Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve

For some reason, I cannot read this title without intuitively reading it in Latin hic iacit Arcturus.

I attended a literacy conference this week where Philip Reeve was – for wont of a better phrase – the keynote speaker and I was lent this book as an introduction to his work as – to my total shame – I’ve never read any! I’ve been aware of Mortal Engines and intending to read it – being a definite steampunk fan – but something’s always got in my way!

So… onto hic iacit Arctururs which is obviously based on the King Arthur legend.


Lets look at the cover above. We see a youthful face, armoured, with piercing blue eyes raised to Heaven in a saintly way. No one tells us that this face is Arthur’s but it is the assumption we make. But let’s look at it in more detail. The metaphor Reeve uses to describe Arthur is the bear: petty, violent and brutally violent. This is not the picture that decorates the cover.

So who else could it be? Gwyna the main character and narrator? Is the face sufficiently feminine rather than saintly to be a young woman? Possibly, but she is never a soldier and far more earthy than this character looks.

No, I think the picture is Peredur. A relatively minor character introduced a few chapters in and dismissed to return in the second half and become really very important! And there is a very obvious reason why this would fit with the femininity of the image.

Reeve seems to be creating a world that is closer to historical reality – with it’s hardships, horrors, tedium and petty brutality as well as beauty, stink and death. Listening to him yesterday, he described how he was inspired by John Boorman’s Excalibur and “lifted” (“stole”?) both the opening and closing scenes from it. It was lovely hearing him describe how as a teenager inspired by this film he devoured Arthurian mythology – in a remarkably similar way to the way I did myself.

Reeve sets the story deeply into the Celtic world, translating familiar names like Merlin into the more Welsh – and more authentic sounding – Myrddin; Tintagel become Din Tagel.

Myrddin is for Arthur what Alastair Campbell was for Tony Blair: Reeve shows him spinning and weaving the legends of Arthur from half-formed truths, ancient myths, lost religions and outright lies.

It is an explicitly metafictional book – a book about books – a tale of tales – a story of songs – which explores the powers of the transformative narrative word to bind and inspire, to create belief out of the air. We hear the tales we all know – Uthr transformed into the shape of his enemy to seduce Ygraine; the Lady of the Lake; Excalibur or Caliburn here; the Holy Grail – and we see the sleight-of-hand by which they were created.

And what I find amazing is that, just like Gwyna, we both recognise the lies for what they are and we are seduced by them ourselves.

There is something beautifully Shakespearean here. The gender ambiguities of Gwyna who becomes a boy, Gwyn, to be safe upon the road and the parallel story of Peredur kept safe from the army by being dressed as a girl echoes As You Like It‘s Rosalind.

I recall the series on Channel 4 not many months back called Camelot starring Joseph Fiennes as a not dissimilar Merlin – albeit one with genuine magic. In reflection, it’s such a shame they didn’t just dramatise this book which – despite the lack of raunchiness (breasts were bared nearly moment by moment and maidens defiled each episode!) – was so much more authentic, genuinely moving and just interesting.

On a separate point: Philip Reeve is fabulous! Clad in a three piece suit which my untrained eye wants to claim as gabardine and walking upright he looked like he had strode out of Dartmoor – which I guess he literally had! – where no doubt he was to return to find the footprint of a monstrous hound by his garden gate! He is, however, a truly inspirational speaker and I feel privileged to have heard him speak!

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