The King Arthur Trilogy: Book II
I haven’t yet read The Sword and the Circle, the first part of Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the legends of King Arthur, but the trilogy really doesn’t need to be read in sequence. The Light Beyond the Forest is a children’s novel, yet it’s one written with grace and poetic sensitivity (as is everything by Sutcliff), telling the story of the Grail Quest. Thereby it tackles some fairly weighty issues: trust, honour, truth, loyalty, temptation, sacrifice and evil. If I’d read it as a child, I think I’d have been deeply impressed by its grandeur; reading it now, I’m struck by its lyrical simplicity and by the way it boils down a complex mix of Christian and pagan legends into a highly readable story.
We encounter Arthur and his knights at a time of doubt. They suffer the characteristic disappointment of middle age: their glorious youth is behind them and suddenly it feels as though there are no more shores to conquer. Or, in Sutcliff’s ever-vivid words:
For a long while they had felt that in Camelot the high and shining days were over, that the long struggle for right against might was behind them, and the dreams were done with, and life had settled into a solid mould; and there was a weariness of heart among the Fellowship of the Round Table.
But this is Camelot, and there is never dullness for long. One night, Sir Lancelot is called to dub the grandson of King Pelles, only to realise with a shock that the boy is his own son Galahad, born from his brief fling with Pelles’ daughter Elaine some twenty years ago. Shortly afterwards, there are wonders at Camelot: a sword driven into a stone floats down the river (not that sword in a stone; another one: ancient Britain was evidently awash with embedded weaponry). An inscription warns that only the best knight will be able to draw forth the sword and many of Arthur’s men try, to no avail. Even the mighty Lancelot fails. Later that night, a vision of the Holy Grail appears above the empty Seat Perilous at the Round Table, and when Galahad arrives, his name comes into being on the back of the chair. Men have long sought the Holy Grail, but now the knights have among them the one man who seems destined to succeed.
For reasons that aren’t made entirely clear, a whole mass of knights decide to go romping off on the Grail Quest, even though there might as well be a great divine finger hovering over Galahad, intoning, “It’s you.” It probably has something to do with chivalry. Likewise, rather than go to the place where they’re pretty sure (and where Galahad knows) the Grail can be found – his granddad Pelles’ place – the knights split up in the forest and go rampaging around in search of adventure. We’ll come back to that in a moment. But our destined hero sets forth upon a great quest that will bring him not only into the presence of the Grail itself, but demand that he purifies his heart and soul, and raise him above the fellowship of mortal man.
Reading this book as an adult raises a number of questions. One would never expect the characterisation to be magnificent in a faithful retelling of the old legends, and many of the knights come across as a little flat. The most fully-formed is Lancelot, the most troubled and the most complicated: not only must he juggle his love for his friend the King with his passion for the Queen, but he must also confront the fact that he’s getting old. He’s no longer the effortlessly perfect knight. There’s someone out there younger, fitter and purer than he is. To make matters worse, it’s his son who is outstripping him. And so Sutcliff hints at a whole raft of issues about fathers and sons, middle age and the sudden realisation that we’re all mortal. And mortality is certainly an issue here, because the Grail Quest pushes the knights to the very edges of their abilities and, sadly, not all of them will return home to Camelot.
It’s a good thing, in fact, that Lancelot has so much personality because Galahad has virtually none. Even as a child, I thought he was a bit of a sanctimonious prig and he has something of the same character here. But it’s hard not to be irritating when you’re so pure and noble and unsullied that God himself has destined you to receive special favour, and you’re able to unhorse King Arthur’s best knights with very little training (or so it seems). Galahad’s the kind of man who, on seeing a sword inscribed ‘for the best knight’, will modestly mutter, ‘oh, I think that’s for me’. He floats above everything like a serene cloud, while his poor follower Percival gets carried off by devilish horses and stranded on islands and tempted by alluring women-who-may-or-may-not-be-Satan-in-disguise; and equally poor Sir Bors has a major falling out with his own brother.
Sutcliff’s vision of Arthurian England is quaintly bizarre: it’s a place packed with chapels and hermitages and fierce knights standing guard at river-crossings with no rhyme, reason or evident chain of command. There are random maidens who need rescuing, very convenient self-propelled boats with sails of white samite that always appear just at the right moment; and princesses whose kingdoms seem completely unknown to the knights even though ancient Britain must have been a pretty small place and they can’t have ridden very far. The essence of chivalry (affectionately lampooned by T.H. White in The Sword in the Stone) seems to be that you thunder around a forest on horseback, searching for adventure, and fighting anyone you come across. You frequently encounter graceful castles, impromptu tournaments and perhaps the odd friendly charcoal-burner or hurdle-maker, but no one who seems to be part of a functioning medieval economy or, with the above exceptions, anyone who isn’t either a member of the noble classes or a manifestation of the devil. Surely, Arthurian Britain was a dangerous place…
If it’s hard to read this now without thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or shaking my head over its implausibilities, that’s my fault. This is a book that should be read with a complete suspension of disbelief: a charming tale of honour and adventure, with Sutcliff as a faithful, open-hearted and poetic guide. It’d be a great introduction to the Grail Quest for children, but equally it’s a refreshing tonic for grown-ups who might enjoy a palate-cleanser that omits the knowing or cynical tone of adult books. Personally I much prefer Sword at Sunset, Sutcliff’s novel for grown-ups about King Arthur, but she was trying to do very different things in each book. And I’d be very keen to read The Sword and the Circle and The Road to Camlann (the two other volumes in her children’s trilogy) as and when I get the chance.
I have quite a few of Sutcliff’s Roman and Dark-Age British books to read, because I genuinely can’t think of a writer whom I’d more willingly follow through the forests and heaths of Dark Age Britain. I’ve also unearthed Gillian Bradshaw’s fantastical trilogy based on the Arthur legends – so keep your eyes open over the summer for more knightly adventure!