Books: Sword of the Rightful King

Until this week, it had been quite a while since I read an Arthurian novel. For a long time I read any that I could find. As a child I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and as a young adult I read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. The first three books Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle are among my favorites.

Then Arthurian books started to become more and more common on the bookstore shelves. I bought and enjoyed quite a few (over the years I collected about three shelves worth, which fill most of the bookshelf next to me). But then I found that fewer of them appealed to me. I don’t know if the popularity of the genre attracted too many authors, or if I had just read so many variations on a theme that after a while nothing seemed original.

Last week I decided to browse the Young Adult shelves in the library. I was in a mood for some easier reading, and a lot of good books have been written for this age group. I don’t remember if I looked specifically for books by Jane Yolen, but when I found this one I decided it was time to try another Arthurian book.

I’ve read a few books by Yolen, and I’d read more if the library had them. Sword of the Rightful King intrigued me because of one line on the flyleaf – “someone else pulls the sword out first” (that is, before Arthur). That is certainly an approach I hadn’t read before, and I was amazed to find that I read nearly the whole book before finding out who had done it.

The story is told primarily from the view of Gawen, a boy who has come to King Arthur’s court hoping to become a knight, but who ends up becoming the assistant of the mage Merlinnus instead. He is clearly hiding the truth about his past, and I thought I had some idea what that was – but it turned out I was completely wrong.

Told from Gawen’s perspective, as well as sometimes from that of Morgause or her son Gawaine, the story brings to life the familiar cast of characters. Many versions of the legend focus on Lancelot, and at least one had Bedwyr as Arthur’s bosom friend. Kay is always in there somewhere, depicted in a wide range of ways. I have also read versions that focus on Morgause and her ambitions for her sons, but none that take the same story arc as Yolen has done here.

I don’t think I’ll find Yolen’s version as memorable as Lawhead’s, or as original as T.H. White’s or Mark Twain’s. (And I’m glad it’s not as disturbing as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s.) But it’s a very well told story, and a great introduction to either Yolen’s work or the Arthurian traditions.

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