Archives for category: Arthurian Fantasy

It’s high time for some midsummer madness so this week I’m recommending J.B.Priestley’s light-hearted Arthurian Fantasy, “The Thirty-First of June”. This book, which was first published in 1961, was out of print for many years. Recently I was pleased to discover that most of Priestley’s novels are now available as ebooks. Better still, there is a new paperback edition of “The Thirty-First of June” (from Valancourt Books) complete with John Cooper’s charming original illustrations.

This is a story set in two very different places – London, England in 1960 and the small kingdom of Peradore during the reign of the legendary King Arthur.  One of these places is real and the other is imaginary but no-one can agree which is which. In London, frustrated artist Sam Penty works for an advertising agency run by Dan Dimmock (“Call me D.D.”) . When Sam is told to produce a drawing for the Damosel Stockings campaign, he pictures a medieval princess and falls in love with her. The next morning Sam wakes up convinced that it’s a day which shouldn’t exist – the 31st of June.

Meanwhile in Peradore, Princess Melicent has fallen in love with a strangely dressed young man whom she’s seen in a magic mirror lent to her by an enchanter. Melicent’s peppery father, King Meliot, warns her that Sam is only imaginary but Malgrim the Enchanter has already sent the castle dwarf to find him. Malgrim is plotting to get hold of a magical brooch given to the royal family of Peradore by Merlin himself. So is his uncle, a wily old enchanter known as Master Marlagram. Back in London, Sam abandons work and goes off to the Black Horse pub while a harassed D.D. has some baffling encounters with a dwarf in medieval costume and a laughing rat. Marlagram escorts Melicent to Sam’s world but Malgrim has already lured Sam and a drinking companion to Peradore.

Sam encounters a wicked damsel-in-waiting instead of his princess and gets thrown into a dungeon for “being improperly dressed”. D.D., several of his staff and the barmaid from the Black Horse all end up in Peradore. Some of these visitors find themselves playing much the same roles in Peradore as they did in London; others are startlingly transformed. Melicent endures bizarre experiences during her visits to London, including an appearance on television, while in Peradore Sam is required to act like a medieval hero, which he’s very sure he’s not. He can’t even work out what species of dragon he’s meant to be fighting. Can Sam and Melicent, and their worlds, ever be united?

J.B.Priestley (1894-1984) was a prolific novelist, playwright and journalist. You can find out more about him on the website run by the J.B.Priestley Society ( Priestley is remembered as a plain-speaking, pipe-smoking Yorkshireman who campaigned against social inequalities and nuclear weapons, so you might assume that he was strictly a realist writer. In fact, there are supernatural elements in many of his novels and plays (including his most famous play, “An Inspector Calls”) and much of his work was influenced by esoteric ideas about the nature of time and reality. This novel explores those ideas in a playful way, suggesting that “whatever has been imagined must exist somewhere in the universe” and that “Which is real, which is imaginary, depends upon the position of the observer.” Malgrim the Enchanter explains that in the sphere of the imagination times-streams can converge or become intertwined so that it possible to pass from one to another. It all sounds jolly convincing but bear in mind that Malgrim isn’t a particularly reliable person and he has just drunk a whole bottle of créme-de-menthe.

I’ve read “The Thirty-First of June” numerous times and it still makes me laugh. Think “Mad Men” meets “Camelot” but played as farce. I wasn’t too surprised to learn from Lee Hanson’s introduction to the new edition that “The Thirty-First of June” was originally a play-script. It would make a wonderful TV drama. The plot is full of surprising entrances and dramatic exits and most of the characterization is achieved through the sprightly dialogue. Each member of the cast is given catch-phrases and distinctive turns of speech. One of my favourites is “Captain” Skip Plunket, whom Sam meets in the Black Horse. He constantly tells irrelevant anecdotes and tries to sell people dubious schemes or goods. Thus Plunket’s response to Malgrim’s abstruse explanation of time-streams is, “And, talking of times, I can put you on to a fella who has four gross of Swiss watches in the spare tank of his motor yacht.”

The subtitle of this novel is “A Tale of True Love, Enterprise and Progress, in the Arthurian and Ad-Atomic Ages” so it is now doubly a period piece.  Priestley was familiar with the conventions of medieval Arthurian literature and has fun with them in this story. For example, in Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur” (see my February 2016 post on “The Death of Arthur”) knights tend to encounter two standard types of damsel – virtuous oppressed ones and seductive deceitful ones. In “The Thirty-First of June”,  Melicent’s two damsels-in-waiting are meek and mousy Alison – whose double in London is D.D.’s overworked secretary – and glamorous Ninette who conspires with Malgrim out of sheer love of mischief-making. Ninette torments Sam by making him believe that he has to speak in a pseudo-medieval manner (“Noble damsel- er – ye say sooth.”) before suddenly pointing out that he’s “no great shakes at this kind of dialogue.”

Priestley makes jokes about what doesn’t change between eras, such as doctors who prescribe useless remedies based on bogus theories. So, to cure their flights of fancy, Melicent is ordered to take mummy paste, mandrake root and powdered dragon’s tooth because her humours are out of balance while Sam is told that he has an unstable metabolism and is offered calcium and vitamin D. tablets.  It’s fairly clear though that Priestley himself was more attracted to an idealized version of the Middle Ages than he was to modern urban life. Most of the things his characters find stressful in 1960 – noisy construction work, traffic jams, ridiculous advertising campaigns for rubbishy products, and absurd television shows and competitions – still annoy people today. No wonder that Plunket and D.D. come up with the idea of selling time-travelling tours to peaceful Peradore.

When Sam is asked why he wants to marry Melicent, his answer is that she seems to combine, “two wonderful qualities….a beautiful strangeness and a loving kindness.” So does this novel. Thanks to the rival enchanters, delightfully strange things happen in the course of the plot but Priestley is too kind-hearted an author to punish any of his characters severely for their faults. Ultimately, everyone is allowed to benefit from their exposure to another place and time. In Priestley’s world, the 31st of June is the one day on which people who are barely existing are given the chance to live a different and more rewarding kind of life. So, may I wish all my readers a happy 31st of June! Until next time…





This week, in a first for Fantasy Reads, I’m recommending a Graphic Novel. “Yvain The Knight of the Lion” has a text by American author M.T.Anderson based on a 12th century poem by Chrétien de Troyes and illustrations by Andrea Offermann, an artist based in Germany. This beautiful book has just been published by the Candlewick Press (2017). It isn’t cheap but “Yvain…” is the sort of book you will want to keep.

The story is set in the legendary reign of King Arthur. Two royal knights, Sir Yvain and Sir Gawain, are best friends who enjoy competing with each other. When another knight returns to Arthur’s court with a tale of being defeated by a mysterious warrior in the forest of Brocéliande, Yvain decides to see if he can do better. Anyone who pours water from a certain fountain in Brocéliande onto a magical weather-stone is promised an adventure. When Yvain tries it, he is challenged by an angry knight who claims that his dukedom has been flooded. After a mighty combat, Yvain kills this knight but is trapped in his enemy’s castle. He is protected there by the magic of a friendly damsel called Lunette. When Yvain falls in love with his enemy’s beautiful widow, Laudine, the Lady of the Fountain, Lunette even helps him to win her hand in marriage.

Is this the happy ending? No, because Yvain’s thirst for adventure leads him to neglect his marriage and his responsibilities. Rejection by Laudine, drives Yvain mad and exposes him to many perils. He encounters a serpent and a lion and must do battle with cruel knights, a huge monster, a pair of demons and his own best friend. Yvain fights to save a series of wronged women but can he ever win back the love of his wife?

The real forest of Brocéliande in Brittany is still a mysterious and magical place where it isn’t hard to imagine that you might come across a questing knight or an enchanter’s castle. The French author of the original poem, Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1130-1191) combined elements of Celtic myth with aspects of contemporary court life. There is an entertaining medieval Welsh version of the Yvain/Owein story – called The Lady of the Fountain – in the famous collection of tales known as “The Mabinogion” (See my post of November 2012).

The modern “Yvain The Knight of the Lion” is more complex than it seems at first glance. A narrator’s ambiguous words are recorded at the beginning and repeated at the end, by which time they have acquired a rather different meaning. Most of the story is told in dialogue, with the minimum of linking passages, but some vital action sequences only feature in the illustrations. This leaves gaps in the narrative which the reader has to fill in by interpreting the pictures. Stories within the story are shown on background textiles in scenes depicting the present rather than in separate “past happenings” boxes. So don’t think of “Yvain…” as a quick and easy read. It demands concentration and an eye for significant details.

However, at 129 richly illustrated pages, “Yvain..” is much shorter than most Arthurian epics you are likely to come across. I don’t think I had much success in persuading anyone to dip into Malory’s immensely long “Morte D’Arthur” (see my February 2016 post on “The Death of Arthur”) so I’m hoping that something briefer will tempt you. We all need to get into an Arthurian mood before Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur : Legend of the Sword” blockbuster hits cinemas this summer.  In “Yvain…”  Anderson has done an excellent job of compressing the complex original poem and modernizing its language. The dialogue is dynamic and the commentary thought-provoking.

Offerman’s illustrations have a contemporary feel even though they are packed with authentic early medieval details. At first I was disconcerted by the ugliness of most of the characters’ faces but I’m guessing this is a deliberate attempt to get away from the static beauty of medieval manuscripts. Yvain lives in a brutal society and Offerman is particularly good at depicting the shocking rhythms of violence and conveying extreme emotions such as Laudine’s furious grief and Yvain’s self-hatred. She has also chosen to use some symbols, such as a soaring hawk, which she knows have different meanings for medieval and modern people. Together Anderson and Offermann have produced a Graphic Novel which provides an excellent introduction to the morally ambiguous world of Arthurian legend.

Yvain may be a great fighter but he is far from a perfect knight. He is selfish and thoughtless, failing to notice that Lunette adores him and quickly betraying the trust of the noble Lady of the Fountain. Yvain is easily lured back by Gawain into a laddish life-style in which so-called knightly deeds are just a form of competitive sport. In his Author’s Note, Anderson explains that, “One of the things that drew me to this story is Chrétien’s searing, ironic treatment of the role of women in this highly masculine, honor-based, chivalric society.” For all the talk of courtly love, women are treated as prizes to be awarded to the strongest warriors and they cannot obtain justice without a man to fight for them. In origin, the Lady of the Fountain may have been a Celtic water goddess but by the medieval period she isn’t allowed to rule without masculine help even though she seems far more intelligent and honourable than Yvain. Clever and decisive Lunette nearly gets burned alive by men jealous of her influential role at court. This is a story full of threatened, imprisoned and ill-treated women but at least it gives them a defiant voice. Nor does it pretend that the answer to every woman’s woes is to marry a knight in shining armour. Quite the reverse. Anderson and Offermann’s retelling of the story of the Knight of the Lion and the Lady of the Fountain is simplified but not simple. Its words and images will linger in my memory. Until next time….


Fantasy based on the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table seems as popular as ever, so this week I want to recommend one of the great classics of Arthurian fiction – `Le Morte D’Arthur’ (The Death of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Malory. Don’t be put off by the French title or the fact that this book was written in the 15th century. It is in English and Malory’s prose isn’t too hard to follow. The two-volume Penguin Classics edition, edited by Janet Cowen, has modernised spelling and a useful glossary. You can also download the text for free via Project Gutenberg. That’s apt because`Le Morte D’Arthur’ was one of the first books to be printed in England. William Caxton published his edition in 1485 (only two copies from this print-run survive). In his introduction to Malory’s retelling of the legend of Arthur, Caxton wrote that, `herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue and sin.’ Few modern blurbs can promise as much.

Malory was working from various French and English poems and romances about Arthur and his court. The aim seems to have been to turn these often conflicting sources into a (relatively) coherent account of the whole of Arthur’s reign.  Malory wrote his story in eight parts but Caxton sub-divided it into 21 books. I have to admit that `Le Morte D’Arthur’ is dauntingly long – a thousand pages in the Penguin edition. I daren’t suggest that you should sit down and read it from cover to cover but it is a wonderful book to dip into when you want to find out more about the great figures of Arthurian legend. Think of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ as a dusty old treasure chest full of gems. To encourage you to rummage, I’ll summarize the contents of Malory’s eight books.

Book I explains the cruel deception which led to the birth of Arthur, why he was raised away from the court of his royal father, and how he became king by drawing a sword out of an anvil. With Merlin’s help, young Arthur establishes his rule over the whole of Britain but he casts a shadow over his future by sleeping with his half-sister, the Queen of Orkney, and fathering a son, Mordred. After Arthur is given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, he marries the beautiful Guenevere against Merlin’s advice, and establishes the Round Table at Camelot. Book II deals with Arthur’s battles in Europe. Arthur himself defeats a particularly large and brutal giant in Normandy and he and his nephew, Sir Gawaine of Orkney, lead a successful invasion of Italy. In Book III Sir Launcelot du Lake proves himself the greatest knight `in all tournaments and jousts and deeds of arms’. He falls in love with Queen Guenevere but this doesn’t stop him getting entangled with various damsels in distress when he goes off to have adventures in her honour.

Book IV tells the story of another  of Arthur’s nephews, Gareth of Orkney, who comes to court in disguise and undertakes a quest to rescue a lady from the Red Knight of the Red Lands.  Book V recounts the tragic tale of how dashing Sir Tristram manages to ruin the lives of two princesses called Isoud (Isolde). In Book VI many of Arthur’s knights go in search of the Sangreal (the Holy Grail) but only three, including Launcelot’s son Galahad, are deemed worthy to see it. Book VII deals with the increasingly reckless love affair between Launcelot and Guenevere. When this affair is exposed by Mordred in Book VIII it leads to a terrible civil war in which Arthur is mortally wounded. He is taken away in a ship by a group of enchantresses  but `men say that he shall come again’.

This brief summary doesn’t include the numerous subplots about the adventures of Arthur’s knights as they encounter feisty or treacherous damsels, wise hermits, wicked knights and spooky castles.  Nor can it do justice to all the memorable characters who flit in and out of the narrative, such as Arthur’s magic-wielding half-sister, Morgan le Fay, or his grumpy foster-brother, Sir Kay, King Pellinor and his Questing Beast, Nimue, the chief Lady of the Lake, and the lovelorn Saracen knight, Sir Palomides. Fortunately, Caxton makes it easy to find the inset stories by heading each chapter with a one sentence summary of the contents. Some of these summaries are rather enticing. Who wouldn’t want to read chapters entitled How Galahad and Percival found in a castle many tombs of maidens that had bled to death or How four Queens found Launcelot sleeping and how by enchantment he was taken and led into a castle or How Sir Tor overcame the knight, and how he lost his head at the request of a lady? Warning – a lot of beheading goes on in `Le Morte D’Arthur’. There are also plenty of sword-fights, jousts and battles. When Caxton introduces a chapter with the words, Yet more of the said battle… you wonder if he thought that too much of the book was taken up with detailed descriptions of fighting, but this is one of Malory’s special skills.

Who was Sir Thomas Malory? Even after reading an entire book about him (`Malory: The Life and Times of King Arthur’s Chronicler’ by Christine Hardyment) I can’t give you a definite answer.  At least three men called Thomas Malory lived in England at around the right period but it isn’t entirely clear which of them wrote `Le Morte D’Arthur’. The most likely candidate is the Thomas Malory who came from Warwickshire. He seems to have fought in France under King Henry V and his tombstone calls him a `valiant knight’ but he was accused of theft, rape and attempted murder and spent many years in prison as an `obdurate criminal’. This fits with the fact that the author of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ refers to himself as `a knight prisoner’ and with the emphasis throughout the book on flawed heroes and heroines who struggle to live up to the code of honourable behaviour and often fail. Arthur tries to be a just ruler and a champion of the oppressed but he causes innocent children to die when he attempts to get rid of his baby son. Launcelot should be the best knight in the world but he is cruel to the mother of his child and he betrays his best friend, Arthur, by sleeping with his wife. Malory writes with great sympathy about the wronged but ultimately forgiving husband and the guilty lovers. Launcelot is described as `the kindest man that ever struck with sword’ and Guenevere as a `sinful lady’ but `a true lover’ . Malory has the gift of making these legendary figures thoroughly human.

Once you get used to Malory’s style, it becomes quite addictive and his stately dialogue is a constant delight. If you imagined Arthur and his knights as strong, silent types, think again. Malory’s characters are highly emotional and they express their feelings with candour and eloquence. `Le Morte D’Arthur’ became a very influential book and its admirers include King Henry VIII, the poets Milton and Tennyson, William Morris, C.S.Lewis, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler and Lawrence of Arabia. I’m pretty sure that being a Malory fan is the only thing I have in common with Henry VIII. I have previously recommended two 20th century Fantasy classics which owe much to Malory – T.H. White’s `The Once and Future King’ (December 2012) and Naomi Mitchison’s `To the Chapel Perilous’ (November 2014). If you are familiar with the first of these novels, you have already read some of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ because White couldn’t resist frequent quotations. So, why not go back to the original source? On his last page, Malory asked `all gentlemen and gentlewomen that readeth this book of Arthur and his knights from the beginning to the ending’ to pray for his soul. If you boldly take up this recommendation, please spare a thought for a man whose failings as a knight helped him to become a remarkable writer. Until next time…



This week I’m recommending a book which has caused some consternation in literary circles – `The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro. It only came out a few months ago, so it’s available in hardback and as an ebook but not yet in paperback. Professional reviewers tend rigidly to divide writers into `literary authors’ and `genre authors’. They don’t like it when someone who has been labelled as a `literary author’ dabbles in different genres. It was bad enough when Ishiguro attempted something approaching Science Fiction (`Never Let Me Go’) but now that he’s written an Arthurian Fantasy the critics are either throwing up their hands in horror or pretending that, even though it contains ogres, pixies, Knights of the Round Table and a dragon,`The Buried Giant’ doesn’t really count as Fantasy. Maybe the pixies were a step too far but I hope that my readers are open-minded enough to judge the story on its own merits.

`The Buried Giant’ is set in Dark Age Britain some years after the death of King Arthur, who led the Britons to victory against the invading Saxons. Now Britons and Saxons have learned  to live side by side and the country is at peace. In a small village dwell an elderly British couple known as Axl and Beatrice. Like their fellow villagers, this devoted couple are affected by a dementia-like mist of forgetfulness which it makes it impossible to remember much about the early days of their marriage and hard to keep more recent events fixed in their minds. They can’t even recall why their son lives in a different village but they feel that the time has come for them to visit him, even though the journey will be difficult and dangerous.

After a troubling encounter with a mysterious boatman, Axl and Beatrice take shelter in a Saxon village which has recently suffered an ogre-attack. A visiting Saxon warrior named Wistan kills the ogres and rescues a wounded boy but the superstitious villagers turn against the child.  Axl and Beatrice agree to take the boy with them to their son’s village but first they want to consult a holy man in a mountain monastery about Beatrice’s health. Wistan rides with them because he has a mission to fulfil in the mountains but he’s forced to disguise himself as a `half-wit mute’  in order to evade the British soldiers who are hunting him. During their journey, the group meet an aged knight who seems to recognize Axl. The knight turns out to be Sir Gawain, who tells them that long ago his uncle King Arthur entrusted him with the task of slaying the fearsome local dragon, Querig.

After a fatal fight, the group reaches the monastery but it proves to be a place of dark secrets. All four travellers are soon in danger and must flee for their lives. Wistan is determined to banish the magical mist of forgetfulness that hangs over the land. Beatrice supports him because she wants to remember all the details of her family life. Axl increasingly fears the guilt that returning memories might bring. Ending the enchantment will involve more deaths. Is that a price worth paying for justice? Or will the hero accomplishing his quest cause the innocent to suffer as much as the guilty?

Some `literary authors’ are embarrassingly ignorant of genre fiction, so when they attempt Science Fiction or Fantasy it’s like watching someone re-invent the wheel. Ishiguro seems much more knowledgeable. He likes to play with a genre and transform it for his own purposes.  The cloning-people-for-spare-parts plot of `Never Let Me Go’ was unoriginal and implausible and yet it was a truly haunting novel (and later, film). The plot of `The Buried Giant’ is largely put together from standard Fantasy elements whose origins aren’t hard to trace – various Arthurian Romances, parts of `Beowulf’ and a dash of Ingmar Bergman’s `The Seventh Seal’ – but the atmosphere of the novel is distinctive and disturbing. Have you ever had one of those nightmares in which you’re sure that you’ve done something terrible but can’t remember what and the guilt still lingers after you wake up? Well, reading `The Buried Giant’ is rather like re-living that nightmare.

The giant of the title may be a metaphor for buried truths but thankfully the journey of Axl and Beatrice is more than a simplistic allegory; it is a touching portrait of a long marriage and a gripping story in its own right. After a slow start, Ishiguro establishes a constant sense of menace; a feeling that something dreadful is about to happen or perhaps already has happened. If you like everything in a novel to be clearly explained as you go along, you won’t enjoy `The Buried Giant’, but if you are willing to surrender some control to the author and stumble along in a fog of ignorance, like Beatrice and Axl, there will be rewards. Usually when an author reworks traditional material, such as the legends of Arthur and his knights, it is still fairly obvious how the story will play out. That isn’t the case with `The Buried Giant’. The four leading characters constantly surprise the reader and themselves because, if you’ve lost most of your memories, how do you know what kind of person you are? Hero or terrorist? Peacemaker or betrayer? Loving spouse or cruel adulterer?

The plain, almost banal language which Ishiguro uses somehow makes the darker aspects of the story more chilling. `The Buried Giant’ is Horror fiction in the sense that it deals with the physical and emotional horrors which people inflict on each other – often in the name of a `higher good’. Like many of the best Fantasy authors, Ishiguro uses the conventions of the genre to explore challenging ideas and to ask difficult questions. Questions such as – Must everyone face death alone? Can there be true peace without justice? Is it ever right to hate a whole race because of the actions of its leaders? Does the concept of a forgiving god encourage people to forgive themselves for unforgivable sins? Should crimes be forgotten for the sake of the future? I’m sure you can see the contemporary relevance of some of these questions.

Ishiguro is on record as saying that he used a Fantasy setting for his story because he wanted to write about the eternal issues behind the politics of specific conflicts. It might have been better if he had used a freshly invented world since, putting aside the issue of whether Arthur ever existed, the conflict between the Britons and the Saxons was a very real one which still has consequences for British politics. For much of the book, Ishiguro seems to be using British characters for his villains – as so many Hollywood movies do – but he’s too good a novelist to do something so unsubtle. Just as he has made an utterly convincing case for one side being completely in the right, Ishiguro suddenly shows you the opposite side of the argument from the perspective of people he’s taught us to care about. `The Buried Giant’ doesn’t offer easy answers but I’ll never hear the phrase, `forgive and forget’ again without thinking about this novel. So, even if you usually avoid `literary novels’ you might want to give this one a go. Ishiguro even writes surprisingly good fight scenes. Until next time….






This week I’m back to the theme of Fantasy written by remarkable women. They don’t come much more remarkable than Scottish novelist, poet and political activist Naomi Mitchison, who was born in 1897 and was nearly 102 when she died. Among many other things, Mitchison was the daughter and sister of famous scientists (the Haldanes), a nurse during World War I, a campaigning feminist, a foreign correspondent, a botanist and farmer, a peeress who never used her title, the mother of seven children and an`honorary mother’ to a whole African tribe. Much of her work was intensely serious but I’m recommending her witty and charming Arthurian novel, `To the Chapel Perilous’. It was first published in England in 1955 with a delightful cover by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien’s favourite illustrator, Pauline Baynes. You will be lucky if you can find a copy of this edition. Fortunately, `To the Chapel Perilous’ was reprinted by American firm, Green Knight in 1999, with a helpful introduction by Arthurian expert, Raymond H.Thompson. This edition (with its unappealing cover) is still easy to get. There doesn’t seem to be an ebook version yet but there certainly should be.

The novel is set late in the reign of the legendary King Arthur, at the time when the Knights of the Round Table are competing to find the Holy Grail. Journalists have been covering the Grail story for several years, writing about knights who have died or been driven mad during the quest. Now Lienors from the Camelot Chronicle and Dalyn from the Northern Pict are stuck on the edge of the Wasteland, with only a hermit for a company, as they watch the mysterious Chapel Perilous which may contain the Fisher King and the Holy Grail. The two young journalists are attracted to each other but they represent newspapers with very different points of view. Merlin, the chief editor of the Chronicle is a staunch supporter of King Arthur and the ideals of the Round Table, though not of Arthur’s unhappy wife, Guinevere. Lord Horny, the devil who owns the Pict, favours Arthur’s powerful half-sister, Queen Morgan-Morgause and wants less Chivalry and more Capitalism.

There is supposed to be only one winner in the quest for the Holy Grail but Lienors and Dalyn see a succession of knights, including Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain, Sir Bors, Sir Perceval, Sir Lancelot, and Lancelot’s son, Sir Galahad, emerge triumphantly from the Chapel Perilous, each carrying something that might be the Grail. The hermit warns the journalists that the knight they choose to write about `will be generally considered to be the Grail winner’. As  naive Galahad gives them an exclusive interview, they pick him. The Church approves of chaste and virtuous Galahad but the awkward fact is that other knights are soon performing miracles with their Grails. Strangest of all is the desire-granting Grail which Sir Gawain brings home to his mother Queen Morgan-Morgause at Spiral Castle. Lienors and Dalyn cover this and the other Grail stories but find that less and less of what they see and report is getting into the papers. Forces beyond their control are manipulating the news and stirring up trouble for Arthur and his court.

Dalyn regards Lienors as `a hard-boiled dame’ but, like almost every other woman in Camelot, she has a crush on Sir Lancelot. Tragically, Lancelot loves no-one but Guinevere, the wife of his best friend, Arthur. Lienors’ sympathy for Lancelot and Guinevere leads her to break the first rule of journalism – don’t get personally involved. This, and the fact that she is suspected of being a follower of the White Lady, gets Lienors into trouble with the Church. Dalyn is soon in danger too as the feud within the royal family deepens and Arthur’s realm lurches towards civil war.

If I describe `To the Chapel Perilous’ as a humorous story with serious themes set in an idealized medieval world with some modern elements (such as newspapers and cameras), it will sound very like a much more famous Arthurian novel, T.H. White’s `The Once and Future King’. Both authors use Thomas Malory’s `Le Morte d’Arthur’  as their main source for the events of Arthur’s reign and both quote some of Malory’s distinctive 15th century dialogue at key moments. So, was Mitchison copying White? It turns out that Mitchison had only read White’s original 1938 version of `The Sword in the Stone’ (see my post of December 2012) when she started writing her own Arthurian novel. `The Once and Future King’, whose final section deals with the period of Arthur’s reign that Mitchison covers, was published several years after `To the Chapel Perilous’ came out. I think that Mitchison was somewhat influenced by White’s unforgettable portrayal of Merlin but her approach to the legends of Arthur and his knights was different from White’s in several important ways.

Firstly, Mitchison wasn’t much interested in Arthur himself and doesn’t put him at the centre of the story, as White does. Secondly, `To the Chapel Perilous’ has two major female points of view – adventurous `news-girl’ Lienors and motherly senior reporter, Ygraine la Grande. Mitchison’s Queen Guinevere is far stronger and cleverer than White’s – and a much more sympathetic character than the last Guinevere I wrote about on Fantasy Reads (see `The Stolen Lake’, 15th January, 2014). Her rival, Queen Morgan-Morgause, is almost as sinister as she is in `The Once and Future King’ but is treated as the embodiment of a pre-Christian, goddess-centred religion. Thirdly, Mitchison makes more of the strange episode of the Grail quest than White does by using a wide range of early medieval and Celtic sources. One of her cleverest ideas is to combine the brutal Peredur of Welsh legend and the sanitized Sir Perceval of later medieval texts into a knight with a split personality.

A unique feature of `To the Chapel Perilous’ is the way that different interpretations of the Grail from different eras are shown manifesting simultaneously. So, for example, Gawain’s Grail is close to the `Cauldron of Rebirth’ of Celtic myth, while Lancelot’s blood-filled chalice and spear are like something from the Mithras cult, but the`Dish of the Last Supper’ which devout Sir Bors brings back to his beloved wife Julia creates an idyllic garden and a harvest so bountiful that nobody in the kingdom need go hungry. Lienors comes to understand that she is witnessing `different patterns that people can make themselves into’ and that, `each pattern uncovers a different aspect of the heart; a different means of wisdom.’ She also learns the hard way that it is dangerous to go against the dominant pattern of the age you are living in because, `Most people are much too frightened to be tolerant.’

According to an interview which you can still read on the internet (, the character of Lienors was partly based on one of Mitchison’s daughters, who was a reporter in love with a young man from a rival newspaper. Mitchison also made use of her own experiences in journalism; particularly the frustrations of trying to find out and expose the truth of what was going on in Europe before World War II broke out. If you thought that the way the media spin stories for or against people in public life was a recent development, you will find out from this book that it has been going on for a long time. Mitchison obviously cared deeply about journalistic integrity and independence but she has wise old Ygraine say to Lienors, `Even when it is something you really care about, keep light if you want to get it across. In fact – yes, especially if it is something you care about.’

The love story of Lienors and Dalyn is full of amusing touches, such as the jounalists sharing their packets of sandwiches with the hermit who may be St Joseph of Arimathea or Lienors fending off randy Peredur by hitting him with her typewriter. Just because she is female, Lienors is expected to come up with `human interest’ stories (resulting in a disastrous interview with Galahad’s mother) and is even required to cover the fashion angle on the Grail quest. Dalyn becomes increasingly disillusioned by the cynical machinations of Lord Horny and longs to tell, `The straight story. All of it’. By the end of the novel, Lienors and Dalyn have stopped being mere observers and embarked on their own quest for the truth. A crucial part of the traditional Grail quest was to ask the right question at the right moment and that is what Mitchison wanted all of us to do. Have you picked your question yet? Until two weeks time….



Last week the Scotts voted to stay in the United Kingdom (I’m a quarter Scottish but I didn’t get a quarter of a vote). To honour their decision I’m recommending a Fantasy novel set in Scotland, or at least in a place that is usually part of Scotland. `The Silver Bough’ by American writer Lisa Tuttle was first published in 2006. It is currently available in paperback or as an ebook. Tuttle draws on the rich folklore of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland and on the Arthurian legend of Avalon – the mystical `Island of Apples’. Apples feature prominently in this book, so you might want to stock up with a few to munch while you’re reading.

This is a novel in which the place is as important as the people. Appleton is a small town situated on an apple-shaped peninsular on the western coast of Scotland. It was once a popular seaside resort and a great fruit-growing area, famous for an incomparably sweet apple known as `Appleton’s Fairest’, but the town’s fortunes have been in decline since the 1950s. The local factory has closed down, the apple orchards have been grubbed up and few tourists visit any  more. The town’s only asset is a grandiose library and museum built by the wealthy and eccentric Wall family. Into this failing community come four lonely strangers…

Divorced Kathleen has made a new start by taking the post of Librarian in Appleton. The library is said to be haunted by the ghost of Emmeline Wall and the attached museum has some very odd things in its collection (such as `fairy eggs’ and a unicorn horn) yet Kathleen loves the place. Mario is a teenager who because of an affair with a married woman has been sent away from his home in Sicily to work in his surly uncle’s fish and chip shop. Texan Ashley has dropped out of college after the sudden death of her best friend and doesn’t know what to do with herself.  Her late grandmother, Phemie, ran away from Appleton to America, even though she was engaged to the richest man in town. Now Ashley has come to stay with the Scottish relatives she’s never met before. Nell is a reclusive young widow who has restored derelict Orchard House and planted apple-trees in its walled garden. She has even found a seedling that might be the long lost `Appleton’s Fairest’. After a landslide cuts off the town from the outside world, this seedling produces a bough with silvery blossom and one perfect golden apple.

Trapped in a town with few young people, Ashley has little to do but make drawings and listen to local legends. She’s told that King Arthur sleeps in a nearby cave, that the area is inhabited by a fairy race who shrink as they age but never die, and that every 50 years a golden apple appears which can grant anyone who eats it their heart’s desire. She also hears about the strange and tragic history of the Wall family and learns that her grandmother Phemie was once chosen as the Apple Queen, who was supposed to preserve the luck of the town by sharing an Appleton’s Fairest with a handsome stranger during the annual Apple Fair. That never happened, but Ashley meets a handsome stranger of her own, the mysterious Ronan, who claims to have returned to Appleton after a long time away. Ashley, Kathleen, Mario and Nell all begin to have strange experiences as Appleton slips out of the ordinary world and into the realms of Celtic myth. The dead are seen walking and ancient dangers awaken. Can a pair of true lovers save the people of Appleton by sharing a magical apple, or will a sacrifice be needed?

Publishers tend to believe that book-buyers only want to read stories about characters who are very similar to themselves – same age, same gender, same race etc. Normally I find this depressing and contrary to the spirit of Fantasy fiction, which is all about exploring the different and the extraordinary. However, I must confess that the strength of my identification with Kathleen did help me to enjoy `The Silver Bough’. This character shares my temperament (`she `felt both stimulated and at peace in the company of all the silent books’), my taste in literature, and my own childhood dream of living in a library. Living in a Glasgow School Art Nouveau library packed with magical books and objects is my idea of heaven. You may prefer to identify with one of the other three viewpoint characters – artistic Ashley, romantic Mario, or secret gardener, Nell. `The Silver Bough’ isn’t a flawless book. For a novel set in Scotland, it has remarkably few Scottish characters. There seems no reason why Ashley, Kathleen and Nell should all be Americans (did Tuttle’s publishers insist on this?) when they only need to come from a few miles away to count as outsiders in Appleton. The male characters are less convincing and interesting than the female ones. Mario isn’t given enough to do and Dave, the famous singer-songwriter who provides the love-interest for Kathleen, seems a little too good to be true even in a Fantasy novel. Though, like Kathleen, I wouldn’t be able to resist a man who has actually read my favourite folklore collection – Campbell’s `Popular Tales of the West Highlands’.

Some people find Tuttle’s style too flat and her pace too slow but I think these are aspects of her chosen story-telling technique. She describes extraordinary things in an everyday manner in order to make them more credible. Tuttle also takes her time building up a detailed picture of Appleton, using pastiche newspaper cuttings and visitor guides and quotes from invented journals and books. By mid-way through this novel, I knew my way around this sad seaside town, with its derelict grand hotel and empty shops, and I had begun to care about its fate. Failing towns and cities are a topical subject but not one you often encounter in Fantasy fiction. Small oddities are gradually introduced – phone-calls that go unanswered, revellers glimpsed in the distance, a light shining through a window that shouldn’t be there. It seems to Kathleen that `the whole town was waiting for something wonderful that was about to happen’. When the wonders do start to happen, Appleton becomes a disturbing, even dangerous, place for ordinary humans to be. Kathleen’s view of the world is turned upside down during what starts off as a routine visit to an elderly librarian. Supernatural creatures manifest in a smell of burning, a woman beckoning from the sea, or a white horse beside a loch. The horror lies in what might have happened rather than what does.

Tuttle doesn’t stint on plot elements in `The Silver Bough’. There are plenty of past and present mysteries to be solved – Why did Emmeline Wall throw herself into the sea and who was the father of her illegitimate son? Is there a secret chamber in the Library and what does it contain? What made Phemie run away from Appleton and which new couple will share the golden apple 50 years later? The story contains quite a number of possible couples to keep readers uncertain about the answer to that last question. `The Silver Bough’ could be categorized  as Fantasy Romance. Widower Dave and widow Nell are set up to contrast with each other; the former ready to move on while the latter is trapped in a destructive spiral of grief. There is also a standard figure from Scottish folklore, the fairy suitor whose magical `glamour’ makes him attractive to every woman he meets. Yet on second reading, Tuttle’s novel is more subtle and less romantic than it appears to be. In `The Silver Bough’ the fairy suitor can attract lust but not love and the story asks what might happen if the fairy himself does not want to play his traditional romantic role. With the resonance of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the apple in the background, it is never entirely clear whether eating the golden apple is the right thing to do. Was it selfish of Phemie and her fiancé to refuse to follow tradition and share the apple, or did they have a right to try to make their dreams come true without any supernatural help? Will Appleton be saved by a time-shattering act of magic, or by ordinary people with the courage to commit themselves to each other and to their community? If you find these interesting questions, `The Silver Bough’ may be the book for you. Fantasy Reads will be back in two weeks time on the new regular day of Thursday.


This week I’m recommending Joan Aiken’s `The Stolen Lake’, which is probably the only Arthurian Fantasy to be set in the Andes. Joan Aiken (1924-2004) was a daughter of the American poet, Conrad Aiken but she was born and brought up in England. `The Stolen Lake’ was first published in 1981, with murky illustrations by Pat Marriott. There are recent paperback editions and it’s also available as an ebook. Aiken wrote in many different genres for readers of all ages. `The Stolen Lake’ is part of a twelve-volume sequence of children’s novels featuring Cockney girl, Dido Twite, a heroine who was feisty long before it was fashionable. This sequence is sometimes known as `The Wolves Chronicles’ and sometimes as `The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Series’. Chronologically, `The Stolen Lake’ is the fourth of these novels but Aiken pointed out in a preface that `you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.’ I’ve chosen this book because it is my favourite of the Dido stories and the one with the strongest Fantasy element.

`The Wolves Chronicles’ are set in the early 19th century in a world in which the Ancient Romans conquered South America and the Stuart Dynasty still rules Britain. When this story opens, twelve year-old Dido has recently left North America after thwarting a dastardly Hanoverian plot against the Stuarts (see `Night Birds on Nantucket’). She is travelling home in a British warship called the `Thrush’. Dido tries to keep out of the way of crusty Captain Hughes but enjoys the company of his remarkably well-educated steward, Mr Holystone. Captain Hughes suddenly gets orders to change course for Roman America where Britain’s ally, Queen Ginevra of New Cumbria, requires assistance. Hearing that the Queen is `devotedly Fond of Young Female Children’, Captain Hughes decides to include Dido in the party from the `Thrush’ who will travel to New Cumbria’s remote capital, Bath Regis.

When Dido is kidnapped on her first day ashore, it  becomes apparent that New Cumbria is a very dangerous place, especially for young girls. She escapes and is helped to rejoin her friends by a mysterious minstrel called Bran. During the unpleasant trip to the capital, Dido and the Captain rely on the advice of Mr Holystone, who was brought up in nearby Hy Brasil, but as they approach Bath Regis, Holystone grows weak and forgetful and falls into a trance. Dido and Captain Hughes visit the revolving palace of the `White Queen’ and are told two very strange things. Firstly, the Queen claims to be thirteen hundred years old and secondly she insists that a neighbouring monarch, Mabon of Lyonesse, has stolen the sacred lake which the Cumbrians brought with them from Britain. Queen Ginevra is convinced that one day her husband Arthur, the once and future king, will return to her from Lake Arianrhod, so she will stop at nothing to get it back. She wants Dido to pretend to be King Mabon’s lost daughter and persuade him to return the stolen lake. When Captain Hughes protests he is thrown into prison, so Dido and her companions have no choice but to set out on a perilous journey through steaming quagmires and icy mountains. On the way, Dido will encounter man-eating birds, evil witches, a crazed priest and a captive princess. She will discover the terrible truth about how Ginevra has stayed alive so long, and seeing an old friend in a new light will nearly break Dido’s heart.

`The Stolen Lake’ is fast-paced enough to appeal to modern children – something thrilling or astonishing happens every few pages – but there is plenty in the novel to interest adults as well. Aiken loved to create extraordinary plots bursting with inventive details, such as the secret of how to steal a whole lake or a series of frantic messages  written on pages from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary and attached to the collars of copper-coloured cats. She threw together some elements you might expect to find in a South American setting, such as llamas, piranhas, human sacrifice and erupting volcanoes and some that you probably wouldn’t, like Roman legionaries, supernatural owls, sedan-chairs and a Snow Leopard. It could be said that all the books in `The Wolves Chronicles’ have a basic `plucky children defeat forces of evil’ plotline but thanks to the astringent qualty of the writing, they come across as being about isolated children struggling to survive in a largely wicked world. Some innocent characters meet grim deaths in `The Stolen Lake’ and even love is shown to have its dark side. Queen Ginevra/Guinevere is not a romantic figure in this story. Surrounded by spiders and shrunken heads and almost too fat to walk, she has become grotesquely unlovable by the time her Arthur returns.

Like last week’s author (Avram Davidson), Aiken had great fun rearranging history and myth to suit her own passions and prejudices. The England of her novels is inhabited by Dickensian villains and Gothic horrors, such as the packs of wolves who have entered the country through an early version of the Channel Tunnel. Aiken came up with an ingenious explanation for her Celtic kingdoms in the Andes (after all there really was a Welsh settlement in Patagonia) and boldly relocated the civilised town of Bath Spa to a chilly hollow surrounded by smoking volcanoes, and its ancient goddess Sul to a sinister mountain-top temple. The White Queen’s revolving silver palace is borrowed from Celtic myth and there is even a guest appearance by the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and the Four Oldest Creatures from `The Mabinogion’ (see my post of November 2012). Fans of Arthurian literature will enjoy spotting Aiken’s versions of the traditional characters. Truth-telling Bran, with his wooden leg, harp and cockatoo, is as wild and unpredictable as the prophet Merlin in Early Welsh legend. The puzzling stories that he tells to Dido add an extra dimension to the novel.

Much of the humour in the book comes from the contrast between the formal speech of the officers of the `Thrush’ (e.g.`Miss Twite- I must delay no longer in telling you how creditable – exceedingly creditable indeed – are the accounts of your behaviour during this expedition that I have received…) and Dido’s unconventional but colourful use of language (e.g. `Jemima! What a havey-cavey cove. He looks as if he’d sell his own ma for cats’ meat.’) There are also some pleasingly absurd situations, such as tomboy Dido (`Needle-work’s a mug’s game!’) being taught to curtsey and forced to dress like a court lady (`I don’t half look a sight’). Dido is charmingly unimpressed by wealth and grandeur; she thinks the Queen’s silver palace `looks like an outsize milk-churn.’ She’s a brave and resourceful heroine but she has a tough time in this book.  It’s not just that she keeps getting kidnapped. Dido has been carelessly brought up as an unloved youngest child in a dishonest and disfunctional family but she finally finds a suitable father-figure in the wise and kind Mr Holystone. Then a spell makes him forget all about her. Nothing is quite the same again and Dido disovers that relationships can go on causing pain long after they are broken. This  gives the story greater depth than some of the other books in the series, but  writing about `The Stolen Lake’ has made me want to reread the entire `Wolves Chronicles’.  I’ll be back in two weeks time.