By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Head of Zeus, 2020, 510 p.

Why would an Israeli author better known for exploring Middle-Eastern or Jewish themes and concerns and the byways of Altered History turn his attention to the (so-called) matter of Britain? For that is what Tidhar has done in By Force Alone, a retelling of the story of King Arthur from a novel angle – what would it really have been like to contest for kingship in a bygone age, to gain, hold and wield power by force alone? I suppose the tale is well enough known, though, and, as Tidhar’s Afterword shows, it has always been fair game for reploughing and reinterpreting.

Here we have all the familiar names of Camelot and the knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Morgause, Galahad, Mordred etc, but seen in a downcast light. Forget any notion of parfit, gentil knyghts (especially as that was a phrase which Chaucer no doubt devised cunningly.) The characters here are earthy, human, venal, demotic in speech, prone to all the vices known to man and few of the virtues, their surroundings mostly squalid, their motivations base.

By Force Alone is told in an urgent present tense, its background is England before it was England, in the Dark Age aftermath of the Roman withdrawal. A “wild country, a host of warring tribes who scrabble for scraps in the ruin of civilisation,” with a new religion, Christianity, on the ascendant. Most of the characters are Brythonic Celts but offstage sundry Angles, Saxons and Jutes are making inroads into the territory of southern Britain, mainly by peaceful settlement but bringing their harsh, guttural Anglisc tongue with them.

Arthur is engendered in the usual way, Uther Pendragon disguising himself with Merlin’s help to resemble the lady Igraine’s husband and so impregnate her, but the resulting child is whipped off by Merlin to a foster home in Londinium, where, growing up, he learns the dark arts of street fighting and survival. Joseph of Arimathea features as the trainer of Lancelot in martial arts and his inductor into membership of the Inner Circle of the Venerated Secret Brotherhood of the Seekers of the Grail. Joseph’s conviction that the Grail was to be found in Britain brings Lancelot somewhat reluctantly to its shores.

In what in retrospect is an odd interpolation Tidhar brings in elements of SF with the appearance of a falling star – which can be read as a descending spaceship or, more prosaically, Halley’s Comet, but its later reascent militates against that – and the growing up round its landing/crash site of the Zone, where strange things happen, odd creatures appear, food rots instantly or stays unaccountably preserved and where those who frequent it tell newcomers, “Don’t touch anything.” Merlin spends his time thinking about this apparition and Lancelot conceives it as the location of the grail. In this context that streak of light in the sky might be considered as an avatar of the Star of Bethlehem.

We all know how things will end but finding out what happens is not the driving force for the reader to continue. This tale of Arthur may be, as the text has it, “just a sad, simple tale of violence and greed,” but it is the telling of it that matters, the slants it takes – Guinevere as a sort of bandit, a leader of Amazons up for a scrap as much as anyone else in this, Arthur as almost feckless – and uncaring that he is cuckolded by Lancelot – Galahad an administrator supreme.

The text is replete with allusion and quotation, including Kurt Vonnegut’s recognition of the inevitability and ubiquity of death (three words not unfamiliar to readers of this blog) and even a riff on the “choose” rant from Trainspotting, not to mention a scene depicting musings on an Antikythera mechanism. Some readers may find this sort of thing distracting but others that it adds to the flavour, a reminder that this is a commentary on its sources as well as a skewed recapitulation. Repetition too is an ingredient, especially of the three words of the title which describe the way in which Kings in these circumstances win and keep their crowns.

Merlin’s thoughts perhaps at times speak to Brexit, “A shared identity, Merlin thinks. A story to unify all these warring tales, so that Britons now and in centuries to come could tell each other that they share a thing. That they are one. And to be one, as Arthur understands implicitly, you must be defined against an other,” and his reflection that “this island’s just a piece of Europe with the landbridge submerged,” and, “It doesn’t really matter, this matter of Britain. Just another way to pass the time.” Later Sir Pellinore muses, “And who’s to say whose land this is, really? Land’s just land.” (Which may – or may not – be a reflection by Tidhar on his Israeli background.)

It is the characters that make By Force Alone. The humans feel like flesh and blood people. The wizard (who doesn’t himself believe in magic) or the fae folk are all as they are in fantasy tales, instruments of darkness to tell us truths, to betray their victims in deepest consequence. (That allusiveness can be catching.) Warnings, all.

The novel is a vigorous, vibrant retelling of “the glorious age of Camelot” rendered more powerful by focusing on the individuals rather than the appurtenances or overall architecture of the tale. In a curious way this demystification of the myth almost makes it more memorable.

Pedant’s corner:- “fifteen hundred heads of cattle” (usually ‘head of cattle’,) “moat pleasantly” twice within the space of a line, and “most pleasant” another line later, Nennius’ (Nennius’s – all of the names here which end with the letter ‘s’ are given possessives with s’ rather than s’s,) “ he lays back, sated” (lies back,) mithraeums (the Latin plural would be mithraea,) ass (in a narrative like this, set where it is, that just seems so wrong. The correct word is arse,) Morgana (is used once for Morgan, but it was Merlin thinking it and will have been an allusion,) “a money changers’” (a money changer’s.) “And he resents her that” (for that?) “…. Kay says Shrugs” (should have a full stop after ‘says’,) “off of” (off, just ‘off’s no ‘of’ required,) fit (fitted.) “It gauges out eyes” (gouges out, surely/) “he flies across a darkening skies” (omit ‘a’ or have a singular sky,) “‘The Angles and the Saxons’ growing influence’” should have apostrophe for Angles as well as Saxons.) “Previous stones. Coin” (Precious stones, I think.) “They are a tribal peoples” (either, ‘They are a tribal people,’ or ‘They are tribal peoples,’ the latter preferably, given that ‘they’.) The army of mutatio scatter” (scatters.) “Lancelot expands little energy” (expends.) “Lancelot is shook” (shaken.) “‘That’s none really of your business’” (has odd syntax – ‘that’s really none of your business’ is more usual,) “The trees don’t sway unless the king commands” (this was in Orkney, traditionally thought to have no trees. When I was there I saw none worth the name,) parlay (parley,) sat (sitting, or, seated,) the town of Wormwood has a sign saying Pop 971 853 (so populated? In the Dark Ages?) epicentre (centre,) “and the water turn to dull reflection” (turns,) “nought but an illusion” (naught.) “A veritable rain of arrows flies down from the enemy’s archers then and hit him” (‘rain … flies down’, therefore should be followed by ‘hits him’,) snuck (sneaked.) In the Afterword; Tidhar says Britain was unified once more by the end of the Wars of the Roses. (It wasn’t. England – with Wales – might have been; but Scotland was politically separate till much later,) ditto “the Norman conquest of Britain” (the Normans conquered only England – until within 200 years the Plantagenet Edward I had also subdued Wales – though their influence spread into Scotland with dynastic marriages and the like.)

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