Thursday, April 11, 2013

Medieval Fiction: The Late Fifth Century & The Age of Arthur

Medieval fiction set in the late Fifth Century is largely of the Arthurian variety, as I noted last week in my post titled Who Was King Arthur? Many scholars believe that Arthur (assuming he really existed) would have lived during the last decades of the Fifth Century and the early Sixth Century. Saint Bede (a real world English monk) places the Battle of Badon – a classic conflict in Arthurian legend – between the years 493 and 500, so this time frame for Arthur’s life seems fairly spot on.

I could devote the next three months to fiction about King Arthur and probably barely scratch the surface given its ever-expanding volume, so I'm going to limit this post to my two favorite works of Arthurian fiction.

The first would be Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Bradley tells the story from the viewpoint of the women of Arthurian legend, most notably Morgaine (known in other tales as Morgan le Fay). Viviane (aka the Lady of the Lake and Nimue in some stories) also features prominently, as does Igraine and Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), while Arthur, Lancelot, and his knights are more supporting characters in this novel. The story covers all the classic elements of the Arthurian legend, including Excalibur, Camelot, Mordred, and the Holy Grail, set amid the growing tension between the old pagan religion and the new Christian faith.

The old pagan way, which is portrayed as a Celtic religion involving an earth-mother goddess, is the faith under which Morgaine and her brother Arthur were raised, and which Morgaine and Viviane practice on the mystical isle of Avalon. Meanwhile, the Christian faith, spread by priests and bishops, is growing throughout Britain and grabs hold of Gwenhwyfar, which leads to conflict between her and Morgaine. The love triangle between Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, and Lancelot is particularly well done in The Mists of Avalon, as is the union between Morgaine and her brother that produces Mordred. Bradley’s telling of the Arthurian legend has stuck with me for a long time, and remained my favorite until ...

I read Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles. Cornwell’s retelling is more rooted in history than fantasy. The series, consisting of The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur, is told through the viewpoint of Derfel Cadarn, a character based on Saint Derfel of Wales, a Christian monk who legend holds was one of Arthur’s knights before taking his holy vows. Cornwell’s Arthur is a larger-than-life character who is the bastard son of Uther Pendragon. He never becomes king, but serves as the Warlord of Britain who battles both rival British lords and Saxon invaders. Morgaine is a minor figure in this tale, but Nimue and Guinevere play more significant roles. The Merlin of this series is one of its most special characters, bearing a close resemblance to the Merlin of legend, but with a strong druidic bent that has him more focused on restoring the power of the old gods than mentoring Arthur to rule Briton.

Several other well-known Arthurian tales remain on my to-read list, including Mary Stewart’s The Merlin Trilogy and Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Pendragon Cycle. There are also classic tales, such a T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, along with so many other takes on the story that it has spawned its own subgenre called Arthurian Fiction.

Arthur, however, was not the only legend of the late Fifth Century. Across the Irish Sea there lived a Romazined Briton who was enslaved by the Irish and would live to become their greatest saint: Saint Patrick. In fact, Cornwell, in Enemy of God, has a great exchange between Derfel and another character about Patrick (Padraig) in Ireland:
Oengus laughed. ‘Have to keep them busy, Derfel, you know that. ... Ireland’s going Christian!’ he spat. ‘Some interfering Briton called Padraig turned them into milksops. ... He preached to them with a clover leaf! Can you imagine that? Conquering Ireland with a clover leaf? No wonder all the decent warriors are coming to me, but what can I do with them?’
‘Send them to kill Padraig?’ I suggested.
The best novel I’ve read on Patrick’s life is Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland. Large portions of this novel take place outside of Ireland and concern the retreat of the Romans from Britain and the defeat of the Romans at the hands of German barbarians. Part of the book even takes place in a crumbling, plague-infected Rome, painting a grim picture of the once magnificent city after its fall. You can read my review of Patrick: Son of Ireland here.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, and with the Romans in full retreat, Clovis I was uniting all the Frankish tribes under one ruler to establish the Merovingian Dynasty. The Merovingians have become popular of late thanks to books like The Da Vinci Code, and who can forget the devilish character named the "Merovingian" in The Matrix Reloaded? But I have yet to identify any good novels on the subject of Clovis and his Merovingians. Perhaps this is fertile ground for writers of historical fiction!

Clovis I leading the Franks to victory!
If you want  to read more about things Arthurian from folks who know a lot more about it than I do, check out writer Leslie Hedrick’s blog or a blog I recently discovered from author Tyler Tichelaar called Children of Arthur. And, until my next installment in this series, which will move into the Sixth Century, let me know if you have a favorite novel about Arthur – or any good novels about Clovis and the Merovingians!


kitdunsmore said...

There's a great YA novel that tells the story of Arthur through the lives of various people around him and that is set in the proper era, only I cannot remember the title! I'll look it up when I get home (in a few weeks...) and send it to you then.

I adore the Arthurian legends but have a hard time finding a telling I really like. I think The first part of Once and Future King is my favorite to date.

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comment! I'd love to know the title. I read my fair share of Arthurian fiction, and am actually going to re-read The Mists of Avalon soon since it's been about 20 years. I still need to get to the entire Once and Future King (I think I've only read The Book of Merlyn). Yep, my reading list keeps growing.

kitdunsmore said...

The Dragon's Son by Sarah L. Thomson. She makes a point of sticking to the 500 AD setting, and she tells the story from 4 points of view around Arthur. I thought it was an interesting a approach and appreciated her effort to get the details right.

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comment, I'll check it out!