The Camulod Chronicles: The History behind Arthur’s Legend
Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles are for the most part impressive: revisionist accounts of Arthur's Britain without any appeals to the supernatural, gritty historical fiction on par with Parke Godwin's reworking of the Robin Hood legends. And just as Godwin pushed his hero back a century, so does Whyte. His Arthur is based on the documented figure known as the Riothamus, "High King" of the Britons/Bretons in the fifth century, who campaigned and died overseas in Gaul. A Romanized figure, in other words, quite unlike most reconstructions of Arthur placed in the sixth century and with a more Celtic flavor. Geoffrey Ashe was the first scholar to make the connection between Riothamus and Arthur, and Whyte's novels are heavily indebted to Ashe. There's as much oddly persuasive about an Arthur who knew Germanus of Auxerre as a Robin Hood who suffered under William the Conqueror, and in my view is the best interpretation to date of the once and future king.
The first two books are narrated by Publius Varrus, describing how he and Caius Britannicus, both military veterans, established an independent Colony in southwestern Britain and prepared for the inevitable day when the Roman legions would depart Britain. It starts with the fall of Hadrian's Wall in 367 and ends with the founding of Camulod ("Camelot") at the turn of the century.
The next four books are narrated by Meryln Britannicus, describing how he and his cousin Uther Pendragon became Legate Commander of Camulod and King of Wales, respectively, and how Merlyn raised Arthur to manhood after Uther's death. It begins with the Roman evacuation of Britain at the start of the century at culminates with Arthur's coronation as the Riothamus of Britain in 449, when he pulls the sword from the stone.
The last two books are narrated by Clothar of Benwick ("Lancelot"), a student of the historical Germanus of Auxerre, describing how he was sent to Britain and became Arthur's closest friend and confidant. It begins in Gaul around the middle of the fifth century and ends with the collapse of Arthur's kingdom to Saxon forces in the 470s.
The scope of the series is nothing short of amazing, and shows what historical fiction can do in the hands of a good storyteller. Whyte gives us the Arthurian legend in all of its gritty and unromanticized detail, and makes us think, yes, this is the way some of the legend could have really happened.
It's all the more disappointing, therefore, to have to point out how bad the last two books are, how they failed to meet expectations and live up to the standards of the previous six. The narrations of Publius and Merlyn are well-written, engaging, with clear purpose and direction. Those of Lancelot are anything but, and you'd almost never guess they were written by the same author. Let's see why.
Publius and Merlyn are compelling and flawed heroes. We like them even when we dislike them, and their ordeals become ours. Publius cheats on his wife and betrays a friend. Merlyn thinks he's better than everyone, especially Uther whom he wrongly suspects of rape. He's a homophobe to boot, with anxieties about celibacy. His metamorphosis into a "sorcerer" stems from hate and the need for vengeance. Uther may not be a rapist, but he has a violent and demonic temper. Lancelot, on the other hand, has no demons to speak of. He's not even the adulterer he is supposed to be, on which see more below. I didn't feel like I was in the mind of anyone real in the last two books, where every character is one-dimensional, conversation is stilted, dialogue forced and contrived. And why is everyone always smiling and grinning at each other? Hardly a page goes by when Lance isn't responding to Arthur with a grin, or Arthur isn't qualifying a disagreement with a smile. The prose is paralyzed -- nothing at all like in the previous six novels.
The stories of Publius and Merlyn also involve intense conflict, in villains like Claudius Seneca, Gulrys Lot, Peter Ironhair, and Carthac. Seneca makes our palms sweat; Ironhair feels threatening even from a distance. The villains of the last two books, Clodas, Symmachus, and Connlyn, somehow never scare us enough to care, and there's no dramatic tension to carry the story.
Throughout these books, pieces of the legend fall into place without leaning on magic, and this has been Whyte's strength. In Publius' narrative we get the genesis of Excalibur and the Round Council ("Round Table"), each of which emerges naturally out of a well-told story. I especially like the way the Round Council harks back to the equality of the republican Roman Senate, established now in Camulod in order to put an end to petty feuds over status.
Merlyn's metamorphosis into a "sorcerer" is nothing less than brilliant. By the end of the sixth book, he has evolved from Legate Commander of Camulod into a bitter, reclusive, and shadowy figure. In the following passage he readies himself to penetrate Cambria (Wales) and deal death to everyone in sight:
"I knew my men in Camulod, had once known fear of me when I was young -- not of my human strength, but of the mere suggestion that I, Merlyn, possessed powers that were more than human. Their fears had been unfounded, for the deeds that awed them had all been achieved by trickery and mere suggestions fed by me into their willing minds.Merlyn's metamorphosis is convincing, not only for having taken four novels to get there, but because of what it finally takes to push him over the edge. Over the course of twenty years, Merlyn has lost two wives, one savaged and killed, the other dying in a freak accident; the first when Merlyn was away and unable to protect her, the second precisely because he took her with him across country so that he could protect her. In pathos and raging fever, he becomes irrationally convinced that his enemy Ironhair has caused all his misfortunes, and he snaps. This is the history behind Merlyn's sorcerous identity, and it's wonderfully orchestrated.
"Now I had ranged before me, in the flickering firelight, an entire armory of dark and fearsome tools, all of which could bring death and other terrifying effects... I had small, black, envenomed thorns that would bring instant, painful death to anyone they pricked, and I possessed a green and noxious paste that carried fiery poison that would burn a man to death from within, from the merest scratch. I had tray upon tray of unguents and oils and powders and salts and crystals, dried, withered berries, seeds and nuts, and crushed admixtures of all kinds; grasses and twigs and unknown, fibrous substances that burned with noxious, stultifying smoke; and all of these things brought death, in one form or another.
"I would teach Carthac fear, I had resolved, and Ironhair, and all his swarming men. They would know fear the like of which they never could have dreamed: the fear of living death and magical enchantment; the fear of darkness and the stinking, evil things that crawled therein; the fear of being naked in the path of ravening beasts whose shapes could neither be imagined nor endured, grim, unseen creations from the human mind's darkest recesses. I, Merlyn, would teach them how to fear." (Book 6, The Sorcerer, chapter 16)
What about the next phase of the legend, especially the love triangle between Lancelot, Gwinnifer, and Arthur? Put simply, it isn't. The adultery is completely whitewashed. Mordred turns out to be a non-story. Gwinnifer has no bite -- she's immediately understanding and wholly accepting of Arthur's son who isn't hers. Mordred never resents Arthur at all, let alone go against him in war. They're all a shiny happy family with no story at all. We went through eight novels to get to this? To nothing?
What's amazing -- truly astounding -- is that Jack Whyte was born to tell the story he should have told: Lancelot and Gwinnifer in all their carnal depravity. The mutual masturbation affair between Publius and Cylla in the second book practically anticipates it. Here's Publius:
"There is a beast in every man who breathes, a beast that is born in him and lives within him all his life, in a constant struggle for dominance over what he would prefer to think of as his 'better self'. I say that with complete conviction because I have had to come to terms with my own personal beast, and it now lies dormant inside me; dormant, but far from dead. It stirs, occasionally, reminding me of its presence, its poison... I must now write about the beast. I fear and loathe the task, but my course is clear: I may not deal in other people's faults unless I first lay bare, in full confession and acknowledgment, my own gross flaws. And so I must deal here with my friend Domitius Titens, and with the treachery I dealt him for his friendship." (Book 2, The Singing Sword, chapter 3)Publius proceeds to relate, in vivid detail, his aggressive masturbation fantasies performed in front of Cylla, and hers in front of him. If the married Publius could betray a friend this way, why is Whyte unable to stomach the thought of Lancelot betraying Arthur in adultery? Evidently, Whyte himself began to "loathe the task of laying bare faults" of his own characters. For Lancelot would have us believe that there are no beasts in people like himself -- only in others, who spread malicious lies about him and his friends:
"I have several times heard wild and fanciful rumors of Mordred of Britain and the role he supposedly played in his father Arthur's downfall, and I have treated all of them as nonsense spawned by self-important, pompous, petty little men who know nothing of the truth and vomit up whatever spiteful, bilious pap they have been fed by the last person to whom they spoke. One even said, although not in my hearing, that Mordred had suborned the Queen and used the King’s great love for her to destroy Camulod. I was angry when I heard of that, but then I laughed, for I had heard but a short time earlier that I myself had done the selfsame thing, betraying my best friend for the love of his false wife and thus destroying Camulod. It made me realize that when great events are undone by mundane things, people often feel constrained to make the failure larger and somehow more significant by lying about what truly happened, as if what actually occurred were too ludicrously petty to have brought about such awe-inspiring and cataclysmic results." (Book 8, The Eagle, chapter 11)Why must the idea of Lancelot's adultery be "nonsense", the product of "spiteful bilious pap", owing entirely to envious slander? Obviously legends can be based on lies and complete fiction, but Whyte's stated intent all along has been to show us a kernel of truth behind the Arthurian legend as we've come to know it. We've been expecting an historical version of the adultery legend, something more gritty than the courtly romanticized accounts (i.e. something like what happens between Publius and Cylla). Whyte's Lancelot, the devout student of Germanus of Auxerre, priding himself on purity of abstinence, would have been the perfect candidate for a repressed man who loses himself and ravishes Gwinnifer. That would have been a story written by the Jack Whyte we’ve come to know and love.
But we never see Lancelot's demons. Instead we get a flat story, completely lacking in dramatic tension, where everyone gets along perfectly from the get-go. Gwinnifer accepts Mordred without a second thought. Mordred never resents or goes against his father in any way. He never even needs to be disciplined -- unlike the boy Uther, who decades before almost killed the son of a guest in Camulod. They're a bunch of sweetie-pies who sit around hugging and consoling each other. Whatever happened to Jack's storytelling abilities?
Whyte persists with un-drama to the end. As Arthur's kingdom is about to collapse, he asks Lancelot to take the queen to Gaul and protect her from the chaos and warfare encroaching on Camulod. Only years after they hear of Arthur's death do they come to know each other intimately. (This we learn in the space of a single paragraph, the very last of the book.) It's not that such a mundane unfolding of events is incredible; it just doesn't square with how Whyte has been retelling the legend, nor with what we've come to expect from an author who, up until now, has exposed faults and flaws of his conflicted heroes so well.
Read the first six books of The Camulod Chronicles, and enjoy them for what they are: well-written foundations to Arthur's story. Read the last two books only if you really need to know how Arthur's story plays out, and how northwestern Gaul becomes allied with Camulod. Though even here we get cheated: the Riothamus is supposed to die overseas, and be buried in Avallon of Gaul; in the novels Arthur never even makes it to Gaul. Another completely wasted opportunity.
The idea of a Romanized Arthur, dated a century earlier than tradition would have it, is one I find persuasive. The possible link between Camelot and Gaul is even more fascinating. The novels explore these ideas in ways that disciples of Geoffrey Ashe could wish for. It's only too bad that Jack Whyte lost his story, and his storytelling abilities, somewhere along the way.
The Skystone -- 4 ½
The Singing Sword -- 4 ½
The Eagles' Brood -- 4 ½
The Saxon Shore -- 4 ½
The Fort at River's Bend -- 2
The Sorcerer -- 4 ½
The Lance Thrower -- 1
The Eagle -- 1