It's no secret that my new Eddie LaCrosse novel Dark Jenny (which hits stores tomorrow, March 29) draws its inspiration from Arthurian sources. So on the eve of its release I'd like to write about the straight Arthurian novel that's so good, I wish I'd written it: Mary Stewart's The Wicked Day.
Stewart's first three Arthurian novels (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment) were about Merlin, who I find the least interesting of the major characters. There's something ineffably smug about him as he toys with destinies and then fails so spectacularly he takes Camelot down with him. In a sense he's the Karl Rove or James Carville of the Arthurian world (or maybe Lee Atwater, if you want to stretch a point), and a novel with that approach might be fun. As it is, and despite Stewart's skill, after three books I was ready to seal Merlin in a cave myself.
But Stewart switches gears entirely for The Wicked Day. This novel is about Mordred, Arthur's bastard son by his half-sister Morgause. Unlike the first-person narration of the prior books, this one is in third person, so all the characters we've previously seen through Merlin's eyes are now shown from a different perspective. Stewart makes Mordred a complex, driven but honest young man who both fights his destiny and embraces it. His relationship with his father is fascinating, since both know of Merlin's prophecy that Mordred will bring down Arthur's kingdom, and yet they forge a close friendship.
The first time I read the book, I admit I was disappointed in the ending. Not that it was a surprise: it's the ending that the Arthurian legend must have, one way or another. But up until then Stewart had fleshed out the characters and situations so well that the inexplicable events actually came to make sense. And then comes the final battle at Camlann, where Arthur and Mordred meet, and die. Instead of giving us their final confrontation, held in a futile attempt to make peace, she retreats and falls back on:
None of those watching was ever destined to know what Arthur and Mordred spoke of.
(first edition, p. 302)
This sudden distance from the climactic moment is jarring, and when I first read it, it well and truly pissed me off. I felt cheated, all the more so because I loved the rest of the book. For years I called it "99.9 percent of a good book."
But as time passed (and I made my own run at Arthurian-ish characters) I realized her choice made sense. No matter what she came up with for this climactic scene, it pales next to the weight of a thousand years of legend. By leaving this moment to the reader's imagination, she gives the story the sense of inevitability and tragedy that a more literal depiction could never have done. Ultimately it doesn't matter what they said, because the end of the story was written by Fate long before either Mordred or Arthur came along.
So I've come to fully love The Wicked Day, to the point that I'll probably never attempt a straight Arthurian novel. And besides, Dark Jenny covers all the bases I wanted to touch. It's my Camelot, skewed and tweaked to fit in the world of Eddie LaCrosse, sword jockey.