Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

The story of King Arthur as you've never heard it before. Arthur is the leader of a war-band. He is no wiser or kingly than any other man, but Myrddin, a storyteller, believes that Arthur will unite Britain again, and drive the Saxons from the land once and for all. Myrddin's stories, most of them completely fictional, spread, and Arthur's name is known.

Gwyna loses her home when Arthur's war-band destroys her village. Myrddin takes her in and uses her to help create stories with Arthur as the hero. Gwyna is the Lady of the Lake, a boy page, a lady's maid, anything that Myrddin asks her to become. Gwyna observes all that is happening in Arthur's quest to become King of Britain, and she isn't sure if it's for the best.

I listed this as fantasy, but it isn't fantasy, not really. It's the myth of Arthur with all the magic taken out of it. No wise, gentle King Arthur; instead we have the leader of a war band. No all-powerful wizard; just someone who can convince people with stories. No noble knights of the round table. Rival war-bands fight for land, betray each other and kill each other. Nothing magical, nothing noble.

This was fascinating to read, especially if you've read other Arthurian legends. In 7th grade, we did a whole unit on King Arthur. I still remember it, as I loved reading books on Arthur, and there is no shortage of them. Years later, I read The Once and Future King by T. H. White. It is the ultimate Arthurian legend. In The Once and Future King, Arthur is wise and sad and the knights all fight bravely in the name of the ladies they honor. Having read that, it made Here Lies Arthur all the more interesting, because it's such a different way to look at it. Arthur was just a guy like any other guy of the time period. The only thing that set him apart was his reputation, which Myrddin was spreading around. And for the most part, the stories weren't true.

The story is told from the perspective of Gwyna, the girl who Myrddin takes in. Myrddin first has Gwyna deliver Arthur a sword, up from the water, in front of all his men, so that they'll think he's the chosen one. He then has her act as his servant, but dresses her as a boy so no one will be suspicious. Gwyna starts out as a girl who is afraid of spirits and ghosts and gods, but from Myrddin learns that it's all a show. Gwyna is a smart cookie. It's hard for her, growing up as a boy, then suddenly having to become a girl again, watching the boys she's was friends with becoming warriors, dying and taking women. Gwyna is a survivor. No matter what happens, she has the smarts to get herself out and away and keeps on going.

This isn't a heart-pumping thrilling adventure, although there are plenty of battles and people getting killed and others getting their heads chopped off and so forth. It's more Gwyna's reflections, so don't give this to the kid who just wants to read about knights. This probably isn't what he or she is looking for. It's Gwyna's relfections as she grows up and sees what's happening around her. It's written on a level that middle grade kids would get, but I would suggest older, 7th grade and up, in terms of understanding.

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