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Posts Tagged ‘The Coming of the King by Nikolai Tolstoy’

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 usually goes to Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Sword at Sunset (1963).

That is not to say that Peacock tries to be historically accurate as a writer would be 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.

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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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I have probably forgotten more Arthurian novels than I can count, so while I know there are dozens if not hundreds out there, and I’ve read a fair number of them, I’ve tried to pick the novels that have remained in my head for years, and those I see as extremely significant in shaping the legend in new ways even if I didn’t particularly enjoy them. Placing them in an appropriate order was also difficult. I’d be interested in hearing from readers whether they feel I left any significant books off the list or if they feel I should have placed them in a different order since I spent many hours debating this list and most I think could be considered classics of modern Arthurian fiction today, or at least of significant influence.

10. The Coming of the King (1988) by Nikolai Tolstoy. This book was supposed to be the first in a trilogy of books about Merlin, but Tolstoy never published the rest of the series, or wrote it perhaps. And admittedly, it was not a well-written or engaging novel, but Tolstoy did a superb job at trying to recreate the Welsh world that Merlin and Arthur would have lived within. He was obviously influenced by The Mabinogion, and is one of the few novelists who has used those most ancient of Arthurian legends as his primary source. It is worth a read for that reason alone and hopefully future novelists will come along to give us authentic feeling Welsh Arthurian worlds in the future.

9. The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. I’ve always felt this novel was highly overrated and its writing style less than engaging, but it’s influence on the great musical Camelot which in turn inspired John F. Kennedy and is my all-time favorite film and musical makes it worth mentioning. Its merits lie in its humor, its fantasy, and its presentation of Arthur as a child, which also inspired Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. White is also the first novelist to suggest homosexual attraction as having a role in the legend, particularly in the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle.

8. King Arthur’s Daughter (1978) by Vera Chapman. I believe this was the first novel where a child of Arthur, and a girl at that, plays a significant role in the storyline. Many other novels of Arthur’s children, and especially daughters, would follow and other novels suggesting that Arthur’s descendants live to the present day. This young adult novel is engaging and fun for all ages.

7. The Road to Avalon (1989) by Joan Wolf. Contains a love story between Arthur and Morgan, but also, it contains an interesting twist on the Fall of Camelot. Overall, this was one I couldn’t put down and thoroughly enjoyed. It’s historical and fast-paced and has an interesting take on Mordred and Constantine.

6. Merlin Novels (1970-1983) by Mary Stewart. More than any other novelist, Mary Stewart brought Arthurian fiction into fashion. Her three Merlin novels (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment) and The Wicked Day about Camelot’s Fall were a wonderful historical rendering of Arthurian times told from Merlin’s point of view. I read these books as a teenager twenty-five years ago, and there are scenes from them that are still vivid in my head. I reread very few books, but these would definitely be books to read time and again. (But avoid Stewart’s later pseudo-Arthurian novel The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995)—boring.)

5. The Pendragon Cycle (1987-1989) by Stephen Lawhead. The first three novels of this series Taliesin, Merlin, and Arthur are phenomenal books—I read all three in a week. Lawhead’s other three novels are a bit disappointing but don’t miss the beginning of the series. They begin in Atlantis and then follow characters to Britain and build toward the reign of King Arthur. The story is engaging and captivating throughout. Other novelists have also linked the Arthurian legend to Avalon, but none in such an entertaining and complete way.

4. The Camulod Chronicles (1992-2000) by Jack Whyte. Whyte went farther than any other novelist in trying to recreate the Roman world in the decades before King Arthur. He depicts how Camelot was founded by Arthur’s ancestors in the time when the Romans were departing and brings the story up to Arthur’s birth. I could not put these books down and read each one—they’re all around 500 or more pages, within a few days. There are six novels altogether, but Whyte also wrote Uther, and the two Golden Eagle novels about Lancelot, which were disappointing by comparison.

3. Sword at Sunset (1963) by Rosemary Sutcliff. This book is the grandmother of modern Arthurian fiction. It is the first historical treatment of the Arthurian legend depicting King Arthur not as a fantasy figure but trying to place him in his historical context as a war leader. I found the book rather boring, actually, but many people have enjoyed it and its importance cannot be denied. Sutcliff was also the first novelist to create a child other than Mordred for Arthur (a daughter actually, even predating King Arthur’s Daughter, although the daughter dies as an infant).

2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) by Mark Twain. I’m not a huge Mark Twain fan, but this book is brilliantly written. In my opinion it leaves Huckleberry Finn in the dust. It is one of the first “time travel” novels in literature while also serving as a social commentary on nineteenth century America. More than any other Arthurian work, it has been retold in plays and films and spinoffs. But while many of the versions of it, ranging from Spacemen to baseball playing boys in King Arthur’s court are silly, the book itself is fascinating. Hank Morgan is truly one of the great characters of literature.

1. The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley. No doubt, The Mists of Avalon is the best known modern Arthurian novel but it is fully deserving of that designation. Bradley took the legend to new lengths by retelling the story from the woman’s point of view and introducing the Celtic religion and its aspects into the novel to an extent not previously done in Arthurian fiction. As a novelist myself, this book had a huge impact on me, both in my writing and my spiritual beliefs. It’s one of those books that stays with you for life, and it may well be my all-time favorite novel.

Remember, I would love to hear about your favorite Arthurian novels!

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

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