wedding, she witnesses the famous scene when Llyr asks his daughters whether they love him. But while the basic frame of this novel’s plot follows the tale as told previously, plenty of twists are involved, and those twists are what made me fall in love with this book.

Before Penarddun arrives at Llyr’s court, she stops at Avalon, where she meets Urganda, servant to the goddess Latis. Urganda tells Penarddun that Urganda’s sister, Gogoniant, was Llyr’s first wife and the mother of his daughter Cordelia. Llyr also had a dwarf son he claimed was stillborn and had exposed, although he doesn’t know that son survived and now lives at Avalon. Llyr’s other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, were born to his concubines. Therefore, Cordelia is Llyr’s only truly legitimate daughter, and she is significant as well because of her link to Avalon.

For years, Avalon has been home to the Lady of the Lake and a religious center of Britain, but Llyr, in his lust for power and not wanting anyone to have power over him, invaded Avalon and forced and took Gogoniant away to be his wife. She was the rightful Lady of the Lake, and Cordelia, therefore, is her successor. The Lady of the Lake’s consort is known as the Penteyrnedd, and Llyr has taken that to mean the consort is also the High King. At the same time, he has made himself the enemy of Avalon, even if he has power over it.

The well-known scene between Llyr and his daughters turns out to be staged. Cordelia has been told how to answer her father beforehand and she does so obediently. Llyr asks his daughters how much they love him and Goneril and Regan please him with their answers while Cordelia says she has nothing to add, resulting in her being disinherited. Llyr wants it this way to demolish the power of Avalon and the Lady of the Lake so he remains powerful.

Penarddun witnesses and participates in the events that follow, which will be well-known to those familiar with Shakespeare’s play. In time, Goneril and Regan turn on Llyr and he goes mad, and Cordelia must return to set things right. I won’t say more about the plot because I don’t want to give away all the interesting changes and additions that Pitcaithly has made to the storyline.

I did, however, appreciate the Arthurian elements he is planting in this first book. The sword Excalibur is introduced into the novel. We are told that when Llyr invaded Avalon, it was thrown into the mere to prevent him from obtaining it since it is the sword of the Lady and wielded by her consort. Without it, Llyr would not be the true consort. After Cordelia has set all to rights, the sword is found when the mere dries up. It is given to Cordelia’s husband, with the understanding that he serves the Lady and the consort’s title is now changed to Pendragon.

Cordelia in the Court of King Lear - an 1873 painting by Sir John Gilbert

Cordelia in the Court of King Lear – an 1873 painting by Sir John Gilbert

Another interesting Arthurian element is the role of Merlin. Like Marion Zimmer Bradley in The Mists of Avalon, Pitcaithly uses “Merlin” as a title, but it is more than just a position. The “Merlin” in this novel is Awel, a young boy who is believed to be the god Mabon born in human form as happens every so many years. It is believed Awel fulfills this prophecy because he was born at the dawn of Beltane and because his father died three months before his birth, making him a “fatherless” boy. We are told that if Awel has the power of a god, a wise king will want him on his side, but a fearful king would want him dead. Consequently, his identity is kept from Llyr. Awel travels to Llyr’s castle as part of Penarddun’s bridal party, and when Llyr meets him, he thinks he’s a fool and has him dress in fool’s clothes. I really thought this twist on Pitcaithly’s part was brilliant since the fool in Shakespeare’s plays is typically the wisest person and utters prophecies, so it is a logical and intelligent twist for the fool to be the Merlin.

Finally, I really appreciated the scholarship and effort that Pitcaithly put into writing this book. Having written Arthurian fiction myself, I know how much research is required and also how one has to take texts that are often vague, obscure, or fragmented, or storylines that have been embellished over centuries and sift through them as well as embellish them to fill in the missing pieces of the story. In his introduction, Pitcaithly remarks that it “feels almost like detective work, as if I am uncovering a true history from flawed sources.” That’s a feeling I know very well. He has taken a very minor reference to Penarddun in Welsh literature and created an entire novel around it.

What’s to come next in the series? In his introduction, Pitcaithly tells us he was first inspired to write a novel about the Amadis legend based on his early reading of Lewis Spence’s Legends and Romances of Spain. Over time, he realized that despite that legend’s Spanish trappings, it felt distinctly Celtic to him. I am not familiar with the Amadis legend, but in The Realm of Albion, Pitcaithly mentions in passing a couple of times a young prince belonging to another royal family named Amadis—a clear sign that Amadis will figure in later books. But as for the next book, it will be titled Under the Clear Sky and will bring in characters involved in the Sertorian War and the Spartacus revolt, as well as covering the reign of Cordelia and the rise of Bran, son to Llyr and Penarddun.

I highly recommend The Realm of Albion. It is wonderful to see the fragmented stories of the ancient Britons given new life and to have someone enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his subject put together the pieces to create a compelling story for modern readers. Anyone interested in ancient British history or the Arthurian legend will enjoy this book. I don’t know of anyone else who has taken on such a grand and scholarly undertaking to explore in fiction the pre-Arthurian period and even pre-Roman period (the novel’s action takes place around 80 B.C.E.). Marion Zimmer Bradley, of course, wrote her Avalon novels that were prequels to The Mists of Avalon, but with the exception of Ravens of Avalon, completed by her successor, Diana Paxson, I don’t feel those books were very successful or convincing, and they did not have as authentic a feeling of ancient British lore as what Pitcaithly brings to this retelling. With a large cast of bigger than life legendary characters, new twists on old tales, and plenty of Arthurian references, The Realm of Albion is a fabulous start to a fascinating new series. I look forward to reading the next book.

The Realm of Albion is available at most online bookstores. For more information about Marcus Pitcaithly, visit http://marcuspitcaithly.wix.com/marcus-pitcaithly.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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We all know the name of St. George, and most of us know he’s the patron saint of England. We know he slew a dragon, and we may remember Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry V: “For Harry, England, and St. George.” And doesn’t it seem fitting that April 23rd, the very day Shakespeare not only was born but also died, is St. George’s Holy Day?

But St. George was not English. I knew that and that he actually was from somewhere in the Middle East, but I wasn’t quite clear on where until recently. And then in March this year, I visited Turkey and discovered St. George was from that land, although to call him a Turkish saint would not be correct either since the Turks would not reside in modern-day Turkey until centuries after his death.

St. George died in 303. The date of his birth is not known exactly, but it is generally thought to be somewhere around 275-281 A.D. That means St. George lived in Roman times. In fact, he was a Roman soldier in the Guard of the Emperor Dioceletian from Syria-Palaestinea.

What about the story of his slaying the dragon? How is that possible when dragons are mythical? The dragon has long been associated with the pagan religions. Think of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, which was a metaphor for driving out the druids or the old religion. Snakes, serpents, and dragons are fairly interchangeable as terms for pagan religions.

You see, St. George was a Christian, but the Emperor Diocletian was one of Christianity’s greatest enemies, and he issued an order for all Christian soldiers in his army to be arrested and half to be put to death. St. George went to the emperor to protest, and being much respected by the emperor, Diocletian tried to get him to recant, but St. George refused. He was eventually put to death. His death as a martyr served as inspiration to others to convert. After all, the Christian Church is said to have been built on the blood of the martyrs. His suffering and death by decapitation are said to have so moved the empress and a pagan priest that they also converted and were put to death.

The story of the dragon evolved from this event which is believed to be fairly historical. Exactly how a literal dragon entered the story is unknown, but the Crusaders brought the story of St. George and the Dragon back to Europe with them. In the tale, a maiden is offered to the dragon, but St. George rescues her and slays the dragon. The parallel to Perseus’ rescue of Andromeda is obvious. This story became so popular that St. George became the patron saint of England. He is a popular saint in several other countries besides England, including Portugal and Georgia (although it is not named for him), and of course, Turkey. In fact, he is one of the very few Christian saints who is venerated by the Muslims.

In Turkey, St. George remains very popular, although he is best known in Christian depictions in Byzantine Christian churches in Cappadocia (which claims to be his birthplace) that date to the Middle Ages and were carved out of the rock. I visited one such church while I was there, and I purchased the lovely icon pictured here in Ephesus at the Home of the Virgin Mary.

St. George is often depicted with a red cross and riding a white horse. In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-96), the Redcrosse Knighte is an idealized version of Christianity based primarily on St. George. More recently, he was depicted in the 1962 film The Magic Sword (also known as St. George and the Dragon, St. George and the Seven Curses). You have to be a real fan of cheesy older movies to sit through this film—I have but I wouldn’t again—but it’s interesting for how a saint can become such a myth and enter popular culture. And who’s to say that, on some mythical level, St. George and King Arthur do not ride together, guarding England, or should I say Britain? For Britain was not England in Arthur’s day any more than St. George would have known a place named Turkey.

The story of St. George, be it myth or history or a little of both, will live on for years to come. I encourage you to investigate it more.Monastery/Church carved into rock in Cappadocia. St. George is depicted in such a church in the area.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. Visit him also at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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