Although the British King Arthur has seen his tale told in very many ways, ranging from the high medieval to the archaic to the straight historic to the mostly fantastic, this one gives us the story as it might have come down to us via the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles themselves. The Anglo-Saxons, of course, are the Germanic folk antecedents of the later English who formed the bulk (if not the totality) of the modern British nation. And real English history begins with them, their exploits and kingships in the dark ages attending the Roman decline in the west. Their Chronicles record their first entry to the Island of Britain as well as the ebbs and flows of their victories as they gradually expanded and came to supplant the Romanized Celts (the Britons) who were their predecesors.
In later time, these Anglo-Saxons, these English came to recount the legends of their Island's past and among these legends was that of a British king who stood against invaders for a time to unite the fractious British in a single, glorious kingdom. Of course, this was the legendary King Arthur and among his foes (though not alone among them) were the Germanic tribes, their ancestors. Arthur's tales were retold and recorded among the Celtic people who remained in western Britain (Wales) as well as among the Celts of Brittany (along the rugged coast of today's France where many exiled Britons fled and settled). And from these two locales these tales entered the medieval lexicon and opus, via the French jongleurs and the Welsh, and later English, clerics.
The tales took many forms and "grew" a variety of characters and episodes, coming in time to incorporate a complex set of legends, sometimes more Welsh folktale, sometimes more naieve history, sometimes anachronistic medieval adventures. But what they all had in common was the representation of a man (not clearly known to the historical record) who stood up to the tide of history for a time and established a royal court which later generations would look back on with wonder.
In the modern world, this cycle has spawned many retellings, including those which emphasize the magical elements and those which harp on the historical. But none, to my knowledge, ever focused on how this king and his following would have looked to the Germanic tribesmen who came, in time, to inherit his homeland and his mantle. None, that is, until this book. Diana Paxson's tale, in this volume, is the one of Arthur (Artor, here) as seen not through Roman or British eyes, but as his erstwhile enemies might have perceived him. It is the story from the Saxon point of view. Oesc, the son of Octha the son of Hengest (that historical Saxon mercenary who rebelled, according to the histories, against Arthur's predecessor British rulers and who claimed land in Britain for his own), is the central character here as he grows from frightened boy in the old Saxon lands, awash with the encroaching sea, into a young man, first as part of a new Jutish colony on the British coast and then as war-hostage at Arthur's court.
Oesc finds a soul mate of sorts in the noble young Artor and this tale recounts his growth and coming of age in a time when men's lives were short for the strife and rough living they must endure. It is more Oesc's tale than Artor's, as it should be, and it vividly recaptures the sense of the earliest Saxon inhabitants of the Island of Britain. One can see the Germanic folk of the Old Chronicles sharply here, both as they struggle on the fast eroding shores of their old, inhospitable homeland and as they strive to re-root themselves in the land which was to belong to their descendants. Here in America we sometimes forget that other people also colonized their lands in the past (that's how all nations got founded afterall, and most found others to displace -- a somewhat distasteful remembrance, given the harsh realities attendant on that). Britain, England, is no different in that sense from America. And so Oesc grows up to lead his folk, one of the Saxon tribes, in their ongoing struggle with the indigenous British.
In Arthur's time the Saxons were successful to the extent that they secured a permanent foothold on the British lands (though you can't always tell this from the tone and content of the old British tales) but Arthur, if he indeed lived, or his more historical compatriots, contained the Saxons through a number of historically remembered victories. But the Saxon tide in the land was inexorable and the Germanic folk gradually shoved their way across the island, squeezing the British into their mountain fastnesses or into the peninsula of Cornwall, or north into Scotland, or overseas to Ireland or Britanny. They took their tales with them, these exiled Celts, hence the Arthurian cycle, reclaimed in later days by the latter day English.
But Paxson goes the medieval English one better, turning the tale into a part of the Anglo-Saxon expansion as recorded in the Chronicles which remember the early Germanic heroes and war-leaders who gave way, in time, to the English kings, who were themselves finally overthrown by their Danish and Norse kinsmen -- and, still later, and with more finality, by the Norman French (who were themselves of Norse, therefore, Germanic, descent). If I have a quibble or two with Paxson it's that her tale seems too brief with not much in the way of plot structure or depth of characterization, especially of the British. Artor seems as he always does, bigger than life, noble and heroic, but barely there, while his companions seem to be little more than names. This, of course, is the tale of Oesc and his kind who are more vividly drawn and here the Germanic flavor is fully realized. Yet I'd have preferred to see more of the strains between the two sides, more pushing and pulling if you will. But the end is deeply moving as we see the hero fulfill a destiny which only those close to their roots and the seemingly spiritual forces of their heritage can embrace without deep regret. And yet we regret the loss, the waste which this forces upon our consciousness although it is plain that this path is the one we all trod, wasteful or not, in the end. -- Stuart W. Mirsky