Monday, April 4, 2011

Review - The Circle Cast by Alex Epstein

Short review: The tale of Anna, also known as Morgan, between Gorlois' death and Morgan's return to Britain from exile in Ireland.

Anna is no more
She has gone to Ireland
But Morgan returns

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The myth of King Arthur is probably the most pervasive myth in the English language. It has been told and retold in a myriad of different ways, each reflecting the era in which the writer lived: Arthur was written into the Mabinogion, he was the subject of the classic medieval romance of Thomas Malory, he was used for political satire and comedy by T.H. White, and authors like Catherine Christian and Bernard Cornwell have attempted to posit a "real" Arthur and write historical fiction featuring him and his various companions and enemies. Arthur shows up in retellings of Robin Hood (connecting him with the other pervasive English myth), in science fiction epics, in bad movies like First Knight, and in decent ones like Excalibur. The arena of Arthurian myth retellings is a crowded one.

So when a new entrant in the field shows up, it has to either be brilliantly written or approach the subject matter from a unique angle in order to stand out. And finding a unique angle is getting harder and harder to do. So when he decided to write about the life of Arthur's primary antagonist Morgan le Fay, Alex Epstein was embarking upon an uphill task to make his story stand out. Even his slightly unusual angle, telling the story from the perspective of Morgan le Fay, has been more or less done in The Mists of Avalon.

Morgan is an interesting and somewhat enigmatic character in Arthurian legend. In the standard tale, she shows up as Gorlois' daughter as set dressing behind Uther's betrayal of Gorlois and seduction of Ygraine to father Arthur. Then she disappears until showing up again to have incestuous sex with her half-brother, conceive Modred, and instigate the overthrow of Camelot. But there is almost nothing in the myth about what Morgan was doing during the interstitial decades while Arthur grew to adulthood. Into this gap steps Epstein with The Circle Cast to fill in the blank years with Morgan's story.

Epstein takes a quasi-historical approach with his retelling. Gorlois is a post-Roman governor in a Britain struggling against encroaching waves of Saxon invaders, and Anna is his beloved daughter. From there, the story dances along the line between historical based fiction, mythology, and fantasy. The tone of the story seems to be "almost historical fiction", as it takes place in a Britain and Ireland that seems like it could be close to what they were like in the "real" Arthur's time, but they also seem to a be, to a certain extent, somewhat inconsistently idealized. The Irish eschew armor, not because it is expensive and most of the Irish are poor, but rather out of bravado. The Irish approach war like a giant football game, until the consequences of the battle come forward, and then they kill all of the enemy warriors, take their women as slaves, and plunder their property. They are hopelessly honorable at some times, and hard-headed realists at others. But this seems to be the result of trying to walk the fine line between a "historical" version of the myth, and the effort to capture the myth and its chivalry, romance, and magic. And for the most part, Epstein manages to walk that line successfully enough that the reader is carried along into the quasi-historical version of the story he presents.

For the period where it intersects with the basic Arthur legend, the story treads a fairly standard line: Uter lusts after Ygraine. Gorlois and Uter go to war, which ends badly for Gorlois. But while the war was underway, Uter persuades Merlin to disguise him as Gorlois so he may have a tryst with Ygraine and father a child. But beneath this story, Epstein begins to stake out the differences as Ygraine leads the women of Gorlois' army in a magical circle to call upon the divine power of Celtic goddesses to protect them and lead them to victory - and Morgan realizes that her mother's invocation failed, and of course, this is seen as contributing to Gorlois' inevitable defeat and death. But like all of the the magic described in the book, it is so ambiguous that Epstein leaves open the possibility that it is merely in the minds of the characters that magic works, and they are living in a purely mundane world. But to Anna and the people around her the magic is real, and so whether or not it is actually real is not particularly important.

It is after Gorlois' defeat that the book really gets going. To keep her safe from Uter, Ygraine send Anna to Ireland accompanied by a disgraced soldier, a Greek, and her Irish slave and nanny. And Ygraine gives Anna a new name: Morgan and tells her to find Ygraine's kinswoman in an Ireland full of warring clans, mercurial druids, and Christian missionaries. And so begins the newly-named Morgan's long circular journey that takes her out of and back into the Arthur myth. But through it all, Morgan burns for revenge against the man who killed her father, forced himself upon her mother, and drove her into exile in a wild and uncivilized country.

Once in Ireland, Morgan is confronted by an alien culture which she has to navigate, first as a princess, then as a slave, then as a cloistered resident of the budding Christian community, and finally as a revered and feared princess and queen with magical influence and presumed fairy blood. One element that runs through the entire book is Morgan's status as an outsider. Even at the beginning of the book when she is in her father's fortress she is set apart by her understanding of the forces of magic that her mother calls upon, but is unwilling to accept. Once she flees to Ireland, she is a Briton in a country not her own, which immediately makes her an outsider, and before long she is taken as a slave and becomes the property of an outsider in the form of a village wise woman who is mistrusted and despised by the people who depend upon her expertise. And when Morgan takes refuge among the Christians, she is again an outsider, as she remains a pagan despite residing among the faithful. Even when she is taken as a princess and then a queen, her alien knowledge derived both from reading her father's books and from her connection to the pagan traditions learned from her experience as the slave of the wise woman sets her apart from her subjects. Even when she returns to what was once her home, she remains apart, much more so than when she left.

Perhaps it is her continuous separateness that makes Morgan the antagonist to Arthur's vision of Britain. Whereas Arthur heads a community symbolized by their "all are equals" Round Table, Morgan is a perpetual outsider, set apart from those around her. But through all of her lonely wandering Morgan has her hatred of Uter and her tie to the magic of the land to keep her going. But the story also shows exactly how much her desire for revenge cost her, which sets this story apart. In most versions, Morgan is set upon a course of destruction that puts her at odds with the knights of Camelot, but she merely appears as a force of wooden evil, opposing Arthur merely because she is opposed to Arthur - in one version she even tries to justify herself with the line "in Chess someone has to black the black pieces" - but here one sees every possibility laid before her that she spurned in order to pursue her desire to kill Uter, although her true enemy, and the true architect of her misery, is Merlin.

And each of the options that Epstein lays before Morgan is tempting, but not enough to replace the anger inside her. Neither the prospect of a peaceful life as a Christian, or the potentiality of being the queen of a united Ireland and mother to children with a man who loves her can turn her aside from the terrible fate that the reader knows awaits her if she pursues her course of vengeance. Of course, since the end of the story is already known, each time Morgan seems to settle in to a happy future, the reader knows that this is only an illusion that will be set aside so that Morgan can move on to her appointed destiny as the downfall of Camelot.

But despite her best efforts, the experience in Ireland changes Morgan, in ways that seem to soften her as much as they harden her. When she returns from Ireland and finds her mother had been tacitly complicit in Uter's seduction, Morgan finds herself forgiving her, perhaps a nod to the time she spend with the Irish Christian community. But when called upon to face an encroaching band of Saxons, her lessons in war making learned from her father and years spent putting them to practical use advising her husband Conall make her step into the role of a war leader seem natural. And because he has made it clear that magic is real to the characters, even if somewhat ambiguous to the reader, when Morgan unleashes her final spell, it seems real to everyone in the book, and believable to the reader.

In a crowded field, Epstein has managed to take an unusual central character, approach the subject from a somewhat unique quasi-historical angle and produce a very readable and enjoyable book. For anyone who has ever wondered how Morgan le Fay became the woman she is, this book fills in those blanks. The only weakness is that it ends too soon, just as Morgan is about to unknowingly meet her brother, leaving the reader to wonder how she gets from where she is at the end of this story to the point where she is the mother of a bastard child by her own brother and the foil for all her sibling stands for. Even so, this book is an interesting and enjoyable addition to the Arthur myth, and definitely worth reading.

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  1. Since I'm a bit of an Arthurian fanatic, I'm going to pick up this book. I think I've read pretty much everything else, but this is completely new to me. Cool!

  2. Just found your blog. Hi! I didn't read the review of this book. Let me tell you why. A lot of times I read the reviews and they give me too much information (on top of what is written on the back of the book or flap of the dust cover). So I tend to skim over reviews. I hope that isn't offensive. I'm sure someone will do that to me. I just started my own blog. I just wanted to say hello and tell you that, while I didn't "read" your review, I do like the way you form your thoughts.


  3. @Julia: Let me know how you like it!

  4. @Bakin_Goddess: Okay, I guess. I probably should warn you that most of my posts are book, television, and movie reviews. I certainly won't tell anyone they can't follow, but I'm not sure how much you will get out of the experience.