“The Kingmaking: Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy” by Helen Hollick (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2009)

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Originally published in Britain during the early 1990s, The Kingmaking is the first book in the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy from British author Helen Hollick.  With the tagline “a novel of Arthur as he really was,” Hollick certainly does her research in bringing to life the possible idea of a war king known as Arthur that would grow to become the magical, immortal legend.

The Arthurian legend is an interesting one that has seen and continues to see countless retellings, due to the fact that there is very little evidence proving the existence of a warrior king known as Arthur; mentions of Merlin and Guenevere are even rarer, while Lancelot is a complete fabrication by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century.  What is known is that the fifth century was a very turbulent time for Britain with the desertion by Rome and its forces; the invasion of the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes; and the invading forces of the Scots and Picts from Ireland and Scotland respectively.  Britain was a melting pot of different peoples, and the Britons were left wondering what to do after being supported and protected for so long by the Romans.  It was in this time – it is thought — at the dawn of the Middle Ages, that a warrior king arose to defend the Britons and lead them to defending their country.

Hollick uses Wales as her setting for Arthur and his people, using Welsh names like Gwenhwyfar (for Guenevere), Cunedda (for Gwenhwyfar’s father), and Uthr (for rightful king of Britain and father to Arthur).  While Camelot is thought to be located near Glastonbury and Tintagel is to be found in Cornwall, with the invading forces pushing the Britons back, Wales was a very likely location for Arthur and his people.  Hollick also uses characters who were known to exist, like Vortigern who supposedly ruled the Britons for some time and was purportedly the one to invite the Germanic forces from the mainland to defend the Britons against the Scots and Picts.  There is Hengest and Horsa, the ruthless Saxon Brothers, Hengest’s daughter Rowena, as well as some of Vortigern’s own offspring, Vortimer, Catigern, and his daughter Winifred.

Hollick writes of a world and life that is becoming somewhat familiar, with the growing genre of medieval historical fiction, joining other epic novels like Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, and Cathedral of the Sea.  These are not the romanticized and glamorous characters of Chrétien de Troyes, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, or the famous musical Camelot.  It is a cold, harsh world, where much blood is shed and many die.  Hollick does a wonderful job of balancing the narrative with the different characters, and not just keeping it to one person as is common in other Arthurian sagas.  She also maintains the historical accuracy, using the tools and the skills that existed in the world of the fifth century, and yet making The Kingmaking a fast-paced, action-packed start to one of the best Arthurian series to be written.

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Originally written on March 30th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Sword at Sunset” by Rosemary Sutcliff (Chicago Review Press, 2008)

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The late Rosemary Sutcliff was a prolific writer from the 1950s through the 1970s, publishing a number of children’s books, including the Eagle of the Ninth series and a series of Arthurian novels, as well as over twenty other children’s books on historical subjects.  She also penned nonfiction works and adult fiction, including Sword at Sunset, originally published in 1963 and re-released on May 1st of this year.

Sword at Sunset features an introduction by Canadian author Jack Whyte, writer of the successful Camulod Chronicles, a nine-book series beginning several generations before Arthur was born.  Whyte freely admits that when he first discovered Sword at Sunset it changed his life, which becomes all too clear when one has read both authors.  The characterization, the tone, and the painstaking attention to historical detail and accuracy are prevalent in both works, to the point where one might think Whyte owes Sutcliff more than an introduction and homage.

In Sword at Sunset, Sutcliff creates a world where the Roman legions have left Britain, yet the sense of Romanitas remains strong, especially in the noble characters of Ambrosius and Artos the Bear. They retain not just the armor, style of combat, and the Roman military organization, but a superior, almost arrogant sense of belonging to something that was once great and could be again.  Sutcliff’s early medieval world is not as “dark age” as normally depicted in fiction, but thriving with trade and societal infrastructure across Europe still seemingly intact.  Artos the Bear spends the beginning of the book traveling to southern France where he looks to purchase strong breeds of horses to bring back to Britain to create a strong cavalry force to fight against the invading Anglo Saxons and maintain the British control and rule.

While it is not completely clear how Artos the Bear has risen to such great prominence, he nevertheless has the backing of the people, which spurs him on to defeat the Saxons in many battles.  Sutcliff introduces many familiar characters from the Arthurian world, though there is no Merlin or Lancelot (the latter originally an addition made by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century), but an important appearance is made by Arthur’s incestuous sister Medraut (or Morgan). Sword at Sunset reads like a historical military text with its calculated and descriptive battle scenes that make the world come alive, to the point where the reader may indeed believe such events transpired in the fifth century, leaving the common storylines of romance and chivalry out completely, much as they were in the original time of Arthur.

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Originally written on July 11th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Eagle: The Concluding Volume of the Camulod Chronicles” by Jack Whyte (Forge, 2006)

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Jack Whyte has come a very long way from the crumbling empire of Rome many generations ago to the man known as Riothamus – Arthur.  In this ninth concluding book in the series, we finally get the full story of Arthur’s life, and what makes this series interesting is that while our hero is obvious, in the context of the series, he is but one of the many players on the stage of early medieval Britain.  This is what Whyte is saying with this series: that it’s not about specific individuals, but – as is the case with all history – it is a series of events over hundreds of years that lead to the establishment of Britain as a country, putting itself back together as a sovereign nation after its abandonment by Rome.

Continuing on from the Lance Thrower, our narrator is Clothar, known as “Lance” by his friends because of his skilled ability to throw lances with precision at the enemy – a feat no other man, not even Arthur, can master.  In the first part of the book, Arthur forms his knights – a term taken from the Roman élite, all with their own specifically designed swords in the form of Excalibur.  The knights are addressed by the term “seur” from a Frankish term meaning one of noble or high stature.  Whyte is impressive in his interweaving of parts of the Arthurian legend and fitting them in a realistic setting in fifth century Britain.  In the second part of The Eagle, it is learned that the girl who Arthur considered his soul mate in the Lance Thrower was in fact his sister and that an act of naïve incest was committed.  At the same time, Clothar has his own personal problems to deal with in falling in love with a woman who is to be married.  After a long night of sharing their love, they must accept their fate and go their separate ways.  In the final part of the book, Clothar must go with Arthur’s élite cavalry to Gaul where he will train thousands more men both to establish the authority of Arthur and his cavalry, as well as to prepare for any invading forces.  Word has begun to spread of these invading peoples from the distant east known as Huns, led by a man known as Attila.

While the fate of Gaul with the invading Huns is never fully revealed, the book ends, naturally, with Arthur’s death from a wound in battle, while his son Mordred is next in line to rule.  The book ends without any great summation of the mighty ruler known as Arthur who united Britain and made it a nation to be reckoned with, but tapering out like a long burning candle.  Whyte’s point here is that the saga of Camulod is over, its characters now all dead, but they have done much to change Britain from the abandoned land after the fall of Rome.  Their part is complete, and it will be up to other people, other kings, and other rulers to continue making Britain into a great nation.

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Originally written on January 5th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.