Tuesday, 26 October 1999

A.A. Attanasio: The Perilous Order: Warriors of the Round Table (1999)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999
Review number: 370

The third of Attanasio's Arthur (Arthor in these novels) series tells the story of the first few years following the moment at which Merlin proclaimed him king, when he had just pulled the sword from the stone. It is the most difficult time of his reign, when he has to persuade the minor British kings to follow him, an untried teenager whose kinship to Uther is only attested by Merlin, against the Saxon invaders.

To bring about an alliance between these kings is Arthor's aim: this is the perilous order of the title, because of its fragility. But there is another reference in the legend, which Attanasio does not explicitly mention, to the idea that one of the seats at the Round Table is the Siege Perilous, in which to sit means death except to the pure knight destined to sit there.

A large part of the story focuses on the struggle between Merlin and Morgeu the Fey. This is Attanasio's treatment of one of the most powerful themes in the Arthurian legend, the incestuous relationship between Arthur and Morgeu before the former knows who either of them are. In the second book, Morgeu arranged for the child she bore to receive the reborn soul of her father Gorlois. (It is of course the mother Ygrane shared by the half-siblings.) This is to bring about revenge on Merlin, who she believes responsible for the death of Gorlois.

Merlin, knowing what the birth of Mordred will mean to Arthur, steals the soul of the baby, still in the womb. But things go wrong; the soul of Gorlois ends up in Merlin's body, and Merlin has to carry out an astral quest to recover his body.

The magical world is a particularly strong aspect of Attanasio's series, convincingly dovetailed with the mundane one inhabited by most of the characters most of the time. The contrast is heightened by the writing, with the magical beings coming across as more elemental than the humans. The strongest part of the novel is the powerful description of Cei, cast into hell by Morgeu, ending up in a decaying twentieth century inner city, meeting a disillusioned alcoholic Catholic priest.

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