Mordred : The Inside Story

Haydn Middleton's The King's Evil reviewed by Neil Thapen

This is to be the first book in a trilogy, The Mordred Cycle, dealing with Mordred's part in Arthur’s downfall and the end of his golden age. At Mordred's birth Arthur has all the newborn children in the country sent out to sea to die, in response to a prophecy; Mordred alone is rescued, is fostered in Lothian and then returns to Arthur’s court. For most of the book he is ignorant of his history and his fate, and is largely an innocent. If he has any sin in him, it is only what he has inherited from Arthur; for in this book Arthur is the one who is evil, or at least unsuited to his time. He is a shadowy, faceless figure, less of a king than a warrior-god, who brought peace to the country and subdued the Saxons, along with the rest of the population, in a war of stunning violence.

This dark background, echoed by the subtle pattern of tessellating dead babies on the book's cover, is pleasantly disturbing; but some of the strangely fleshy and obscene details of Mordred’s story can distract one from this. From the very beginning, a recurring theme of the novel seems to be sticking tongues down people’s throats, with good or evil inten.

The book is full of little touches, perhaps in-jokes, to make it a plausible, yet horrible, prototype for the legend of Arthur as it has come down to us. The ragged messengers who go around maintaining the golden age by telling stories of the king’s murders and couplings, and by draining off people’s violent urges with orgiastic sessions, are known as ‘merlins’, after the bird; these sessions themselves are ‘round tables’; when Mordred finally reaches Camelot, he is told that it is really Camlann; and all the legends that have grown up about King Arthur's court, all the nice parts of the story, are dismissed as fairy tales meant for the children of the Saxon settlers. I am not sure whether to be annoyed or amused by all this; I suppose that it does contribute to the dreamlike atmosphere of the novel. The idea is that Arthur is too hugely violent and powerful a figure for any history to pass while his spirit fills the land. He is the once and future king, but should not be the ‘now’ king; if you have a god on earth, a dreamlike state is unavoidable.

This may be so, but Middleton sometimes overdoes it and it becomes irritating, especially when added to Mordred's confusion and ignorance of the role history has for him, which the reader is forced to share. For about half of the book, when Mordred is travelling down from Lothian to see the king, the landscape feels empty of real life and of worthwhile characters who are willing to speak to him at length or to reveal anything comprehensible to him. Dialogue tends to be gnomic and at cross purposes, and hordes of people occasionally follow Mordred around for no plausible reasons. It can have the air of an endless Monty Python sketch; if Mordred is a messiah, he is more a Brian than a Christ. However, this section certainly succeeds in conveying the feeling of a country stifled by Arthur and his legend, and of Mordred as the one person who can and should set history on its way again, even if this will inevitably lead to a Saxon conquest.

The King's Evil contains fascinating ideas and, though sometimes unsubtle, nicely sets out Mordred’s childhood and the unfamiliar world in which he finds himself. I rather like it, and look forward to the sequel, The Queen's Captive.