The Hallowed Isle: The Book Of The Sword And The Book Of The Spear by Diana L. Paxson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
With subject matter as popular as the Arthurian Legends -- a body of literature 25,000 works strong -- developing a fresh angle presents a monumental challenge. Sometimes the attempt falls flat, as in the vulgar Merlin by Robert Nye. Other works stray into the realm of whimsical fantasy, such as Sharan Newman's Guinevere trilogy. Regardless of the chosen slant, the vast majority of authors describe the rise and fall of Camelot from the perspective of Arthur or members of his court.
Diana Paxson stands alone. The Hallowed Isle cleverly reinvents the legend from the perspective of the distinct tribal cultures fighting for dominion of Britain during the turbulent 6th century.
The first volume, The Book of the Sword, introduces the Romanized British through the Lady of the Lake, Artoria Argantel. Wanting to end the conflict sparked by the withdrawal of the legions, the Druid priestess calls upon the Spirit of War and Justice to deliver a champion to unite the broken land. This champion, from Artoria's own royal lineage, must prove he can free the magically forged sword from its stone prison and wield it with courage and wisdom. This champion, naturally, is the hitherto unknown fosterling, Artor.
Paxson's close association with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley exudes from volume one in the pagan-priestess element. Fortunately, this aspect doesn't detract from the story. While post-modern neo-pagans and feminists might enjoy the fantasy of a female-controlled ancient Celtic religion, the fact remains that it is a fantasy, and Paxson does well to tone down her depiction of it.
In The Book of the Spear, Paxson mines the rich Germanic mythology and culture to deliver a fascinating look at the struggle from the Saxons' perspective. Oesc, a Saxon prince, fled the doomed country to which he is heir in order to claim rich lands in Britain. He serves the dark sorcery of the power of the Spear. But the Spear's magic clashes with that of the Sword of Rome -- the sword, wielded by Uthir, that killed Oesc's father. With Uthir gone, lust for vengeance burns in Oesc's heart against Uthir's son, the young King Artor. The fate of Britain lies in the hands of these warring sons.
As you might guess from names like "Artor" and "Uthir," don't expect to see the usual spellings in this series. In fact, those with a familiarity of the Arthurian Legends based only upon medieval works such as Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur may find themselves at a disadvantage, though the appendix helps dispel the confusion. Although Paxson employs multiple viewpoints, curiously, she stays away from Artor's. This doesn't present a problem until the end of the second book, when I wish I could have observed Artor process the aftermath of the final battle against Oesc. I'll leave the reader to discover why I think this was a crucial omission.
But whether you seek a unique but historically plausible take on the Arthurian Legends, or simply a few hours' escape into a well-written and engaging story, you'll find both in The Hallowed Isle.
(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)
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