I am a sucker for all things Arthurian. I love the myth recreated (but not the myth retold, as I discovered last year), the sweeping themes of loyalty and betrayal and unity.
Philip Reeve takes it all and turns it on its head, and I found that I still love it.
Gwyna is just a girl when Arthur — war-lord, Bear, and bully — ransacks her house, burning it to the ground because her lord Ban wouldn’t pay tribute to Arthur. She escapes, swimming downstream until she’s far enough away. Except she’s discovered by Myrddin, and taken into his service. From this point, the threads of the legends are there — the lady in the lake, Gwenhwyfar and Lancelot (though under a different name), the battles, Cei, the betrayal, Arthur’s death — but not in the way that it’s normally presented. Through Gwyna, everything takes on a different, harsher light, but really, that’s not the point of the book.
The real point, I found when I turned the last page, is all about stories. See, Myrddin’s job in this book was to go around trying to boost Arthur’s reputation by spreading stories about him. Which worked for a while, but eventually, it all fell apart. But, by that time, Gwyna was so — enraptured by? devoted to? sold on them? — the stories, she couldn’t let them die. I liked this quote from the end:
I didn’t tell what really happened, of course. At first I felt ashamed to be telling lies for a living, and it stung me that I could not tell the truth. But as the year ripened and our road wound west I came to see that it didn’t matter what the truth had been. The real Arthur had just been a little tyrant in an age of tyrants. What mattered about him was the stories.
And always at the end someone would ask, ” Is it true he’s not dead? Not really dead? Will Arthur return?” And I’d think, “Christ, I hope not!” But they weren’t thinking of the Arthur I’d known. It was Myrddin’s Arthur, the wisest and fairest and best king they had ever heard of. You can’t blame people for wanting to believe there’d been a man like that once, and might be again.
So. In the end, Arthur was just a petty tyrant, and all that’s left of him is glorified stories of days long ago. Then again, it’s the stories that really matter.