Ian McDowell,
Mordred's Curse
(Avon, 1996)

Ian McDowell didn't set out to write a book about the noble King Arthur of legend. Instead, he chose to remake the familiar tale from the perspective of the usual villain, Arthur's bastard son, Mordred.

Mordred's Curse is a very different view of the well-known events which mark Arthur's heroic and, ultimately, tragic story. While McDowell's approach is fresh and his narrative is often quite amusing, it's also frequently profane and rife with ugly imagery. This is not a suitable book for younger readers, no matter how much they may enjoy Arthurian tales.

The book is presented as Mordred's own journal, a collection of his memories stretching back to his youth, his first meeting with the awe-inspiring king, his training at the hands of his mother, Morgawse, and the ultimate revelation which changed his love for Arthur to hatred. Mordred's narrative has good things to say about no one (except, of course, himself). Take, for instance, this description of King Lot from Mordred's childhood: "His face was a pale, indignant mask in the fire-thrown shadows of the hall, his pursed mouth, long ascetic nose, and perpetually startled eyes all giving him his usual look of sanctimonious hauteur mingled with righteous indignation, like a prelate who's just been buggered by a Jute."

Merlin is reduced to a vain, sinister, vengeful and giggling pedophile who was Uther's trusted magician and lover but was banished by Arthur for employing sorcery. Morgawse, Arthur's half-sister, is portrayed in a better light -- not evil, as she's usually depicted, but merely amoral. That trait she rapidly conveys to young Mordred as he matures.

Arthur himself is pious to the point of insufferability; in fact, no Christians are shown too favorably in this book. Although a charismatic leader, McDowell's Arthur is no hero -- each attempt to slay some dangerous beast fails, and he must each time be rescued by Mordred. (Mordred, for his part, is always brave and skillful, but still soils himself in every fight.)

Only Mordred's brother, Gawain, are Arthur's wife-to-be, Guinevere, are cast positively in this book -- and Guinevere soon proves herself to be both deceitful and greedy for power.

There's nothing glorious or noble in this version of the tale. The ugliest aspects of the people and places in Mordred's Curse are always the sides McDowell chooses to spotlight. And Mordred's constant whining and cynical outlook on everything gets tiresome rather quickly.

This book should appeal to anyone who hates heroes and who likes to see legends reduced to filth. Devoted Arthur fanatics may want to read this one simply for variety's sake; everyone else may want to pass this one by. The story begun in Mordred's Curse continues in Merlin's Gift; I suspect a sense of morbid curiosity will drive me to finish the series.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.