The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'Firelord'

Last year, I reviewed 2 books by Parke Godwin – ‘Sherwood’ and ‘Robin and the King’ – and this is another of his books, this time about King Arthur.  In that review, I mentioned that although the story of Robin is one of my favourites, it had got to the point where any retelling, be it book or film, had become too similar.  But, in Mr Godwin’s ‘Robin’, I found a story that was still familiar but refreshingly different.  Imagine my delight to find that he’s done the same for ‘Arthur’, another favourite; if there’s any story that’s in desperate need of a fresh retelling, it is that of King Arthur.  And this one is told in ‘first person’, by Arthur himself.  Usually I don’t like ‘first person’, but this, in my opinion, is executed very well.  It has also become my favourite ‘Arthur’ book.

A king should write his own story, especially a Briton.  We are a race of musical liars, and who you are may depend on who’s singing your song … what matters is who we were and what we did.  I want to write of us the way we were before some pedant petrifies us in an epic and substitutes his current ideal for ours.  As for poets and bards, let one of them redecorate your life and you’ll never be able to find any of it again.

Just as he took the story of Robin out of the era of the Crusades and replanted it in 11th century England, so Godwin has taken the story of Arthur, embedding it solidly into the ruins of Roman Britain …

What we were was a patchwork shift stitched from the rag end of a shining mantle that once covered the whole of the civilized world, the Roman legion.

If one wants to attach a date to the story, it could be the 5th century – at the start of the story Godwin has Vitalinus, Vortigern Emperor of Britain, pass the mantle of emperor to Ambrosius Aurelianus.  Arthur, in a roundabout way, takes over from Ambrosius.  Interestingly, in legends dating from the 9th century, Ambrosius is eventually transformed into Arthur’s uncle, the brother of his father, Uther Pendragon. 

Godwin has used the Celtic/Roman names for the sites that feature in the story of Arthur, like Caer Legion (Chester), Eburacum (York), Verulamium (St Albans) and Ynnis Witrin (Glastonbury).  I feel that is a nice touch, one which lends credibility to the story. 

Just as with ‘Robin’, the story of Arthur is told as if based on history; the magical element that sometimes smothers, in my opinion, the actual story is barely present.  The familiar names of the legend, however, are present – his brother, Kay; Bedivere, given pride of place almost as Arthur’s constant companion; Gareth, Gawain; the Holy Grail … Guinevere, Lancelot and their affair, but without the extremely intense romance, making it all the more believable.  Merlin, of course, is here too, but in an unusual guise.

And then there is Arthur.  Made for war, a leader of men … but still a man.  Godwin’s Arthur is a man you would willingly follow, a man who inspires loyalty, but also a man who enjoys the simple pleasures of life … a man you would want to have a laugh with, share stories with.  Yes, he has his faults; yes, he makes mistakes, but no more than the next man.

The 2 main females – Guinevere and Morgana – could not be more different, but both are equally strong.  If ‘Sherwood’ and ‘Firelord’ are anything to go by, Godwin’s female characters aren’t simpering ‘damsels in distress’; Guinevere expects to be treated as Arthur’s equal, and she is, not just by her husband but also by those around her.

Morgana is still the Faerie queen, but this isn’t the usual, expected portrayal of ‘faerie’.  Morgana’s people seem to be, near enough, the first inhabitants of Britain, but not ‘British’.  A nomadic people, too primitive to know how to make iron, only too aware that their way of life will soon disappear, trampled under the relentless march of British civilisation.  Her story with Arthur, and that of their son, Modred, turned out to be my favourite part of the book.  I love Arthur’s description of Morgana’s spirit – “Catch the lightning … Chain the wind.

That, in my humble opinion, proves what a superb wordsmith Godwin was.  At first glance, his style seems straightforward, plain almost.  Then you’re hit by the brilliance of his prose.  And it all seems so effortless …

Like describing how a child sees the world:

It’s clear as sudden sunlight, something looked at so often and never seen: a child playing.  But more than play.  Meaning.  Drost moves to a sure music I’ve forgotten in growing up – dances to it, floats, celebrates and delights in it.  Drost is three, and in this magic, discovering summer, sees the world fresh without hanging names and signs on it, reaches for and touches it before knowing it forever apart from his prisoned self.  The small feet stamp and mountains tremble before his challenge, the arms sweep up in the growth of flowers, and I know why men lose sight of the face of God: because it is so close.

Or leading men into battle …

You are King of Britain and leading trained cavalry.  Forty-five years old … You charge in line, hoping that line will stay intact, praying you won’t go down with the next rank too close behind, because you’ll be crushed or caught by the nimble Saxons who dodge between the horses to drag men out of the saddle.

You have a moment before the lance strikes a shield, one moment when everything seems frozen still and you can see with heightened clarity every detail of the death in front of you: shields locked under cold eyes, cone helmets with the broad nose guard that makes the wearer look remote and inhuman.  You see the spears and the stakes suddenly thrust out from behind the shields like a wolf baring fangs.

At the last moment you brace yourself forward against the collision … and then you hit with the composite shock of war – tortured wood and iron, jarred sinew and the scream of metal on metal, the explosive grunt of men slammed together like brutal lovers.

The ending was so beautifully written, I have to admit I cried.  Just like he did with Robin, Godwin has made Arthur into a man who could have existed.  Who might have existed.  To use Godwin’s own words: “That [the characters] didn’t all live at the same time is beside the point.  Very likely some of them did.  Assembled on one stage in one drama, they make a magnificent cast.  It should have happened this way, it could have, and perhaps it did.