Leon Mintz, Arthurian Tales: Ambrosius Aureliani. Pontiac, MI: Erie Harbor Productions, 2010.
Reviewed by Ann F. Howey (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Arthurian Tales: Ambrosius Aureliani by Leon Mintz is the first book in a projected four-book series. It tells the story of Ambrosius Aureliani (the legendary King Arthur’s uncle) through the first-person narration of Merlinus (Merlin). In this review, I will primarily address its strengths and weaknesses as a work of fiction; that might seem an obvious statement to make, but while Mintz’s book is a novel, it is also an argument for a certain interpretation of early medieval history, as the paratexts make explicit; it would be entirely possible to review it from the standpoint of historical plausibility alone. Reviewing it as fiction reveals real strengths, such as the pacing of certain battle scenes, but also weaknesses in dialogue and characterization, and these problems underscore a dilemma of medievalism: how to create a plausible, “authentic” past in the language and cultural idiom of twenty-first-century readers?
The novel covers the entire span of Ambrosius’ life, from his infancy to his death in a woodland skirmish with Attila the Hun. The narrator Merlin is only fourteen years older than Ambrosius and is involved in Ambrosius’ destiny originally as part of a conspiracy that switches the infant son (Ambrosius) of Princess Placidia and King Adaulphos with a dying child. Merlin spirits the true heir of the empire to Armorica and then to Britain, where Ambrosius is raised as a son of Constantine, and as brother to Cai and Geraint. When Ambrosius’ foster mother is forced to flee with him years later, she takes refuge at Merlin’s estate in Aureliani; once Merlin returns from his travels in the Far East, he becomes a mentor and advisor to Ambrosius. They return to Britain with Bishop Germanus, and Ambrosius eventually takes a leading role in the defeat of Grallon (Mintz’s version of Vortigern). Ambrosius returns to Aureliani to marry, essentially abdicating his role as High Commander of the Council to Euthar Pendragon (revealed later to be Ambrosius’ twin brother). Euthar eventually sends his son Arthur to be fostered with Ambrosius and Merlin, setting up the events of novels to come in the series.
As that brief summary suggests, Mintz has incorporated many events traditional to Arthurian legend: the invitation/invasion of the Saxons, Vortigern’s death by fire in a fortress, the poisoning of Vortimer, and the removal of the Giant’s Dance from Ireland to England. Some events, such as the conception of Arthur, are reported very briefly, as they happen away from the main characters of this novel. All of these events are situated in a continental, imperial context, so the novel also incorporates many events of Roman and continental history (the drowning of Ys, the presence of Attila, and many others). The novel is thus ambitious in its scope: even in 350 pages, it is a lot of material to cover.
That emphasis on bringing many historical events together is elaborated in the paratexts of the novel. A section called “The Making of Arthurian Tales” is followed by a Chronology, lists of sources, and rationales for seven key elements of the story. Sources include medieval chronicles (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Nennius) and other primary texts (Gildas’ The Ruin of Britain, for example), as well as various non-fiction sources on Arthurian legend and the time period (Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain, Geoffrey Ashe’s The Discovery of King Arthur, and many other texts that promote historical theories for King Arthur); no literary texts are mentioned, however. Although the most explicit argument for a particular interpretation of history is reserved for the paratexts, the sense of the novel itself as an argument persists, in part because of the attempt to be encyclopedic in the inclusion of events and historical characters, and in part because of the framing of the novel (in the initial Note from the Author as well as the concluding paratexts) as part of a scholarly historical debate rather than as part of a literary tradition.
The tension between the demands of fiction and the demands of historical argument is not entirely resolved. The descriptions of various battles create effective pacing and suspense, particularly those where Ambrosius begins to come into his own as a warrior and leader. In other respects the novel seems choppy as it moves quickly from one encounter to another (the short chapters contribute to this sensation); historical details, rather than characters’ experiences, have priority. Because Merlin is a first-person narrator who is away from Ambrosius periodically, the early years of Ambrosius in Britain have to be summarized in conversation, as do Ambrosius’ experience of marriage and the loss of his wife in childbirth later in the novel. Consequently, the novel keeps the title character distant from the reader; Merlin recounts facts of what has happened, and although he can remark on the physical symptoms of grief or anger that Ambrosius displays, he cannot provide the emotional experience of Ambrosius’ romantic attachment and heartbreak (to give one example). The novel’s narrative strategy, therefore, works against the creation of fully realized characters because of its focus on events and because of Merlin’s lack of knowledge of the inner feelings of other characters.
The insistence on historical accuracy (or at least plausibility) creates another dilemma: that of language. In dialogue, in particular, demotic expressions and twenty-first-century cultural idioms at times clash with the epic register of many of the other scenes. This dilemma is not unique to this novel, but is rather typical of fictional medievalism. How can one represent the thoughts, feelings, words of a people so removed in time from us in a way that suggests historical authenticity while being intelligible to twenty-first-century readers? For some authors, the solution is an “historical” Arthurian novel that is actually a hybrid, including some elements of fantasy; Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy of the 1970s springs to mind, where historical detail combines with fantasy elements such as Merlin’s powers of the Sight. The fantastic elements absolve the text from the need for strict accuracy; in contrast, Mintz’s emphasis in this novel as providing “a historically plausible, ‘World-Restorer’ scenario for King Arthur while utilizing a vast majority of the sources in a synchronized manner” (Note from the Author) suggests that all aspects of the novel, including language and characterization, will be historically accurate. Consistency in register, it seems to me, is key to maintaining the sense of “authentic” history; unexpected shifts in register bring me, as a reader, out of the fictional world and simultaneously undermine characterization.
My reception of the novel no doubt is influenced by my preference for fiction over history, and Ambrosius Aureliani, I would argue, privileges history. Ultimately, this first of the Arthurian Tales suggests the ambition of the project and the dedication of its author to creating a historical account of Ambrosius’s rise to power, but the potential of those events as fiction is not fully realized, at least in this installment.
Ann F. Howey