I’ve been reading a collection of King Arthur stories called The Pendragon Chronicles.
Perhaps no mythology has been as pervasive to the western world than the Arthurian mythos, in no small part thanks to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. However what isn’t as well realized is that Arthur’s tales are a melange of stories drawn from a wide array of people over several centuries, a body of work that continues to expand today. The Pendragon Chronicles gives readers a chance to read some of the less-common stories, from both modern and historical sources, as well as a glimpse at the history surrounding them.
One particularly useful resource is the Dramatis Personae section, which provides not only a description of the characters but also some of the myriad spellings of their names. For example, Arthur’s foster-brother Kay is known for his, “bad humor and sour temperament,” but in earlier stories he was a more heroic knight. He has also been known as Kai, Cai, Cei, and Quex. Everyone knows of Sir Lancelot, but Sir Dinadan, known for his humor and quick wit, appears in far fewer tales. Another less well known is Sir Palomides, a Saracen and Knight of the Round Table.
It’s worth noting that Sir Palomides is a person-of-color, one of Arthur’s greatest knights, and first appeared in the stories in the 13th century. Huzzah for diversity!
There isn’t a story in the book that I haven’t enjoyed, though I do like the older stories more than the modern ones. Contemporary writing conventions humanize the characters, delving into their psyche and exploring their motivations. Normally I’m fine with that, but when it comes to the Arthurian stories I want the old style where the characters are larger-than-life archetypes and superheroes of the medieval world.
My favorite story by far has been the first tale in the book, Chief Dragon of the Island. Written by Joy Chant in 1983 it’s an adaptation of the history of Arthur from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain. This makes it simultaneously one of the newest and oldest tales in the book.
It’s also one of the most unconventional takes on Arthur that I have read, more mythic than the standard versions. In this tale Igerna (Igraine) is the wife of Duke Gorlis who has imprisoned her in a remote castle with a guard of women warriors. He fears a prophecy saying her son would kill him.
In another change from what we are familiar with, Uther Pendragon is not a man, he is something else. Something ancient and godlike, probably of the Tuatha de Danann. Uther uses his own magic to impersonate Gorlis and deceive Igerna, making her pregnant with Arthur. He also uses his powers to hide her pregnancy so that Gorlis cannot slay her until after Arthur is born. Thus Arthur is portrayed as a demi-god, making this tale a fusion of Christian and Pagan beliefs.
Further evidence of his divine nature is shown in this passage describing how the prophecy was fulfilled:
“The fire where the afterbirth had been cast had burned down, and out of the eggs broke a worm. The worm ate the shell of the egg and the ashes and embers of the fire, and it grew to the size of a lizard, then of a cat, then of a hound, then of a horse; then it spread its wings and rose into the air. The dragon sped down to the beach, and found Gorlas coming up from it. It swooped over him and enveloped him in its fiery poisonous breath, so that he smothered and scorched in it, and so died.”
-The Pendragon Chronicles, pg. 13
Slain by a dragon born of your child’s afterbirth. That’s harsh.
In later years the young Arthur is taken by Merdyn (Merlin) to a magical island. There he meets and falls in love with Morgen, also daughter of Uther and Igerna, and the two become lovers. Arthur does not know they are siblings but indications are that Morgen does. Like her father Morgen has a different view of sexuality that the Christian Arthur.
Arthur proceeds to the hall where he is armed with his father’s sword Caledvolc (Excalibur), “That sword would draw blood from the wind, it would divide the thought from the word.” Uther also provides Arthur with a cloak of invisibility, as well as a horse and hound of unparalleled size and skill.
It is only upon leaving that Arthur learns that Uther is his father and Morgen his sister. He rejects Morgen, considering their love a deep sin. Morgen does not understand his beliefs and curses Arthur for his rejection, saying he will know no peace with women until he returns to her arms.
There are other major differences between Chief Dragon of the Island and the Arthurian tales we know so well, such as Guinevere being the daughter of a giant. In many ways it’s a far more primal and certainly more pagan legend, while at the same time it keeps the chivalric qualities we associate with later Arthurian stories.
There are many stories in The Pendragon Chronicles that make it worth tracking down, but Chief Dragon of the Island alone makes it worth the effort.