Sunday, February 16, 2014

Finding Camlann

It was the striking photograph of a Welsh landscape with dark mountains and lowering sky, punctuated by autumnal yellow and green pastures that drew me to this book with its odd title and unknown author. The back cover copy explained it is about an archaeologist (always a favorite of mine) who teams up with a Welsh linguist to find the real King Arthur. Who can resist?

In fact, Sean Pidgeon has produced a beautifully written esoteric mystery that falls into a sub-genre I'm tempted to call the intellectual thriller. The jacket copy compares it to Possession, though the obscure medieval works traced here are not as accessible as the Victorian poetry of A.S. Byatt's novel. The unfamiliar Welsh history and the baffling Welsh names threaten at times to tip from mysterious into overwhelming. But Pidgeon manages nonetheless to compel the reader to follow his hero and heroine as they track literary clues to the real Arthur's gravesite in a tightly plotted novel that involves a love triangle and betrayal at several levels.

Best of all, it has a penetrating sense of place as Pidgeon patiently takes his characters through the English and Welsh landscapes. The Arthurian legend has its origins in the borderlands between the two countries, so rarely separated in history despite the fervent nationalism on both sides. The novel gropes into a past of monasteries founded and dissolved, poets preserving history in a bardic tradition, coded descriptions that evolve with the language and must be deciphered to find the truth.

So it has as much of the Da Vinci Code as it does Possession, though considerably more sophisticated. Likewise, the romance is a genuine love affair and much more adult than anything in Dan Brown's books. It is not a murder mystery, though a fatal factory explosion lurks in the background and a death that appears to be an accident may be something else. The characters are well drawn and sympathetic -- even the less savory ones.

Who was Arthur? He was not the chivalrous king of the Round Table in Thomas Malory and certainly not the Roman soldier of the lame Clive Owen movie. The archaeologist and linguist, aided by the crotchety Oxford don, find a different explanation, along with the documentary evidence to support their thesis. The book is about their quest, and less about its achievement.

The Camlann of the title refers to the legend of Arthur's final battle, during which he was fatally wounded. The allusion was lost on me; though I've read Morte d'Arthur and other books about Arthur, the site of the final battle was not something I retained. The novel was supposedly selected by the Book of the Month Club and QPB, but you wonder if it would find a wider audience with a different title. I came across it only because it was on the display table at Politics & Prose. Like I say, the cover drew me in, and when I started reading it I finished it quickly.

The mystery and beauty of the landscape is evokes so effectively that I began looking up hiking tours in Wales to visit this terrain and see it for myself. I passed briefly through Wales on one of my research trips for Superregions, taking the ferry across the Irish Sea to northwest Wales. I acquired by slate tablet with a Celtic cross there. I've often felt an affinity for Wales and Celtic history -- one of the possible origins of the name Darrell is Celtic.

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