The Fair Unknown reviews the second of Helen Hollick's Arthurian trilogy, Pendragon's Banner
LAST year I reviewed The Kingmaking by Helen Hollick, a 'historical' Arthurian novel telling of Arthur's rise to power in mid-fifth century Britain. it advertised itself as the first in a trilogy, and now the second volume, Pendragon's Banner, has appeared on the shelves.
Many of the features are the same. Much of the novel is told from the point of view of Gwenhwyfar, who to Hollick is a loyal wife to Arthur, without a more attractive lover among her husband's followers as in most versions of the story. Like The Kingmaking, Pendragon's Banner is probably best classified as historical romance, a sort of fifth-century soap opera in which the novel's thrust is powered by misunderstandings and emotional angst in the relationship between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar. The book is, like its predecessor, divided up by time period. This is useful for finding one's way around, and reminding the reader of the effort that Helen Hollick has put into constructing her chronology - the action takes place over seven years, between 459 and 466 - but as last time calls attention to the lack of narrative progress in some sections of the novel.
There is more of a self-contained plot here than there was in The Kingmaking. This concerns the attempts of Morgause, who here is not Arthur's half-sister but his maternal aunt and his father Uthr's former lover, to gain ascendancy over the northern peoples, who revere her as an incarnation of the Mother Goddess, and use them to strike at Arthur. It seems that the old paganism had more dynamism than I had suspected from The Kingmaking, for not only does it sustain Morgause's campaign against Arthur, it also nurtures her daughter Morgaine in her lonely childhood on Glastonbury Tor (here referred to by its Welsh name, Ynys Witrin). As with her portrayal of Gwenhwyfar, Helen Hollick counters the prevailing image of Morgaine - here she is not 'le Fay' but an innocent, sheltered girl to whom duplicity is not easy. I expect her to be a pivotal character in the third book.
Unfortunately for Pendragon's Banner, it loses its focus sometimes and its structure weakens. We still have to be kept up to date with Arthur's first wife, Winifred, her son Cerdic, and her brother Vitolinus, who all make occasional appearances in the action. The division of Britain between the Kingdom under Arthur, and the detached Roman province run by Ambrosius, helps contain things a little by limiting Arthur's sphere of influence. However, for someone whom we are meant to recognise as a powerful presence, we see relatively little of Morgause. We are reminded from time to time how much Gwenhwyfar distrusts her, but we see relatively little of Morgause's plans being developed until her scheme is unleashed. It is perhaps this failure to dwell on a central dynamic in the storyline which has led Pendragon's Banner to become the title of the book, whereas when The Kingmaking was first published it was the overall title of the trilogy.
These problems aside, Pendragon's Banner is a better book than its predecessor. There are fewer intrusive archaisms or Cambrianisms, such as 'happen' for perhaps, or 'sa' for yes, and on the whole Helen Hollick's writing seems more confident than before. Arthur seems more believable, too. Rather a lot of The Kingmaking was driven by Arthur's passing lusts. Thankfully in this book Arthur only strays from the marriage bed once without it being for political or religious reasons - there is an incident, early in the book, where Arthur acquires a slave girl and pointedly does not have sexual relations with her. By the end of the book he has delivered a child and learned to cope with bereavement - Dark Age warrior as New Man.
A feature of Pendragon's Banner which could either entertain or irritate is Helen Hollick's desire to include as many legendary events as she can. All Arthur's sons by Gwenhwyfar meet the fates prescribed for them in Welsh mythology. We have a Cerdic established more or less where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says he landed. Two contrasting legendary accounts of the fate of Ider, one of Arthur's followers, are reconciled. We even have a comb-throwing incident on Hadrian's Wall, near the comb-like marks on King's and Queen's Crags at present-day Sewingshields. This is a game that can only be played so many times in a novel, but it is admitted to in the Author's Note, and Helen Hollick does not outplay her hand.
Although I've dwelled on my reservations I have actually enjoyed this book. I've also read Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset recently, and of the two, I found Pendragon's Banner the better read. For the first half of Sword at Sunset I was bored by the ponderous military campaigning; Hollick at least brought human interest to her narrative. Helen Hollick's Arthur is a better politician than the Artos of Rosemary Sutcliff, having the vision to incorporate the Germanic peoples in Britain into his realm, which Rosemary Sutcliff's hero did not seem able to do. Helen Hollick's characters remain sketchy, but the events she describes have enough credibility to uphold the reader's belief in this society that might have existed in the decades after the fall of Roman Britain. Above all, Helen Hollick is an Arthurian devotee - she is a former contributor to Dragon magazine, and is a member of the Pendragon Society - and her enthusiasm shows through the pages.
All in all, I enjoyed Pendragon's Banner. It's good, uncomplicated, escapist historical fiction. In the third part of the trilogy we are promised the Battle of Mount Badon and also Arthur's death. I look forward to seeing how this most unmagical of writers deals with one of the most otherworldly aspects of the Arthurian myth.