John James – The Fourth Gwenevere

johnjames-thefourthgwenevereGwenevere, Arthur’s Saxon wife, is a problem. As the dynastic cement between the British and the Saxons, her marriage to Arthur will result in a child that will unite both sides. At least, that would have been the plan, had the Great Duke Arthur not died and left the petty kings of Britain to squabble over his title.

Only Morvran, Arthur’s chief fixer, has the wit to see that the Fourth Gwenevere is the key to maintaining a crumbling peace. But when she is abducted, it seems that all hopes might disappear with her.

For, in a world where swords and horses have names of honour, where poets speak as oracles of a shifting truth and the raiding of Saxon warriors is set to ruin Britain, perhaps it’s only the Fourth Gwenevere herself who has the real solution?

I’ve always loved Arthurian tales, or the Matter of Britain to give them their proper name, ever since I first read an adaptation when I was a little girl and just reading on my own. When I was just a teen I loved The Mists of Avalon and I read many variations and retellings in the years since. Thus a book that is titled The Fourth Gwenevere immediately grabs my attention. The Fourth Gwenevere however isn’t a straight retelling of the Arthur legend as we know it – the sword in the stone, the round table, Lancelot and Gwenevere and so on – but the tale of what happens after Arthur is taken to Avalon and the kingdom has to go on without him. And it’s not the tale you might have expected.  

The novel’s structure is interesting. The chapters, which are themselves divided into numbered sections, are interleaved with interludes from the fourth Gwenevere’s perspective. The interludes create the impression that what the main narrative leads us to believe might not be necessarily true. James’ prose in The Fourth Gwenevere took a little getting used to at first. His love and familiarity with the Matter of Britain and other early medieval texts and legends shines through his writing. It was somewhat evocative of the Mabinogion in its choices of stylistic devices, such as describing things in three, up to and including Arthur’s previous three wives, who were a triad of Gweneveres. The fourth Gwenevere is explicitly said to carry the name as a title—it’s not her true name. Yet she is one of the few who isn’t named in the enumerative style so familiar from the Mabinogion, though to be fair he doesn’t take entire pages just to list names.

Perhaps due to this acclimatisation period The Fourth Gwenevere suffered something of a slow start. The narrative only picks up when we move beyond Arthur’s death and burial. While the tale we are told up to that point is not the saga we’re familiar with, it does contain all the usual staples and it is only after James moves beyond this point that the story comes into its own. James devised a wonderful alternate Arthur, who is not the shining, virtuous paragon of legend. Instead he’s a leader of men and a do-er of great deeds, but not a peace-time king and he certainly isn’t above taking advantage of his station. All the familiar elements of Arthur’s tale are there only they are just a little twisted.

All of this is related to the reader by Morvran, king of Gwent and Arthur’s fixer. He gives an interesting point of via on the Arthurian court as he saw it, which isn’t always very flattering to the king or his subjects. I loved the fact that the reader is essentially told that the way we know the tale is propaganda, because ‘Who will fight for the memory of a pig stealer?’ Combined with the content of the interludes James creates a subtle commentary on the malleability of truth through storytelling or as Kian puts it: ‘What has poetry to do with the truth?’ I found this a fascinating theme to the story and one that comes through quite strongly.

Additionally, there is quite a bit of social commentary on the isolationism found in many island cultures and perhaps on British colonialism as well. Mostly this is shown when Morvran and his band cross the Channel and have to interact with the people they encounter abroad, but it’s also present in their attitude towards the Saxons or Heathens as they refer to them. Most of this is conveyed in the guise of humour, but the chuckle is more at the expense of Morvran’s group than that of the people they address. For example, Morvran is openly dismissive of the innovations introduced by the Romans such as paved roads and brick houses, stating that their own wattle-and-daub huts are more than good enough.

In general there is a humorous tone to the narrative, not for comedic value, but just Morvran’s wry personality shining through his first person narration. There is at times also something of the absurd to the narrative in the sudden inclusion of something wondrous or weird. At one point, after swearing an oath, the Saxon Oslaf pulls an adder, a hare and several pigeon eggs from his pouch and proceeds to slaughter and crush them to seal his promise. While completely nonsensical – for who carries all of that in his pouch at all times, just in case? – these events harken back to the traditional stories and also provide a laugh.

Despite the slow start to the narrative and the shift in tone between sections, which could be due to the way this book came about, The Fourth Gwenevere was a lovely book. Its story is suitably adventurous and exciting and for anyone with the slightest interest in the Matter of Britain this entertaining tale is recommended reading.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.