Idylls of the Queen, by Phyllis Ann Karr

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Idylls of the Queen: A Tale of Queen Guenevere, by Phyllis Ann Karr

Again I am reviewing an Arthurian retelling that I first read many years ago. I am fairly sure that I read this novel one other time during the interim. But, strangely (since this is a murder mystery), although I recognized parts of the story and bits of the dialogue as I was reading through it this time, what I did not remember was the identity of the murderer.

Like the Sutcliff book this one is meant to be set in Fifth Century Britain, but very much unlike Sword at Sunset there is no attempt to recreate a historical feeling to the setting or to imagine what a historical Arthur might have been like. Instead, as the author (NOT to be confused with another Phyllis Karr aka Irene Radford) explains in the foreward, it is “an attempt to recreate in modern language* the anachronistic, semi-mystical era described by Sir Thomas Malory and his predecessors.” Indeed, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur is the principle source and inspiration for this story, which revolves around an incident in Malory, the poisoning of Sir Patrise of Ireland, at a feast held by Queen Guenevere. The murder weapon is a poisoned apple in a bowl of fruit arranged by the Queen herself.

Sir Mador, a kinsman of Sir Patrise, immediately accuses Guenevere of the crime. This makes very little sense, because Guenevere has no motive for killing Patrise (nor has she any such motive as regards Gawain or any of his brothers, who all look like more likely candidates as the intended victim—the brothers from the Orkneys have a well-known appetite for raw fruit and together and singly have enemies aplenty, which young Sir Patrise most definitely did not), the bowl of apples and pears passed through a careless young servitor’s hands between the Queen’s apartment and the feast hall, where it sat for a considerable period of time before the feast began and could have been surreptitiously poisoned during the interval, and … well, as I said the accusation is nonsensical, but as it was in Malory so it is here: having been made, the accusation no matter how unbelievable has to be taken seriously. Arthur being a King who tries to faithfully follow his own laws regardless of the parties involved—whether noble or common, knight or churl or queen—Guenevere must be tried for the crime. Accordingly, a date is set for the trial which is to be trial-by-combat, and therein lies Guenevere’s peril: the men who were present at the feast are wary of championing her for fear whoever does so will be marked as her accomplice in the deed, many of the senior knights are gone from court and, most significantly, Lancelot is missing. (This, by the way, is a habit of his: to be periodically missing, no one knows where, doing no knows what, only to appear at the last possible moment when he is needed, apparently relishing the dramatic effect and consequent burnishing of his image.)

Without a champion to fight for her innocence, she would be declared guilty and burned as a convicted poisoner. So the King convinces a reluctant Sir Bors (Lancelot’s cousin) to stand as her champion until and unless a better man appears. With her fate apparently in the hands of this half-hearted champion, and only two weeks in which “a better man” might appear, her situation remains dire.

The story is a first person narrative told by Arthur’s seneschal and foster brother, Sir Kay. Kay is an over-worked and under-appreciated civil servant, past his best days as a fighting man, and therefore not highly regarded at court, a deeply cynical man yet a hopeless romantic when it comes to the Queen. He has loved her for years, with a chaste, reverential love. Consequently, he hates Lancelot with a passion. The affair between Lancelot and Guenevere is pretty much an open secret—known to everyone but Arthur, who doesn’t wish to see the truth. So Kay hates Lancelot for endangering her with his selfish love, and for typically not being on hand when she actually needs him. However if the Queen is to be saved, Lancelot must be found, so Kay, Mordred, and a number of the other knights and ladies set out in pairs on a quest to find the missing hero.

Kay is partnered with Mordred. They are both sharp and bitter individuals, so their conversations along the way are hardly patterns of civility, for which reason their exchanges can be fun. As they travel through the realm searching for Lancelot, there are simultaneously a number of other tasks and side quests. One is to find out if Morgan le Fay is still living (it has been been rumored for years that she is not, but it is by no means certain). If she is
alive, the King’s half-sister is a very likely suspect as the poisoner, based on her past behaviors, and so might divert suspicion from the Queen. Another task is to find Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, since her supernatural powers might assist in finding Lancelot and/or revealing the real murderer. And then there is the knotty task of unraveling a much earlier mystery surrounding the deaths of Queen Morgawse of Orkney and her young lover Sir Lamorak. If the poisoned fruit was intended for Gawain and/or one or more of his brothers, then the feud surrounding these previous deaths might figure as a motive in the poisoning, and figuring out who killed whom might uncover the identity of the poisoner. Or . . . it might not, but Kay is looking for any possible way that the Queen might be saved.

So as they travel, visit various figures from the Morte, and meet with other pairs on the same quest, there is much discussion of previous events many readers may find familiar from Malory’s famous account of Arthur and his knights. Viewed through Kay’s cynical viewpoint and described in his blunt, disapproving style, the heroic knights of Arthur’s Round Table come across more often as violent buffoons than as shining lights of chivalry and romance. In any case, Kay is an entertaining narrator, and his own situation one with which readers can readily sympathize.

In the end, Kay does solve the various mysteries, and he and his companions return to court, without the culprit but with a story that could possibly save the Queen without the need for trial-by-combat—were it not for the fact that Lancelot has just returned in time to challenge Sir Mador. He’s been hiding nearby all along, in order to play his famous trick of arriving at practically the last moment in order to save the day. (Never mind that Guinevere has been left in agonizing and unnecessary suspense for two whole weeks.)

I did enjoy the book on this second (or was it third?) reading, although Karr does pack a lot into what seems like it could have been as good or better as a simpler plot and narrative. Still, as a book that concentrates more on complex characters and their personal interactions than it does on battle and combat, I found it more to my taste and felt it had more depth than the Sutcliff—though probably Sword at Sunset is the more important book. And, oh yes, there is a lot of magic here, courtesy of Nimue and Morgan le Fay. But to describe that here would make this review unconscionably long, so I’ll leave that for readers to discover on their own, if they are interested.

___
*Don’t be misled, however. While the language is most definitely not that of Malory and his contemporaries, it is not riddled with twentieth century slang or twentieth century attitudes. I would call the language “accessible” rather than distinctively modern.
 
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Read this many years ago, so the details are a bit hazy. I do remember enjoying it. However whereas I have gone back to Sword at Sunset numerous times and have an old treasured copy in my collection, Idylls I have not. Maybe time for a revisit.
 
There is no doubt that Sword at Sunset is the more influential book. It inspired many other books that were to follow.

Sword and Idylls are very different books, designed to appeal to different tastes.

While I admire both, there are other Arthurian retellings/reimaginings that have meant much more to me than either one.
 

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