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Here Lies Arthur (book review)

July 1, 2012

Here Lies Arthur
Philip Reeve
Scholastic Press 2007, 339 pages.

Usually, when I love a book for its story and its characters this much, I barrel headlong through it and finish in hours. But I took almost all week to finish Here Lies Arthur. I wanted to pause and savor the language. I kept wanting to turn to someone and say “hey! Let me read this aloud, so that you agree with me how lovely the language is!” So I found myself lingering over it.

Here Lies Arthur tells a somewhat familiar story about Myriddin (Merlin) working to get Arthur situated as the King of legend, to unify the Britons against the threat of the Saxons, at a time when England is divided into bands of warring small holdings and factions, and when everyone’s working through the transition between the old pagan gods, and newer Christianity.

As the story begins, Gwyna  is a young peasant girl whose village has been ravaged by a conquering army, nearly trampled, unnoticed as Arthur and his troops wage war. The army didn’t notice a small girl scurrying away, desperately swimming for safety. But Myrddin noticed her, gave her shelter, and gave her a part in his plans. She will disguise herself as a boy, becoming Gwyn, a soldier in Arthur’s army. So, in addition to a really interesting Arthurian retelling, there’s the contrast between the two lives Gwyna and Gwyn can lead, what’s possible for them, what’s allowed in their roles.

Through Gwyna’s eyes, and her narration, we see all of Myrddin’s efforts to put Arthur in power. Familiar legends and stories like The Lady of the Lake, Arthur’s sword, even his round table and faithful knights, have their place in the retelling. This version of Arthur’s legend focuses more on the storycraft of making his reputation, not the magic or destiny, but the humanness of belief. I loved it. It was like going behind the scenes… deflating the Arthurian myth in a way, but also preserving it by making it more possible.

I loved this book. I loved it for the way it depicted Arthur, telling the story of his rise to fame as a story of charisma, luck and story spinning rather than magic. I loved Gwyna as a narrator, a very pragmatic and skeptical sort of young girl, suddenly finding herself swept up in battles and the making of Arthur’s reputation. And I loved the writing and language craft of the story- the way it had room for Gwyna’s sharp observations and also for sheer flights of language poetry that I had to stop and savor.

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