The Hero’s Journey from Another Point of View: Here Lies Arthur

By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University, Texas Ambassador for USBBY

Book Cover for Here Lies Arthur
“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.

Works Cited
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.

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

15 thoughts on “The Hero’s Journey from Another Point of View: Here Lies Arthur

  1. Luis Esquer says:

    I really liked Here Lies Arthur, because a uses the original heroicic story of king arthur. It full of dangerous and exciting adventures, and even magic. THis story is in the point of view of Gwyna/Gwyn, the sometimes girl, sometimes boy servant of Myrddin (Merlin). This story has a unique twist to it making it a great outstanding book that will leave you hungry for more. This story doesnt conisist of the heroric arthur that is told among all, he in this story is a trecherous person. As arthor is in his death bed she confesses her true identity, and arthur throws his legendary sord back in the lake it came. While she has two choices that will forever change arthurs identity. She has the choice to tell lies making him a hero, or to reveal the true cruel and trecherous side of the legendary arthur. Meanwhile Gwana makes stories of her own, which will be used to heal those with a broke or fallen heart. 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. while this helped arthur men come to rest with peacfull and good thought, giving them the courage to continue.I personally enjoy how the story is unfolded and told throught the book. I also enjoy the setting that is placed, and how the “truth” is told. This is a great book that, will not upset those who read it. I hope that all who read this book will enjoy it as much as i did. I love how Philip Reeve puts the story onto a vivis image and make your mind flow with great pictures of the story that come to life. Overall this story is great and outstanding, you will feel as if ur with Gwyna every step of her hard but adventurous journey. This is a a book that is like none other, including magic, adventure, thrill, and most of all… truth.

  2. Mary says:

    This book was such a roller-coaster of a ride! The book got darker and grittier with each chapter. Today’s readers will eat it up… such tragic characters. I have to admit that Myrddin (aka “Merlin” of the Arthurian tales) frustrated me as a character. Even when we finally get the skinny on Myrddin’s history, his motivations and moral compass are complicated to the point that I found myself, like Gwyna, wanting to shout in rage at him. His blindness regarding Arthur as the “great hero and savior” make it possible for Arthur to leave a trail of innocent carnage behind him for years. And, no, Myrddin’s Saxon enemies are not avenged. What a waste of years and lives. I’m with Gwyna who spat on Myrddin near the end and shouted, “You’ve wasted your life building him high and wrapping him up in stories, but Arthur hasn’t cleaned the Saxons away…all you can do is make up stories, make up lies, try to turn him into something that he isn’t. And your stories won’t last any longer than Arthur does. When he dies, the stories will die with him, and he’ll ne forgotten. And so will you. And so will all of it” (p. 305-306).

    But, ironically, in the end, the stories are apparently the only thing that HAS lasted! Gwyna redeems Myrddin’s craft by taking what she has learned from him and using it for good. Her motivations are different….manipulative, yes, but without Myrddin’s twisted, blinded devotion that refuses to acknowledge moral darkness. Her stories bring joy and hope to others for a time before she sails away with Peredur to find a place “somewhere better” where they can build a new story.

  3. Gabby Galaviz says:

    Here Lies Arthur was a realy good book. The nararator of the story is Gwyna she is telling a story about a servent named Myrddinwho is sometimes boy and a girl. I like the point of view in this story because i have read stories about King Arthur and this one in paticular stands out to me becuase it is more discriptive and is more exciting than the other ones. The Story goes on about a powerful king named Arthur and other charctars and tell the story about how Arthur became king and his journey to becomeing king and the important people that helped him with that. I would love to recomend this book to other book lovers and book readers.

  4. Jennifer Pennington says:

    Here Lies Arthur was an exciting novel and a good illustration in the power of a story. Who has not believed in something because of a story that was once told? Throughout the novel, the main character, Gwyna finds herself playing many roles which Myrddin spins: Gwyn (a boy), the “Lady of the Lake,” then back to Gwyna (a girl). Gwyna does an excellent job of adapting to each life, though the transitions are terribly hard for her and uncomfortable for the reader. Not only does she lose friends, but she has to adapt to new hobbies, jobs, and people. Myrddin however, continues to weave stories, which serve as an illusion to the people, and helps strengthen King Arthur as a leader. Gwyna sees the truth. She understands that Myrddin’s lies offer only false hope and throughout her travels with Myrddin she grows stronger, more confident, and understands that the tricks give hope to some, but bring destruction on others. While it was easy to fall in love with Gwyna, Myrddin is a whole other story. His undying devotion to Arthur as the “savior” and his ability to spin tales helps to create the legendary reputation of the mighty King Arthur. However, Arthur’s heroic image is just that, a false image. Myrddin does have a place in his heart for Gwyna; she is the long lost child he never had, and one could almost like him after he tells of his childhood if one could believe him. Gwyna says it best, “That’s the trouble with a story-spinner. You never know what’s real and what is made up.” The great Arthur is another character that is easily despised in the story. Throughout the story Arthur often times acts out of anger, he is quick to speak, slow to think, and comes across as gross. His shining moment is when he beheads Bedwyr out of anger because he is having an affair with his wife, Gwenhwyfar. While the story is built around the mighty King Arthur, Reeve’s focus is on Gwyna and her point-of-view of Arthur.

    Reeves writes, what reads as a true account of the real King Arthur. A behind the scenes look at what really went on with the enchanted tales of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The story reads like a true epic, easing into bloodshed and heart ache. But once it hits, there is plenty to go around. In fact, you can almost hear the gory sounds described by Reeves. Gwyna is the true hero of the story, enduring loss, trickery, and love. She is truly a good person, devoting herself to those around her and protecting the weak. One character in particular that she has a strong connection with is Peredur. Gwyna’s first encounter with Peri was while she was at her (his) village. However, Peri was a girl at the time, due to his mother’s fear of losing him to war. Gwyna at the time was playing the role of Gwyn, a boy. The two meet and a friendship is instantly formed, a friendship that turns into love. This story has it all, tender scenes mixed with gory battles and plenty of blood, and never a dull moment.

  5. Jennifer Pennington says:

    Mary and Luis, you both made reference to Gwyna using stories for good rather than for selfish reasons. Her stories bring healing and give courage to many. I believe stories do the same today. Often times it is because of a story that we believe something, or in something. These stories give us hope, a sense of wonder, excitement, and more. Like you Luis, I loved how Gwyna had to make a choice, would she destroy the legendary King Arthur by revealing who he really was, or would she uphold his image and build on it? Gwyna’s choice shows the hero that she truly is. She carries the stories on to give the people hope. Gwyna is a very unselfish hero, the humble kind we all love to read about.

    The story-within-a-story theme of this novel makes me think about the movie Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. If you haven’t seen this it is wonderful. A young boy travels to the Mysterious Island found in Jules Verne’s novel. While on the island many different classic stories come into play, such as the Nautilus of Captain Nemo which helped them escape, the opposite world of Gulliver’s Travels and the giant animals, and the volcano of gold in Treasure Island. The movie weaves these stories together for an exciting tale. In the story the family believed that these stories were only fiction, but the young boy (main character) believed they were real. This is the power of a story, that one could believe in it and have hope in it; that it could possibly exist. How exciting!

    Gwyna, knows the truth yet is willing to set that aside to give hope to others. The stories are what must live on, it doesn’t matter that Arthur didn’t, it’s really the hope and belief in the story that is important. Myrddin taught her this; he taught her that life is all about a story. While Myrddin’s character was despicable, he did offer some wisdom to Gwyna.

  6. Kassidy Rodriguez says:

    There are probably eleventy billion books out there based on the King Arthur story, but this is one of the best I’ve read. It’s one of the “realistic” ones: Arthur isn’t a king or a hero; he’s a thug who wants to take as much as he can from the other thugs of post-Roman Britain and Merlin is a smooth-talking PR man who’s trying to convince everyone Arthur is the one who will save them from the Saxons. The author imagines believable origins for all the stories that have been passed down as glorious myths, but he also explores how important stories are to people who are afraid of dying in battle or just living hard, boring lives. The narrator is a girl who sometimes pretends to be a boy and the differences between these two existences are thoughtfully explored. Because of the unflinching descriptions of life in the Dark Ages (abuse, rape, wholesale slaughter) it’s not for younger teens. The writing is beautiful.

  7. Lisa Alleyne says:

    Gwyna is a young servant girl who runs from her master’s home when it is being raided and burned. She swims to a wood and is found by Myrddin who takes her and protects her and makes her the Lady of the Lake. After that she gets her hair cut short and acts like a boy. She meets a boy who is acting as a girl. In this story I think it’s very old but a nice tale to be told. My favorite character would have to be “Gwyn” or Gwyna.

  8. Mary says:

    This idea of man’s need for story is fascinating. Luis, Jennifer, and Kassidy have each pointed out how important stories are for survival. Stories give us reasons to live. Stories help us make sense of our world. This book certainly depicts the need for story in order to LIVE.

    Jennifer, I love how you connected the idea of a story-within-a-story to modern media in JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. (I really have to see that movie now! What a star-studded cast…I love anything with the Rock.) And since the movie weaves in the theme of a young character who believes these classic stories are real, I think you’ve made a great connnection with the same theme in HERE LIES ARTHUR.

    This also reminds me of one of my favorite movies, SECONDHAND LIONS, in which two wealthy, reclusive aging brothers find themselves unexpectedly in charge of parenting a neglected young nephew. Throughout the movie, one of the brothers spins stories to the boy about their lives of daring-do adventure and reckless excitement. The viewer is never sure how much of the stories are real or made-up. And we come to see that in the end, it really doesn’t matter. The stories empower the boy (and the teller), give the boy new eyes, and help him become a man. Sounds like Gwyna.

    A story within a story…isn’t that what our lives really are?

    MV

  9. Jennifer Pennington says:

    In the introductory post Judi Moreillon posted that Gwyna/Gwyn “blossoms into a storyteller with powers of her own.” One of my favorite stories Gwyna tells was of Gwenhwyfar. She was not necessarily beautiful but Gwyna was able to make her beautiful in her stories, “I couldn’t tell them she’d been young, the way I had with folk who’d never known her, I made her kind and wronged enough that they started to think she had been beautiful, and not so old as they had thought. Sometimes in the firelight, on one face or another, I’d see tears running down.” (268) This shows how wonderful a storyteller Gwyna had become, able to manipulate reality just enough to create a desired image, but also able to create an emotional reaction to the story. This story reminds us that the storyteller is the one with the true power. Thinking back through our history there have been many stories told which we have taken as truth, only to find out later that the story was not entirely true or completely false. Think about political figures, and things their staff did not want the public knowing about. In our world, just like in Reeve’s world, we manipulate the facts, bend the story, and twist the endings in order to reveal what we want others to believe.

    And yes Mary, I agree, our lives are just “stories within stories,” all mixing together and sending us different directions.

  10. Leslie Wesson says:

    After reading this story, I really began thinking about the “spin” anyone can put on a story and the audience is left to distinguish what is fact or fiction. For us, the spin on news and information we receive through television, books, internet, radio, and newspapers influences and requires us to critically analyze the validity of what we encounter. We see this in Here Lies Arthur as Myrddin works magic as he travels throughout Britain spinning stories of Arthur’s greatness. The author, Reeve, provides us with a unique perspective, told through Gwyna’s point of view. Gwyna is a girl forced from her master’s home as Arthur and his war-band raid their village. Gwyna’s character is transformed throughout the story. In the beginning, she is known as Gwyna the Mouse, minimizing her importance and emphasizing how powerless she is to control her own fate. (p.6) The reader learns the true strength of Gwyna as she fights her way through being a boy, Gwyn, and resuming her role as a girl, Gwyna. She takes us on this journey viewing Arthur and Myrddin in a very different way, revealing the dark side of Camelot. I believe this is where the power of a story compels one to seek the truth. We experience the feelings that Gwyna works through as she acknowledges the truths that are revealed to the very end of the story – Gwenhwyfar’s marriage betrayal with Bedwyr, and Myrddin’s plan to lead Cei and his soldiers to their death, Myrddin’s admissions on his death bed … We follow Gwyna’s character as it grows stronger and wiser and never loses hope.

  11. Mary says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for reminding us of the power of the storyteller to create an emotional response as seen through Gwyna’s stories of Gwenhwyfar. You are so correct. The story teller is the one with the real power which we do see through today’s PR spinners.

    For those who already love the stories of King Arthur or who want to dig into the “classic” stories of King Arthur further, here are a few resources you might like:

    -Hudson Talbott’s picture books TALES OF KING ARTHUR. There are 4 books in the series with gorgeous illlustrations.

    -I also like this 3 minute YouTube http://youtu.be/E4pGFGkHOd8 with movie clips from Excalibur and a remake of Nat King Cole’s song. Teens, you’ll think this is a hoot.

    For teachers:
    http://www.arthuriana.org/ and go to the “Teaching” link on the right. Lots of grade level ideas here. If I were going to introduce this novel to high school (or maybe preAP 8th graders), I would use some of the suggested internet sites for a look at the middle ages and then have students do background research on the original tales of King Arthur.

    Student groups could even each be assigned one of Arthur’s tales and then have them present the tales chronologically to the class (skits, multimedia, etc.) in order to get an overview of the life and legends of Arthur. Fun!

    MV

  12. Leslie Wesson says:

    I really enjoyed how the author tells a story within a story. I have always loved hearing and watching different versions of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. This novel differs greatly from any of the stories I have known so far. I recently began watching a weekly show, Once Upon a Time; it uses traditional tales and integrates a story within a story. I look forward to the similar stories and characters and find them enjoyable to watch. Each story has characters from various tales – Snow White, the wicked Stepmother, Rumpelstiltskin … but tell a modern version while returning to the traditional tales we know and love. The same is true of, Here Lies Arthur, the reader references the known story of King Arthur as Reeve’s story unfolds. It is a true page turner that I could not put down. I found myself saying, “Just one more chapter!”

  13. Adinawa Jabnia Nicci says:

    When we first heard of “Here lies Arthur”, we thought ‘Oh Great, another King Arthur story’. Then we read other people’s blogs and thought, This might not be such a bad story. As we read it, we found that it was a story within a story, an entwined tale. We found it a very intruiging novel. The author, Phillip Reeve, definetly told the story in a way that would capture the imagination of us all, and took us to a distant land. We loved reading this story and definetly recommend it.

  14. Anon says:

    Here Lies Arthur, by Philip Reeve, is the key to find the true story that lies upon King Arthur’s memory! The books cover leads you to a different path(conclusion about the book.) Although this happens, once you read the book, you’ll find it more interesting, and encounter a whole type of different story! This is not just a whole other fantasy book. This book, is a great Historical Fiction! It is such a great book that shows the power of a book through history(the past)!!!
    This book is great!:)

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