Review: Arthur's Legacy, by Tyler R. Tichelaar
I review a fascinating new Arthurian novel by the owner of the Children of Arthur blog.
It is remarkable, given how much the potency of the Arthurian legend is bound up with the prophecies that Arthur would one day return, that very few of the myriad modern retellings of the legend have approached it from this angle. Indeed, the only one which sticks in my mind is Avalon (1999), the sadly disappointing modern-day conclusion of Stephen R. Lawhead's initially powerful Pendragon Cycle.
In Arthur's Legacy, however, Tyler R. Tichelaar offers a bold and inventive new take on this aspect of the myth, interweaving his modern story with a highly original reinterpretation of the legend itself.
Dr Tichelaar is the author of the Marquette Trilogy (about the early history of his Michigan home town), as well as scholarly works on the wanderer theme in Gothic literature, and, more relevantly, King Arthur's Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. He has also blogged about Arthuriana and related subjects for many years, and I have always found his articles fascinating; this is the first of his novels I have read, but will not be the last.
Arthur's Legacy takes its cue from clues in lesser known sources, which hint that Mordred, the classical villain of Arthur's story, may once have been portrayed more sympathetically. Notably, Geoffrey of Monmouth - the first writer to chronicle Mordred's villainy in detail - somewhat whitewashes the earlier evil reputation of Constantine of Dumnonia at the same time, making him Arthur's lawful successor, and turning the two princes he murdered in violation of holy sanctuary into Mordred's rebellious sons. Building on this, Tichelaar makes Constantine the real culprit in Arthur's downfall, and Mordred the calumniated victim of fifteen centuries of black propaganda.
His modern-day protagonist, Adam Morgan, is an American-born descendant of Mordred's son Meleon - although his story takes place not in 2014, but in 1994, suggesting that the modern portion of the story is itself going to cover an epic sweep. Adam's story is perhaps a little less satisfying than the straight Arthurian parts of the novel, for two reasons - both of which were probably unavoidable. One is that the story of the illegitimate American discovering aristocratic European heritage is too close to a million wish-fulfilment fantasies we've all heard before - but without Adam's initial unawareness of his background, there would have been little story at all to the modern part: because this is the opening volume of a five-part series, the modern section is largely expended in introducing characters and setting the scene for what is to come.
Fortunately, Tichelaar's engaging writing and deep knowledge of his subject keeps the work from ever dragging. It's never less than a page-turner: and the modern section is also filled with deliciously knowing nods to the legendary material - some deliberately obvious, others very subtle. I for one greatly enjoyed spotting these - especially those which also looked forward to the related Matter of France, much less well known in the English speaking world, and which will be dealt with in greater detail later in the series. (Nor do the frequent coincidences and apparently out-of-character actions ever feel unnaturally contrived, for the very simple reason that they are being contrived in-universe by an active Fate, a device which is entirely in place here, in an explicit work of fantasy.)
The real meat of the novel, though, lies in its take on the story of Arthur himself. Here Tichelaar's years of research shine through without ever compromising his storytelling: his ingenious use of throwaway snippets and very obscure sources combines with a powerful imagination to make the old, old story fresh. Like Rosemary Sutcliffe and others since, he has elected to use the Lancelot-Guinevere love story without Lancelot, instead making the Queen's lover Bedwyr, Arthur's closest companion in the earliest forms of the legend: but here the real tragedy is that Guinevere truly loves Arthur, and he - blinded by his own guilt at failing to love her - cannot see it. The King thinks he is being kind by winking at an "affair" which is in fact against Guinevere's will; she goes along with it out of duty to Arthur, to fulfil his desire to reward his brave knight, while Bedwyr simply takes it for granted that Guinevere returns his desire. Meanwhile, Arthur's incest with Morgana is not the result of sorcerous deception, but a loving marriage broken up by a disapproving Church. All four characters, as flawed as they are - the weak (though probably depressive) Arthur, the understandably bitter Guinevere, the occasionally manipulative Morgana, and even the brutish but loyal Bedwyr - command the reader's sympathy throughout.
The backdrop of the Arthurian story sits in a place somewhere between an historically credible sixth century, Welsh legend, and high medieval Anglo-French romance. Norman titles such as "Sir" are not much more anachronistic in this context than the peaceful, united High Kingship itself. This is not a weakness at all: it is equally true of, say, The Mists of Avalon: while even novels which strive much harder for period plausibility often fall short of it. What Tichelaar has created may not quite be sixth century Britain, but it is a world which feels intensely believeable. (As for the modern setting, while occasional slips remind the reader that the author is not from the U.K., it's worth remarking that his feel for England, its dialects, and its institutions, is consistently better than his fellow American Lawhead's - and the latter has lived in Oxford since 1986!)
The finale brings the two strands of the novel together, at the same time synthesising its pagan and Christian elements into a Blakeian, poetic pantheism – and, one suspects, leaving Adam Morgan’s story about to begin. Nevertheless, and as much as I was left looking forward to the sequel, Arthur’s Legacy works as a self-contained novel. It’s an innovative, imaginative take on a legend I’ve been fascinated by all my life, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Moreover, the preview we’re afforded of the second volume, Melusine’s Gift, indicates that it will draw in the closely related legends of Charlemagne and his Peers – an equally rich mythos all too rarely treated by modern writers. I’ll be awaiting it eagerly.