Here Lies Arthur (2007), by Philip Reeve

0-545-09463-1Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur is quite a departure from his other books—the Larklight and Mortal Engines series—but equally, or even more, engaging. My first thought upon reading Here Lies Arthur was: how much do modern young readers know of the Arthurian legend? How familiar are they with the old tales, the fairy tales, the legends and myths that my generation was raised with? My own children seem sadly lacking in this department, and I guess I have only myself to blame. I really hope that their unfortunate focus on more modern children’s literature (although they have both read The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and The Dark is Rising…) is not indicative of a trend, because Here Lies Arthur requires a fairly complete knowledge of the Arthurian tales, and it is such a spectacularly interesting version that I would hope all young readers would have the chance of reading, understanding, and thus enjoying it.

The story is told from the point of view of Gwyna, a young girl who is coerced into delivering to Arthur a sword, pretending to be the lake-lady of Celtic myth. From there, the reader can see where the book will take us: Gwyna—who becomes the servant boy Gwyn to protect the astute Myrddin’s secret—soon learns the power of story in deception. The stories Myrddin spins of Arthur’s prowess, his nobility, his ability to unite the warring leaders under one British rule, are crafted with care, aimed at the single political aim of British unity and peace. Arthur, though, is cast as a warring chieftain, with all the faults of a warrior rather than the powers of a diplomat or politically astute ruler. In the afterward, Reeve tells us who in his story relates to whom in the legends we all know: most of them we will have guessed—Gwenhwyfar is Gueneviere, Cei is Sir Kay—but some names are a little harder—Medrawt is Mordred, Peredur is Sir Percival, and of course Myrddin is Merlin. The characters, as they are presented, create a far more believable narrative than the legends do, and we are as riveted by the story Reeve spins as Myrddin’s listeners were of his tales of Arthur. In the end, Gwyna articulates a knowledge that has been growing in her for years: “The real Arthur had been just a little tyrant in an age of tyrants. What mattered about him was the stories” (286). Reeve’s carefully crafted story makes us really think about the transmission of the legends that underlie our culture: for legends by definition have their basis in some historical truth, but have been altered over time to become almost mythic. Gwyna’s tale takes the reader back to a time that is hidden in the mists of romance and chivalry; it clears the air, leaving us feeling that perhaps—despite Reeve’s claims that he “did not set out to portray ‘the real King Arthur’, only to add [his] own little thumbnail to the sea of stories which surrounds him”—Philip Reeve’s version could be the closest we know to the truth.

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