Just Finished: “Pendragon”, by Stephen Lawhead

So this is going to go here. I promised I wouldn’t write any more “Pendragon Cycle” reviews until I finished the series.

I’ve taken Lawhead’s advice, and am reading “Pendragon” and “Grail” before part three of “Arthur”. This, I think, is the right call. I completely understand why Lawhead wrote these books  – in “Arthur” we make it all the way up to Arthur winning the Battle of Baedun Hill, then skip ahead to the story of the fall of Arthur…all the while skipping literally the entirety of his kingship in between. I’d imagine that first -time readers might have felt a bit cheated.

So writing “Pendragon” was the right choice. “Pendragon” is a great book. It was surprisingly nice to see Merlin narrate again – as the series has gone on the character has grown on me more and more. The book itself, as seems to be typical of Lawhead, is a little oddly paced; the first section, containing Arthur’s childhood, really should have been a part of “Arthur”, and “Pendragon” should have picked up right after the Battle of Baedun Hill…though it was somewhat worth it to see Arthur and Kai’s battle with the stag.

From the moment the black sails of the Vandals show up, the book picks up and we’re back to vintage Lawhead. Lawhead is the best author I’ve ever read when it comes to battle scenes (with the exception of Tolkien, whose battle of Pelennor Fields is the high water mark in fantasy literature). Arthur must be a blast for him to write, because it’s a joy to read all of the clever ways Arthur manages to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

The inclusion of a relationship with Guinevere (I refuse to try and remember Lawhead’s byzantine rendering of the name) was a very good idea; her absence was noticeable in “Arthur” and I was wondering what happened with their relationship. I liked Guinevere, but she was a little too Xena for me – that she goes toe to toe with grown men on the battlefield with a short sword teeters dangerously close to ridiculous, but I’ll give Lawhead a pass because he generally manages to make her fighting style sound plausible. Still, even when Lucy went off to war she was smart enough to be an archer. It always took me out of the story a bit to read about Guinevere in the heat of battle.

There were two moments in the book that struck me as truly great. First was when Guinevere, Lancelot (once again, I’m not going to bother trying to remember Lawhead’s complex version of the name) and Merlin go to Ireland in an attempt to rally the Irish lords to Britain’s aid. In one scene, our heroes arrive at the court of a lord we haven’t met yet, who upon seeing them immediately offers them food and bed. The offer is gratefully accepted due to overwhelming need, though in the back of their minds our heroes worry that they are being distracted from their proper goal of gathering aid, and resolve to make it their first task in the morning.

When Merlin and co. wake up, an army has already been assembled, and the Irish lord casually says that he mentioned to all of his men that Arthur was in need of some assistance, with the “possibility of battle” being offered – and the army before them was made up entirely of volunteers. Ah! After reading for so long about the craven British lords, what heart! What heroism! It’s a moving scene.

The other scene that really moved me is Arthur’s final battle with the leader of the Vandals. Arthur and the Vandal leader have agreed to go head to head, “Prince Caspian” style, with the winner of the battle taking command of the loser’s army to do as they saw fit. The fight has gone on for three days. On the last day Arthur has managed, finally, to outmaneuver his opponent, and is on the verge of victory, when disaster strikes.

Arthur makes a slight mistake, and lack of mobility from an injured shoulder allows the Vandal leader to strike a blow so strong it gruesomely pins his shield to his arm, making it impossible for him to throw it away. Suddenly, defeat seems certain: The Vandal leader takes advantage, striking again and again on the shoulder. Finally, forced to his knees, Arthur manages to win the day by faking that he was out of strength, then dodging out of the way of an attack at the last moment and striking down the Vandal leader after his charge.

This was a brilliant scene. I was inwardly gasping at various twists, and I’m pretty sure that when Arthur struck the killing blow I gave a small fist pump. For this scene alone this book is a worthy addition to the Pendragon Cycle, and I’m happy to say there are many more in the book worth reading. If you stopped reading at book three, you’re missing out on something truly special.

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One Response to Just Finished: “Pendragon”, by Stephen Lawhead

  1. Pingback: The State of Science-Fiction and Fantasy … | The Verbose Stoic

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