The legions of Rome are a fading memory. Enemies stalk the fringes of Britain. And Uther Pendragon is dying. Into this fractured and uncertain world the boy is cast, a refugee from fire, murder and betrayal. An outsider whose only companions are a hateful hawk and memories of the lost.
Yet he is gifted, and under the watchful eyes of Merlin and the Lady Nimue he will hone his talents and begin his journey to manhood. He will meet Guinevere, a wild, proud and beautiful girl, herself outcast because of her gift. And he will be dazzled by Arthur, a warrior who carries the hopes of a people like fire in the dark. But these are times of struggle and blood, when even friendship and love seem doomed to fail.
The gods are vanishing beyond the reach of dreams. Treachery and jealousy rule men’s hearts and the fate of Britain itself rests on a sword’s edge. But the young renegade who left his home in Benoic with just a hunting bird and dreams of revenge is now a lord of war. He is a man loved and hated, admired and feared. A man forsaken but not forgotten. He is Lancelot.
Lancelot is the first Giles Kristian book I’ve read and it won’t be the last as I definitely have my eye on his Viking sagas. Of course, the story of Lancelot is a familiar one to anyone aware of the legends of King Arthur but it is certainly intriguing to read the story from a different point of view. The problem is Kristian spends more than half the book concentrating on Lancelot’s childhood and his time on the Mount so when he finally becomes part of Arthur’s world the rest of the book feels cramped. When I first started reading the book, it felt more like the first book in a series so I was willing to forgive the slow pace as Lancelot grew into manhood and I think it is a real pity more attention wasn’t given to Lancelot’s time as the renowned warrior we know he becomes.
Lancelot is only eight when his family are murdered in a scene worthy of an episode of Game of Thrones but he is rescued by Lady Nimue who insists he is special and she takes him to Karrek Loos y’n Koos (St. Michael’s Mount), a small island in Mount’s Bay, Cornwall. Lady Nimue operates a sanctuary where men send their daughters to be trained in the old ways before they are returned to their families for marriage. Alongside, a band of grizzled warriors train young boys so they can dedicate the rest of their lives to Lady Nimue and become Guardians of the Mount. When Lancelot first arrives, he spends the first couple of years watching the older boys train while he spends most of his time running wild on the island and nurturing his sparhawk.
Although Lancelot is initially smaller than the other boys, he shows great physical prowess and often beats them in races which makes enemies out of the older ones. Lancelot does not begin his actual warrior training until Merlin visits the island and insists on it but the storyline jumps ahead by four years so we are not privy to the training he undergoes. Just before this happens, Lancelot rescues Guinevere from drowning and is immediately enchanted with her beauty. Guinevere has been sent to the island to train with Lady Nimue as she has the gift, although we are not made privy about the actual nature of her gifts other than she can journey out of her body. Everyone who sees Guinevere falls in love with her, especially Lancelot, and the two become lovers before she is recalled home.
Lancelot’s time on the Mount is quite frustrating because we are constantly reminded about how gifted he is but we never really get the chance to see it and Lancelot himself is ignorant to the real reasons why Lady Nimue and Merlin are so interested in him. However, being familiar with the legend of Arthur allows you to fill in a few of the blanks for yourself but I felt it could have been explored a little bit more.
When eighteen-year-old Lancelot finally leaves the Mount for Tintagel where King Uther is dying, he is unaware his fate is now tied to Arthur and is confused when the other warriors seem to know who he is even though he is untested in battle. Uther and Merlin force Lancelot to swear an oath to protect Arthur who is not immediately accepted as the next king as he has been absent from Britain for a long time. Knowing he has to prove himself, Arthur avoids proclaiming himself as king after Uther’s death and concentrates on proving himself as a warrior by repelling the Saxon forces. To underline his right to be king, Merlin advises Arthur to seek Excalibur, the legendary sword once wielded by the Roman Maximus who succeeded in ruling a united Britain, and is being hidden by the Picts.
The search for Excalibur is Arthur and Lancelot’s first adventure together and they travel north to the Antonine Wall which was a particular thrill for me as we have remnants of that Wall running through my hometown. Having been confined to the environs of Cornwall to this point, it was interesting to see the rest of the country which is still so dominated by the detritus of the Roman era. Most of the kingdoms in Britain aren’t interested in being under the rule of one king even with the ongoing threat from the Saxons so Arthur has his work cut out. It is important to point out here than Arthur and his men are mostly a decade older than Lancelot and are seasoned warriors so it was difficult for me to understand why they were so taken with Lancelot who is still inexperienced at this stage. I would have liked to have seen evidence of Arthur taking Lancelot under his wing more and teaching him to hone his skills.
Arthur and Lancelot’s kinship is forged so quickly but it soon reaches breaking point with the arrival of Guinevere. Lancelot and Guinevere choose to keep their previous time at the Mount a secret which backfires badly when an enemy of Lancelot’s arrives and quickly spills the beans. Dismayed another man is in love with his wife, Arthur sends Lancelot to Gaul to fulfil an old debt and to bring the rest of his warriors to Britain. However, a heartbroken Lancelot ends up staying in Gaul for the next eight years where he establishes himself as a renowned warrior although we don’t get to see what he’s been doing for all those years. Lancelot’s time in Gaul comes to an end when Arthur sends Guinevere to bring him home as things are going badly for Arthur and he needs his best warrior at his side.
Of course, it doesn’t take long before Lancelot betrays Arthur with Guinevere, however the couple can be excused as they think Arthur is dead and they come together in their grief. Lancelot’s downfall is swift as the rest of the warriors turn against him but Arthur chooses to blame Guinevere by accusing her of witchcraft which is rather disappointing. Although Guinevere is rescued from the stake by Lancelot, she rewards him by disappearing and time jumps forward again to the point where Lancelot is raising his son, Galahad, who will have an important part to play in the Arthurian legends. The end is rather abrupt with Arthur’s dispirited forces facing defeat at the hand of the Saxons but the knights are suddenly given renewed purpose by the arrival of Lancelot. All has been forgiven it seems.
I wish I could say I got a real sense of who Lancelot was from this novel but I’m afraid I didn’t. I never understood why Lancelot was considered to be so special, even when Merlin and Lady Nimue tried to explain it to Lancelot towards the end of the novel. Lancelot seems to end up doing the opposite of everything he was meant to do because he saved Guinevere’s life when he was supposed to let her die. Poor Guinevere is set up to be the harbinger of doom even though she has little choice in her life.
Of course, the book strips away all the magic from the tale, setting it into a more realistic historical landscape which is where Kristian really excels. Much of Arthur’s legendary prowess is lost though as Lancelot is obviously not there to witness it and he is very much portrayed as an ordinary man intent on an impossible task. We all know the tide is against Arthur though and it will take the might of another king, Alfred the Great, to sow the seeds for a united England. While this book may not have done it for me, Kristian is a good historical writer and I’m still really excited about reading Kristian’s Viking sagas.