I picked this one up to round out Becky’s King Arthur Challenge, mostly because I felt bad that I didn’t finish the John Steinbeck book. I found it through a random search of the library’s catalog; I knew I wanted a young adult or middle grade book, but that was all. After a bit of looking, this one popped out at me. Sarah Thomson takes a new and interesting approach to the legend: not only does she go back to the earliest Welsh stories of Arthur, she tells the story from the point of view of the lesser-represented characters (Nimue, Morgan, Luned and Medraud/Mordred) rather than from the usual perspectives.
Essentially a collection of four short stories (everyone gets a few chapters to tell their tale), I was impressed not only with the stories themselves, but with the way they were used to propel the entire myth forward. Thomson manages to tell the entire Arthur story — from conception to death — in 181 pages, and while it wasn’t as in-depth as it could have been, I don’t feel like I missed anything.
The book begins with Nimue, and tells her story from her meeting Myrddin through their relationship to his death. It covers a huge amount of time, but her primary role is to tell about the conception and birth of Arthur. Morgan comes next, but her fundamental character has been changed: she’s not a witch or even a Lady of Avalon. Instead, she’s a bitter, slighted sister of Arthur. She saw her father’s murder by Uther, and she was never able to forgive Myrddin for that. So, when she married Arthur (interesting twist, I thought) and he took her to the castle, she left him because he wasn’t willing to get rid of Myrddin. The story then switches to Luned, who is the handmaid to Elen, Morgan’s sister. This one I found the most fascinating. It involves Lancelot, called Owain here, and how he came to marry Elen/Elaine. Thomson made Elen terrified of men, mostly because she was married off at 12 to a brute of a man. Luned is Elen’s voice, her strength, her solace. It’s only after Luned brokers a marriage to Owain for Elen’s saftey (after her former husband’s death), that Elen learns to love. Unfortunately, Owain’s heart belongs to another, and Elen pines away in a monestary. It moves the story forward, though, because Elen is given Gwydre, who is Arthur’s heir (another interesting twist; Morgan had twins) to raise. The last story is Medraud/Mordred. His is the most tragic, the most bitter. Growing up as the son of Morgan, he is not only influcenced by her mother’s wanton ridding of sons (she gives up Gwydre to Arthur without any complaints), but by Arthur’s neglect. He resolves to kill Arthur, not just because his mother is bitter and wants revenge, but also because Arthur is unwilling to recognize Medraud as his rightful heir. He wages a war of words, rumors against his own brother, and eventually after a confrontation with Arthur, leaves and comes back with an army. And we all know how that turns out.
I liked the changes to the traditional story that Thomson made– the basics were the same, but details were different. I found that interesting and, yes, refreshing. It was nice not to read the same story hashed out. Seeing the story from the minor characters point of view also made it more intersting. A lot of the other elements we usually associate with Arthur were done away with, too: magic, aside from Myrddin’s few prophecies, was essentially non-existant. As were most elements of Druid worship (there were some references to “old ways” but that was it).
I always feel good when I manage to find a book on my own that I like. So, I’m feeling pretty good today, because I liked this one. A lot.