Monday, October 23, 2017

Sword of the Rightful King

Sword of the Rightful King
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Ages: 13+

Here's a book that plays with the notion that pulling Excalibur (in this book, known as Caliburn) out of the stone was a public relations gimmick that Merlin set up to help Arthur solidify his political base. But though he knows in advance he will pull it out and why, we see here an Arthur who is torn about whether he wants to be a king, or whether he deserves to be. We see him facing an early crisis in his reign, which, without a happy outcome, would have spoiled the bittersweetness of the tragedy destined to play out later. And we see a Merlin confronting the end of his time and the limits of his power as an evil power looms over Arthur's hopeful young court.

From the author of the "Young Merlin" trilogy, not to mention some 200 other books, comes this alternate telling of the first part of the story of King Arthur. It is, as Yolen comments in the extras at the end of this book, the one part in the legend of Arthur you could end with "happily ever after," before it all turns tragic. Like T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone (Book 1 of The Once and Future King), it pretty much ends with the pulling of the sword Caliburn from out the stone, proving Arthur's claim to be "rightwise king born of all Britain." Like Mary Stewart's Arthurian Saga, this book puts the sword-in-the-stone test after Arthur has already become king, and depicts it as a strategem by Merlin (here called Merlinnus) to convince the other noblemen and lesser kings, who have been slow to accept him as high king. Like both of them, it shows Arthur and Merlin being opposed by Morgause, who wants the throne for her sons Gawaine, Agravaine, Gareth, and Gaheris, and who is also secretly the king's half-sister. Unlike both, it depicts Arthur at the time of the sword-pulling as already established at Camelot (here called Cadbury), with his knight companions already gathered at the round table - even including Lancelot, who arrives later in White and never in Stewart.

In this book, Arthur is a strong young king who has proven himself in battle, but who has not taken so well to the administrative side of being a king. He has doubts about himself, and knows less about his true lineage than in any version of the story I have read. He is good at reading people, however, and a flat-out genius where it comes to winning their loyalty. The scene in which he converts Agravaine to his man is simply astonishing; and there are others like it. There are numerous scenes, for instance, in which Arthur schools himself to soothe Sir Kay's insecurities. But his grip on the throne is still precarious, with the "North Witch" Morgause up in her tower, spewing vile magic in his direction - not to mention sending an assassin after him.

In a novelty of this telling of the "old story but a good one," Arthur increasingly relies on Merlin's boy servant Gawen to stay a step ahead of Morgause's plotting. On the other hand, no one who has read Stewart's The Last Enchantment will be very surprised by the trick Yolen plays on Merlin(nus), or by Gawen's secret, since they are like a trick and a secret we have seen before. You can't go over old ground like this without seeing familiar landmarks. What keeps it interesting is how each re-telling infuses the familiar story-shape with new ideas, such as (in this case) a postmodern idea like, "Perception is reality." If you're watching for anachronisms, you might snicker with Schadenfreude on encountering the term "bedlam," supposedly used centuries before the founding of Bethlehem Royal Hospital in 1330. On the other hand, if you're looking for beautiful, lyric writing, you can't beat sentences like, "Pain was an old campaigner on his body's battlefield; they had walked long miles together."

Jane Yolen is a writer whose love of Merlin and Arthur is evident in every paragraph of this book, and who writes with ample skill to make you love them again. For more examples of her passion and her skill, see also the Pit Dragon series (I learned just now this "trilogy" has a fourth book), the Tartan Magic trilogy, the Stuart Quartet (Queen's Own Fool, etc.), the Young Heroes quartet (co-written with Robert J. Harris), the Seelie Wars trilogy (co-written with her son Adam Stemple), and such stand-alone titles as The Boy Who Spoke Chimp, The Dragon's Boy, A Plague of Unicorns, And Twelve Chinese Acrobats, Armageddon Summer, The Scarecrow's Dance, and one about a schoolkid who builds a golem to protect himself from bullies, titled B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy). Written from 1964 to the present day, they all sound so interesting, I doubt I'll grow tired of them anytime soon.

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