The Kingmaking

Helen Hollick

First published 1994. Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4022-1888-0. 563 pages.

I read and enjoyed The Kingmaking when it was first published, and am pleased to see it back in print. It is the first in the Pendragon's Banner trilogy, a retelling of the King Arthur story from Arthur's boyhood to his death. Arthur and his wife Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere is the later medieval spelling of the same name) are the central characters. The Kingmaking covers the period 450-457 AD, and Arthur is aged 15 at the beginning of the novel. Many of the characters, such as Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, Uthr, Ygrainne, Morgause, Cei and Bedwyr, are familiar from Arthurian legend. Others, such as Hengest, Vortigern and his wife Rowena, Ambrosius and Cunedda are known from historical sources although not always associated with Arthur.

Uthr Pendragon, exiled from Britain many years earlier after being defeated in battle by Vortigern, returns to try to reclaim his throne with the help of his old friend and ally, Cunedda of Gwynedd. Cunedda's feisty daughter Gwenhwyfar takes an immediate dislike to Uthr's companion, a boy of unknown parentage called Arthur, until a shared dislike of Uthr's evil mistress Morgause brings the two together. When Uthr's bid for power ends in his death and Arthur's true parentage is revealed, it seems that the fates of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar will be woven together. But Vortigern and his malicious daughter Winifred have other ideas, and soon Arthur and Gwenwhyfar find themselves entangled in a web of politics, war and ambition that threatens to divide them for ever.

The first thing to say about The Kingmaking is that it is a story of human love, hatred, loyalty, betrayal, war and politics without any of the supernatural elements that have come to be associated with the Arthur legends. There is no Merlin, no magic and no enchanted sword in a stone. This is no loss in my view, quite the reverse, and some of the author's suggestions for incidents that could have led to the supernatural parts of the legend are highly ingenious and great fun to spot. But readers who like magic and enchantments should look elsewhere.

The Kingmaking places Arthur in the middle of the fifth century as a contemporary of Vortigern and predecessor of Ambrosius Aurelianus, whereas it is more usual to place Arthur after Ambrosius. Given that there isn't an uncontested date in the two centuries of British history between the Rescript of Honorius in 410 AD and the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD, the dates for Arthur's life are fair game for the novelist's imagination.

What I found most memorable about The Kingmaking was the characterisation of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar. Both are fully rounded individuals with a mix of good and bad qualities, and both do admirable and not-so-admirable things. Arthur is dynamic, enthusiastic and brave, but also ruthless, ambitious, not above lying and cheating to gain his ends, and often fails to control his appetites for drink and women, with consequences that range from awkward to disastrous. Gwenhwyfar is bold and passionate, as brave as Arthur, but wilful and hasty to rush to judgment. Both are proud, hot-tempered and inclined to speak before thinking, leading them to inflict pain on each other and those around them. Their relationship is an emotional rollercoaster even without the obstacles thrown in their way by the political manoeuvrings. Life for them and for those around them, must be exhausting and exciting in about equal measure. Gwenhwyfar is a little too much of the warrior heroine for my liking, and as far as I know not one legend even hints at Gwenhwyfar as a warrior. Though as so little is known of the period, who's to say it's impossible?

Of the secondary characters, I found the men generally more varied and convincing than the women. Gwenhwyfar's brothers include the cheerful Etern, the quietly competent Enniaun, and the henpecked Osmail, Cei is upright and honest, and the pedantic Emrys (Ambrosius Aurelianus) has potential though he hardly appears in The Kingmaking. Even Vortigern and Hengest are rational men who deal in realpolitik, however unpleasant. In contrast, Morgause is pure evil and Winifred (Vortigern's fictional daughter) is pure spite, and I found both somewhat tedious. I had the impression of a sharp fault line between the good guys (Arthur, Gwenhwyfar and their friends and allies) and the bad guys. Vortigern, Hengest, Rowena, Winifred, Melwas and Morgause, all Arthur's enemies, are deceitful, cruel, vindictive, cunning, spiteful and/or selfish. Hengest is brave, but apart from that they hardly have a redeeming feature between them.

One notable feature is that the horses are almost secondary characters in their own right. I have the impression that the author knows a lot about horses and their ways, which adds an extra dimension to a novel in which cavalry warfare plays such a large part.

The complex politics of a power struggle in a dying empire are convincingly portrayed. Vortigern and Uthr are rivals for the position of supreme ruler of Britain; Vortigern's sons and Arthur are similar rivals; Hengest and his followers are Vortigern's paid allies, but have an eye to their own advantage; Cunedda is an independent power in Gwynedd, inclined to side with Uthr and then Arthur against Vortigern but no man's lapdog; Rowena, Winifred and Gwenhwyfar are all rivals for the position of Queen to the current king and mother of the next one. Add in local kings and chieftains, and there are enough plot threads to weave a tangled tale. The narrative skilfully cuts back and forth between the threads so that none of them is left for too long, but you do have to pay attention. The Kingmaking is a long book (550+ pages) and a complicated one; it's not a quick read.

A delightful feature is the ingenious take on the legend of the sword in the stone (no, I'm not going to tell you what it is). So much so that I thought it a great shame that it only appeared at the end. The marvellous sword is such a central component of the legend that I'd have liked to see it play an integral role in the plot from much earlier on.

A down-to-earth retelling of the King Arthur story as that of a ruthless fifth-century soldier and his feisty queen. Continued in the second book of the trilogy, Pendragon's Banner, reviewed here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.