In twenty-four hours’ time, my husband Adrian and I, will be on the road heading for Devon, in the South west of England. It’s the home of cream teas and the accompanying fiercely fought battle of cream on jam or jam on cream? This part of England is also steeped in Arthurian legend. Our base for our annual wedding anniversary break is Ilfracombe, an hour or so’s drive up the coast from Tintagel Castle, the reputed birthplace of King Arthur, he of the the knights of the round table legend. Which is quite apt as this month’s book is about one of the most famous knights of the round table. The book is Lancelot, by Giles Kristian, published by Bantam Press (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk/publishers/transworld/bantam-press) on the 31st May.
Lancelot and Guinevere first appeared as an Arthurian legend in the French poem, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart by Chretien De Troyes in the 12th Century. Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table appear in French romances in the same period. While The exact site of Camelot has been disputed over the years, as either somewhere in Wales, near Winchester or as far north as Carlisle! I was familiar with the Hollywood stories of Arthur’s Camelot as a child, my interest fuelled by the legend of Robin Hood in my native Nottinghamshire, combined with an interest in Greek Mythology and the supernatural. In my youth, the well-known tales were often regaled and consumed as historical fact. Its interesting that we still know so little of what happened during the ‘Dark Ages’, the period following Roman withdrawal from Britain, and its this vacuum which has encouraged tales to be woven by storytellers throughout the ages since to plug the gap.
When you mention King Arthur most people will remember the love story between
Lancelot and Guinevere, resulting in their betrayal of Arthur and the downfall of Camelot. Lancelot is often seen as a dishonourable man, a poor friend and a traitor. In this version, Giles Kristian sets out to flesh out the story of Lancelot, to make him a complete person and to renew the legend of Arthur and Camelot through the eyes and voice of a new ‘witness’. We first meet Lancelot as his family are driven from their home and his father’s reign as King of Benoic is overthrown. They escape and take refuge with a neighbouring tribe but are betrayed. Lancelot is rescued by the Lady Nimue and taken to her island fortress. Here he spends his childhood as an orphan and as apprentice to the island guard. Spotting a ship sinking off the island during a storm, he swims out in the hope of rescuing some of the crew and finds Guinevere in the water. She was being sent to the island to be cared for by Lady Nimue. From this moment on their fates are intertwined.
Kristian’s book, portrays Britain is a fractured land of many kingdoms, under attack from both invading Saxons from across the channel and the Picts in the North. Lancelot is taken across to the mainland to Tintagel to pay respects to the dying King Uther Pendragon. Merlin, the king’s advisor encourages him to pledge an oath of allegiance to Uther’s son Arthur. Arthur must prove his right to be the next overall King, subduing unrest and counterclaim from his fellow kings and driving back the Saxons in an attempt to unite the peoples of Britain behind him. They battle together and build Camelot but Lancelot is dismayed to find that Arthurs queen, when she arrives at court, is no other than Guinevere his long lost love.
Giles Kristian uses elements of the original Arthurian legends to anchor his story. For example, legend tells that Arthur is the illegitimate son of Uther and Igraine, conceived after Uther obtained an enchantment to make him appear to be Igraine’s husband. Weaving Lancelot’s story around these already familiar events and characters hooks the reader immediately into the story. In previous interviews, Kristan admits that he is not fond of research and because he is using events not recorded in history he can go his own way.
Lancelot is the tenth book (he co-wrote Golden Lion with Wilbur Smith) by English author Giles Kristian (www.gileskristian.com), who has led a rather varied life up to now, having been the lead singer with a pop band in the 90’s, worked as a model on various TV adverts, produced music videos as well as a copywriter for an advertising agency in New York, he now lives in Leicestershire.
His Norwegian ancestory along with Previous experience gained writing the Viking era based ‘Raven’ and the ‘Rise of Sigurd’ trilogies has honed his obvious talent for creating a moment in time, a history and a world that seems entirely real. His descriptions of everyday life and battles feel realistic and whilst there is a magical element to the story, we had no dragons or invisibility cloaks. Merlin was not the white bearded wizard of Disney but a squat, cunning, tattooed Druid and you often felt he achieved more by reading people than enchanting them.
Lancelot wins us over with his sense of duty and honour. The scenes with his sparrow hawk at the start of the novel, revealed the type of man he would become. I liked him. I hoped for him. This is very much a novel for the Game of Thrones generation. As a fan of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and the Maze Runner, this felt very much like the old orphan learns amazing skills and overcomes his enemies in a noble way story, that I loved so much about those young adult books. It’s totally absorbing, gritty and moving. I couldn’t wait to pick it up again.
This may be a book for the adult me, but adult or not, you may still find me charging around Tintagel Castle, shouting ‘For Arthur’ and wielding a pretend sword. But in your case, you can charge down to your local bookshop for a copy or magically download it online.
Reviewed by Georgina Murphy