Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

This was one of the best books I read in 2007. Philip Reeve is a new author to me and I first read about him on Ann’s blog. Here Lies Arthur is an adventure story, set in Britain in AD 500. I have always been fascinated by the legend of King Arthur and this book tells his story, casting a new and original slant on the ‘facts’. Very little historical evidence has survived to give concrete information about life in Britain from the fifth to the sixth centuries. The picture Reeve paints is of a turbulent and harsh world, with Arthur as a war-leader in a land where opposing war-bands fight for supremacy. Arthur is not the romantic hero of legend but a dangerous, quick-tempered man, ‘solid, big-boned with a thick neck and a fleshy face. ‘A bear of a man.’

Merlin is in this story too, not the magician of legend but Myrddin, a singer of songs and a story-teller par excellence, whose tales convince people of Arthur’s supremacy and power – the King That Was and Will Be. With the help of Gwyna, a young girl whose home has been ransacked and burnt, Myrddin works his own kind of magic on people, eager to believe in miracles, the old gods and spirits, the Lady of the Lake and the significance of the sword, Excalibur called Caliburn in this book.

Gwyna, disguised as a boy acts as Myrddin’s servant as they travel with the war-band. Then as it becomes difficult to continue with the disguise Myrddin sends her to Gwenhwhfar’s household to act as a spy. As in the legend Gwenhwhfar is not faithful to Arthur. Other characters in the legends are interwoven into the story, most memorable is Peredur, Sir Perceval of Round Table fame and the hero of one of the stories in the Mabinogion.

As Gwyna matures she takes on the role played by Myrddin, spinning tales of her own, giving meaning to his life and death. It’s the stories that matter, with their magical enchantment. We can still hope that Myrddin’s Arthur will one day return, ‘the wisest and best king they had ever heard of. You can’t blame people for wanting to believe there’d been a man like that once, and might be again.’

Gwyna ends the story with the tale of the ship carrying Arthur to ‘an island in the west’ where ‘he lies sleeping, healed of all his wounds. And he’ll wake one day, when our need of him is bad enough, and he’ll come back to us. And the name of that ship is called, Hope.’

The stories of course are made up of words and what a spell Reeve has woven with his words. The names and place names conjure up such memories and visions of the time when people in Britain spoke a language similar to Welsh and there is a list at the back of the book with a guide to how they might have been pronounced. I kept referring to the guide as I read along, saying the names out loud and letting the sounds resonate within my head.

It may be sentimental, but this is what I found irresistible in this book, the mixture of fact and fantasy, realism and enchantment, and the importance of story to encourage and inspire people. It brings the legends to life.

Books, Books and yet more Books

When I started this blog I thought I’d write about the books I’d read as a reminder. So often, I’ve stood in a bookshop or library looking at books and thinking, ‘have I read that book, or have I got it already -it looks very familiar’? Sometimes, I’ve borrowed (or even bought) a book and got it home only to find another unread copy sitting in a pile, or on a shelf, or even worse find out I’ve already read it. So I also keep a notebook where I write titles of books I’d like to read and a note of where I heard about the book. But it’s not foolproof.


Today, I went to the library and saw Author, Author by David Lodge on the books for sale trolley. That’s a book I know someone on one of the blogs I read wrote about some time ago and I thought sounded worth reading. I remember looking for a copy, but I’m sorry whoever you were I didn’t write it down in my notebook. Anyway, I bought it for the grand sum of 10p – a bargain, indeed and thank you fellow blogger, it promises to be an interesting novel. It’s set in London in the 1880s and is a fictionalised story of Henry James. In the preface David Lodge writes:

Nearly everything in this story is based on factual sources. With one insignificant exception, all the named characters were real people. Quotations from their books, plays, articles, letters, journals, etc., are their own words. But I have used a novelist’s licence in representing what they thought, felt and said to each other; and I have imagined some events and personal details which history omitted to record. So this book is a novel, and structured like a novel.

I know what to expect and I think some biographers could benefit from making such a statement, as sometimes I’ve read in a supposedly factual accounts phrases like ‘must have thought’ ‘possibly’, and ‘would have’, making sweeping assumptions about a person’s state of mind, or knowledge.

I also intended to write about each book I read, if not in detail at least a short note on what I thought about it. In December I read a number of books very quickly in the run up to Christmas and New Year and never made any notes as I read. Now when I look back I realise I can not actually write very much about them without re-reading them and much as I enjoyed reading them the first time it’s too soon for re-reads and two of them are library books that have to go back soon (I can’t keep on renewing them).

So, here are the books I read in December that I’ve not written about:

Four Stories by Alan Bennett

I do like Alan Bennett’s books. I can hear him speak as I read. These are long short stories, which I think I prefer to the really short short stories. In the first story The Laying on of Hands, about the funeral service of Clive, a masseur to the famous, the congregation is made up of numerous celebrities and others who had known Clive. The service didn’t go as Father Jolliffe had planned, although he hadn’t decided what exactly he was going say about Clive, until he started to speak. Then he found himself throwing it open to the floor and the true circumstances of Clive’s death emerged.

My favourite story is The Lady in the Van, the true story of Miss Shepherd who lived in her van in Alan Bennett’s front garden. A sympathetic and amusing account of an eccentric old lady.

Solstice by Joyce Carol Oates

I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of the other books by Joyce Carol Oates that I’ve read. I think it’s because I didn’t really like either of the two main characters and got rather irritated by them. It’s beautifully written, so I did finish it. It’s about Monica who arrives to teach at a boys’ school in Pennsylvania after the break-up of her marriage and Sheila, an artist who is rather a recluse, eccentric, and unpredictable. Sheila just breezes into Monica’s life, with disastrous effect.

My Cleaner by Maggie Gee

Again, I didn’t get on with the two main characters in this book, but this didn’t prevent me from enjoying this book. Vanessa, white, middle-class and totally self-absorbed asks Mary, black, and equally selfish, to return from Uganda to help look after Justin, Vanessa’s 22 year old son. Mary had worked as Vanessa’s cleaner 10 years earlier, but their relationship has changed and the balance of power between the two women shifts as the story reaches its climax. This is the first book by Maggie Gee that I’ve read and I would like to read more.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

I’ll write about this in more detail. For now I’ll just say that this is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I always like books about Arthur and Merlin and this more than lived up to my expectations. Thanks Table Talk for introducing me to this book. It has most of the things I look for – believable characters, a riveting plot and well written.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

This was a good find from the library. It’s funny, warm and tells the story of a retired QC. I became very fond of him. I think I will re-read this before returning it to the library and write about it properly.