Stories for one of the best of all legends
Confession: I don’t think you can actually go wrong by reading short story anthologies. What I mean is this: anthologies are written by plenty of authors, so if you don’t like one story, chances are there’s another you’ll love.
And I’ve always had a soft spot for Arthurian tales (who doesn’t? Swords! Magic! Code of honor! The occasional axe-wielding giant!). So when I came across this particular collection, it didn’t take much for it to come home with me.
Summers of endless reading. Ah, I yearn for those.
Some of these I read (twice), others I skimmed, and because they’re only lightly linked, I skipped around, reading in the order of what interested me. Isn’t that how everyone does short story collections? Just me?
Anyway, I’m not rating these numerically…because I didn’t feel like it…but I might come back and do it later.
Welcome to Camelot: Jane Yolen
Moving on to the main stories…
The Changing of the Shrew: Kathleen Kudlinski
This one…was not my favorite. It had things I liked (Merlin humming a perfect A flat and crossing his fingers a certain way to fly–arrgh, that was wonderful. You know I love dreadfully specific magic). But after that point, it felt too much like rehashing the T.H. White versions–lessons between Merlin and Arthur about how to be a good king, involving changing bodies with an animal and a picnic lunch on the green.
Not super interesting. Especially if you’ve already read the T.H. White versions. Besides the fact that lessons are about the most boring thing a short story can be about.
Wild Man: Diana L. Paxson
Not going to lie, this one got weird. Give Merlin a nervous breakdown and a half-animal background, a chosen girl to bring him back to save the city, and there you go. Also some very green apples.
I’m used to weird fantasy. But this was…odd.
But it did include juicy details about Celtic-Roman Britain instead of your typical “Oh, you know, it’s castle-y stuff, erm, anyway.” Seriously. I still remember her descriptions of the hammered jewelry and beads at the fair. And the fact that the mummers and wild men were a real, historic feature of Britain? Bookmarked approval there.
Once and Future: Terry Pratchett
Yeah, this one might have been my favorite of the collection. Because not only is it a Merlin story, it’s not Merlin. It’s Mervin, the marooned time-traveler, out to find the King Arthur he’s read about but doesn’t see before him yet. Sort of a Conneticut Yankee retelling…but good in its own way.
And besides. I liked the Yankee. And time travel. And plot twist.
Gwenhwyfar: Lynne Pledger
This one…was just sad. It’s the political side of court, with an unknown king (I’ll give you a hint, I think it’s Arthur) taking a second queen after his is gone–a young orphaned girl bearing the same name as the first, living in an abbey where she intends to stay the rest of her life…except things don’t go as planned (and why is the abbess always evil? Someone, please tell me why? No, better, write me a human abbess that is neither a villain nor an angel.)
I get the sense this one had a lot more metaphors and poetry to it than I realized, reading it quickly at the time. It was just sort of sad and disturbing involving a dead cow…time to move on.
Excalibur: Anne E. Crompton
I actually don’t remember this one all that well…it was told from the perspective of a nymph, like the Lady of the Lake. I remember liking her, and finding it interesting the mention of the iron-burns-fairies rule. It was very descriptive contrasting the two types of people, fey and mortal…but beyond that I can’t say much. It’s been a really long time since I read it. As in before reading The Fog Diver. That long.
Black Horses for a King: Anne McCaffrey
This is the story that made me fall in love with Anne McCaffrey’s writing. I actually stumbled across Black Horses for the King first, discovered it was a retelling of the short story she’d done for this anthology, and pounced on the collection as soon as I got the chance.
It’s an Arthurian tale, yes, but also one part horse story, and told from the perspective of Comes Artos’ farrier. The Roman-Celtic vibe in this one is probably the best of the whole collection. Guinevere, nice or naughty, is also nowhere in sight.
Sometime I’ll have to review the extended version…so very, very good.
Holly and Ivy: James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle
Another favorite! This one was thoroughly hilarious. Take the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and tell it from the knights’ perspective. In addition to making Lancelot French (and hopelessly baffled at times–a little swearing in French due to this, just so you’re aware), in this version, the knights are behind the apparition of the Green Knight riding into the banqueting hall. Because it’s Christmas, and they’re too hungry for their feast to wait for the king’s demanded marvel that’s holding it up. Seriously loved this from beginning to end.
The Raven: Nancy Springer
Another dark one, very poetic and very sad…can’t remember if I read the whole thing or just skimmed it. Focalized through Mordred this time, which is a bold move, but not the cold, unfeeling Mordred of myth. This one loves Arthur and is terrified of his fate…leading to druidism, magic, immortality, and, naturally, a raven.
Curious to pair this one with McCaffrey’s, since ravens are a good luck charm for the Comes…
All the Iron of Heaven: Mark W. Tiedemann
Another sad one, retelling the horrors of after-war Camelot, now that Arthur is dead. Thoroughly described…which is both a good and bad thing. Sometimes I think all “war is evil” stories cut out important things, even if they are honest. Still had the Roman-Celtic vibe for me to enjoy, poetic prose, and cast Guinevere in a better light, but it’s a depressing story nonetheless.
Amesbury Song: Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple
Technically not a story, but a song. Can’t remember if it had sheet music with it, but I remember liking it either way.
Our Hour of Need: Greg Costikyan
If the other stories cover the T.H. White and Mark Twain versions of Arthur, “Our Hour of Need” takes the nerd viewpoint. Open with kids playing Dungeons and Dragons–but really just using the format to retell the story of Arthur. That I can appreciate! Of course, it got a bit weird later, as most D&D stories do, what with overlaying the Kennedy assassination.
A few final notes…
Also, the entire anthology had gorgeous, full-color illustrations, one for each story in the edition I read. I don’t read books for pictures…but this one might have been worth it.
If you find a copy somewhere, pick it up! It’s worth it, if only for “Once and Future” and “Holly and Ivy.” Besides, with short story anthologies, can you really go wrong?
Happy reading, Arthurian bookworms!