Medieval Book Recommendations: Here Lies Arthur

An orphaned serf disguised as a boy rides with a fierce warlord and his men. The Romans left Britain a generation ago, but the island still faces rapid changes. Legends are rich and stories make history. So learns the girl as she watches the rise of one of the greatest stories of all: that of Arthur.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve is not medieval, but it’s a precursor to the world I write about (and it’s a book that always inspires me). In this magnificent novel, we see who the real Arthur (not a king in this retelling) might have been—a sixth century brutal warlord who pillages holdings and towns to forcefully take his kingdom. It’s also a profound narrative about the power of stories. Told by Gwyna, a young girl we meet as she flees the fire and blood of Arthur’s attack on her lord’s holding. The wily bard Myrddin discovers her “cold as a ghost, wet as a drowned dog…trying to hug some warmth back into my juddering, shuddering limbs,” and rescues her. He asks her to play a role in the legend he’s building around his master Arthur, and after that successful outing with a sword in a pond, Gwyna becomes Myrddin’s servant—and, with the appropriate clothes and a haircut, a boy named Gwyn. With Gwyna/Gywn, we see Arthur from the ground: his bullying, invasions, battles, and manipulation. It’s all to secure his place in the present, and in history; in this world, the stories that are told of you are more important than any of your actual deeds.

The landscape of this novel is bleak but beautiful in subtle ways, and always feels real; Reeve’s historical research is stellar. Expect gentle humor as well as grim survival in this powerful retelling of a legend.

Here Lies Arthur won the Carnegie Medal in 2008.

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