Reviewed by Alan Lupack (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Never King by George Tyson opens with an iconic scene from the Arthurian legends: the pulling of the sword from the stone. But rather than taking place in early Britain or in some undefined time in the Middle Ages of romance, it occurs at a time in the near future at a carnival in Cornwall. In this case, the sword—which has been cut off and super-glued to a stone—is part of a rigged carny game. But a man named Arthur wins the game when he mysteriously pulls not the truncated sword of the trick but a complete sword from the stone.
Reports of Arthur’s survival and return have a long tradition in Arthurian literature. The Welsh “Stanzas of the Graves” says that Arthur’s grave is ‘‘difficult to find,” which has been seen as referring to the belief that Arthur is not truly dead. Wace similarly acknowledges the belief of the Britons that Arthur was taken to Avalon and will return again, but he himself will say only what Merlin said: that Arthur’s death would be doubtful. In his History of the English People, Henry of Huntingdon reports that the Bretons think that Arthur lives on and they await his return. Even Malory raises questions about Arthur’s return by calling him the once and future king. The medieval motif of Arthur’s survival and return informs a number of works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well. Arthur survives in Avalon waiting to return in such diverse nineteenth-century texts as Thomas Love Peacock’s “The Round Table; or King Arthur’s Feast” and American poet Sallie Bridges’ poem “Avilion.” Arthur sometimes returns as a specific historical figure. In other works his return is for purposes of satire or social commentary. It is not uncommon to have him return as a leader who must preserve or restore values. In his novel The Quest of Excalibur, Irish-born novelist Leonard Wibberly recounts Arthur’s return to help an England overly controlled by a bureaucratic government which restricts individual freedom. Similarly, British poet Martyn Skinner, in poems written in the 1950’s and collected as the “satiric epic” The Return of Arthur in 1966, has Merlin bring Arthur back from Avalon on the verge of the new millennium in 2000 to a world suffering from a totalitarian government that uses technology to spy upon and control its people. A number of popular novels bring Arthur back in various guises, including Mayor of New York City; and in one of the most ambitious Arthurian comic book series, Mike Barr and Brian Bolland’s twelve-part Camelot 3000, Arthur’s return is central to the plot, as he, along with a group of his knights and Merlin, reappears in the year 3000 to save Britain from an invasion from outer space, engineered by Morgan.
Like these and many other works, both medieval and modern, The Never King brings Arthur back at a time of need—when the government of Britain is so corrupt that one of the main characters thinks the Apocalypse is near. Unfortunately Tyson’s novel lacks a consistent or compelling theme. The talk of the Apocalypse suggests a religious agenda, but that is never consistently developed. Nor is the cause of the social criticism made clear. This is problematic since much of the plot involves the need to overthrow the corrupt government. The main character, Peter Quince, an American academic and former combat veteran, is enlisted by the British government to find the Arthur who drew the sword from the stone in the novel’s opening. Quince, they believe, could pose as a researcher of the Arthurian legends and make the necessary enquiries without arousing suspicion. Almost immediately the reader begins to question the plausibility of the plot: why should the government hire someone who has studied Celtic mythology but who was not an Arthurian scholar to engage in the research? And if the government needed an academic rather than an agent to find Arthur, why could it not locate a British academic who was an actual Arthurian scholar?
In his search for Arthur, Quince encounters a woman named Thistle who is later revealed to be the Queen of the Fairies. And she is also the woman named Chloe whom Quince loved earlier in his life. His loss of her caused him great pain; and his reunion with her occurs at a time when he can open his mind to her world, the world of fairies and magic. The problem is that once again readers have trouble accepting the improbabilities of the novel. Why, one wonders, was the queen of fairies living a normal life with a man in the United States?
Although Quince is told that the government wants to find Arthur because they fear that he is going to lead a neo-fascist movement, Arthur is in fact not a neo-fascist. Government officials are trying not just to find him but to assassinate him because they fear he will lead a revolution against them. Behind the attempt to kill Arthur is Sir Dryw, one of the richest men in the world and a descendent of Bedivere. Sir Dryw has convinced high government officials to murder Arthur so that he can involve them in a capital crime and blackmail them into resigning. The fact that Sir Dryw, the man who is trying to save Britain, arranges for Arthur’s murder is only one of the incongruities that make the plot of The Never King improbable, the characters inconsistent, and the theme confusing.
As the novel progresses, Peter Quince realizes that Arthur is not the villain the government has made him out to be and assists him in evading, for a time, the government hit squads. But since Arthur intends to sacrifice himself for the cause, it is never clear why he and Quince spend so much time trying to escape. The assassins finally catch up to the pair at Tintagel and force Arthur to plunge from the cliffs. Yet Quince does not see him fall but rather sees him “march slowly toward the moon on a bridge of silver swords” (220)—a statement and an image that suggest that Arthur is a mythic figure. But it is difficult to reconcile this mythic Arthur with the man who, a few pages before, dropped his trousers and mooned a camera in a drone that had been tracking him and trying to kill him. And then there is the fact that Arthur’s body turns up. These scenes, like statements elsewhere in the novel that suggest both that Arthur is and that he is not the legendary king, create an unnecessary confusion.
The Never King tries to recreate the early connection between Arthur and Bedivere, both in the character of Sir Dryw and in the relationship that develops between Arthur and Peter Quince, who becomes a Bedivere figure. There is also a Merlin figure who has a minor role in the plot. Besides these characters and the Cornwall setting, which is used quite effectively, there is little of Arthurian romance or chronicle in the novel. In the end, The Never King fails to achieve the difficult balance between originality and faithfulness to the medieval stories that makes the best reworkings of the Arthurian legends so compelling.
Rossell Hope Robbins Library
University of Rochester