Unthreading the Banner

by Matthew Kilburn

ARTHUR and the Arthurian legend have inspired several works of popular fiction in recent decades. Helen Hollick's The Kingmaking is the latest of these, the blurb on the back of the proof copy the Society was supplied with declaring it to be "an inspired union of historical research and creative intuition.". The novel is the first in a planned trilogy, entitled Pendragon's Banner, in which Helen Hollick tells of how a `historical' fifth century Arthur rises to the throne, marries twice and serves under two kings of a rival dynasty en route, repulses the Saxon invaders, but struggles to keep his British subjects united in the shadow of a Roman Empire whose withdrawal many of the British cannot accept for what it is. The Kingmaking deals with Arthur's discovering his true identity as the only son of the dispossessed Lord of Dumnonia and the Summer Country, Uthr Pendragon, his developing relationship with Gwenhwyfar, daughter of Cunedda of Gwynedd, his service under King Vortigern and his marriage to Vortigern's daughter Winifred, and his eventual assumption of the leadership of the Britons against the progressive encroachments of Hengest the Jutish warlord and his Saex.

Helen Hollick has a secure background in Arthuriana, having been a contributor to the now defunct magazine Dragon. Dragon, unlike the broader field of interest chosen by another similar small press publication, Pendragon, chose to concentrate as far as is possible on those aspects of Arthurian interest that appeared to have a footing in history or archaeology rather than speculations around folklore and paganism. Both publications can be borrowed through the Society's Library List, or ordered from the Bodleian bookstack. Some of the preoccupations of Dragon surface in The Kingmaking, such as the nature of fifth century British horses, or the survival of Roman institutions after the legions were recalled to the continent. Helen Hollick also incorporates many of the characters and situations familiar from other interpretations of the Arthurian legend; not only Uthr but Morgause, Cei, Ygrainne and Bedwyr appear, if not always in roles that are immediately familiar. The seizure of Gwenhwyfar by Melwas, King of the Summer Country, and Arthur's intervention in the marriage of the daughter of the King of Brycheiniog are established myths that Hollick adds to her narrrative. Semi-historical personages such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, Vortigern and Cunedda also take their places in Hollick's saga.

Hollick has moved Arthur back in time from where many would have placed him, at the close of the fifth century or the earlier part of the sixth, and instead makes him fifteen years old in 450, in the middle of Vortigern's reign, when Hengest's power was in the ascendant. Her Arthur will fight the first generation of Germanic invaders rather than their heirs. This dating may be inspired by the `Riothamus-Arthur' theory, perhaps most notably expounded by the Glastonbury guru Geoffrey Ashe in his 1985 book, The Discovery of King Arthur. Whether Arthur will embark on campaigns in Gaul like Riothamus remains to be seen in subsequent books, but we do encounter Syagrius, son of the King of Gaul, at one point, perhaps a hint of future developments. The organisation of Hollick's Romano-British society is sometimes developed to a point that stretches credibility; it is difficult to imagine Vortigern ever wielding enough power from his base in the south-eastern corner of the island to expel Cunedda and the Votadini from their former capital of Dun Pelidr in Lothian. However, the ethnic jealousies and prejudices that feature heavily in the characters' understanding of events is believable enough, Gwenhwyfar being as mistrustful of her Pictish sister-in-law when she first meets her as she is of Vortigern's half-Jutish daughter Winifred. The rivalries of the various lords and sub-kings of the Britons concern them more than defence against a barely-perceived threat from the Germanic settlers, a threat of which Arthur is the prophet and from which, through his innovative use of cavalry (an old idea first put forward by Collingwood in the Anglo-Saxon volume of The Oxford History of England) he is the potential saviour of the British. In her rejection of any suggestion of `sword and sorcery' elements Helen Hollick has instead written The Kingmaking as a historical romance. Much of the narrative concerns the anguish felt by Gwenhwyfar and Arthur as events conspire against their love being expressed. The techniques which Hollick uses are hardly original. For example, Arthur marries Winifred mere hours before he is informed that the treaty between Cunedda and Melwas that prevented him marrying Gwenhwyfar has been made null by events. Subsequently, Arthur's pride and ambition prevent him from declaring his love for Gwenhwyfar sooner. These are old devices and, together with the frequent scenes that involve discussion of events in the plot while riding across open countryside, raise the question of whether Hollick has an eye on the revived interest of Hollywood in the Matter of Britain. Although the trilogy may not be suited to big screen treatment, a mini-series may not be out of the question. Even scenes such as the sacking of Londinium may not be unfilmable in the age of computer animation.

It is a fault of the book that too much of it seems overwritten and repetitive. Although the book has been meticulously divided up by months and years to ensure the reader is aware of its lengthy timespan, this serves less to assist progress than to emphasise how little of great note happens. One feels that the whole story could have been told in a much shorter book. Helen Hollick's contrived archaisms, such as the opening "He was ten and five years of age" and the frequent use of the word "happen" for "perhaps", while one understands the sentiment, grate as they interrupt the otherwise conversational style. The tendency of the British characters to throw in the occasional Cambrian "sa" into their speech is a little less annoying, but the "Ja"s of Hengest or his daughter Rowena come across as very crude devices.

That much of the plot seems to be driven by Arthur's casual sexual encounters does not help matters. Helen Hollick states that her Arthur is "a down-to-earth, ruthless war leader" rather than some knightly paragon, but the endangering of Arthur or Gwenhwyfar as a result of Arthur's indiscretions, while doubtless morally improving in some sort of way, is tedious and is done too many times. It also endangers the reader's concept of Arthur's competence, necessary to maintain his credibility as the natural defender of Britain against the Saex.

One of the publicity tags on the back of the proof copy of The Kingmaking describes it as the "First book of an epic Arthurian saga to compare with Sharon Penman and Marion Zimmer Bradley". Sharon Penman's historical novels are of similar size to The Kingmaking and Helen Hollick acknowledges Penman's advice in the dedication and the prefatory note. However, while Helen Hollick's book seems to be aimed at a similar market to those of Penman, rather than the fantasy audience who have often been the targets of recent Arthurian fiction, The Kingmaking encounters problems which Penman's books may not have. Sharon Penman tends to deal with fictionalised accounts of the doings of well-documented historical figures from mediaeval England, such as Simon de Montfort or Richard III. Helen Hollick's `historical' characters include many who may not have existed at all, or at least have been relocated out of their period. Her fifth century Britain is probably much more her own creation than the societies in which the historical novelist using a later period writes their fiction. In this, she is closer to Marion Bradley, whose The Mists of Avalon, perhaps the most influential of recent reinterpretations of the Arthurian legend, was similarly based in a post-Roman but pre- Saxon Britain. There are traces of Bradley in Hollick, such as the occasional reference to "the Old Ways", and the inclusion of goddess-worshippers at Ynys Witrin. However, Hollick's Ladies at the Lake are not the oppressed but dignified pagan community of The Mists of Avalon, but "brash and gaudy" women, "living a pretence", who no longer appear to believe in what they are doing, unlike the sisters at the Christian settlement. As in Bradley's novel, Helen Hollick has a young Morgaine present at Ynys Witrin, but it seems that there will be no paganism to nourish her.

Another feature that The Kingmaking shares with The Mists of Avalon is its heavy reliance on a female voice. This is not as developed as Bradley's Morgaine, but the reader's sympathies appear encouraged to lie with Gwenhwyfar, and when she is missing something is lost. Helen Hollick helps redress the wounds done to Gwenhwyfar's reputation by Marion Bradley; in The Kingmaking Gwenhwyfar is no pious, barren weakling but an assertive woman who knows the ways of the sword, is an accomplished horsewoman and has presented Arthur with one son by the close of the book.

One author that Heinemann have not compared Helen Hollick to is Jack Whyte. Although these comments are largely based upon a few glances at the two volumes of Whyte's Arthurian saga available in paperback, Whyte seems to have pushed the origins of the Arthurian legends back yet further than Helen Hollick, to the end of Roman rule in Britain during the first decade of the fifth century, and as such might be a useful comparison.

The chief failing with The Kingmaking is that it does not really stand alone as a novel in its own right, which as the first part of a trilogy, it should be able to do. It spends too much time setting up situations to be expanded and resolved in the remaining books in the trilogy; Arthur's winning of Caliburn from the Jutish thegn Aethel, his humiliation of Hengest and proclamation of his kingship over the "Cymry" providing a barely effective climax. However, one senses Helen Hollick's enthusiasm for her material increasing as one nears the end of the book; she displays throughout an impressive command of Arthurian legend and has deployed that knowledge well, although the manner in which she has presented her speculations is not as inspiring as the Arthurian saga itself. Nevertheless, I expect her second book to be better.

The Kingmaking is published as a large format paperback in the UK by William Heinemann, and in standard format by Mandarin.

Originally published in Ceridwen's Cauldron no 29, Michaelmas 1994.