A Novel Ian Likes: Beloved Exile by Parke Godwin

Arthur is dead. Betrayed in battle, his kingdom is on the verge of collapse. Guinevere, his queen, needs to escape from Camelot to safety. Unfortunately, disaster strikes, and she finds herself the captive – and then slave – of the invading Saxons…

I grew up loving the legends of King Arthur. The idea of a golden age is common to all societies and cultures, but for some reason, the Brits feel that theirs takes the absolute cake. But let’s face it, Arthur is a symbol who has been appropriated by any number of writers: a character with a hidden destiny is taken as a small child and raised in obscurity, with a close eye kept on them by some kind of secretive figure who wields supernatural powers. As they approach adulthood it becomes apparent through various incidents that this kid is pretty special and has an important role to fulfil in order to bring about peace or prosperity or some kind of golden age.

Unfortunately, there’s very little evidence that Arthur actually existed. That there were waves of invaders in Britain throughout the fifth and sixth centuries is beyond doubt, but the evidence of a unifying figure who held all the disparate tribes and kingdoms together is pretty slim. And even the body of literature that tells of Arthur’s exploits has been cobbled together and added to over time, with some events and figures that we assume to be part of the legend being added hundreds of years after the fact (using that word loosely, obviously). Lancelot, for example, doesn’t appear as a character in the legends until Chretien de Troyes invents him in the 12th Century.

And in recent years my reading of Arthur has been coloured by events in the real world. Brexit has completely spoiled my readings of a legend about a king defending his kingdom against hordes of diabolical invaders. Added to that is the growing isolationism which appears to be spreading across a world that wants to build immense nationalistic barriers at a time when there’s been so many knocked down simply by the existence of technology that lets us communicate with others who live in vastly different environments and cultures to our own.

Thankfully, Beloved Exile is a version that resolutely looks at the invaders as folks who are simply wanting to spread out much as the British did themselves in the 16th to 20th Centuries. Of course, it’s by a US writer, and you can read some of the transatlantic baggage into the story if you like or you can just be thankful that it is such a wonderful story.

Parke Godwin (1929 – 2013) was not a prolific author but he did leave an indelible footprint on the genres he wrote in. There are three other novels in his Arthurian sequence: Firelord (1980), The Last Rainbow (1985), and The Lovers: The Legend Of Tristan And Yseult (1999, written as Kate Hawks).  Beloved Exile was published in 1984 and is the only one of the four that I have read. I really should dig out those others because I’m sure that they are equally as good but I’ve always been a little afraid to since I love the one I have read so much that the others couldn’t possibly live up to my impossible expectations of what they should be (and if they did, I’d be crying about how much I had missed out on for so long).

As I said above, it’s the story of Guinevere. This version of the legendary queen wears her origins a little more obviously than others: she’s very clearly based on Eleanor of Aquitaine, right down to the constant travelling, the acerbic wit and lust for life and the ambition that drives her to reap success from the most poorly-sown fields that life has dealt her (if you’ll excuse my mixed metaphor). But, really, that’s appropriate: the Arthurian legends were, in part, created by Eleanor of Aquitaine as a reflection of what she wanted her own Britain to be: courtly, victorious and stately. It’s a shame that Eleanor’s choice in husbands never really let her achieve anything that lasted longer than Camelot did, but I think she might have thought it all worth it.

Guenevere (as she is spelt here) discovers that life as a slave can be hard. The compensations are that she is familiar with a lot of the work already and her new masters are not as cruel as she might have expected them to be and, indeed, have to defend their newly-conquered land just as much as she and Arthur did just a few short years previously. She comes to an understanding about people and their relationship to their country and is able to begin life on her somewhat reduced terms again… until the cycle of violence and invasion begins again…

I came to this book in 1987, at a time when fantasy as a genre was having a bit of a moment in publishing: authors who might have remained in obscurity just a few years earlier were beginning to make it big, and authors who’d retained some respectability despite the whole “writing genre fiction” thing. I was only aware of this peripherally: I knew that there was a wider selection of Fantasy and Science Fiction titles available in my local bookstores but really only thought of it as an opportunity to get hold of a wider range of titles rather than as a deeper phenomenon. In the previous couple of years, though, I’d started pitching my gaze a little wider afield: while I still loved genre stuff, I was starting to appreciate that reading could be even more fun if I knew a little bit more about what the author was talking about.

So, I took on this novel as an opportunity to find out “what happened next.” Most Arthuriana just stops at Arthur’s death, as though history comes to a standstill. This novel began almost immediately afterwards: we learn of Arthur’s death with Guenevere, we mourn him with her… but not as a king: as a man, a lover, as a mercurial but iron-willed force of nature with a vision for his kingdom that wouldn’t last past his death. A vision that Guenevere shares. Godwin’s vision of Camelot is one that wouldn’t have survived if Arthur hadn’t been fully supported by Guenevere: she runs the kingdom when he’s off fighting his battles, and as a princess raised in a court she has a knowledge of intrigue that he lacks, due to his more rustic upbringing. Neither of them are perfect – they both have lovers on the side, both make mistakes that cost them dearly – but they understand each other and love and respect what each brings to their partnership.

I loved the fact that here we had a king and a queen who were a team. So, when she’s deprived of her support and strength, she has to survive on her own. Guenevere, in this version of the story, is as tough as nails, unafraid of making hard decisions, but she also knows how to smell the roses, too. And she works with people, rather than manipulating them. Or, at least, she learns to, starting with her fellow slave, Cat (a former prostitute) and ending with… well, that would ruin the story, I think.

This was the first real version of the story that I felt could have happened. Other versions lacked the understanding of what makes people tick: T. H. White’s version, though marvelously written, felt a little too consciously modern, while Marion Zimmer Bradley’s retelling was superb but a little too ethereal and overwritten with what she wanted a mystical Dark Ages to have been like (and what we now know about her and her husband has tainted it forever for me). I hadn’t read Tennyson at this point, nor de Troyes or Malory or even Gillian Bradshaw (search her books out, though, because they are famtastic), and Monty Python was something that I had only seen a couple of times (though I would later act on stage in a version of their Holy Grail). Parke Godwin’s take on the story was grounded in reality, with a scope that was epic but personal, and with a heroine who could run a kingdom but also brew you a tisane for the headache you would get from doing your share of it.

It was the myth as it should have happened.

You can find out more about Parke Godwin here: https://www.fictiondb.com/author/parke-godwin~2881.htm

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