The Knight's Vengeance: a Mordred Cycle novel by Haydn Middleton (Warner Books, £5.99, 281 pages, paperback; published 13 August 1998.)
The Arthurian legends are lodged deep in the heart of modern fantasy, which is why every year brings a new crop of re-interpretations of the tales, varying the viewpoint, modifying the setting, reworking the politics until no stone is left unturned, no knight left unmolested, no variation left on the old tune that hasn't been heard before. Even an ardent fan of the legend like myself has become jaded by repetition, passing by many of the newer works without a glance. But I still cherish golden memories of summer days spent reading The Once and Future King while sitting in the ruins at Tintagel, beside a very plausible postern gate.
So, presented with the task of reviewing not only another reworking of the hoary old tale, but also the third volume in a cycle of which I have no prior knowledge of the earlier books, I approached Haydn Middleton's The Knight's Vengeance with some trepidation. That reluctance was amplified on discovering that Middleton had carefully constructed a very radical version centred on Mordred, Arthur's bastard and incestuously conceived son, and a heavy-handed attempt to drag the legend back to its roots in The Mabinogion.
I say heavy-handed simply because it is often difficult to recognise the Arthur of conventional legend in the dark, silent and guilt-ridden character portrayed here. Middleton's emphatic insistence on twisting the tale to such a bitter end corrupts all the characters, from the confused and abused Lanslod (Lancelot) to the suffering Queen Guenever. In doing so, he loses the majesty and the grandeur of the legend, heaves the splendour of the Round Table and its occupants in the nearest ditch, and in its place weaves a dark and (to me) unsatisfying tale of revenge and doom fulfilled. It is as though the canker always present at the heart of the Arthurian myth has somehow for Middleton become the whole, leaving no heart at all.
The work has a certain power, of that there is no doubt. But it is a power gained through the destruction of something that was splendid, that cast a glamour over its readers for centuries. I guess in a world where rainforests are smashed to oblivion to feed the 'civilised' world's appetite for hamburgers, the wholesale destruction of a legend and its conversion into something dark and distasteful is par for the course. Nevertheless, just as we should look out for our ecology, and preserve it for the health of future generations, so perhaps we should take care to preserve our legends. Otherwise they too become abused, corrupted into mere Orwellian prole fodder, and thus lose their ability to excite or enlighten readers yet to be born.
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© John D Owen 10 October 1998