Review: Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve

All right, I give up. Philip Reeve isn’t for me, and Arthurian stories may not be either. Here Lies Arthur is the story of Gwyna (if you are expecting her to turn out to be Guinevere, like I was, revise your expectations now and save yourself some confusion), who is taken in by Myrddin, a healer and wise man traveling with conquering soldier Arthur. At once Gwyna is caught up in Myrddin’s quest to make Arthur a legendary king capable of uniting all of Britain. It’s my favorite kind of story: a story about stories.

And yet, and yet.

One of the problems was all me, and I have this reaction to every Arthur story I read. When an Arthur story gets started, I start trying to figure out which version of the story the author’s going to be telling. Here Lies Arthur uses Welsh spellings, so with each character I had to first work out what the names were meant to be–and I won’t lie, I translated them all into Monty Python, which made it hard for me to take Bedwyr seriously (“Ah, but can you not also make bridges out of stone?”). And then I had to remember all the stories I know about them, from the cassette of King Arthur stories I had as a kid, from scraps of Mary Stewart, from Gerald Morris, from Malory, from T. H. White, and only after I’d done any of that could I pay attention to the story again. So that’s my thing. It’s not Philip Reeve’s fault. In fact, this is the bit that Philip Reeve does well: He shows us, through Gwyna, how all those different stories grow and thrive, how there can be a dozen versions of the same story without the listeners losing belief in them. But my restless unspoiled brain kept fretting over it.

Another problem that was all me: I want King Arthur to be wise and good and just and brave. I always do. When he’s not all that in the stories, they do not sparkle for me the same way. A lot of King Arthur retellings want to make Arthur be stupid, or an oaf, or a thug. Oh nasty and unscrupulous modifiliers! Leave me my knights in shining armor!

But I like to blame my bad reading experiences on other people, so let’s turn to the things for which Philip Reeve was responsible, shall we? The book was highly episodic, which I tend not to like, and at times this got to feeling like the author was trying to get in, hit each Arthur story (Guinevere, Grail, Green Knight), and get out. Gwyn(a)’s voice was inconsistent, and now and then she’d slip in a colloquialism that felt jarringly different to the rest of her narration (“We weren’t the first to go there, neither”). The book would switch suddenly into present tense for no apparent reason, and slip back out all casual-like, but I noticed and did not approve. What’s even worse for me, because I love point-of-view switches when they are done well, was that it also occasionally slipped into other characters’ perspective, when the narrative didn’t require it.

What do you require from King Arthur stories? Or do you not like King Arthur?

This has been for the R.I.P. Challenge. More books to come, and, I expect, better ones for me. 🙂

Who else has read it:

things mean a lot
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Bart’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Susan Hated Literature
A Bookshelf Monstrosity
Vulpes Libris
The Page Flipper

Tell me if I missed yours!

44 thoughts on “Review: Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve

  1. I like King Arthur stories, but this one sounds like a miss. Have you ever read The Once and Future King, by TH White, or the Crystal Cave trilogy by Mary Stewart? those are two of my favorites. Oh, and A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. That one does make Arthur out to be a dull thug, but its hilarious nevertheless.

    • I looooove The Once and Future King. The Mary Stewart books I never got into, although my mother and big sister loved them. I’m planning to reread them at some point.

      • well, your mother does. Your big sister suffered her way through the chosen too young to appreciate it only to be disappointed by the crystal cave.

      • That is not in any way an insult to the Chosen, however, which I am very grateful school forced me to give another try to, and which I’m quite fond of.

    • Yeah, my mother is always telling me to read them. I tried them several times as a kid, and they didn’t thrill me. I felt like they were sort of, I don’t know, stony. Too stony, and not sparkly.

    • They’re not my favorite legends either. I think it’s all got to do with what books of stories you have as a kid. I didn’t really have a good Arthurian legends storybook; on the other hand, I did have a magnificent Greek myths book, and I am wild about Greek mythology.

  2. I have heard only rave reviews of this book up until now, so yours is very interesting (I like a negative one to balance things up). When I was a teenager I was mad keen on all things Arthurian but have never quite managed to get my mojo back for him in later life. I started to read The Mists of Avalon and never got past the second page (so definitely the problem there was me, not the book). But I’d like to read more – they are such wonderful stories (and so I’m sure seeing them messed about with leads to ambivalent feelings…).

    • I like reading a negative review of an all-raves book myself. Actually, reading one negative review after a flood of positive ones is often the kick to get me to read the book, because I’m curious which side of the debate I will fall on.

  3. Jenny, your rejection of Mary Stewart chagrins my dazzle. But I’m thinking , if you don’t like her Arthur (who is a dear darling), Arthurian tales are not for you.

    • I don’t not like her Arthur. I don’t really remember him. It’s been at least five years since I last tried to read those books, but I tried like seven times when I was a kid.

  4. I was about to suggest The Mists of Avalon when I saw your paragraph about needing to have a good Arthur. He’s more complex than good/bad in that one. He makes some poor choices, but they’re pretty much blamed on Guinevere (Gwenwhyfar in this novel). I am pretty much a King Arthur freak, and The Mists of Avalon is my favorite retelling. Going old school, I like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Welsh romances included in most editions of The Mabinogion, like Culhwch and Olwen. I loooove Malory.

    • I actually just wrote down the Mabinogion as a book I need to read–not from the recommendations I’ve seen of it here, but from a completely unrelated book I was reading. Mm, synchronicity.

  5. That tape was my baseline too, and I quite liked it, although I remember little about it…something about a cup being stolen? I remember I remained dissatisfied with all other arthurian stories and had even concluded that maybe King Arthur was not actually for me, until Gerald Morris. I agree, his Arthur is a darling, and he (Morris) made me remember why I liked King Arthur stories.

  6. I’ve always felt that I really want to read some stories about King Arthur, but then I have never been able to find one that is praised and that I think I’ll like. It is also one of my ideas that I all too easily forget about when I go book shopping.

    • Yeah, same here. I want to like him more than I really do like him. But I recommend Gerald Morris, who writes kids’ books about King Arthur. The Squire’s Tale is the first one, and it’s very sweet. Or if you want something more grown up, try TH White’s The Once and Future King, which is funny and sad.

  7. My first qualification for a good Arthur story is that the main character be someone other than Arthur. There are a lot after thatl. Like, not having an agenda. I haven’t read the biggies yet (Mists of Avalon, Stewart’s), because I sort of intuit I won’t like them, having dipped into enough of the same type to see the signs of impending irritation. This is cowardly, since three of my favorite novels take place in Arthurian Britain. And one of my top-5-all-times.

    Malory is just too dear to me. I guess I would rather novelists used him loosely as source material (Jones), than attempted a close adaptation.

    • I bet you WOULD like Mary Stewart. Her Merlin is both poignant and plausible, and the story is exciting but not ridiculous – a quarrel I have with most Arthurian tales.

    • Mumsy: Thanks for the recommendation. I do plan to read them. Just waiting for the right Arthurian moment.

      Jenny: The three favorites are–

      John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights (An altogether strange book, sort of him reaching back into his childhood psyche. It may help to read it when you’re in the most impressionable part of your teens.)

      T.H. White’s Queen of Air and Darkness (I still think of them as the separate books, before they got collected into the one volume of “The Once and Future King”, because that’s how I first read them).

      The Sword and the Circle by Rosemary Sutcliff (which ignores most of my qualifications)

      And the one in my top-five-all-time-favorites list:
      The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein

    • I agree about TH White. He makes his book so incredibly funny, without funny being the point of the book, so it has an emotional impact as well. I love that about him.

  8. Alas, but I want to like Arthurian stories much more than I actually do. I’ve tried tons and tons of them, and I’m basically at the point now where I’ve given up. I don’t read them unless they come with recommendations tricked out in neon and flashing lights. And even then, I dither.

    I think the present-tense-to-past-tense-and-back-again thing is enough to put me off this one. I think those sorts of shifts can be effective when they’re logical, but I hate it when authors just throw them in there for no good reason. Last year, I read this one uber annoying book where the author frequently switched her tense in the middle of a sentence. She did this on and off for about a hundred pages, then wrote the rest of the book in past tense. I was annoyed with her for doing it, but I was even more annoyed with her editor for not making her choose a tense during revisions.

    • Yeah, I wished Philip Reeve had gone through a more stringent editing process. I’m not sure it would have made me love the book, but it would have made me less irritated with it, at least.

      You didn’t like TH White?

  9. You know, I have a quite fascination with Arthur stories, and have collected quite a few, but in reality, I have not read any. Not a one. In theory, they sound like just my cup of tea, so I keep collecting them willy-nilly, it’s just that I never actually make the time to read them. It’s a sickness really.

    • Maybe you can set a week or a month aside and that will be the time in which you read all your Arthur stories at once. Actually that’s probably not a good idea; you’d probably get sick of them pretty quickly that way.

  10. I read lots of Arthurian-cycle stories, but since I do the French side of things, most of these stories are with Arthur himself sort of off to the side, since Arthur is king of Britain. So for instance Tristan and Iseut are a big deal in France, and Arthur will come on a polite trip to help King Mark of Cornwall supervise his unruly wife, but he’s not the Central Big Deal. Or, say, Erec and Enide — you get them at Arthur’s court, but Arthur is not the main part of the story and you barely see Lancelot. Like that. That’s what I like in an Arthur story, no Arthur. He (and especially Guinevere and Lancelot) make me tired.

    • I’m woefully unaware of the French side of the stories. I should have had a good, well-illustrated Arthur storybook as a kid, and then I wouldn’t be so ignorant.

  11. I lurve Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And I adored Mists of Avalon in high school, although I haven’t read it in so long I don’t know what I’d think of it now!

    I think I’m more into the originals than retellings: I was so sad I didn’t get to take the Morte d’Arthur French class in college (it was only offered every other year so when I was at a high enough level, it was gone).

    • I liked Sir Gawain too. We read it in my medieval civilizations class, and almost nobody liked it because of all the alliteration. But I liked it. I had read Gerald Morris’s version of it first, so I enjoyed seeing what he had taken from the poem, and what he had changed. Adaptations are (well, can be) fun.

  12. I’m not a huge fan of Arthurian tales, though I have enjoyed the Mabinogion, and I loved Roger Lancelyn Green’s version of the Arthurian legends when I was a kid. T H White’s ‘The Once and Future King’ deserves all the recommendations, mainly for making its characters so believable – his Lancelot is the only one I’ve actually liked.

    I’ve read a couple of short stories – I remember one by Jane Yolen, which was a bit disturbing (because of the Guinevere character). Arthur and Merlin turn up in Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ books, but only peripherally.

    I enjoyed Meg Cabot’s modern re-telling of the myth in ‘Avalon High’, where she puts all the main characters in high school in Maryland – it works surprisingly well in a typically Cabotian way.

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