8 characters from Arthurian literature


Okay, sure: who’s fascinating from Arthurian legends? The right author can make any character fascinating. The Lady of Shalott became interesting when Loreena McKennitt sang the poem — before that, I didn’t find her interesting.

IMO, the best Arthurian retelling is Mary Stewart’s — I know I’ve said so before right here, I think rather recently. Her characters are the ones I know the best. Who there do I find most fascinating?

Well, Nimue. Mary Stewart does a really intriguing Nimue. Maybe that’s one reason I named my puppy Nimue — the other reason is of course that I named the other puppy Morgan Le Fey. My Morgan does not really deserve that name, I will say: she is a very easy, non-evil puppy.

Anyway, Morgan Le Fey gets almost nothing from Mary Stewart. Very boring character. She is much more interesting in almost any other retelling.

I find Uthur and Ygraine pretty boring. Wild passion and betraying your vows and all that, not my thing. Ditto for Lancelot and Guinevere. In Mary Stewart’s version, almost all the more minor characters interested me more.

Well, okay, let’s stop here and look at the Book Riot post. Whom do they pick?

Ah hah! Morgan Le Fey, right at the top. Nimue is the fourth — I figured she’d be here somewhere.

Most of the other characters picked out for this list are important figures in the legend. Mordred. Mary Stewart did a great Mordred. I don’t care for anyone else’s portrayal — wait, yes I do, Elizabeth Wein’s take in The Winter Prince! That is the BEST Mordred in Arthurian retellings. Talk about fascinating! And conflicted! You probably already know this, but wow does Elizabeth Wein go way, way off canon in the rest of her so-called Arthurian series. Despite the Arthurian connection, I do prefer to think of them as the Lion Hunter series.

Okay, last on the Book Riot list: Elaine of Astolat. I don’t believe she appeared in Stewart’s version. She sort of got subsumed into the Lady of Shalott, I guess. Anyway, call her Elaine and this very odd novel by CJC springs to mind, adjacent to Arthurian retellings.

Here’s the description for Port Eternity:

Their names were Lancelot, Elaine, Percivale, Gawain, Modred, Lynette and Vivien, but they were not characters from legend. They were made people, clone servants designed to suit the fancy of their opulent owner, the Lady Dela Kirn. And they worked aboard the Maid, an anachronistic fantasy of a spaceship, decorated with swords, heraldic banners, old-looking beams masking the structural joints, and lamps that mimicked live flame. They lived in a kind of dream, and had no idea of their origins, their prototypes in those old, old story tapes of romance, chivalry, heroism and betrayal. Until a wandering instability, a knot in time, a ripple in the between sucked them into a spatial no-man’s-land from which there seemed to be no escape. And they were left alone, with the borrowed personas of their ancient namesakes, to face a crisis those venerable spirits were never designed to master.

Who’s read it? Obviously it’s in the Alliance / Union universe, obviously the characters are mostly azi. Only Lady Dela and her current lover are born-men. Then the situation goes way sideways. If you’ve read it, what did you think? Elaine is the point-of-view character in that one, and come to think of it, this is another great portrayal of a sympathetic Mordred. I guess that is one factor that makes an Arthurian retelling work for me.

Also, we have of course by working on back cover copy, so what do you think of this description? I think it’s pretty good, except the “venerable spirits” line, which strikes me as pretty stupid. No matter what fictional character an azi is modeled on, that azi does not have a venerable spirit.

It’s been a good long time since I read Port Eternity. It’s not one of my favorites, though actually I’ve always kind of liked it. I’ve been re-reading this month while working on other stuff. Maybe I should take this one off the shelf and give it another try.

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6 thoughts on “8 characters from Arthurian literature”

  1. I’ve read Port Eternity . I remember being discombobulated – probably by trying to fit the Arthurian stuff into a standard retelling – then I stopped doing that and kind of liked it. But it’s been a long long time since I read it. As I recall, the azi tried to behave as their names suggested they do, and got more so when everything went sideways. By then end they really were honorable knights and whatnots. Which is where the bcc got the ‘venerable spirits’ bit, I suppose.

    It benefited from a reread after I let go of Arthurian retelling expectations.

    Book Riot brings in Grail characters. I’ve never thought the Grail story was very well integrated – it seems like an add-on. And Galahad is boring. Percival is extremely irritating to spend time with, but he’s not boring.

  2. Arthurian characters are really too unstable over time to speak of the character without going into the particular work(s).

  3. Mary Stewart was my first “grown up” Arthuriana, when I was probably 10 or 12 — I didn’t read Malory or T.H. White until a few years later. So I imprinted heavily on Stewart’s Myrddin Emrys, and all the Romano-British influences. I read THE CRYSTAL CAVE so often I still have parts of it memorized.

    Rosemary Sutcliff’s SWORD AT SUNSET is another gorgeous and bittersweet Romano-British retelling, though she also did a much more straightforward trilogy for children, starting with THE SWORD AND THE CIRCLE. Just as gorgeously written as all her books were, of course. And Gillian Bradshaw’s Gwalchmai trilogy, starting with HAWK OF MAY.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the Orkney boys, Gawain and especially Gareth. Lancelot… much less so. T.H. White tried to make him interesting and only half-succeeded.

    I’ve never finished PORT ETERNITY despite trying several times. Like HELLBURNER and HEAVY TIME, it’s one of those Cherryh books that gives me a headache and a strong sense of claustrophobia.

  4. Kathryn McConaughy

    I love Arthur retellings but my favorites are still the MG series by Gerald Morris. Best Gawain (and Gaheris) ever. Great comfort reads. (Except the last two. I really hoped Morris would break the canon on the ending but he didn’t.)

  5. I really enjoyed the Paladins series by Joel rose berg he wrote 2 books in it before he passed. It’s sets in the 17th century but one where Arthur and Camelot lost and its mordred and morgana that are remembered as the heroes so “reason”
    Technology mainly gun powder, cannons ext don’t exist but magic is still around though dying , while most of the Arthurian characters aren’t around morgana still is and she is portrayed sympathetically it’s a interesting series in a lot of ways and my favourite, sort of/kind of retelling of the Arthurian myth since it’s pretty much taking the adage the victor writes the history and applies it to the old fantasy legend a lot of readers mileage seemed to vary with it for that reason ie they thought the premise of the book was the evil empire won but Rosenberg positioned it more as simply different people won with all the good and bad that comes with it.

    I don’t remember much of the Mary Stewart books but I do remember loving her version of mordred and Susan Cooper incorpates a lot of the Arthurian myths, including Arthur and Merlin, into her dark is rising series which I love.

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