T. H. White’s The Once and Future King was one of the trio of formative reading experiences at about age ten for me (along with the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and ever since I read it, I’ve been an avid reader of anything Arthurian. Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy, in which the primary character is Gwalchmai (Bradshaw’s version of Gawaine), begins with Hawk of May, in which the young Gwalchmai grows up a semi-outcast at the court of his father Lot, in Orkney. Bradshaw eliminates two of the Orkney brothers of most legend (bye, Gareth and Gaheris) and has Gwalchmai as the middle child between the somewhat loutish warrior Agravaine, and the child Medraut (Mordred). Lot favors Agravaine, and despises Gwalchmai for his love of music and his different style of fighting, which makes Gwalchmai susceptible to his mother Morgause’s desire to teach him dark magic. The first half of the book details Gwalchmai’s struggles with his darker self while the second half focuses on his desire to join Arthur’s band of warriors and fight beside them.
The first time I read this novel, I was focused on the poetry of Bradshaw’s language (which is lovely) and I think that clouded my memory of some of the things I don’t love about the novel – I don’t think Bradshaw does a great job of incorporating the supernatural into her determinedly historical take on Arthur (there’s a voyage to the court of Lugh that I just found a bit much to take this time around) and Gwalchmai goes from being kind of a klutz to being a brilliant warrior a little too quickly. Still, it’s a wonderful version of the legend, Gwalchmai is extremely appealing as a hero, and Morgause is genuinely terrifying. This one’s a keeper, and I’m planning to re-read the other two books of the trilogy whenever I can steel myself to the inevitable tragedy that attends all versions of Arthur’s legend.
(Read from January 13-14, 2013)