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What I've Been Reading, Arthurian edition: A Dream of Eagles/Camulod Chronicles, by Jack Whyte

I mentioned in my review of Sword in the Stone that I enjoy two general interpretations of the King Arthur story, which can be summarized as "magical fantastic fiction" and "gritty historical fiction". That's not to say that any story about the characters in the Arthurian legends must be either one or the other - those two just serve as the points on the scale. It's like a litmus test: a novel or move can be anywhere between the two. The Sword in the Stone happens to be pretty far on the fantastic side, with a few potentially aggravating bits of realism.

And this week's subject is on the opposite end of the scale, brining the story of Arthur firmly into the real world.

Jack Whyte's A Dream of Eagles series.


Unlike many interpretations of the King Arthur story, Jack Whyte's A Dream of Eagles series (published as the Camulod Chronicles in the US) focuses more on the story behind Arthur - the origins of Merlin, Excalibur, and Uther. The story of the forging of Excalibur, the birth of Arthur, and the eventual fall of Camulod are told over the course of six books, (or to be more accurate, nine, as the fifth and sixth books were both split into two books, and there's also a stand-alone novel retelling the third book from another character's perspective). Sadly, I only ever read through The Fort at River's Bend, which is either the fifth book out of nine, or the first half of the fifth of six books.

I'd give a summation of the books I've read, but it's been years since I read them, and you could probably find better summaries online with a little effort. But I can give a vague, general overview of the books.

The first two, The Skystone and The Singing Sword, are told from the perspective of Publius Varrus, Arthur's great-grandfather, Roman legionary, and the forger of Excalibur. He, along with his friend and former commanding officer Caius Britannicus form what eventually becomes Camulod, the basis for the Camelot of legend.

The next three or four (depending on whether you consider The Sorcerer one book or two), The Eagles' Brood, The Saxon Shore, The Fort at River's Bend (part 1 of The Sorcerer) and Metamorphosis (part 2 of The Sorcerer), are all told by Caius Merlyn Britannicus, grandson of Caius Britannicus and cousin once-removed of Uther Pendragon. These cover the rise and fall of Uther, the establishment of Camulod as a regional power, and Arthur's youth and eventual coronation.

As mentioned before, Whyte sets the story of Arthur's origins firmly against a well researched historical background. Real historical locations and groups are mentioned, such as the abandoned fortress of Mediobogdum (the eponymous fort at the river's bend) and the Legio XX Valeria Victrix (Caius' and Varrus' legion in Britain). Things like the conflict over the teachings of Pelagius are brought up and impact the characters. Tactics like the use of cavalry and the development of the British longbow are included. These books are the most historically accurate renditions of life in post-Roman Britain I've ever read.

Unfortunately, this can be a major down side. Whyte's focus on historical accuracy potentially drains any sense of magic from the narrative. Excalibur isn't special because it's magical - it's just made of special metal. Merlyn doesn't have any special powers, except perhaps for having the occasional maybe-prophetic dream. Apart from that, there's not the slightest hint of anything magical in the series. And without the sense of magic, what is there to differentiate this from any other piece of historical fiction? Is it even about King Arthur anymore?

That being said, the characters are all well developed and act like real people. Example (WARNING - Spoiler for The Eagles' Brood): when Merlyn regains his memory after the death of his lover, he has every reason to believe Uther was her murderer. In response, he goes after his cousin with every intention of killing him, despite the fact that they're practically brothers. Similarly, not everyone who has a negative view of the protagonists is a villain. Again, in Eagles' Brood, it's made clear that, to the people between Camulod and Cornwall, there's effectively no difference between Uther and Gorlois. And the same goes for the antagonists. Merlyn befriends one of the men who later kills Uther, and Vortigern is presented as simply doing what he has to in order to protect his kingdom, namely hiring Saxon mercenaries.

Still, probably the biggest detractor of these novels is their length. These books are looong, anywhere from just over 350 pages to over 700 pages, and these are the paperbacks. Even Fort at River's Bend, which is only half of the original book, clocks in at 480 pages. A good chunk of this stems from Whyte's either inability or unwillingness to compress certain events. While this means the characters become well established, it also means the plot drags a bit. It takes two books, over 700 pages, for Excalibur to be forged. While I understand Whyte wanting to take time to build up the foundation of what would become Camulod, I still think he could have easily combined Skystone and Singing Sword into a single volume without loosing much.

So, what are my final thoughts? Well, this is definitely one of the better "realistic" renditions of the Arthur legend. If you're a fan of early late antiquity or early medieval history, you'll probably get a kick out of this. But if you're looking for knights in shining armor, you're way off track.