Mary Stewart,
The Wicked Day
(Fawcett Crest, 1983)

The Arthurian legend has proved irresistible to writers over the years, from Thomas Malory to T.H. White. I first ran across Mary Stewart's take on Camelot back in 1984, right after The Wicked Day spent a whopping 15 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The in-your-face simplicity and promise of the title drew me, and I devoured the book in one all-night sitting, blissfully ignorant of the fact that this was but the final volume in a four-book series.

Not that it mattered. Completely self-contained, The Wicked Day traces the life of Mordred, the bastard son of King Arthur, as he grows up and moves ever closer to fulfilling Merlin's prophecy that he should be Arthur's downfall. Nothing new there, right? Not so fast. Stewart, unlike those who have trodden these paths before, brings the rich, knowledgeable eye of a historian to the tale, and the result has an authentic air about it, so much so that if this isn't the way things actually happened, then by golly, it's the way they should have.

Mordred, to my great shock, was not portrayed as the black-hearted villain legend remembers him as. Indeed, as he grows, he becomes Arthur's most trusted knight, and staunchest supporter. Stewart approaches the story demanding logic and consistency in her characters' actions and motivations. A king as great as Arthur would never have left his son in charge of the kingdom if Mordred had been as openly conniving and untrustworthy as legend has it -- not to mention Mordred's reputed lust for Queen Guenevere.

The general thrust of the classic episodes remain, but under Stewart's sure hand, it's now clear why each person acts as they do, and why events unfold thusly. In one of the earliest examples of this, the slaying of all the infants of Orkney by Arthur's hand is recast here as an attempt by a furious King Lot against baby Mordred, who was born to Lot's wife, Morgause. Morgause, for her part, goads Lot on, knowing full well that Mordred is safe and already plotting to lay the blame of Lot's rampage on Arthur's head. Morgause's machinations are masterful, and by the end of the slaughter, there's no way Arthur couldn't be blamed for the butchery. Clearly, this is the most dysfunctional family since the Greek gods swallowed their children whole on Mount Olympus.

Mordred is a pawn in a game of revenge and betrayal, a deadly game that began when his mother, Morgause, Arthur's half-sister, seduced the young king on the night of his first triumph as a warrior. Mordred rejects all the plots and plans laid out for him, but he soon discovers that it takes more than just saying no to escape fate.

Stewart crafts a Britain where isolated pockets of magic still exist and myth lives on. Mordred is a flawed, though sympathetic, even likable figure, a combination that makes his final fall at the Battle of Camlann all the more tragic.

[ by Jayme Lynn Blaksche ]
Rambles: 30 May 1999



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