By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University, Texas Ambassador for USBBY
“Cei laughed off the slanders. ‘They’re only stories,’ he would say. ‘What do stories matter?’ But he wasn’t stupid. He knew as well as Myrddin that in the end stories are all that matter” (Reeve 204).
British author Philip Reeve uses the well-known legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable as a springboard for his novel Here Lies Arthur. Reeve offers explanations for the unexplained in the original tales, which may be part history and greater part folklore, and have been embellished by retellers since the late 5th and early 6th century when King Arthur supposedly performed heroic and even magical deeds. Along with his knights, Arthur has been credited with defending Britain from invading Saxons. He has embodied the virtues of loyalty, honor and chivalry. In his author’s note, Reeve provides historical and literary documentation for the novel.
Reeve’s retelling is told from the point of view of Gwyna/Gwyn, the sometimes girl, sometimes boy servant of Myrddin (Merlin). Here Lies Arthur is Gwyna’s story. After Myrddin uses Gwyna to pose as the lake-lady (Lady-of-the-Lake) in order to present the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) to Arthur, Myrddin grows fond of Gwyna. Determined to keep her, Myrddin disguises her as a boy. As Gwyn, she/he travels with Arthur’s band, learns the ways of men, and all of Myrddin’s stories.
As in Tiger Moon (Michaelis) stories within this story are seamlessly blended into the narrative. Early on in Here Lies Arthur, Myrddin tells Arthur’s tales but later, Gwyna, who has matured into a strong young woman, retells them and then begins to make up stories of her own. On the eve of a great battle, Gwyna makes up the story of Cunomorus’s healing cauldron to ease the men’s fears. She tells how the lake-lady came upon a young, handsome and wounded warrior. Feeling pity for him, she retrieved her gold cauldron from her hall beneath the waters. When he drank from it, the warrior was healed and whole once more. And after hearing the story, Arthur’s men slept peacefully and Gwyna, pleased with her telling, lay “thinking already of ways [she] might better it when [she] told it next” (276).
Gwyna’s female perspective on the tales of the archetypal male hero and his band (for after all when she is disguised as Gwyn, Gwyna is still a girl) puts a whole new twist on the legend. Gwyna, who begins the story as a waif made homeless by Arthur’s war-band, travels her own hero’s journey toward the self-sufficient woman she will become. She learns the truth about Arthur who is not really a hero at all but a brute that is buoyed up by Myrddin’s fabrications.
In the end, Gwyna shows the courage and cleverness she has developed over the course of her journey. She attends to Arthur’s needs as he lays dying, and at his command, she throws Caliburn back into the lake. Then, after confessing her female identity, Gwyna travels the countryside telling stories of Myrddin’s wise and heroic King Arthur, rather than true stories of the tyrannical and often cruel Arthur she had known. Although she knows he is dead, she tells them Arthur may yet live and may return; she gives her listeners hope. She earns her bread and bed by telling the lies that people want to hear.
Here Lies Arthur is replete with memorable and quotable lines about the power of stories to shape reality. “‘Of course, it’s all nonsense,’ Myrddin said, ‘You’ll have to learn that, Gwyna. Just because someone tells a story doesn’t mean it’s true. I have no magic powers. I’m just a traveler who has picked up a few hand conjuring tricks along the road… You see, Gwyna, men do love a story. That’s what we’re giving them this morning, you and I. A story they’ll remember all their lives and tell to their children and their children’s children until the whole world knows how Arthur came by the sword of the other-world’” (27).
In these declarations about the “truth” in stories, Reeve provides his own rationale for filling in the blanks in the journey of the legendary hero we know as King Arthur. In doing so, however, he creates a young heroine in the person of Gwyna/Gwyn who succeeds on her own hero’s journey, who blossoms into a storyteller with powers of her own. “’Everyone loves a story,’ [Myrddin] always said. And whatever Arthur did, Myrddin could turn it into a story so simple and clean that everyone would want to hear it, and hold it in their hearts, and take it out from time to time to polish it and see it shine, and pass it on to their friends and children” (61).
Just as the personal, family, and cultural stories help us make meaning in our real lives, authors of literary works who integrate stories within the story help their characters make meaning in their lives, too. The stories within the stories of all four of the hero’s journey novels we have discussed this month, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Lin), Tiger Moon (Michaelis), Heartsinger (Stoffels), and Here Lies Arthur (Reeve) offer readers tales that we can hold in our hearts, take out and polish, and pass on to our students, families, and friends. As Yolen wrote about stories, “Touch magic. Pass it on” (57).
What is your response to Reeve’s imaginative retelling? What are your connections to the hero’s journey archetype? What other books have you read or media you have viewed that contain stories within the story? Do you feel this motif is an example of art imitating life?
Thank you to all who participated in the WOW Currents blog this month, including 8th-grade students in the Calhoun Middle School International Book Club, their sponsor and USBBY Texas Ambassador Ragina Shearer, and Texas Woman’s University graduate students in LS5633: The Art of Storytelling.
Lin, Grace. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.
Michaelis, Antonia. Tiger Moon. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Amulet Books, 2006/2008. Print.
Reeve, Philip. Here Lies Arthur. New York: Scholastic, 2007. Print.
Stoffels, Karlijn. Heartsinger. Trans. Laura Watkinson. New York: Arthur Levine/Scholastic, 2006/2009. Print.
Yolen, Jane. Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood. New York: Philomel, 1981. Print.
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