Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve (2007) 339 p.
Philip Reeve mentioned in a Reddit chat a while ago that he considers Here Lies Arthur to be his “favourite” of the books he’s written, and since I personally consider his Mortal Engines series to be some of the best books I’ve ever read, I thought that was a claim worth investigating. Here Lies Arthur is a children’s historical fiction novel based around Arthurian legend, but rather than a rehashing of the same old stories, it portrays Arthur as a typical power-hungry Celtic chieftan whose myth, legend and reputation is deliberately manufactured and disseminated by Merlin, who in Reeve’s version is not a wizard but merely a crafty bard. The novel is narrated by Gwyna, a slave girl adopted by Merlin after Arthur pillages her town.
The concept is a good one, allowing Reeve to explore the many conflicting stories of the Arthurian cycle, and examining further ideas about the role of stories in general and the longevity of myths. Reeve wisely uses Celtic names for the characters, adding a degree of separation from the more well-known names, so that we have “Gwenhwyfar” instead of “Guinevere” and “Myrddin” rather than “Merlin.” Despite Celtic being fairly unwieldy as a language (and yes, I know “Celtic” isn’t a language per se), it doesn’t break up the flow of the eye across the page at all, and there were a number of characters whom I didn’t realise were Arthurian analogues until their actions later in the novel. (It’s interesting that, when you read in your mind, you simply recognise the shape of the letters in a name rather than actually sounding it out. Or I do, anyway.)
How much you appreciate Here Lies Arthur and its original take on Arthurian mythology probably depends on how familiar you are with Arthurian mythology in the first place. As an uncouth colonial lad, whose knowledge of the topic stems mainly from John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ and Monty Python’s ‘Search for the Holy Grail’, I probably didn’t take as much away from it as a British reader, who would have spent plenty of their primary school childhood learning about Arthur while I was learning about Simpson and his bloody donkey.
Speaking of childhoods, though, I also spent much of mine reading post-apocalyptic fiction, and it was only relatively recently that I realised Western society already had an apocalyptic event followed by a post-apocalyptic period: the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Dark Ages. Reeve mentioned this himself, saying that it made a historical novel much easier to conceive, because it was “almost undocumented , so lots of freedom for a writer.” There’s quite a bit of this in Here Lies Arthur, with Myrddin reminiscing about the old days when the Roman legions ruled Britain with peace and prosperity, and ruined Roman towns like Aquae Sulis where the burghers still go about clad in togas, clinging to the past. It’s a neat idea – probably not wholly accurate, but fun.
There are a few technical issues with the presentation of the book as a whole. For some reason Reeve chose to write it in first person, which presents a number of troubling scenes where Gwyna describes events (in great detail) she couldn’t really know about, and the first person narration doesn’t really accomplish anything third person couldn’t have. While I personally love Reeve’s elaborate descriptive prose and creative metaphors, they don’t work as well when they’re slotted in amongst a solid, no-nonsense slave girl narration. There were also quite a few moments where he slips back and forth between present tense and past tense.
While we’re on the nuts and bolts of the book, because there’s no better place to bring it up, it’s probably aimed at older readers than I thought it was; I was thinking 9-12, at the beginning, but then there are a couple of relatively graphic scenes and the words “piss” and “shit.” I mean, I was dropping “fuck” amongst my friends on a regular basis when I was 11, but I always figured that what kids were ready for was several years ahead of what their parents and teachers thought they were ready for. But what would I know? Categorising books by age group is a dubious idea anyway.
Is Here Lies Arthur the best book Philip Reeve has written? He thinks so, and according to Wikipedia, so do British libraries, since they stock more copies of this than any of his other books. I haven’t read all his books, but I don’t think this is the best of them. He’s entitled to his view (well, duh) but I personally enjoyed the Mortal Engines series better than Here Lies Arthur. Despite all the violence and calamity and pollution in the Mortal Engines series, flying a swashbuckling airship through the Himalaya is still amazingly enticing for a young reader, whereas Gwyna’s cold and muddy Dark Ages aren’t as much fun to visit. (I have a theory that the appeal of young adult fiction hinges on escapism; relatable characters and all that, but still characters having a better time than you.)
Mind you, it’s become fairly clear that my regard for the Mortal Engines series is at least partly fuelled by overwhelming nostalgia and fierce established loyalty, so don’t take my word for it. Besides, I liked Here Lies Arthur quite a bit; it’s just comparing silver with platinum. Read them both and decide yourself.