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Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

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?

8 comments on “Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

  1. marygm
    May 7, 2008

    This sounds like a great idea for a teen novel, very different! Excellent review too. I also think it’s a good way to introduce the notion to young people that history is not facts set in stone but a series of ‘truths’ as interpreted by lots of different people.

  2. Eve
    May 7, 2008

    Oh I loved, loved, loved this book and what a great review Lisa!

    The writing was exceptional. Although I did find myself jolted out of the story here and there by the breathtaking images and use of language, but I expect that was just because I’m forever examining!

    Yes, I do think that using an established story does lend itself to constant comparisons, but I actually found Philip Reeve’s interpretation of events far more believable than the story of Arthur we all know 🙂 Arthur being a lout built up into a hero by trickery, falsification and deception just made me laugh out loud in places and think about how many of todays “slebs” are in exactly the same position.

    Oh, I’m so glad you did this review, it gives me another opportunity to think about the book again. Thanks 🙂

  3. Ariadne
    May 9, 2008

    I’m sure this will be a great read. I’m looking forward to it!

  4. Ariadne
    May 9, 2008

    p.s. anyone know why my profile pic. has turned into a strange esoteric pattern type thing?

  5. rosyb
    May 9, 2008

    I don’t know. Mine did that yesterday but I think it’s switched back again. probably wordpress messing about with things.

  6. Jackie
    May 10, 2008

    That sample of writing was indeed lyrical, I’m tempted to read it for that alone. I could just skip the gory parts. I like the idea of seeing that time period from the angle of both genders. It would also be interesting to see another way of retelling the Arthurian tales.

  7. Sylvia
    May 23, 2008

    Reading three historical novels from the Carnegie Medal shortlist, I am struck by superiority of this book. The characters are three dimensional; Philip Reeve applies his knowledge of the period lightly but convincingly, and as has been said in the review, the writing is superlative. My only complaint is the ancient names of the places in the west country were not identifiable (beyond Bath and Tintagel I think) – a glossary or local map would have been the icing on the cake. A brilliant book, but I’m not so certain it will find its market – the boys will adore the gore but want more, and the girls will want more of the love interest.

  8. Pingback: Review: Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve « Jenny's Books

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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