Monday, July 29, 2013

The Stacks: Arthuriads and Other Welsh Myths

For many authors and readers, the gateway to fantasy literature lay in the myths and enormous body of work surrounding King Arthur and Merlin.  My love affair with Arthuriads began when I was eleven, inspired several attempts to recreate Camelot out of various materials, spawned an undergraduate thesis and a dissertation proposal (sadly rejected by my advisor), and most recently led to my hopeless obsession with the BBC’s Merlin.  Naturally, it also led to me devouring any Arthur or Merlin related books I could get my hands on.  To this day, I get absurdly excited when I’m in the middle of a book that seems completely unrelated to Arthur only to have it turn into an Arthuriad halfway through.*

I have read (and for the most part enjoyed) dozens and dozens of Arthuriads.  There are hundreds more I’ve never read, and likely another few hundred I’ve never even heard of.  For this Stacks list, I’ve collected my absolute favorites, along with a few novels based on other Welsh myths (again, there are many—these are just some of my favorites).


Le Morte d’Arthur
By Sir Thomas Malory
The legends of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table have inspired some of the greatest works of literature--from Cervantes's Don Quixote to Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Although many versions exist, Malory's stands as the classic rendition. Malory wrote the book while in Newgate Prison during the last three years of his life; it was published some fourteen years later, in 1485, by William Caxton. The tales, steeped in the magic of Merlin, the powerful cords of the chivalric code, and the age-old dramas of love and death, resound across the centuries.
The stories of King Arthur, Lancelot, Queen Guenever, and Tristram and Isolde seem astonishingly moving and modern. Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur endures and inspires because it embodies mankind's deepest yearnings for brotherhood and community, a love worth dying for, and valor, honor, and chivalry.
The Rundown:  When normal people declare their interest in all things Arthur, their parents, teachers, or librarians point them in the direction of one of the hundreds of Arthuriad-based novels written for young adults.  When I told my father I wanted to read about Arthur he gave me Le Morte d’Arthur. In late Middle English. I was eleven. Le Morte d’Arthur is not light reading, but it’s one of the definitive Arthuriads: It was by no means the first rendering of Arthurian myth in print (in fact all of Malory’s tales are translations and reinterpretations of older works), but it is the one from which most subsequent, English-language adaptations/interpretations derive. If you’re serious about Arthur, give it a try--there are Modern English adaptations, you don't have to subject yourself to late Middle English spelling and grammar if you don't wish to.**

Type: Romance—the original kind, when the word (as pertained to literature) meant “to do with Arthur and magic and all such things”, Epic
Acquisition: Da gave me one of his copies. Between us we probably have at least 4, maybe 6.
Discovery: Da gave it to me when I said I was interested in Arthur.
Current Rank: Book that changed my life
Number of Reads: 6-8 (one for pleasure, the rest because I wrote my undergrad thesis on Arthuriads)

The Once and Future King
By T.H. White
[The Sword in the Stone; The Queen of Air and Darkness; The Ill-Made Knight; Candle in the Wind; The Book of Merlyn (published posthumously and separately from the other four books)]
Based on medieval Arthurian legends, The Once and Future King is a twentieth-century version of young Arthur's quest for the sword Excalibur and his claim to the throne of England. Including many well-known and much-loved episodes with Merlyn, the sorcerer; Morgan La Fay, the witch; and knights jousting and hounds engaged in the hunt, White's novel adds to the lore surrounding the person of King Arthur.

The whole world knows and loves this book. It is the magical epic of King Arthur and his shining Camelot; of Merlin and Owl and Guinevere; of beasts who talk and men who fly, of wizardry and war. It is the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad. It is the fantasy masterpiece by which all others are judged.
The Rundown: “You run a grave risk, my boy, of being turned into a piece of bread and toasted.”  So says Merlyn to Arthur in The Sword in the Stone, earning my eternal allegiance and prompting me to threaten people in a similar fashion for about five years after I first read it.  The Sword in the Stone is everyone’s favorite book of The Once and Future King, but to skip the other three is to miss the shape of the whole.  White’s Arthuriad is a reinterpretation of Mallory’s (from which account of the inscription on Arthur’s grave it takes its title), but deviates greatly from the source material and includes allegories for White’s experience with the second World War.  His characterizations of the key players and events in Arthur’s life are legendary, particularly his Merlyn, the kooky scholar aging in reverse as he moves through time backwards. The book swings from light and almost satirical to deeply contemplative and haunting.  I’ve never been able to get the end of Candle in the Wind out of my head. 

Type: Romance (see classification above) or Fantasy, depending who you ask
Acquisition: Given to me by my da
Discovery: Da gave it to me immediately after I finished Le Morte d’Arthur
Current Rank: Book that changed my life
Number of Reads: 3-4

The Merlin Chronicles
By Mary Stewart
[The Crystal Cave; The Hollow Hills; The Last Enchantment; The Wicked Day]
Born the bastard son of a Welsh princess, Myridden Emrys—or as he would later be known, Merlin—leads a perilous childhood, haunted by portents and visions.  But destiny has great plans for this no-man’s-son, taking him from prophesying before the High King Vortigern to the crowning of Uther Pendragon…and the conception of Arthur—king for once and always.
The Rundown: We have no fewer than three copies of The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills in my house.  I’m not entirely sure why. In any case, every single one of them is covered in annotations because both Da and I have written papers on them. But before we let our respective obsessions with Arthurian literature carry us away, we read this series for pure enjoyment. Da in college, and I shortly after devouring The Once and Future King.  For anyone who’s ever loved Merlin, this is the Arthuriad for you. Told from Merlin's first-person perspective, it is a lovely, thoughtful, hauntingly evocative version of his story. 

Type: Fantasy, Series
Acquisition: Given to me by my Da, later purchased my own copies from Borders in grad school when I needed them for a paper proposal and didn’t want to drive 5 1/2 hours home to get one of our other three copies.
Discovery: Another of my da’s contributions to my library, immediately following my completion of The Once and Future King
Current Rank: Books I loved
Number of Reads: 3

The Dark is Rising
By Susan Cooper
[Over Sea Under Stone; The Dark is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; Silver on the Tree]
Will Stanton’s ordinary life is shattered with the dreadful revelation that the Dark—the source of all evil—is rising in its last and greatest bid to control the world.  He finds that he is no ordinary boy, but the last-born of the Old Ones, immortals dedicated to keeping mankind free from the Dark.  Soon Will is swept up in the great battle, along with his ageless master, Merriman; the three Drew children, who are mortal but have their own vital part to play; and a strange boy named Bran.  These six fight fear and death in a quest through time and space interwoven with the most ancient myths of the islands of Britain—until at last, Will and Bran find the weapon that will ultimately vanquish the Dark.
The Rundown:  Unlike The Once and Future King and The Crystal Cave, The Dark is Rising is set in modern times and unfolds into an Arthuriad by virtue of Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, and the Lady of the Lake's entanglement in the plot.  To tell you the story's connection to Arthur would be revealing far too much of the plot.  Suffice it to say that if you're familiar with the myths (and the Mabinogian), it is not too difficult to unravel.  Will is one of my favorite literary characters, and I am enormously fond of the rest of his fellows.  All five books in The Dark is Rising cycle are slim (you can read all five in one day if you're determined, I've tried it), but like Will and the other Old Ones, they are much deeper than physical appearance suggests. 

Type: YA Fantasy, Series
Acquisition: Yet another set of books borrowed/stolen from my da, purchased my own copies from Borders in grad school because I wanted to re-read them and couldn’t wait till Thanksgiving break to get them from home.
Discovery: Da again. All my classic fantasy recommendations came from Da.
Current Rank: Books I love beyond belief even though The Grey King makes me weep uncontrollably
Number of Reads: 3

The Fionavar Tapestry
By Guy Gavriel Kay
[The Summer Tree; The Wandering Fire; The Darkest Road]
Five university students embark on a journey of self-discovery when they enter a realm of wizards and warriors, gods and mythical creatures—and good and evil.  It all began with a lecture that introduced the five university students to a man who would change their lives, a wizard who would take them from Earth to the heart of the first of all worlds, Fionavar.  And take them Loren Silvercloak did, for his need—the need of Fionavar and all the worlds—was great indeed.  And in a marvelous land of men and dwarves, of wizards and gods, five young people discovered who they were truly meant to be.  For they are a long-awaited part of the patter of the Fionavar Tapestry, and only if they accepted their destiny would the armies of the Light stand any chance of surviving the wrath the Unraveler and his minions of darkness intend to unleash upon the worlds.
The Rundown: Like The Dark is Rising, the Fionavar Tapestry takes place in modern times and does not initially reveal its Arthurian connections and also contains a healthy dose of Norse, Irish, and Welsh mythologies.  Unlike The Dark is Rising, the Fionavar Tapestry is the kind of series that if, as a teacher, you offered it to 10-14 year olds, their parents would have you fired or possibly drawn and quartered.  It is dark, deals with what censors like to call "adult themes", and is occasionally brutal.  It is also very, very good.  All three books are emotionally intense, but the last one broke my heart. I couldn't look at The Darkest Road for days, I hid it in a drawer so I wouldn't see the cover till I calmed down.  The Arthurian plot line is particularly heartbreaking, but in a good way.  Kay's writing is superb: he wields the kind of lyricism without flourish favored by Tolkien and Le Guin. If the book feels like old-school fantasy, it's because it is.  If you like modern fantasy with the Arthurian touch, but want something with a little more grit, look no further than Fionavar.

Type: Fantasy, Trilogy 
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Beaverdale Books
Discovery: Browsing the shelves of our sole local indie bookshop
Current Rank: Books I liked/enjoyed
Number of Reads: 1

Other Welsh Mythology:

A Swiftly Tilting Planet
By Madeline L’Engle
In this companion to the Newberry Award winner A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace and the unicorn Gaudior undertake a perilous journey through time in a desperate attempt to stop the destruction of the world by the mad dictator Madog Branzillo.  They are not alone in their quest.  Charles Wallace's sister, Meg--grown and expecting her first child, but still able to enter her brother's thoughts and emotions by "kything"--goes with him in spirit.  Charles Wallace must face the ultimate test of his faith and his will as he is sent within four people from another time, there to search for a way to avert the tragedy threatening them all.
The Rundown:  While L'Engle's entire Time Quartet is intended to be science fiction, A Swiftly Tilting Planet comes the closest to fantasy (it even features a celestial unicorn with a bit of an attitude).  The central plot is built on the Welsh legend of Madoc (reinterpreted by L'Engle for the purpose of this novel) with several threads of the Mabinogian and a dose of Irish mythology for good measure.  It is one of those books that captures your imagination in such a way that it never truly leaves you once you put it down--even if you haven't read it about sixteen times, like I have.  

An Acceptable Time, often tacked onto the Time Quartet to make it a Quintet, also touches upon Welsh mythology and its expansion into ancient New England as depicted by L’Engle in A Swiftly Tilting Planet (particularly the integration of legendary Welsh settlers into Native American tribes). It deals with druids and standing stones and old world mythologies, but isn't as intertwined with legend as A Swiftly Tilting Planet. (Also Planet is better.)

Type: YA Science Fiction, third of a four book series but can be read as a stand-alone
Acquisition: Initially borrowed from public library, later personal purchase from Borders
Discovery: Da gave me A Wrinkle in Time, the first book in the Time Quartet, but didn’t have the rest, so I hunted them down at the library.
Current Rank: Book that changed my life
Number of Reads: 12-16

The Chronicles of Prydain
By Lloyd Alexander
[The Book of Three; The Black Cauldron; The Castle of Llyr; Taran Wanderer; The High King]
Taran dreams of adventure, but nothing ever happens to an Assistant Pig-Keeper—until his pig runs away.  A chase through the woods leads Taran far from home and into great danger, for evil prowls the land of Prydain.  With a collection of strange and wonderful friends whom he meets on his journey, Taran finds himself fighting so that good may triumph over evil—and so that his beloved home will not fall to a diabolical fiend.
The Rundown: The Chronicles of Prydain are based on the Mabinogian, but loosely so.  Thematically they borrow heavily from the original myths, but the figures upon whom some of the characters are based occasionally have their personalities and allegiances altered or even reversed. Additionally, Prydain isn’t a direct analogue of Wales in terms of geography or history. Still, the Welsh influence is pervasive throughout the series.  What’s more, it’s incredibly good.  I read this series when I was first diving into fantasy and it left an indelible mark on me.  I still remember the way I felt when I first read it. In fact, I'm enjoying the memory of that feeling so much, I think I'll go reread them.

Type: YA Fantasy, Series
Acquisition: Borrowed/Stolen from my da
Discovery: See above. If you're noticing a pattern here, read the earlier notes on Da and classic fantasy
Current Rank: Books I love
Number of Reads: 2 (but not for long, I really want to reread these)

The Raven Boys
By Maggie Stiefvater
[The second book, The Dream Thieves, releases Sept. 17th]
Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be-dead walk past.  Blue never sees them—until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks to her.  His name is Gansey, and he’s a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school.  Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys.  Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.  But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain.  He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys:  Adam, the scholarship student who resents the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul whose emotions range from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die.  She doesn’t believe in true love and never thought this would be a problem.  But as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.
By now we've established that if a book is shelved in Barnes & Noble's paranormal romance section, the chances of me picking it up are slim unless I learned about it from elsewhere--I do not browse those shelves, and if the romance doesn't take a back seat to the main plot, chances are I'm not interested.  The Raven Boys shouldn't be shelved with paranormal romance.  I cannot get over how much this book reminded me the way I felt when I read An Acceptable Time, The Hounds of the Morrigan, or even A Swiftly Tilting Planet.  The setting and dialogue may be contemporary, but it reads like a book from another time, thanks in large part to Stiefvater's writing and the legendary Welsh king her characters chase along the ley lines throughout its pages.  The characters are fascinating and layered with flaws in spades, the equally manifold plot intriguing. Just enough mystery is solved in the first book to raise even more mysteries to explore in the rest of the cycle. I cannot vouch for the remaining books, since they've yet to be released (or written), but The Raven Boys felt like a literary homecoming--finding an old friend amidst a sea of over-hyped sameness.

Type: YA Fantasy, Contemporary (but not Urban), first in a series
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Barnes & Noble
Discovery: There was quite a buzz surrounding this book when it was released, thanks to the success of Shiver and The Scorpio Races.  Eventually I gave in and read the first chapter in the store, had a “bloody hell, this actually reminds me of An Acceptable Time” moment and bought it.
Current Rank: Book I loved
Number of Reads: 1 (thus far)

*…I have a problem, it’s true.
**I wish to, but again, I have a problem. 

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