Merrimon Book Reviews

1981 film, dark, realistic Arthurian movie and Philip Reeve's stated inspiration for Here Lies Arthur.

Medieval depiction of Merlin

From Merrimon Book Reviews

Here Lies Arthur
Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve
by Philip Reeve

An Arthurian story that diminishes women to nothingness
Told in first person narrative from the lost girl-child discovered by master story teller and trickster Myrddin, HERE LIES ARTHUR recounts the familiar Arthurian story from a new, unusual perspective from the finding of Excalibur to the last days of the Arthurian kingdom. Gone are the chivalric codes of honor and behavior. Philip Reeve replaces Camelot with a tale of a rag-tag band of men led by a rather barbaric power-hungry leader whose glory is built upon stories rather actions. Lancelot is stripped away as is the classic grail quest. HERE LIES ARTHUR demystifies the Arthurian legends by reducing the elements down to the "truth," as it reveals the tricks of Merlin alongside the explanation behind the stories that become legend.

I chose to read this book from a profound love of medieval Arthurian literature. One aspect I particularly love about Medieval literature and especially Arthurian literature is the way in which an author reshapes a story, changing elements to create a new tale. In HERE LIES ARTHUR, the clever play on the myths of war and the stories of heroism versus the realities of war is one of the more intriguing themes explored. The author makes great points about the art of story telling versus the truth that speaks to the power of the story as a motivator and the art of storytelling.

The portrait of Arthur is rather barbaric. All chivalry of the later romance tradition is stripped away. Mryddin is story-teller, a trickster (which he is often even in the medieval traditions). Arthur is a man only concerned with himself and grabbing power and money. He is a wife beater and he plunders treasures from the church. The church itself is ridiculed for the greed of the priests, a common theme of medieval literature itself. HERE LIES ARTHUR, however, remains mostly on the level of ridicule whereas medieval literature targets corruption itself more than the church as a whole. The medieval Arthurian tradition (both the romance and the chronicle traditions) are themselves reinventions of an earlier period and some scholars do go back to the pagan roots of elements of the stories. While the portrayal of the church in HERE LIES ARTHUR does fall in line with the general tone Philip Reeves creates in Arthur's less than savory character, there is no counterbalance as there is with some of the other deconstructions of the Arthurian myth.

Despite my love for the changing shape of the Arthurian tradition, I found myself deeply disturbed by this book and the way in which this story was retold. Page after page, for almost 300 pages, the reader hears over and over and over about girls versus boys. The girls and women are diminished over and over again with direct gender statements of how women are nothing, ghostly, their lives too small for stories. The narrator is a girl who Myrddin (Merlin) disguises as a boy, who later becomes a girl and the vice-versa with Peredur who is a boy sheltered by his mother and made to dress like a girl to keep him safe from war (which to some degree comes from the Perceval tales). Of course this level of gender play extends to the male author name speaking through the voice of a girl who hates being a girl who acts like a boy and is a boy until she matures. Perhaps the author means to deconstruct the gender paradigms but HERE LIES ARTHUR does so at the expense of readers who are pummeled with anti-girl, boys are cool, and boys will be boys statements. Even though there is a special moment at the end that reaches beyond these statements, by the time a reader gets there, s/he has been so saturated by the nothingness of women that it loses its power. This book might be intriguing for a medieval feminist scholar to analyze ---- but is this book really meant for a young adult audience? This modern retelling is more misogynist in tone than any medieval text I have read (quite a few and in the original languages). Even if the author meant to deconstruct misogyny by this play of gender, I just cannot imagine a woman or a young adult girl reading these statements over and over without feeling diminished. Should boys be encouraged to read this either? Does diminishing women really make boys stronger and more like men? The young adult classification of this book seems inappropriate.

Publisher: Scholastic  (November 2008)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
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