Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

I read this book late last year yet have never got around to finishing the review. I’m hoping to just plow through a bunch of book reviews to get them off my to do list.

“People will tell you that Arthur isn’t dead. They’ll tell you how he was borne away to lie in enchanted sleep under a hill or on the Isle of Glass. But don’t you believe them. I head the last breath rattle in his throat.”

I’m not sure if the title of the novel, Here Lies Arthur, is unconsciously apt or deliberately ironic. The narrator of this young adult novel purports to reveal the historical truth behind the myth and the grim reality hidden within the mystery. She deep sixes not only Arthur himself but the legend of Arthur, all the mystery and magic and heroism and nobility and we’re left with a grim story in a world where honor and virtue do not exist. The author argues in his end note that this “is not a historical novel” and it is not meant to portray “the real Arthur.” Nevertheless, the narrator claims to be revealing the truth behind the stories and the major theme of the novel is that stories are just pretty lies that cover up ugly truths and have no greater meaning than to make us feel good about ourselves.

Everything that makes the legend of King Arthur, the once and future king, the greatest story of English folklore, everything that makes the tale worth telling and retelling, has been ruthlessly eviscerated leaving a hollow shell of a story. In this version Arthur is a brigand, a petty warlord running a protection racket: “The real Arthur had been just a tyrant in an age of tyrants. What mattered about him was the stories.” It’s a cynical postmodern take that misses why the stories are important: that at the heart of the stories is a deeper truth and it is that truth that draws storytellers, poets and readers to revisit Arthur again and again.

The narrator of the tale, she can hardly be called a heroine, is Gwyna, an urchin who is rescued by Myrddin (Merlin) after Arthur and his warband have destroyed her home and slaughtered most of the inhabitants. At Myrddin’s prompting, Gwyna impersonates the Lady of the Lake and hands Arthur a sword, creating the legend of the man chosen to be king by a higher power. Thereafter Gwyna becomes Myrddin’s protege and her story weaves in and out of various familiar Arthurian tales, always with an eye of showing the dark truth behind the glittering myth: the grail is a sham; Mryddin is a charlatan, a bard who can’t even really play good music, spinning tales to fool the rubes and to consolidate Arthur’s power; the story of Gwenhyfar and Bedwyr becomes one of tawdry adultery, not even good drama, certainly not one of great passion, conflicted consciences, and betrayal.

Of course, you can’t have really good postmodern myth-busting without a heavy dose of gender bending. It a plot line that at first seems right out of Shakespeare Gwyna dresses like a boy, calling herself Gwyn. But unlike Viola/Cesario’s poignant wooing of Olivia for Orsino, the master she’s secretly pining over, this version comes across as coarse. During their adventures Gwyna encounters Peri/Peredur, a man whose mother has always dressed him like a girl, who in fact thinks he is a girl when they first meet. Gwyna discovers that Peri is a man when she convinces Peri to pretend to be an angel to punish a charlatan priest, “St Porroc,” who has been living off of the donations he has been extorting from Peri’s mother (because you’ve got to show that religion is a fraud too).

Anyway at the end of the novel Gwyn/Gwyna pretends to be the Lady of the Lake again and kisses Peredur. When she reveals the truth, that she is both a woman and was the lady in his vision, it is also the moment when she takes control of their relationship and reverse the usual gender roles:

“Gwyn and Gwyna, we’re one and the same.”

How he stared when he began to understand me. I thought his understanding would carry him further and he’d work out it had been me beside the river, giving him that cup. But he never thought to. In his memory, the lake-lady was beautiful, and I was hardly that, with my flat round face like a barley bannock, and dressed up as a boy. I had to explain that too.

“But I saw her,” he said, struggling to make my face fit his remembering.”

“You saw me. You were fevery. Half in a dream…”

“She kissed me.”

“Yes,” I said. I suppose I should have been shy about it. Maidenly. But I didn’t feel maidenly, I felt like I’d ridden a long way, through battles and bad country, and he was my girl, waiting for me at journey’s end. “Yes”, I said, “she did.” And I kissed him again. And we held each other, and it seemed to me he was pleased to find his old friend Gwyn was Gwyna after all.

“And if there’s no lake-lady,” he said, “is there really no magic? Is there nothing but tricks?”

“All tricks and stories, angel,” I told him. “But that story’s over now. It’s time to start another.”

Among all the cynicism, Reeve offers us a sliver of truth: stories matter. It’s almost enough to distract you from the bigger lie he’s trying to feed you. But Reeve either misunderstands or deliberately obfuscates whystories matter. For Reeve stories are pretty lies. They matter because they make us feel good about ourselves, they offer us hope. This is the (opposite) of Tolkien’s mythopoeia. For Tolkien stories matter because they are true. They reveal something about reality, about human nature and perhaps even about God. If Reeve’s story leaves you feeling hopeful, you’re just an unsophisticated rube, falling for his pretty lie. The truth in Reeve’s story is that stories are just a form of cheap entertainment, a commodity bought and sold, a flicker of light in an otherwise drab and dreary world. But they don’t change the world and only a fool believes in their magic. I’ll take Tolkien’s mythopoeia any day.

 

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