This novel, by the late and sorely missed Alice Borchardt, is the fantasy version of the legend of Guenevere (here Guinevere, Gwynaver and Guynifar). (“You must understand, my name was not written down. Those who say and sometimes write it use what form they care to. So the spellings sometimes differ greatly. So much that it might seem as though I had many different names; but in reality, I still have only one. And, like all true names, it was a word of power.”) The book is filled to overflowing with the magic and mystery one has come to expect of Alice Borchardt including, of course, shape-shifting: Maeniel (“The Wolf King”) plays an important role in Guenevere’s upbringing, is indeed the father-figure.
In this version of the story, Merlin and Igrane [sic] are lovers. They are also sorcerers, and the villains of the piece: young Arthur is being reared by them, a virtual prisoner and destined to rule in name only as their puppet. This long-term plan of Merlin’s was supposed to include Guenevere; she would also have been brought up by them, then married Arthur (this marriage has been foretold far and wide) and become a puppet queen. However, she was rescued as a baby by Dugald, a druid, and Maeniel, the werewolf. Now, as a pert teenager (everyone calls her “pert”, and she is!) she faces a series of superhuman tasks, the accomplishment of which will prove that she is the hero destined to both occupy the dragon throne of the Painted People and rescue the Fisher King (Arthur) from an Otherworld. (Another world? There seem to be several.)
Guen, then, is of the Painted People, the Picts: no new idea (for a full discussion of this possibility, indeed probability, see Norma Lorre Goodrich’s “Guinevere”), but here in “The Dragon Queen” the Picts are made flesh.
“The Painted People are great artists. I cannot think they will be appreciated as the Greeks and Romans are, for they work in ephemeral materials, cloth and wood, not stone. Their silver and gold work is magnificent, and some of that may survive. They all seem to be warriors, even the women […] The bull, boar, snake, wolf, salmon, dragon, and the patterns of each dance, the colours of the wind and sea, were all met in their clothing. The designs picked out on their skins in blue, green, red, gray and gold.”
These are the people to whom Guen comes after a great fight, with the head of her enemy in her hand: “With my cracked ribs searing, I ran up the nearest housepost, using the carvings to climb. I should be ashamed, I thought. The armor set off my bare body the way an enameled setting displays a rare jewel. Even the blood streaming from the gashes Merlin’s champion inflicted were part of the grim beauty of my flesh. I knew the eyes of every man, and not a few of the women, were fixed on me, and that fear alone hadn’t saved my life.”
Now she must lead them against the Saxons: “We all knew what they were after – women, ivory, walrus, sealskins, wool. Pictish wool is the best in the world. But above all, slaves. The eastern countries had an insatiable appetite for them, and a beautiful girl would bring a dozen pounds of gold on the block in Constantinople, especially if she were blond. As the woman in Igrane’s hall had suggested, the slave trade was booming.”
Meanwhile, Arthur (having met Guen and witnessed a clash between her and Igrane where Igrane came off worst) has also rebelled and in consequence been consigned by Merlin to another Otherworld, where he finds that the test is simply to stay alive: in order to do so, he takes the shape of first a salmon (shades of T.H. White!), but as a salmon faces death every instant. Then a snake, which he finds more “wholly other” than the salmon. And finally a young female eagle, a creature “capable of both love and loyalty”.
My only problem with this wonderful book is the continuous switching of viewpoint. In the opening chapters it is truly confusing and quite off-putting. Then it settles down, and the reader becomes used to the First Person Guen as opposed to the Third Person of alternating chapters, which is more and more usually Arthur. But by this time there is no confusion, we know all the characters, we know what is happening; now the problem is that we are (or at least I was) far more interested in what was happening to Guen, and each cliffhanger meant a chapter with boring Arthur till I could find out what happened to her next. However, when Arthur becomes a salmon, things improve, and even I forgot poor Guen for a moment.
A thing that needs saying always about Historical Fantasy is that the fantasy should be real fantasy, in the sense that it is what people believed, that it is in accordance with the mindset of the people of the time. To them the notion of space-travel would have been fantasy.
In this book, the fantasy is always real; scrupulously so.