“A thing that cannot be done without dishonour is not worth doing. The citizens of Heaven never have to choose between two evils.”
Some time ago I stumbled across Suzannah’s website and, intrigued by her posts, looked up her books. Pendragon’s Heir caught my attention, so when I had money, and my mother had done some research on the book to make sure it was worth spending money on without having read it first, I bought it. I’m picky about fantasy and even more so about anything to do with Arthur.
I wasn’t disappointed. Rowntree’s writing style kept close to the language of the old romances, and I like that she didn’t belabour the travel element too much — didn’t try to pin it down to a particular time period and find the “real” Arthur and all that, but set it instead in the world of the old romances, which gives a little more room to work around problems of time travel — you can call it travelling between worlds instead, and avoid half the problems that come up, although it’s hard to explain how something in a different world had so much direct influence on the history of ours. But it being in a different world helps ease the suspension of disbelief. The writing style is in the fashion of the older tradition, which is good; a modern voice and approach would be all out of place here. Some reviews have complained about the density of the tone, or the lagging and episodic middle. This is actually in keeping with the Arthurian legendarium, with its emphasis on quests and tale-telling, and not a fault at all. The whole reads as a fitting finish to Arthur’s legend, and the hope it brings to the ending, though it doesn’t water down the sadness, is not amiss. The plot twists which are responsible for it are, naturally, spoilers, and I won’t go into much detail. I knew by the time I finished the first chapter that I would stay up late to finish it, but I didn’t read it all in one sitting. I spread it out over three days, for the evenings after school. And I did stay up late, for me: nine forty-five at night.
You’ll want to have some knowledge of the legends before you read Pendragon’s Heir, or things like Sarras will confuse you to no end. If you have a general idea of who Arthur and Guenivere and Lancelot and Morgana and Mordred were, you shouldn’t get too lost, but you’ll be better able to appreciate the story if you can find the allusions to other works. This semester in my British Literature class we read part of the Faerie Queene, which I am very glad for, because immediately afterward I read Pendragon’s Heir and a lot of things made much more sense than they otherwise would have. The atmosphere of the story is just right. It feels like the real world of the Arthurian romances. And you don’t get much better than Chesterton for epigraphs. For one of my classes I was supposed to memorize and recite a poem, and wasn’t finding anything, but one of the epigraphs caught my eye, so I chased it down, and so discovered the Ballad of the White Horse, a portion of which (including that verse) I later recited.
The characters. Every one of them feels real, even the side characters. From Blanche herself to Lynet. (I love how Gareth and Lynet get along. . . such a married couple.) Perceval. He’s almost perfect — he has his faults — he grows through the course of the story — and he and Blanche complement each other. Blanche has her faults too, but they’re so ordinary, if that makes sense, that you don’t notice her selfishness until somebody else mentions it. And she learns so much. You can’t help loving Gawain, even with all his faults. Nerys. Branwen and Heilyn. Arthur and Guinevere. Morgan I thought an excellent villain, until Mordred came along; now he is a villain without peer. Agravaine and Simon Corbin are interesting ambiguous characters, and that’s all I’ll say there, for the sake of not spoiling the thing.
The moral dilemma at the end! I must not and will not spoil this, but let us say Suzannah set a very tangly choice before her characters and didn’t err on the side of the tidy and clean deus ex machina a lot of Christian writers seem to think they have to have, lest they show the darkness as having any strength. I was in serious doubt that any of the good folk would survive.
For all that is at stake throughout the book, it does have lighter spots and times where you almost think things are going to be all right. It has some humour too.
“This? This is the Siege Perilous. Never sit in it, as you value your life.” Sir Gareth kicked away the seat on the other side of the Siege Perilous (it was labelled Sir Bors) and sat on the Table. . . “Anyone else who sits there — fzzt, he turns to flame and ash.”
The table is the Table, the Table Round. And the Knight sits on it. But when the Queen comes in he gets off :).
Percival supplies a lot of the witty lines, and some unintentional humour (such as requesting help with his gorget when he’s trying to put on an Edwardian shirt-collar). The dragon-fight and Gareth’s presentation of the heads are funny scenes as well.
The ideas in this story are some of the best parts, and they aren’t overdone or preachy. I’m pre-millennial myself, but I have to admit the post-millennial worldview fits better with the Arthurian world. But that’s not the only thing that lingers in your mind after reading.
Once, she had turned up her nose at Christine de Pisan’s recommendation that a lady ought to know the use of weapons. Now she stood in danger of her life, and by her ignorance was more likely to injure herself than her enemy. Ah, the freedom of being a modern woman in this age. Not for us the backwardness of the medieval era, when women were no better than chattel and expected to clean and sweep the house all day. . . what? Medieval women were supposed to know how to use weapons? Well, yes, actually; who else is going to defend the house when the men are away?
“How will such sinful people as your father, and my father, build this?” And she threw out her arms to encompass Sarras.
[. . .] lifted his face to the cathedral. “We cannot.”
Tears prickled her eyes. “Then why were we put on the earth?”
“To build Sarras.” He smiled when he saw her blank perplexity. “It is no contradiction. Our inability does not excuse us. But hammer and nails need not be perfect, if they are wielded by a perfect workman.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Can any workman use such crooked, broken things?” But her words fell unheeded in the warm air. The street was empty.
One of the best things about this little conversation is that Suzannah doesn’t supply the answer. She lets it go. In the end, I think, she shows the answer, but she doesn’t stoop to the easy way out, of sticking in a platitude where it would be most unsatisfying to anyone not yet convinced.
I can’t quote it because of spoilers, but Perceval’s speech about being able to wait to marry was one of the things that most endeared me to him. In Christian circles the girls are often pressed to marry, the boys not so much, and when Prince Charming does come along, the expectation is that you don’t waste any time. You snap him up, or he snaps you up, and you drop school or whatever plans you had that depended on a single life, and get married. Don’t make him wait. You might stretch his patience too far.
Well, to that I reply, If he’s not got the discipline to be willing to wait for what he wants, he’s not worth having. He can go be a lonely bachelor until he learns better. The contrast between Perceval’s longing (with patience) and some other people’s greed (without patience) was not preachy, but it made a point we need to hear more of. And it was at this point that you realize how much Perceval has learned about dealing with women, ever since the encounter in the pavilion, where patience and standing on ceremony were nowhere in his mind.
I could go on and on about the ideas in the story, but for most of them you’ll just have to read and find out for yourself. I happened to read Pendragon’s Heir right before my first encounters, in person, with Postmodernists. I had always known vaguely what Postmodernism is, and that it’s the prevailing worldview today, but I had not previously had a conversation with one about worldviews. Then at a bonfire I walked up to an innocent stranger and plunged, or was plunged, into a debate on abortion. A couple of hours later, surrounded by some half-dozen church members she had not been properly introduced to, the girl and her friend (who had both been invited to the bonfire on purely friendly motives), finally confessed that they didn’t believe in absolute truth; and when faced with the implications of that, could see no inconsistency. Progress, Evolution, the ends justifying the means — these came up over and over again. Then it was time for the election, and debates over situational ethics and whether a battle that cannot be won without treachery and dishonour is worth winning. This week alone I’ve debated two other Postmodernists about their worldviews and morality (if anybody else says we can’t be certain of anything, or belief in evolution is not inconsistent with Christianity, or that truth is determined by society, or that abortion is permissible in cases where the foetus, or baby, or whatever you’d like to call it, cannot survive outside its mother’s womb, pardon me while I go off and scream somewhere).
I bring this up because I read Pendragon’s Heir at a providential time. The moral dilemmas, the arguments from the enemies, the tests in Pendragon’s Heir, all related somehow to what I’ve been talking about. Before I could prove to the first postmodernist that even a child born in a third-world country has some hope of a decent life, I had prove that anybody at all has hope. We can’t build Sarras on earth; but in some way, that’s what we’re here for. Before I could prove that Christians have no business voting for either of the major candidates, I had to prove that heroes can defeat villains with nothing but the purest chivalric ideals, that heroes do exist, and villains are not a fanciful tale for children, that a battle which cannot be won without dishonour is not worth winning. Before I could prove to the latest Postmodernist that Progress cannot be society’s aim, and that though we don’t live in a perfect world our obligation is not to burn it and start over, I had to prove that there is an ideal for society that exists, interestingly enough, outside of society.
One final quote. I’m a junior at a secular university, a liberal place like all the rest of them. My minor is Philosophy. I’m a Christian, a young woman, and I was home-schooled all my life until two years ago. Sometimes people hint that I’m brainwashed.
Mordred turned back to Blanchefleur with a thin smile. “It shocks you, Blanche. You have listened too long to the voices of priests and dreamers. They’ve brought you to heel. You were not always so easily led.”
Blanchefleur thought, “I sit here defying you and all the peers of my age, and I am easily led?”
When I first read that I inwardly cheered.
So in case you’ve read this far and still aren’t sure what I think of this book, go buy it yourself and read it — it’s really good. I’ve read it more than once myself. Oh, and the cover’s lovely too.