What if Arthur, like Uther, was an ambitious thug and the knights of the Round Table were a collection of weirdos and ruffians who say “fuck” a lot? That’s more or less the premise of Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone, and although I finished the book relatively quickly during my recent vacation in the Eifel, at the end I was struck by two things. First, Monty Python and the Holy Grail came to mind entirely too much, which I suppose shows the effectiveness of the troupe’s sendup of Arthuriana more than 40 years after its release. On the other hand, Tidhar may have at least partially been playing to that himself; he notes in his afterword “The attentive reader will no doubt find a great many and various references scattered throughout this novel.” (p. 505) Certainly his Lancelot resembles the Pythons’ in deadliness, although Tidhar adds a knowledge of kung-fu (noting also in the afterword that none of the sources give Lancelot this set of skills) and rather more self-control in getting started with the slaughter.
Second, by the end of the book I was still not sure why. The Once and Future King mashed Arthur up with a modern, or at least mid-twentieth-century, sensibility, and made the early years quite funny. It’s been a decade and more since I read The Mists of Avalon, but I still remember the audaciousness of telling the legends of Arthur with the men mainly nuisances, practically all of the fighting off-page, and the Grail quest a pointless aggravation. Marion Zimmer Bradley had a clear purpose in recasting Arthur.
And Tidhar? He’s gone back to original sources, as he explains in his afterword. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of Britain “is a wildly inventive fantasy text.” (p. 501) He explains how stories accreted to Arthur: “It is thanks to the otherwise-obscure Norman poet, Wace, for instance, that we get Excalibur and the Round Table. An unknown English poet in the fourteenth century gives us Gawain and the Green Knight.” (p. 501) Tidhar emphasizes the European roots of Arthurian legends. “Indeed, it is one of the greatest ironies of the material that the stories of Britain were mostly made up by those on the continent.” (p. 501) He notes that Chrétien de Troyes introduces Lancelot and the grail, that Wolfram von Eschenbach introduced the quest for the grail, and that Robert de Boron brings in both Joseph of Arimathea and the Lady of the Lake. Tidhar attributes motives to the various historians and poets — Geoffrey had political purposes, de Boron religious, and Malory “provided mass entertainment while serving an essentially political purpose: giving the people of Britain a shared (if entirely made up) past, made of glory.” (p. 503)
Tidhar seems to want to take out the glory, while looking at everything else slightly askew. His approach has several virtues: it’s fast, it’s breezy, and it brings in some unexpected elements. He zips through all of the major elements of Arthurian legend in one volume, right at 500 pages in a generously formatted trade paperback. It’s shaggy and loose, too, as Tidhar lets new elements wander in and out as easily as the old poets did. Lancelot’s kung-fu is one aspect of this, as are all of his improbable adventures under the tutelage of Joseph of Arimathea. Playing off of sources that call the grail a “fallen stone,” Tidhar posits it as a gigantic radioactive meteor that fell during Uther’s rise, though some later bits of the story suggest that it might be an alien spacecraft.
One of Tidhar’s points is that kings in fifth-century Britain attained and kept their position by force alone, not by any greater concepts of right or any manifestation of divine favor except prowess in combat. The thesis is right there in the title, and he states it again in the book’s second paragraph. “[King Vortigern the usurper] sits upon his throne. It is his by right. He had schemed for it and he had killed for it and it is his by force alone.” (p. 3) Maybe the violence inherent in the system is new to some readers, or Tidhar felt it necessary to emphasize? Teenaged Arthur leads a drug-running and protection racket in part of London and distinguishes himself by trying to place himself above the other local gang bosses. His reign is the same, on a larger stage.
There’s little chivalry and no tragedy in this version of Arthur. Some of the characters are funny, or interesting, or strangely endearing, like the Green Knight who is a spirit of the ancient forest made corporeal and semi-human. Some of them are just strange, like Galahad who is remade into Camelot’s Petyr Baelish. “These men of the Round Table all have that in common [thinks Merlin]: they are unholy sneaks and thieves and liars to a man, and will connive and scheme and murder to pursue their goals. No wonder they all flock to Camelot. It is that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the kingdom are irresistibly drained.” (p. 413)
It was fun, after a fashion, for me to see Guinivere cast as the leader of an all-women band of thieves and adventurers, as proficient with the sword as Arthur. Hearing a character quoting Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita, on the other hand, was just plain strange. By Force Alone works best as a mashup, a skewed version of a familiar set of legends. I found parts of it unnecessarily tawdry — “As thought it’s all so awful, this story of Arthur, just a sad, simple tale of violence and greed” (p. 447) — because if that’s all there was to the tales, they would not still be inspiring new versions close to a thousand years later.