Just Finished: “Grail”, by Stephen Lawhead

This is undoubtedly my favorite book, so far, of the Pendragon Cycle (I still need to read part three of “Arthur”, and I need to read “Avalon”).  Those who take umbrage at the abundance of religious imagery in the book miss Lawhead’s brilliance. What they see is a weakness is perhaps Lawhead’s greatest strength.

Once again, one of the best parts of reading Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle is how he puts his own twist on the legends without making those twists feel like gimmicks. This story about the quest for the Holy Grail and the betrayal of Lancelot is absolutely nothing like any other version I’ve read, and yet when I read it I found myself thinking, “Yes, of course, THIS is something that could have happened to Arthur and his knights. THIS is how the Grail Quest could have gone. Of course that’s what would happen”. The story feels like an authentically Arthurian tale without re-treading tired ground – as always, a brilliant accomplishment.

This is also the book where reading it in chronological order rather than written order probably made the biggest difference (spoilers ahead).

There is a section in the book where Arthur and the Dragon Ride are riding through Lyonesse, the realm of Morgian, the Queen of Air and Darkness, on a quest to recover the Grail. They are forced to pass through an unmoving wall of fog, and when they reach the other side, about 20 of their men are missing, including Bedwyr and Cai – two of the main characters and two of Arthur’s closest friends (Sir Bedivere and Sir Kay).

Arthur and the men go back to look for them. After a fruitless search, they stop to rest near a large oak tree; all find its presence odd in the wastelands of Lyonesse, but then everything there is odd. But soon they notice something especially weird about it: Something is hanging from the branches…

You can probably guess: The bodies of Cai, Bedwyr, and the rest of the missing Dragon Ride.

Now, I had not read part three of “Arthur” yet. For all I knew, the next section could have started with the words “It was many years into Arthur’s reign. Most of his battlechiefs had died many years ago…” So when I saw their bodies on the tree, my reaction was not “Who cares? I know they’re not dead”. No, I gasped in shock and horror, then spent the rest of the book hoping it was one of Morgian’s illusions.

As for Morgian, some saw her sections as too over the top, apparently. I did not – in fact, they increased my understanding of her motivations by quite a bit. Plus, sometimes melodrama is fun. An epic fantasy needs an epic villain, after all.

My one complaint: At the end of the book, a kidnapped Arthur tells Galahad and co. to give up Excalibur and the Grail to Lancelot. I was shocked, and originally convinced it was one of Morgian’s illusions. Arthur, tell them to give up the Grail to MORGIAN (for Lancelot was Morgian’s Champion)? Not in a million years.

But the way Lawhead framed it seemed to imply that Arthur assumed that they’d refused. I took it to be a strategic move by Arthur to buy him time for him or the Grail co. to come up with a plan. In any event it was a minor point, and it affected the story relatively little.

Anyway, Lawhead creates an atmosphere taut with suspense and dread. I was utterly captivated by the story, and could hardly put the book down. Galahad is a character I wish I could see more of. I start reading part three of “Arthur” with great anticipation and some dread: Knowing how the legend must end, this can’t be anything but a tragedy, after all.

I haven’t said a whole lot about “Grail” for the simple reason that criticism is much easier to articulate than praise. “Grail” is, like all of the books, highly recommended, but for new readers read it in chronological order, not order of publication. You’ll thank me for it later.

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