Here Lies Arthur was well worth the wait. After Myrddin the bard rescues young Gwyna from the aftermath of one of war-band leader Arthur’s slash-and-burn raids, she is transformed from a slave who just tried to get through each day to a person who suddenly has the opportunity and perspective to think about the world around her and even to change the course of events.
It starts with a cliché of many historical novels with strong female characters – Gwyna must be disguised as a boy, not only to ensure her safety in a rough, male-dominated world, but also to conceal the fact that she took part in a Myrddin-designed ruse to convince Arthur’s soldiers and enemies that the Lady of the Lake (little Gwyna, actually) gifted him with an ancient and powerful sword.
Although Gwyna is forced by her own growing body and by circumstance to change from Gwyn to Gwyna and back again several times, this is not the focus of the tale. Rather, it is Gwyna’s observations of Arthur’s small fiefdom, of the ways of its men and women, and most of all of the way people see mainly what they expect to see that form the backdrop of this tale. There are some small and brutal battles, but mainly Gwyna is able (as a girl) to avoid being in the thick of these. However, what she can’t avoid is the knowledge that the kingly, heroic Arthur created by Myrddin’s songs and tales is very different from the actual power-hungry, thoughtless Arthur who lives to hunt and raid.
Myrddin wants to be a king-maker, not through any desire for power of his own but because his own childhood, spent as a Saxon slave after his village was destroyed, convinced him of the urgent necessity for safety and order in Britain. Myrddin is smart and clear-eyed – he knows that Arthur is just as brutish and short-sighted as any other petty leader of an insignificant warband. However, his status as the son of Uther is one advantage Arthur has, and the other is having Myrddin as his advisor. Myrddin has a keen understanding of human nature and politics, and he hopes that the legends he spreads throughout Britain will take on a life of their own and sweep the real, less-than-perfect Arthur along with them until all of Britain is united and strong under his rule.
That nothing quite works out as Myrddin plans, and that he has to set in motion several nefarious schemes in order to get closer to his grand goal, is one of the tragedies of the book. Not only do people lose their lives and loves, but his plan fails – and Gwyna is disillusioned in her old mentor, who she discovers too late has always loved her like a father.
The tension between the relatively new Christian religion and the old gods is underscored in many key ways throughout the book, with Myrddin providing a third (and very modern-feeling) perspective with his disbelieving and cynical views. To believe in nothing is freedom, he says, as he isn’t shackled by the fear and superstition that hamper other people and thus he can manipulate them more easily.
Gwyna’s story was so engrossing and so vividly told that I was absolutely bereft when she and her companion buy passage on a ship called Hope, “outbound for somewhere better.” I want to know what she does next and what her life is like. Whether she becomes a wandering bard herself or finds a safe croft in which to settle down and raise a family, I’m sure Gwyna will continue to observe the world around her closely and to come to her own conclusions.
Highly recommended for grades 5 and up.