I watched the film ‘King Arthur’ on television the other day. Or rather, I saw part of the film, because the characters were so wooden, and the retelling of the story so contrived as to be unwatchable.
I do not say this lightly, because I generally like Clive Owen and Keira Knightly, who were the leads in this particular film, and I grew up an avid reader of myths and legends such as the tale of King Arthur.
I guess that it is always difficult to retell such a familiar story. But it can be done well. Mary Stewart’s Merlin series is a fabulous example, but my favourite version – and one of my favourite books – is Catherine Christian’s ‘The Pendragon’.
I don’t think that it is in print any more, but I am lucky enough to have a copy. The pages are yellowing now, and I have read them so often that their edges are velvety soft, but I can’t bear to throw it away.
Christian’s version of events is very character driven. It is told from the perspective of Bedivere, boyhood friend and one of the Companions of Arthur, the Pendragon. Magic plays little part, if any, and it is a gritty tale of war, love and betrayal, the hardship of loss and the loneliness of leadership.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe in King Arthur or not: the power of Christian’s writing is such that you believe in her characters. She makes a legend into a man and a myth into a harsh reality.
I am not sure how she achieves this. Innate talent undoubtedly, and she must also have put a huge effort into knowing her characters before she set pen to paper. But is there something else? Another technique that a would-be author would find useful to employ?
I think I’ll have to read the book again, just to find out…