|Cover design by David Wardle|
Head of Zeus, 5 March 2020
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of By Force Alone via NetGalley.
'If you expect Enlightenment to occur centuries hence you are sure to be disappointed'
Where can I even start with Tidhar's latest? There is so much to this book, it's hard to know where to begin. I'm tempted just to say you should buy it, and then sign off, but I need to do better than that.
By Force Alone takes as its theme the life of King Arthur, previously invented, narrated, embroidered, reinvented, retold over hundreds of years and also subject to numerous quests for the "real" Arthur, the "real" truth. What we have is, then, another retelling, but a retelling shaped for the times, reflecting our early 21st century, late capitalist, preoccupations...
...as is every retelling of these stories.
Tidhar summarises this process in an Afterword, which also puts the subject in its historical context, sketching what is known of the corresponding actual history of Britain in a period when it had broken from being part of a pan-European polity and had to make its own way in the world. That situation is, as best anyone can tell, the "real" background to Arthur, if there is such a thing - the post Roman period, from which few written records survive but which seems to have been foundational in producing what would later be called England. (One little quibble is the phrase 'The Dark Ages': just no!)
In the course of this book Tidhar actually sketches a very convincing picture of this period, one in which Roman towns, infrastructure (roads, mines, aquaducts) and - though sketchily - political structures still survive, albeit decaying, and in which various local "bosses" survive, claiming various forms of legitimacy but all holding power, in the end, by force alone - a repeated mantra in this book. The former Roman provinces are divided into tenuous "kingdoms", based on geography, tribal allegiance and opportunity - both credible historically and reflecting the nature of the Arthurian tales which abound in petty kings.
As the story proceeds, locations, which initially correspond to real places (Google some and you'll see) become vaguer, introducing legendary and possibly mythical places such as Camelot and Camlann. We are, then, moving from what is known, what can be inferred, into the mists of history. In keeping with that, we repeatedly see the impatience of rulers with mere practical questions such as how to keep the aqueducts working or supply food to the miners toiling in the - still just working - Roman gold-mines, and their immediate interest when it comes to hunting down groups of bandits or challenging each other for the top table. As we move into those mists, the sword's the thing, the trappings of civilisation fall away (though, how Merlin yearns for a decent library!)
Entertainingly, Tidhar sets up a comparison between these rulers and organised crime syndicates: mafia language proliferates with knights being "made" men, the objectives of the bosses being trafficking, protectionism and prostitution, there is mention of the omnium ducibus dux, the bosses of all the bosses, 'the sort of offer you couldn't refuse' refuse, and so on. There is one scene where the mobsters, sitting in the street and eating olives as though on the Aventine, reflect on how things were done in the Old Country, from which their parents and grandparents came.
The message is that this isn't the age of chivalry, Arthur's band of soldiers are not good Christian knights despite the many Sir thises and Sir that's (indeed, Christianity is a shadowy, somewhat marginal faith here). Nobody here is following a cause: Arthur's actions in seeking to unite Britannia (England isn't a thing yet) are all about getting, and enjoying power. 'He cares only that it is his commands that are obeyed, that on his word men live or die'. Merlin's, too, in supporting him - as a Fan, Merlin feeds on power. And Arthur's prepared to deploy populist rhetoric to achieve that ('They want our land. They want our wealth. They want our women', 'Like the Roman, I seem to see the Tiber foaming with much blood'). He's just like a - well, insert the name of your favourite lying populist demagogue, there are plenty to choose from. There are no principles here. 'It occurs to [Merlin] that this sort of patter will never quite fail. Perhaps in centuries hence this sort of crap would still light up people's hearts.'
And if you recognised one of those quotes, it's because it comes from a 20th century English politician, not from Thomas Mallory or Geoffrey of Monmouth. Tidhar uses such anachronisms ruthlessly [more examples] and quite fittingly, given that the whole setup of knights in armour, castles, squires, chivalry and jousting which we associate with Arthur is itself totally anachronistic, dating from nearly a thousand years after the time of Arthur (if there ever was such a time).
Equally fitting is the exploration here of the place of the Arthur myth in the national psyche - a myth which sits uneasily with the long accepted narrative of a state founded by Angle and Saxon invaders, given that Arthur is cast as one of the natives. (The dirty secrets of England's foundation is a subject ripe for fiction, that narrative of the triumphant incoming Germanic tribes long suited a culture seeking justification for an imperial destiny but doesn't sit so well in post-colonial times).
Tidhar is absolutely the right person, I think, to carry out this exploration. Many of his recent books (for example, A Man Lies Dreaming and Unholy Land) reveal a fascination with pulp literature and its myth-making, whether that is intended or not. In a sense, the whole Arthurian cycle and the way it has developed, with its origin myths, reboots and team-ups - is the ultimate body of pulp literature, made up as it is of tales of heroes performing wildly improbably feats, created to satisfy the demand for brightly coloured exploits and coming to fruition when printing allowed mass distribution. I've no doubt there were worthies in 15th century England denouncing the influence of this trashy stuff on the young.
In Tidhar's hands the latest rewrite of The Matter of Britain hits all the right notes and as ever with this writer, the breadth of cultural references is impressive and, again, impressively anachronistic. Tidhar evokes Shakespeare (often, but especially through the witches from Macbeth), Trainspotting ('Choose life. Choose a home. Choose a great big fat palace to stuff all your money in...'), Blade Runner ('attack ships on fire off the coast of Smyrna'), Gangs of New York ('Everybody owes and everybody pays, as the poet said' - appropriate, given how he sketches London), TS Eliot, 20th century myths such as the speculation of Erich von Daniken and much, much more.
At the same time, all the familiar figures ands tropes are here: not only Merlin and Arthur, but the Round Table, Sir Pellinore and the Questing Beast (possibly the only two genuinely good and pure characters here), Kay and Hector as Arthur's foster family, the Nine Sisters (though here the 'ladies of the lakes and streams', still dispensers of swords, have become enthusiastic arms traders). Lancelot and Guinevere are here (though given exciting backstories: both are now kick-ass assassins, but while Guinevere is an ex-highwaywoman with her own girl gang, Lancelot - a Nubian - is a member of a mystic sect form Judea, trained in the ancient art of gongfu and ready to deliver such moves as 'the Monkey's Paw and the King in Yellow and the Turn of the Screw'.
There is the Dolorous Stroke that wounds the King and inflicts sickness on the land. Tidhar puts his own emphasis on things - the Lancelot/ Guinevere thing is passed over in a few pages, the whole Grail Quest gets a completely different twist on it which I'm saying nothing about because it would spoil things
The book also looks forward ('Perhaps... one day all of this land will speak in Anglisc, and they'll re-surface the old Roman roads and ride down them in horseless chariots, like dragons belching smoke...') ('As though swiping through images only she can see') and Tidhar's use of language sometimes shows the same place across time (for example 'The Romans' once-new castle on the Tyne' or the scenes in which Guinevere and her companions, travelling in the North East, seem to encounter coal smoke, the incessant din of industry and the flames of furnaces and forges.
Overall, it is I think a dark take on the Arthurian material. A very dark take. I'm reminded of Michael Hughes' Country, which uses the Homeric narrative of the Trojan War to frame the story of the Troubles in Ireland. Both retellings use a familiar narrative to illuminate the present and both are stories of bloodshed and loss, with many dodgy protagonists. Both end in bloodshed and loss. But while Country manages to achieve some closure, the ending of By Force Alone is a devastating assassination of any cosy, nation-building mythicness that one might look for in the Arthurian cycle. Not only has Tidhar exploded the internal content of the cycle, substituting amorality and power lust for the chilly literary chivalry of the late Middle Ages but he's shown how that cycle will be appropriated by the victors from the losers (' The Angles and the Saxons are here to stay, dear Merlin... They'll tell this story and think it is about themselves it's told...') Another point of reference might be a story that ends with these words, from an earlier retelling: 'For Drake is no longer in his hammock... nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and its is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive...'
Another complicated, thought provoking and many-layered novel from Tidhar whose books are definitely a must-read for me, taking in a dazzling range of themes and perspectives.
For more information about By Force Alone, see the Head of Zeus website here.