The Washington Post

King Arthur returns, in strange literary guises

Once upon a time, in the early days of Christianity, on the dark, Northern edge of civilization, there was a brave king named Arthur who held court in Camelot and defended Britain against invaders.

Or maybe not.

Although Clive Owen and Keira Knightley were very hot together in the Hollywood movie, they fall somewhat short as reliable archaeological evidence.

But beggars can’t be choosy. As archaeological evidence goes, the King Arthur Carrousel at Disneyland is about as good as anything else we’ve got. Fifteen hundred years later, there’s no real proof that King Arthur even existed — let alone Camelot, the Round Table or any of the other fantastical elements of the Arthurian myth.

One of the earliest accounts of the great king shows up in an inventive work of “history” by a 9th-century Welsh monk, but we don’t get the whole story well-told — the sword in the stone, the Lady of the Lake, the love triangle — until hundreds of years after Arthur and Mordred supposedly battled to the death at Camlann, wherever that might be.

“The Death of King Arthur: A New Verse Translation” by Simon Armitage. (W.W. Norton)

Legend has it that Arthur didn’t actually die but merely fell into a sleep from which he’ll arise again when his people need him. And that part of the story, at least, is true. With magic that would make Merlin jealous, poets and politicians and novelists and cartoonists have resurrected the once and future king for every age and commercial application.

His latest appearance comes in a scholarly thriller by Sean Pidgeon called “Finding Camlann.” An editor of science books, Pidgeon has woven 16 years of dusty research and notecards into this novel about the search for the “real” Arthur. Like Ross King, Michael Gruber and Carlos Ruiz Zafon, he’s writing in that curious tradition of academic sleuths: professors and librarians recast as death-defying detectives. For us easily winded bibliophiles, such tales are the best thing to happen to our fantasy lives since the invention of tweed.

The hero of “Finding Camlann” is Donald Gladstone, our knight in shining footnotes. He’s a recently divorced archaeologist who’s working on a book about the transmission of the Arthurian legend. His primary concern is that other, less cautious scholars are trying to make the search for Arthur sound too exciting. In that sense, “Finding Camlann” is something of a corrective. “My point,” he tells a friend didactically, “is that we won’t ever know very much about that period of British history, and it’s a mistake to try too hard to fill in the blanks.” All very good and proper, but something of a wet dissertation to throw over a literary thriller.

In the opening pages, a competing archaeologist whom Donald disdains has unearthed a burial pit near Stonehenge containing 15 human skeletons, most of which were “subjected to a particularly gruesome kind of ritual sacrifice.” Now we’re getting somewhere! Much to Donald’s chagrin, even before these ancient remains can be definitively dated, this flamboyant competitor announces that he may have discovered King Arthur’s grave.

Unfortunately, though, we don’t get to spend much time with this unscrupulous archaeologist. We’re stuck trudging along with dutiful Donald. He doesn’t jump to conclusions or from speeding cars. He doesn’t drink martinis — shaken or stirred — from the Holy Grail. Instead, he combs through forgotten documents. He gently cleans old pieces of metal with a fine brush. And when he hooks up with a potential love interest, she’s an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary who craves “the thrill of lexical discovery.”

If you, too, crave “the thrill of lexical discovery,” this exceedingly dry adventure may be just what the archaeologist ordered. But otherwise, beware. Much of the plot hinges on the provenance of a poem written by Sion Cent in the 15th century. Even when modern-day Welsh terrorists are added to the story, their violence is kept safely 15 years in the past; the smell of dynamite has all but drifted way.

Pidgeon’s real interest is how events are transmuted into legend and then used to pursue varying political aims over the centuries. The “extraordinary degree of porosity between history and mythology” is a fascinating subject, and nothing about the complex, academic material laid out here precludes a cerebral adventure, but Pidgeon’s presentation is full of all the pulse-pounding excitement of an MLA conference. We need a prose style as sharp as Excalibur. We need Merlin to cast some narrative spells. Instead, characters regularly turn to one another and say things like, “Perhaps you will recall, from your study of Celtic mythology, the story of St. Cyndeyrn’s encounter in the forest with the bard Lailoken.” The novel’s climax is suggested by this shocker: “It is clear enough that Cumhyr is an earlier form of the placename Cwmhir: given the stated location of Maelienydd, part of the modern Radnorshire, there seems little doubt of this.” Ah hah!

“Finding Camlann” by Sean Pidgeon. (W. W. Norton)

But take heart, brave literary warriors. Norton has also just published a paperback edition of Simon Armitage’s spectacular translation of “The Death of King Arthur.” The celebrated British writer renders this anonymous poem into modern English lines that command your full allegiance. Written around 1400, the “Alliterative Morte Arthure,” as it’s now called, was probably one of the sources that Sir Thomas Malory relied upon in the late 1400s for his own more famous retelling of the legend that went on to influence generations of writers. But forget Tennyson’s Victorian niceties in “Idylls of the King”; Armitage’s pages are splattered with gore, “gloupy with slime.” This is a tale in which “mettle shall be tested where metal meets mail.”

The story opens on Christmas Day when an emissary interrupts the Round Table’s festivities to demand that Arthur answer charges of treason before the emperor. What follows is a furious, slaughtering charge to Rome — this book should come with a tourniquet. “Our work is to wreak the wrath of our fathers,” Sir Lot declares, and wreak wrath they do, these “wounding warriors with wondrous strokes.” Anyone, human or monster, who stands in their way gets cut down, sliced up.

With captivating articulation, these lines growl and roar and hiss in a way that reminds us just how much our preference for rhyme over alliteration has cost us. And amid all the viscera and gore, we find such startling moments of intimacy and grief, expressed by soldiers wholly unconstrained by our narrow, modern-day expectations of manhood.

If you don’t know it — and even if you do — throw yourself into this rousing story of “the worthiest warrior to dwell in the world.”

Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.


By Sean Pidgeon

Norton. 350 pp. $26.95


Translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage

Norton. 301 pp. Paperback, $15.95

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.



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