by Helen Hollick
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Instead of basing The Kingmaking on the familiar medieval sources of the King Arthur legend, Helen Hollick mined the tantalizing snips and snatches of story in the earliest Welsh tales, supplementing these with archaeological discoveries and recent historical scholarship. Her Arthur is not the chivalrous hero celebrated by twelfth century troubadours, but an untried young warrior with a wandering eye for the lasses, prone to drinking more than is good for him. There is no Merlin; the plot owes little to the later medieval tales of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes and Malory.
Romance, however, is not missing. The style of the novel draws heavily from the historical romance genre—currently favoring spirited heroines who can fight alongside their menfolk. More than Arthur, Gwenhwyfar (this early Welsh name morphed into the medieval Guinevere) is the central character. "Arthur was thinking how pretty Gwenhwyfar was. A child still, with only the subtle hints of womanhood touching her face and figure, but it was there, the beauty, waiting to open like a flower from its budding.... Gwenhwyfar's beauty would be softer, more like the gold and russets and warmth of a sunlit autumn day, with all its toss of wind swirled leaves and crackling orange flamed fires. Aye, and have the touch of frost that nipped your fingers of a morning and caught your breath sharp in your lungs!"
The Kingmaking follows the lives of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar from childhood up to their marriage and Arthur's first major success as a war leader, with the rest of the story to unfold in two sequels. Frequent metaphorical flights of fancy and extended passages of characters' musings slow the pace, and the prose is occasionally awkward, as when Arthur's "belly was full of men sniggering behind his back." But readers who enjoy historical romance with a hefty dollop of warfare stirred into a setting of barbaric splendor will find much to relish here. (2009, 568 pages including an Author's Note discussing the novel's historical background)
More about The Kingmaking from Amazon.com
Interview with Helen Hollick
Other novels featuring Arthur and his queen in a realistic post-Roman setting:
The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell, (1995), #1 in the Warlord Chronicles series; a gritty version of the Arthur story focusing primarily on the warfare between Britons and Saxons. More info
Arthur the King by Allan Massie, (2003), a literary take on Arthur which follows the later versions of the legend, but eliminates the magic to concentrate on the struggle for power after the Romans leave Britain. More info
Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff, (1963), portrays Arthur as "Artos," a Romano-Celtic prince who leads a band of cavalry in an effort to halt the Saxon advance. See Review or More info from Powell's Books
Child of the Northern Spring by Persia Woolley, (1987), #1 in the Guinevere trilogy, portraying her as a young woman from a Romanized British family who makes a diplomatic marriage with Arthur. More info
Early historical sources for the Arthurian period:
On the Ruin of Britain by Gildas (6th century).
More info from Powell's Books or free online at Wikisource
The History of the Britons by Nennius (9th century). More info from Powell's Books or free online at Wikisource
Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads (13th century) edited and with commentary by Rachel Bromwich. More info
The Welsh Triads from the Red Book of Hergest at Wikisource
Excerpt from the Welsh Triads about "The Twenty-Four Knights of Arthur's Court" at the Celtic Literature Collective website.
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