A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Adapted from my Chicklish review.
Here Lies Arthur is a look at the legendary Arthur, but not as we know him. Arthur is no king, instead he’s a sixth century leader of a rag tag band of fighters, all pretty merciless, with the exception of Arthur’s most loyal employee, the harp-twanging storyteller, Myrddin. Myrddin makes his living spreading heroic tales about Arthur’s exploits up and down the Westcountry, and the suggestion is that we have Myrddin to thank for everything we think we’ve heard about his master.
This novel, although ostensibly aimed at children/young adults, is gritty, realistic and often gory. Arthur is portrayed as a brute of a man. He’s not a cold-hearted schemer, but he has a nasty temper and he murders those standing in his way without a second thought.
However, Arthur isn’t the main character: Here lies Arthur is the story of Gwyna, a girl in the service of Myrddin. Gwyna spends half of the novel dressed as a boy*, pretending to be ‘Gwyn’, since the war band is apparently no place for a girl, and Myrddin is only allowed to employ male servants.
Gwyna learns to be male, she speaks up and laughs loud. Instead of the girl who went unnoticed by everyone, she learns to walk tall and make her presence felt. Gwyna only regrets her ‘boyhood’ when she is forced to go to war. The battle scenes she witnesses are frightening – Phillip Reeve does not pull any punches. Yet despite her aversion to the violence in the lives of men, when Gwyna is required to become a girl again – thanks to adolescence – she finds it very difficult to acclimatise to the quiet (and as she sees it boring) ways of women. The brilliance of having Gwyna as the main character is that she is uniquely placed to observe both the male and female spheres of sixth century society, which makes her tale even more fascinating.
There is also an interesting message about stories. Gwyna sees Myrddin’s myth-making first hand and she comes to understand how people want to make sense of the world around them, even when they know the tall tales aren’t really true. Gwyna herself becomes part of certain legends, simply by participating in Myrddin’s tricks. The power of stories is an important idea and I found myself remembering all of the legends and myths that were told to me as a child, as well as questioning many of the notions that are ‘spun’ even in the twenty-first century.
The style of writing is lyrical and beautiful, but quite ‘literary’, although I must admit I loved that element.
And I sat on the wet grass and watched that hand beckon to me from the shining middle of the mere. White as a stripped twig.
I was already wet as I could be, so I went down to the shallows and waded in. My torn skirts flowered out round me. The water was clear. There was grass on the bottom, neat and green and standing up on end, like it was startled to find itself under water.
Gwenhwyfar lay on the drowned grass.
If I had any criticism it is that I couldn’t always suspend my disbelief. I was so in awe of Reeve’s irreverent rewriting of the Arthur myth that I kept cross-referencing things in my own mind and contrasting Here Lies Arthur with what I thought I knew, which got a little in the way of me enjoying this purely as a story. In terms of characterisation, however, the book is brilliant and Philip Reeve establishes himself here as an exceptional, risk-taking writer.
Scholastic. ISBN-13: 978-0439955331. 304 pages. Hardback. £12.99.
For the Guardian review of Here Lies Arthur, click here
For my original Chicklish review, click here
* It is interesting that Gwyna, while female, spends much of the book appearing and acting like a boy – one way to get around the problem of YA novels allegedly requiring a male lead character in order to appeal to young male readers?