Or (loosely translated) the once and future king. I haven’t suddenly turned into a post-Roman specialist. However, I have been thinking more about archaeology and children’s fiction. Apologies for the long interval between posts. I’ve been busy with things that were either too boring for words and/or need to remain confidential.
Children’s fiction came back into my head because I have just finished reading Here Lies Arthur by the consistently superb Philip Reeve. This is a retelling of the Arthurian myths with a brilliant twist on a device commonly used in historical fiction. The narrator, Gwyna, is the servant to Arthur’s magician Myrddin and, as you start to read, it looks as if Reeve is setting her character up to fulfill the traditional role of humble witness to stirring events – something like the narrator’s role in C. Walter Hodges The Namesake. Instead, Here Lies Arthur is more Gwyna’s story than it is Arthur’s. Gwyna and Myrddin between them weave what we can recognise as all the key elements of the Arthurian myths. Everything is fitted into a convincingly Post-Roman context and it feels entirely credible that you are hearing the tales that lie behind The Mabinogion for the very first time. Without giving away plot spoilers, everything from the Lady of the Lake to Arthur and Medrawt dying on the tragically inevitable battlefield of Camlann slots into place.
There have been many many reworkings of Arthurian myths published; why is this one so compelling? Historical fiction, whether for children, adults or ‘young adults’ (as I believe adults who are embarrassed about reading kids’ books like to be known), is essentially speculative fiction. It doesn’t stand or fall by its historical accuracy but by the internal coherence of the world in which the story is set. Historical accuracy in these things is a bit of a false goal anyway. For example, we now know that the central premise of The Eagle of the Ninth (Legio IX Hispana shamefully destroyed somewhere in Northern Britain around AD 110) is wrong, there are inscriptions which show the legion was alive and well in Holland in the 120s AD. This doesn’t invalidate the power of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s story at all. It is true in the world of the novel and that is what counts.
However, it is not the case that absolutely anything goes in a historical novel provided it is internally consistent. The story has to cohere not just with itself but with the reader’s knowledge of the period. The Eagle of the Ninth works because it is a great story but also because the level of research means that it fits with people’s expectations of Roman Britain. The tone and minor details all add together to a convincing picture of the time. Of course, how convincing you find it depends on the level of nit-picky knowledge the reader brings. I recently came across a review of children’s fiction in the archaeology journal Antiquity from 1988 in which my old favourite Littlenose got a bit of a kicking for playing fast and loose with the facts of Neanderthal life. As I have said before, given the target market of six to eight year olds with a sense of humour, I think the books are actually quite close to the major themes of Middle Pleistocene research.
Here Lies Arthur works so well because it is brilliant speculative fiction (and Reeve has a very impressive track record as a writer of Sci-Fi too) set, not so much in Post Roman Britain, as amongst and against all the existing stories of Arthur. We broadly know what is going to happen to all the characters (at least we do once we have mentally transliterated their names to work out what Roger Lancelyn Green would have called them). Reeve works with the knowledge that the broad and tragic arc to his plot is common knowledge to his readers, his genius is to create a consistent narrative that links together the chaos of often contradictory early medieval myths so we feel that, yes, this is how it once was, before the stories took on a life of their own.