Many years ago I gained the impression -- whether I was told by someone whom I imagined to be trustworthy, or merely pieced it together for myself in an early attempt at reasoning, I am unsure -- that legend was myth that, through the familiarity of retelling and the erosive effect of new beliefs, had lost its juice, so to speak. Now that I am much older and modestly more learned, I know that the whole process is rather more complicated than that.
Take, for example, the whole mythic structure that is King Arthur. Beginning as a loose set of stories from ancient Celtic sources -- legends, histories, folk tales, in some cases the equivalent of what the North American Indians call "teaching stories," perhaps -- it became in the twelfth century a history, in the thirteenth a cycle of courtly romances, in the fifteenth an epic, and in the twentieth a Broadway musical, several films, and any number of novels, subjected, along the way, to editing, elaboration, embellishment and emendation, and somewhere in that process of fermentation, if I may call it that, these sketchy fragments took on all the resonance and deep meaning of true myth. What is more, it is a myth that maintains its vitality in a time in which we believe we no longer believe in myths.
Imagine, then, the story of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table told from the viewpoint of the person who inadvertently brought the whole tenuous edifice down. Amory -- he has no other name -- was a foundling, left by the fair folk on the doorstep of the Sisters of Saint Syncletica. When he was about eleven or twelve -- he's never known for sure exactly how old he is -- he was taken by Arthur's wizard, Merlin, as an apprentice.
Actually, he was Merlin's spy.
That should give you a good sense of the degree of cynicism, however muted, that inhabits the story. Amory, who seems to have a good sense of people, even if his other qualities, including moral rectitude, are at best embryonic, doesn't trust Lancelot, doesn't like Guinevere, comes to admire Arthur -- who also has only the one name -- and pretty much takes everyone else in stride, until Morgana le Fay comes to visit. When she leaves, after Amory has unwittingly used a potion provided by Morgana to cause Guinevere to blurt out the truth of her infidelity with Lancelot, Amory is part of her entourage.
During his stay in Cokaygne, Amory meets Thomas the Rhymer, known as Mad Tom, who induces him to visit an even deeper realm, the Dark Lands, where time moves even more slowly than it does in Cokaygne and spirit, rather than sensation, is the ruling mode. Amory eventually, along with Mad Tom, makes his way to twenty-first century England, from which vantage he tells his story.
Brian M. Stableford says The Stones of Camelot veers into "metaphysical fantasy," based on his creation of the Dark Land as a realm even deeper toward the center of creation than Cokaygne, which is, in turn, closer to that wellspring than our own world. I think his emphasis is misdirected, if only because his reading is too literal: it doesn't seem to me that he investigates a metaphysical possibility so much as creates a narrative device. Of much more interest, from the vantage of this reader at least, is the examination of Amory and the moral ambience of the whole idea of Camelot as the deliberate creation of a dream. The picture that Stableford paints of the reality in which this story lives is not particularly pleasant -- the Dark Ages, as we are pleased to call them from the vantage of our own contemporary forms of barbarism, were not a pleasant time to be alive for most people. As Amory is at pains to point out, most children didnít live very long and if they did, the best they could look forward to was a life of backbreaking work for inadequate return. Arthur's Camelot, carefully constructed by Merlin (at least by his account, and in retrospect) held out some hope of amelioration. Merlin seems to have forgotten the human element, of which Amory is all too aware.
I've not had all that much exposure to Stableford, but he seems to be a writer of ideas. All writers are, of course, to one degree or another, but with Stableford it seems that the ideas, clothed in a sinuous and usually seductive prose, are paramount. This can be a tricky venture, as witness my reaction to The Stones of Camelot: it doesn't sparkle. Usually, perhaps because of my tendency toward compulsive reading, I can wade through almost anything, but I have to admit that there were times I was squirming in my chair here. In part, I'm frustrated. Amory is potentially a fascinating character, and Stableford's stance on the Arthur cycle is intriguing -- this story is not really
Fully realizing that there is a large subjective element in my reaction, I can't honestly say that this is a book to be avoided, even if I really thought so, which I don't. It is, however, one to be approached thoughtfully, without too much skepticism and with a willingness to fill in the many blanks. And a very comfortable chair.