The review copy for this one was requested mostly because it had a William Meikle story, but I suppose I had a subconscious desire to return to a bit of Arthuriana after not reading any for more than 30 years apart from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.
I’ve watched the movie Excalibur countless times, but I’m not any kind of Arthurian buff. Not so coincidentally, I have been listening to Professor Dorsey Armstrong’s King Arthur: History and Legend lectures from The Teaching Company which actually was a bit helpful in understanding a couple of names I came across in this book. In my English major days, I did read a fair number of the medieval Arthur texts – but there’s a whole lot I didn’t read too.
Review: By the Light of Camelot, eds. J. R. Campbell and Shannon Allen, 2018.
The stories here roughly divide into two categories. There are the stories where the Knights of the Round Table and Arthur’s reign and the Quest for the Holy Grail are honorable institutions and men engaged in worthwhile pursuits. And there’s the stories where they aren’t, literary acid corroding the legend of Camelot.
Generally, when it comes to Arthur stories, I want the former though I enjoyed the last bit of Arthuriana I read, Roger Zelazny’s “The Last Defender of Camelot” which portrays Merlin as a dangerous fanatic. (And, after hearing Prof. Armstrong’s summary of the alliterative Morte Arthure, which sounds like a real downer, I’m interested in that too.) [Actually, in thinking about it, the last bit of Arthuriana I read was Charles Harness’ Cybele, with Bluebonnets.]
Let’s start with the fictional gripes about the Camelot’s legend.
Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “The Terrible Knitter” is well-told, a grim tale of Dysig, a Round Table knight, still alive and in the wreckage of England after the Norman Conquest. Tracking down yet another rumor of the Grail, he comes to Dent, a village that’s a “thin” place between worlds, plagued by vampiric locals. Like a lot of these tales, the sting is in the end.
William Meikle’s “The Root of All Things” was my reason for reading the anthology. Here Sir Breunor is yet another Knight of the Round Table on the Grail quest. He’s bothered by questions from his squire about Guinevere and Lancelot and Arthur. Did Breunor know the Queen before her betrayal of Arthur? Why did Breunor stay with Arthur rather than his friend Lancelot? Breunor encounters a “silver knight” who claims to be like Janus or “the dweller on the threshold” and who offers Breunor visions of what his life could be if he abandons his quest. The story is about lost opportunities, misplaced loyalties, and the futility of helping those who need to help themselves. However, I didn’t like the story that much because of the choices it implies Breunor should have made.
I suppose you could consider Colleen Anderson’s “Sir Tor and the River Maiden”, with its thuggish knights and references to rape as another story corrosive to Camelot myth’s, but that isn’t a main theme of the story. And it’s not it’s main problem. Unfortunately, it’s one of two stories with trendy transgenderism on display – no, I won’t spoil the surprise reveal of two of them. This one uses the gimmick of deceptive pronouns to give us Sir Tor’s quest to bring back a dwarf’s head to a river maiden – without killing the dwarf. In exchange, she’ll give Tor something and keep Tor’s secret. Considering just style, it’s a well-told story.
Renee Bennett’s “The Song of the Star” is the second tale in this vein. It works better, also has an engaging style, and is a clever riff on the Tristan and Isolt story with Sir Talfryn and his sister charged by Arthur to escort Lady Mairwen to a wedding that will bring peace between factions.
There are no knights with secrets in “House of the Knight’s Nail” by R. Overwater. It’s another well-told story with its heroine Mathie grimly trying to survive as an orphan and scavenger for King Ban’s army. Her and her brother Oswin, mocked for his speech problems, play a crucial role in Arthur consolidating his kingdom. Mathie as secret blacksmith doesn’t strain credibility, and we don’t go into warrior babe territory. (And, to be fair, you have to usually loosen bounds of plausibility in tales of King Arthur anyway.)
Duty, loyalty, and righting wrongs – the traditional virtues of Camelot – are on display in several tales.
Wendy N. Wagner’s “Loyalty of a Thousand Years” is another of those stories of a very long-lived Knight of the Round Table. Here, Bors the Younger is still around in our day and working as an exterminator. One day, he’s called in to get rid of a wyrm in the basement of an apartment. Loneliness and duty are the themes in this one.
It’s Caledwynn, King Arthur’s brother, at the center of Shannon Allen’s “Before All Else” with Caledwynn portrayed as a necessary opposite to Arthur always seeing the good in people.
J. R. Campbell’s “Ghost Child” has Sir Toryn arriving at a village whose children are disappearing. They claim a troll is killing them. But he suspects a pre-Christian cult who has taken up residence at the nearby abbey.
“The Hive of Fair Women” by M. K. Hume is the only story in the book with Arthur at the center of action as he fights an evil, pre-Christian cult, the House of Women, who are sacrificing children. Hume has written a number of Arthuriana novels, but this is a self-contained, satisfying tale of action, poignancy, and atmosphere.
Diana L. Paxson’s “Shadow of the Wolf” was one of my favorites in the book. This tale of duty and duplicity and of a knight cursed to be a werewolf is based on “Bisclavret” from Marie de France (who I would know nothing about if it were not for Professor Armstrong). It is entirely self-contained though Paxson says you could put it between chapters 17 and 19 of her novel The White Raven.
“Brannon and the Raven”, from Fiona Patton, did not seem self-contained though I appreciated the raven companion of the questing Brannon, determined to restore his family’s fortunes after the disasters of his older brothers, being a lot more helpful than usual in these sorts of stories.
“The Prisoner of Shalott” is Lawrence Watt-Evans is memorable take on what happened before and after the events of Tennyson’s famous poem.
Jane Yolen and Shannon Allen contribute bookend poems reflecting the two categories I mention. Though I was not grabbed – or even touched or tickled or brushed – by either, I appreciate the attempt to put poetry in these kind of theme anthologies.
Overall my overall impression of this anthology is that it’s solidly in the middle range of quality – not bad, not that great.
Additional Thoughts with Spoilers
The reveals on those transgender stories: both the protagonists are women. (Yes, shocking and novel.) There’s also a lesbian element in both.
I noticed, with the Meikle story, that he evoked the unwordly with music as he did with Operation Antarctica. However, I haven’t yet read enough Meikle do now if this is a common stratagem of his.