Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve.
Scholastic Press: NY, 2007.

This book is a different take on the King Arthur legend. Sort of an anti-Arthur tale. Arthur is the leader of a group of bandits carving out a new territory for themselves from those of others. He is still Uther's (also a leader of bandits) son, one of many. Myrddin (Merlin) sees Arthur as the greatest possibility for driving the Saxons out of the land and restoring a peaceful Britannia, as in the days of Roman rule. Myrddin hails from the eastern lands that the Saxons conquered. As a bard, he weaves and embellishes the legendary tales which give Arthur the opportunity to become a king in the minds of the people. He advises Arthur, uses tricks to secure a sense of wonder among followers and listeners, and also travels alone spreading the stories.

Gwynna is a local servant girl enlisted in one of Myrddin's scams. She is transformed into a boy to hide the secret and becomes Myrddin's servant and pupil. Morphed back again when she is too old to hide her bodily changes. In any case, her close connection with Myrddin gives her the knowledge of Arthur and his community that others lack. As she grows, she observes and influences events according to her conscience.

Gwenhwyfar, in this telling, is Arthur's wife of convenience. They have no real relationship. She is a descendant of the rulers of the area, lives separately for the most part, and is only called upon in hosting political guests. There is no Lancelot. Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere), who is Arthur's nephew, is the object of her love. Medrawt, Bedwyr's older brother, is nothing like Mordred, though he is the leader in the last battle against Arthur.

Cei, Arthur's half-brother, is also caught up in the tragedy, through no fault of his own. He is in on Myrddin's trickery from the beginning, and he rules Arthur's town for him in his absence. Some say he's a better ruler than Arthur.

There is also a rendition of the Holy Grail in the story, another trick, though not Myrddin's. Peredur (Perceval) is the one to use it, and he is one of three people transformed in the book.

The story is an interesting read, more realistic than most Arthur stories. Though the telling is negative towards Arthur and Myrddin is not wizardly, Gwynna (the character revealing the tale) truly loves and admires Myrrdin. She feels betrayed by Myrrdin's scheming in the end. In response to her saying none of it mattered in the end, Myrrdin explains his motivation. She believes that no one will remember the legend after the man dies. Curiously, she does quite a bit of deceiving herself, despite her anger regarding the Arthur deceptions. Maybe because she believes her motives are more justified.

I realized something as I read the story. It does seem strange that there is so much focus on this story in our culture. It isn't realistic, but the ideal brings us closer to what might be fair treatment of people. Goals such as equality, freedom, honesty, kindness, and fairness cannot be achieved 100% of the time, but striving towards them allows us to achieve a greater measure of them. A similar notion is involved in following figures such as Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, etc. They represent perfection, something we cannot attain. But honestly trying to should mean a better community for all. If we believe instead that life is just not fair, then there is a tendency to fall far short of fairness or any other virtue, because it gives us an excuse to do as we like instead. I believe that in every era there have been a few people who have pushed for higher ideals. Though we may cringe at some of the current behavior, the dreams of better treatment are alive. We may be sneered at for being elite, but the vision is still there. We will move that direction again one day.

related-King Arthur, Merlin, bards, Great Britain, legends

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