Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review: The Return of Sir Percival

The legends of King Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, and the knights of the round table have all been written. The cast of characters was set long ago and so has their rise and their fall. The promise that King Arthur will come again when there is great need is a promise as old as the legends of Merlin and his powers until now. Camlann was not the end of Arthur or his knights or the enduring legacy of chivalry and adventure nor are the legends entombed with Arthur on the Blessed Isle or with Merlin locked away in the tree where Nimue bound him at Morgana le Fey's behest. There is more yet to be told.

We are all familiar with the story of how Mordred broke the fellowship of the Round Table and how Guinevere took her vows and remains a nun in the service of God while Lancelot roams the world in search of the Holy Grail ever out of his reach as he does eternal penance. The table was broken and all that remains are legends about the nine ladies who escorted King Arthur to rest on the Isle of Avalon and bright Excalibur returned to the Lady of the Lake. All that remains is shadow and the dream of Camelot and, according to S. Alexander O'Keefe, The Return of Sir Percival who was sent on a quest to find the Holy Grail.

In O'Keefe's version of the end of Albion, Sir Percival returns to England after ten years a man seeking the peace and comfort of home without the Grail. Sir Percival knows that the Round Table and King Arthur are no more. All is gone and he missed his chance to fight alongside King Arthur and die protecting his king. He failed his king and returns a changed man, scarred in pursuit of his quest and even more devout in his faith than when he left.

Sir Percival brings a companion, a black warrior, Capussa, the likes of which no one in Albion has ever seen. Expecting peace and quiet, Sir Percival instead finds Saxon and Norse raiders preying on the people and peace and quiet must be won by force of arms even as they cross the channel. Sir Percival's battle is not yet over. He must free the land of invaders and Queen Guinevere in exile in the Abbey Cwm Hir and restore the queen to her throne. The journey he intended to finish in quiet retirement still has long to go before he lays down his arms.

It didn't take long to put aside all I thought I knew of the Arthurian legends set in stone as I began to follow O'Keefe's vision of life after Camelot. At first I was disconcerted and unwilling to accept this new version of the gilded dream of Camelot, Arthur, and Guinevere. Disappointment quickly gave way to growing excitement as I followed Sir Percival's path. I enjoyed Capussa's bluff and ready wit and Sir Percival's economic dispatch of the Saxon marauders. Morgana, I soon learned, was not Arthur's half sister, but a Roman sorceress from Constantinople sent to plunder Albion of its silver for Roman coffers and the people to feed the slave markets of the Empire. Merlin, also of Rome, had disappeared and Morgana was not the only one intent on discover where he had gone to ground after Camlann.

One knight remained, Sir Gawain, hidden by black armor and in forced service to Morgana, her war master. How had a knight of Arthur's round table come to ally himself with the king's greatest enemy? So much was changed, and not for the worse.

O'Keefe's vision of Albion after the fall of Camelot is truly unique, not only in the retelling, but in what happens after the fall of the Once and Future King and his company. Guinevere is no longer the unfaithful wife of Arthur nor Lancelot her lover, having betrayed Arthur and forfeiting his honor. The tragic tale of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is quite different from what has been accepted as the thread of truth in the legend and rendered in new colors with a very different and promising future.

Guinevere is a queen in exile attended by two women, a wild young noblewoman not too shy to speak her mind and an aging nun. She rules her kingdom through a bishop stealing from her to enrich himself. King Arthur's wife died in childbirth and the king's marriage to Guinevere was a political alliance. Lancelot is a proud knight jealous of his fame, a bit of a taskmaster and Gawain a handsome womanizer often drunk. Only Percival seems true to the legends but only because not much was written about him. He is young, a proven general, who taught the peasants to fight in the Roman manner, and who it turns out is secretly in love with Guinevere, as was Gawain.

The battles and character of the rest of Camelot's denizens take on a wholly different aspect and are richly described in this new version and may more closely resemble the history of the time and place where the man who becomes the Arthur of legend actually lived. The Return of Sir Percival gives new life and a brighter prospect to the legend that is a delight for romantics and students of battle tactics and warfare. O'Keefe has even imagined a greater destiny for the Grail and a story that adds texture and depth. The Return of Sir Percival is well written and well imagined, peopled with nuanced characters and set squarely within the history of the struggle for Britain's identity. A solid effort that adds luster to the Arthurian legends to delight a whole new generation of followers, 5/5 stars.

That is all. Disperse.

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