Category: A Medievalist Reads

The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think (Book Review)

When I first saw the title of Mark Williams’ new book, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, I have to admit, I was… concerned. If it weren’t for the fact that I know and trust Mark when it comes to medieval literature (he was my second year Old Irish teacher and dissertation supervisor), I might have thought it was a pop psychology book about the inherent mythic structures in our brains, or something similar.

However, I do trust Mark, and I also know first hand that authors don’t always choose their titles, so I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. And the blurb makes it pretty clear that we’re not talking about any mythic brainwaves: if these stories have shaped the way we think, it’s in the sense of shaping how we think about Irish and Welsh myth/culture, not in the sense of defining our daily approach to interpersonal relationships.

(Which is… good. Because I seriously worry about anyone who bases their approach to interpersonal relationships on the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, since, uh, yikes.)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Ireland’s Immortals and still find it a super useful reference book, so I figured I would get my hands on Celtic Myths and see what Mark had to offer on this occasion, hoping for a new go-to recommendation for people who come to me looking for guidance on what to read to learn more about medieval lit. I finished the book this afternoon, sitting on my landlords’ roof (… don’t tell them), and I thought I’d give you my thoughts.

The tl;dr is that this is a great introductory read, but if you’re expecting short blog posts, you’re definitely in the wrong place, so you’re getting way more detail than that. No, I was not paid to write this review; yes, I bought this book with my own money, etc. Though if anyone wants to give me a sponsorship deal for yelling about medieval literature on the internet, my DMs are open…

A photograph of "The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think" by Mark Williams. It's a bright sunny day, and there's a tree turning autumnal red in the background.
Rooftop reads: climbing out of the window with a book is my new favourite hobby on sunny days.

First of all, Mark makes it very clear from the beginning that this is a book aimed at the general reader. Unlike Ireland’s Immortals, which sought to hit that sweet spot between being an academic/scholarly book and also an accessible work that the general public might enjoy, that means Celtic Myths doesn’t contain footnotes (though there is some ‘further reading’ listed at the back). Quotes are given only in English translation, and technical terms are kept to a minimum; generic “Celtic scholars” are referenced rather than bogging the text down with names. This may be frustrating to those who want to follow up on specific points, but probably makes for a much easier and less daunting read for the newcomer.

Each chapter explores a different story, giving a rundown of the original material and then discussing its afterlife over time, and some of the ways the story has been reworked and developed. Throughout the book, there are pictures (including a number of full-colour plates), showing how characters and stories have been conceptualised over time, from fourteenth-century manuscript illustrations to Hellboy II.

Since I’m not a ‘general’ reader, I found that I was already familiar with almost all of the book’s content; though I’m not an expert on the Welsh side of things, I’ve done enough Welsh lit to be passingly familiar with the stories and poems in question, and there was nothing in the book that I’d say was brand new information. Of course, some of that is because Mark himself was my lecturer for a while: in chapter 3 (“Merlin: From Wildman to Wizard”) there were a number of details I was pleased to find I already knew, only to realise a few minutes later that that was because I got them from Mark, in a lecture he gave about medieval ‘wildman’ stories, Merlin, and Suibhne.

This is great, though, because now it means I finally have an alternative to trying to cobble together explanations for people based on my own undergraduate lecture notes, which are frequently chaotic if they exist at all — I can instead pass them this book, knowing that it covers the same material in a far more coherent way. I get a lot of people asking me questions about medieval literature (mainly Irish, but occasionally Welsh) or looking for reading recommendations, and I’m always looking for books that I trust to be both accurate and accessible.

(Obviously, having been taught by Mark means I’m also inclined to agree with a lot of his interpretations, since he played a significant part in shaping my own approach to Celtic literature. I wouldn’t say we agree 100% of the time, and there are a couple of details in the Cú Chulainn chapter where I’m inclined to quibble with the simplified explanations given, even though I know you can’t go into all the complexities in a general-purpose book like this. But it does mean I’m predisposed to find his conclusions believable: we belong to similar schools of thought.)

I had hoped that I’d be able to make use of the book myself as a sort of general-purpose reference book — sometimes I find it useful to have more ‘introductory’ material around when I can’t remember where I found something, because it can save me time hunting. Unfortunately, since this book has no footnotes and few direct quotes or citations, I don’t think I’ll be adding it to that particular shelf in my library, because unless it’s something where I can cite this book directly, I’d have to go off and do my own detective work to get a more detailed reference. However, as a scholarly reader, I am well aware that I am not the target audience, and this isn’t meant as a criticism — just a note for anyone thinking of picking it up who is wondering whether it’ll suit their purposes.

So who is the target audience? Well, I admit I have no sense of how easy it would be to follow if you came to the book with absolutely zero familiarity with any of the content, because it’s now too many years since I can remember what it was like not to know who Cú Chulainn is. But I’d say this is a really great book if your primary exposure to this material is via T.W. Rolleston or Peter Berresford Ellis or anyone else who offers “Celtic Myths & Legends” in one convenient volume, and you’re looking to understand why actually, it’s all a little more complicated than that. It’ll probably also suit people whose exposure to Celtic myth has been through retellings or reworkings in popular culture, and who want to know whether Neil Gaiman’s Mad Sweeney or Guillermo del Toro’s Nuada really bear any resemblance to their medieval namesakes — people who are trying to figure out what the “real myth” is behind the retellings.

Spoiler alert: “real myth” is both an oxymoron and a complicated metric to apply to anything Celtic, as Mark demonstrates. He uses the word “myth” critically throughout the book, explaining some of the difficulties with using this term for Celtic material. Some scholars use it pretty freely, even for late material, while others try not to use it at all, and still more are somewhere in the middle — Mark generally falls into the third category, acknowledging the mythic content in texts while also foregrounding their medieval or early modern literary context and origin. He discusses the dates and contexts of different texts, looking at how some of the most famous “mythological” material is actually the product of named authors centuries after when most people would have imagined it to be composed, and examines the tension between “pagan” ideas and the Christian context in which our medieval literature was produced, and how contemporary events shaped the literature as we have it.

He does this in a non-judgmental way, acknowledging that many people feel a personal and/or spiritual connection to material, even if it isn’t ancient, and exploring the ways that “late” material may still be an authentic part of a country’s literary and cultural heritage. But he’s also frank about aspects of popular “Celtic” culture that are modern inventions, and how they came to be, looking at the lasting impact of Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams), James Macpherson (inventor of the poems of Ossian), and others who shaped our modern conception of Celtic literatures.

I think the Introduction of the book in particular is vital reading for those new to dealing with Celtic material on anything other than a surface level. Mark points out how many popular treatments are second- or third-hand information, often a long way distanced from their source material, regurgitated uncritically (particularly online). I see a lot of misinformation online, where people misinterpret what the Irish texts say or even just make stuff up from nowhere, and it spreads powerfully quickly, including ending up in published books and guides. Mark doesn’t dismiss the value of these stories as creative works and folk traditions, but warns readers to be aware of what is and is not a genuine part of the historical tradition.

“The upshot is that the afterlife of a given story tends to dominate, to the extent that it completely obscures the medieval original behind a heavy veil of romantic nationalism and, in a few cases, outright fraud. As a result, popular handbooks often depend on retellings of retellings, in which dubious ‘truths’ about Celtic myth are endlessly recycled: these retellings can lie a long way from the primary sources and take on a facticity of their own. People may want to include elements of such retellings in their own creative endeavours or spiritual life — which is of course absolutely legitimate — but some of these ‘well-known facts’ rest on fragile evidence.”

Mark Williams, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, p. 12.

In each chapter, Mark considers some of the uses to which the medieval stories have been put. If I’m honest, I would have liked more detailed analysis of some of these — particularly in the Cú Chulainn chapter (how predictable of me), where he touches on the use of images of Cú Chulainn for political purposes. The image of the dying Cú Chulainn has been utilised for both republican and unionist causes, with the same image being used for the statue in the GPO as in loyalist murals in Belfast. I’ve read a couple of really interesting articles on the topic, but it’s something I’d love to know more about, and Mark only gives it a glancing treatment. But, that’s my background speaking — the very fact that I’ve read some academic articles on the subject is a sign that I’m not the “general reader” here.

Still, I’d have liked to hear more of Mark’s thoughts on some of the pop culture he discusses (The Owl Service as a reworking of the Fourth Branch, The Call as an interpretation of the Túatha Dé, etc). I suppose that would be a different book, one focused on textual reception for those already familiar with the stories, rather than one aimed at introducing newcomers to the tales behind the pop culture they’re familiar with. I do think that’s a book the field needs (though I know there has been some work on this already) and when I initially read the blurb of this one, I hoped maybe this might be it, but on most levels, it’s not.

There is slightly more Welsh material than Irish material in the book: five chapters about specifically Welsh material, four about specifically Irish material, and one about Brutus and origin legends which explores both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Lebor Gabala. Where there are parallels or relevant examples from the literature of the “other” country, Mark draws them in, but he’s keen to stress that Irish and Welsh material are not interchangeable, nor as similar as they’re often painted to be in popular thinking. And for those wondering why a book about “Celtic” myth seems to make little mention of Scottish, Cornish, Manx or Breton material, Mark addresses this in the introduction: the bulk of the early literature that we have is from Wales and Ireland, making them his primary focus, though other Celtic-speaking areas are referenced where relevant.

So that’s the content, but what about the style? Well, while this one doesn’t include either the word “sexcapades” or the word “glitterati”, both of which showed up in Ireland’s Immortals and helped secure it a place on my “favourite academic books list”, it’s still plenty entertaining. The humour is often understated, but undeniable, and it definitely doesn’t feel like slogging through dense academic prose. The pictures also help, as does the fairly large print…

(Listen. I’m in the middle of Thesis Hell. I need all the help I can get when it comes to actually absorbing any information.)

So while as a scholarly reader I found myself wanting more — more detail, more discussion of textual reception, more direct quotes — I would have no reservations about recommending this to any general reader looking for a solid introduction to some of the most famous figures in Irish and Welsh literature: Taliesin, Merlin, Finn, Deirdre, and so on. If you want a way in to Celtic mythology that’s grounded in actual sources and up-to-date on recent scholarship and academic interpretations, this is it, and a much better starting place than most of the “Celtic Myths” books on the market.

If, however, you’re looking for a more detailed scholarly investigation into the mythological side of the Irish tradition, go for Ireland’s Immortals. Almost five years after its publication, it’s still one of my go-to recs — but this one is a great addition to the list, particularly for those who are brand new to the material.

You can buy The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think on Amazon UK (affiliate link; if you buy via this link I earn a small commission) or at your local bookshop or wherever you normally buy books, and likewise with Ireland’s Immortals.

If you enjoyed this post and want to enable me to continue buying books like this so I can tell you about them, please consider dropping a couple of quid in my tip jar!

Understanding Standish

The nineteenth century was remarkable for many reasons, but one of them was that it managed to produce two men named Standish O’Grady who had an interest in medieval Irish literature. That they were cousins makes it perhaps marginally less remarkable than it would otherwise have been, but it’s still a singular achievement, as I’ve yet to encounter any other century that had produced a Standish O’Grady at all, let alone one who is a Celticist.

No, I haven’t actually looked. But that, dear friends, is beside the point.

On the one hand, then, we have Standish Hayes O’Grady — a scholar responsible for the Silva Gaedelica, and a founding member of the Ossianic Society. And on the other hand, we have Standish James O’Grady, whose writings were considerably more in the creative direction. It would be reductive to say that he wrote fanfiction, but he certainly wrote retellings, and transformative fiction of a kind, so it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate either.

It is evidently important to know which O’Grady you’re talking about at any given moment, but I have more than once been reading something and come to the conclusion that the author had not, in fact, realised that there were two of them. These mistakes happen, though it’s a little more embarrassing when they happen in an academic article. So, to remove any doubt, it is very much the second of these two Standishes that I’ll be discussing today — the one given the title “the father of the Irish literary revival.”

Everything I know about Standish James comes from his Wikipedia page, so I won’t pretend to have any new insight or information on that front. My interest is less directly in the man himself, and more in his works. Most specifically, in The Coming of Cuculain.

I’ve been aware of The Coming of Cuculain for a while now — it’s been entertaining my medieval group chat since some time during the first lockdown, primarily on the basis of how delightful and homoerotic many of the scenes between Cú Chulainn and Láeg are when taken out of context. But what about in context? And what can we learn from O’Grady’s portrayal of Láeg?

For those who might have stumbled on this post unawares, I should briefly point out that my MA thesis (currently a work in progress and very much supposedly my main priority right now) is focused on the character of Láeg mac Riangabra as he appears in selected medieval and early modern Irish texts. In my experience, he’s a fascinating and weirdly neglected figure, the subject of so few articles that I can count them on my fingers despite his many textual appearances. I’m endlessly emotional about him — I have a soft spot for the loyal sidekick, particularly when they’re sarcastic as well as beloved — and deeply intrigued whenever he comes up in retellings or re-imaginings. Which is not wildly often. But this novel of O’Grady’s offers rich pickings for a Láeg enthusiast, and my main impression on encountering it was that it’s a pity there isn’t more of a “reception studies” tradition in our field, because this book would be a fascinating one to discuss in that context.

(I should note here that some work has been done on O’Grady’s work — a book named Standish O’Grady’s Cuculain combines excerpts from his History of Ireland with a few articles about his work. But there is far, far more that could be said.)

Then it occurred to me that I could be the one to do this. Perhaps I have neither the grounding in 19th century literature and history nor the time to try and approach it academically, in articles or conference papers — but that kind of academia-adjacent musing is half the reason I have a blog. And why not discuss it here? The Coming of Cuculain is accessible, in the sense that it’s in English and in the sense that it’s available via Project Gutenberg. Anyone who wished to read along with me could do so. And in the meantime, I’m well-positioned to comment on O’Grady’s approach to Cú Chulainn, because I’ve spent the last four years nerding out over him. Even better, I’m perhaps uniquely positioned to examine how he portrays Láeg, by virtue of being one of the only people who has ever paid Láeg any substantial academic attention.

And so, I thought, this would provide an excellent way to procrastinate on writing my thesis while still feeling like I was doing something academic and productive. Perfect. Exactly what I need as a formless summer without externally imposed structures stretches out in front of me — more ways to avoid the many, many things which require my attention.

O’Grady seems genuinely interested in Láeg: he gives him backstory, autonomy, and character development in a way that goes far beyond his source material. But is there any textual basis for his inventions, or are they purely his own creation? What picture do these choices paint of Láeg?

Over the next few days/weeks, I plan to read through The Coming of Cuculain in detail and examine how O’Grady portrays Láeg. Where I can identify sources, I’ll discuss those; where I can’t, I’ll consider some of the factors that might have led to O’Grady’s narrative choices. If you’d like to read along with me, please do! I hope, however, to provide enough context in these posts to make them comprehensible without needing to read O’Grady’s work directly.

(And yes, I will try and spread the posts out, and I won’t be blogging exclusively about this, because I have no idea how long it’s going to take me. Could be 2 weeks. Could be 2 months. It depends how much there is to say.)

Before we look at The Coming of Cuculain, however, I want to briefly examine The History of Ireland, which O’Grady published about fifteen years earlier. This would warrant a whole series of blog posts in its own right, but for the moment, I only want to consider the ways it contextualises The Coming of Cuculain, and the clues it offers as to how O’Grady was approaching his material.

Firstly, he explicitly tells us that he’s drawing on Keating. This makes a lot of sense — Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Keating’s 17th century narrative history of Ireland, is a source for a lot of of pre-20th century authors. I assume this is because its language was a lot more accessible than medieval Irish, it was widely available, and it provided a temptingly ‘complete’ source without need to make reference to lots of different stories scattered all over the place. My knowledge of Keating is actually woefully incomplete (by which I mean I haven’t read it, although I’ve ctrl+f’d my way through on occasion), but the references to him suggest that any extended study of O’Grady would warrant an examination of Keating as well, to identify what aspects of O’Grady’s characterisation derive from his work.

Secondly, The History of Ireland gives us a few clues to some of the misconceptions underlying O’Grady’s work. One that stuck out to me on a brief page through is the fact that he doesn’t seem to know what Táin means. There are references to “warriors of Tân” (occasionally with the definite article), as though it’s a place or people-group rather than an event/activity. A táin is a driving, a cattle-raid, but repeated “incorrect” uses of the word make it apparent that in 1878, when The History of Ireland was published, O’Grady wasn’t aware of that. And so we get quotes like this:

There was the exiled might of Fergus Mac Roy, who, under Meave, ruled all the host of Tân, a shape gigantic of heroic mould, holding a joyless majesty and a spirit in ruins.

Standish O’Grady, The History of Ireland Volume 2, p. 126. (Via Google Books)

Which brings me to the third thing we learn from The History of Ireland: O’Grady can write. Whatever else is going on in his work, there’s a certain poetic brilliance to his descriptions. A joyless majesty and a spirit in ruins — what a way to describe the exiled Fergus! It’s easy to see why his work would have caught the attention of his contemporaries, and why it had such an influence on other writers like Yeats.

Like I said, there’s a lot that could be discussed about The History of Ireland, but today let’s look only at its portrayal of Láeg.

Two things interest me here: where Láeg comes from, and the manner of his death. These are both things I’ve been researching recently, and I’m interested to know how authors handle them. The first, because the medieval sources give us virtually nothing on this topic. The second, because it changes considerably over time.

In his introduction to volume two of The History of Ireland, O’Grady actually expresses confusion about Láeg’s role in Cú Chulainn’s death-tale — one moment he dies, the next he’s riding away on the Dub Sainglend, so what’s going on? The answer is that this is a confusion of the medieval and early modern recensions of the story: in the medieval text, Láeg dies, while in the early modern one, he survives to take the news to Emer. O’Grady, however, is not aware of these divergent traditions and that each is internally consistent unless combined, so on the basis of this contradiction and other inconsistencies, writes:

I conclude that the distance in time between the prose tale and the metrical originals was very great, and, unless under such exceptional circumstances as the revolution caused by the introduction of Christianity, could not have been brought about within hundreds of years.

Standish O’Grady, The History of Ireland Volume 2, p. 26.

Hmm. Questionable. His reference to ‘metrical originals’ is because he’s convinced the stories belong to a bardic tradition. While many of them may have had oral elements and also subsequently went on to have a poetic afterlife in the early modern period… the oldest stratum of the stories as we have them is largely prose. Moreover, his point about the introduction of Christianity is a sign that he’s dating these texts a lot earlier than we generally do these days. Even the medieval version of The Death of Cú Chulainn can only be dated to the eighth century at earliest, by which point Ireland had already been Christian for a good couple of centuries. The early modern one’s more like fifteenth century. And, in the case of this particular “inconsistency”, the confusion can be attributed to the reckless conflation of different recensions. Whether this is Keating’s fault or some other source of O’Grady’s, I’m not sure, but I appreciate that at least he noticed Láeg’s death/survival, since this divergence is so often overlooked.

On the question of Láeg’s origins, however, The History of Ireland is fascinating. Following the account of how Cú Chulainn got his name, we’re told:

It was about this time that he was presented with a companion and attendant, Læg, son of the King of Gowra, for Rury More had brought his father a captive to the north, and his son Læg, born to him in old age, in the north, was given to Cuculain when he returned to Dûn Dalgan for the first time from Emain Macha, and he was four years older than Cuculain.

Standish O’Grady, The History of Ireland Volume 1, p. 113. (Via Google Books)

This fascinates me, because I have absolutely no idea where he got this from.

Some parts, I can guess at. Son of the King of Gowra is clearly derived from the name mac Riangabra, though it’s an interesting approach at etymology. He’s split the patronymic into “Rí an Gabra”, and if you’re the kind of person to pronounce a lenited b as w, I suppose Gowra‘s not too unlikely an Anglicisation of that. (Personally, I’d pronounce it with a v sound, but this is far from the most idiosyncratic of O’Grady’s spellings.)

This is not how Láeg’s name is broken down in the two texts I know of that provide a glimpse of his parents. Both the version of Compert Con Culainn from RIA MS D.iv.2 (a ~12th century text in a 15th century manuscript) and the Old Irish text Fled Bricrenn ocus Longes mac nDuil Dermait split it into two, with Srian as Láeg’s father, and Gabor as his mother. They seem likely to be Otherworldly individuals — in the Compert they’re encountered at Síd Truim, and in Longes mac nDuil Dermait they live on a probably-Otherworldly island. The Compert also suggests a connection with Connacht.

But since srían means “bridle” and gabor means “horse, mare, esp. a white one”, in origin the name probably didn’t refer to people at all. Instead it’s a reference to his profession as charioteer: bridle-of-a-horse. That would explain why we encounter other charioteers with the same name, mainly Id and Sedlang mac Riangabra, who show up in Fled Bricrenn (a distinct text from Longes mac nDuil Dermait, despite the similar first part of their names). In this text, Id is Conall Cernach’s charioteer, but in the Stowe version of the Táin he appears as Fer Diad’s charioteer. It seems likely that it’s originally a name/title given to charioteers, but it’s subsequently understood as a patronymic and broken down into personal names.

Rationalising it instead as Rí an Gabra is an interesting approach. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, but it’s the first time I’ve seen that etymology turned into story: a king of Gowra, taken as a hostage in Ulster, whose son (no mention here of Láeg’s brothers, though their names are referenced later in the text) is “given” to Cú Chulainn as a companion. This suggests Láeg is unfree — probably not enslaved, per se, but as a hostage’s son, not entirely autonomous, either. The power dynamic there is an interesting one, and one I’d like to come back to in future.

I also enjoy that O’Grady has specified Láeg’s age: four years older than Cú Chulainn. This is, honestly, roughly what I would have guessed myself if not given any other clues; he has that “older brother” feel to him, but he’s still young enough to chase around after Cú Chulainn. In the D.iv.2 Compert, we’re told that Láeg is still young enough to be “on the breast” when his mother, Gabra, nurses the newborn Cú Chulainn; the two then grow up together from infancy. This narrows the age gap between them, and gives them a different, and more equal, kind of relationship (something I’ll be discussing at length in my thesis, so I won’t go into great detail here). But this text is unusual, and other accounts rarely align with it — O’Grady’s four-year gap is plausible enough, and I appreciate that he even bothers to specify.

Because that’s the thing that keeps striking me — O’Grady bothers. O’Grady asks, “How did Láeg end up as Cú Chulainn’s charioteer? Where is he from? Is he an Ulsterman? What is their relationship? How old is he?” He asks the questions the medieval texts don’t answer, and attempts to come up with responses to them. These are the same questions I’m constantly asking myself, and to know that I’m not alone in that — that somebody else has asked them before me — means I feel connected to O’Grady’s work even before reading in depth. For some reason, he was interested in this particular pairing of characters, and what it meant.

But finally, the thing that’s really interesting about this backstory is that it’s completely different from the backstory he gives to Láeg in The Coming of Cuculain. Clearly, he wasn’t satisfied with this account of the King of Gowra, or a charioteer who was simply “given” to Cú Chulainn, so he started again — and this time, Láeg gets a lot more autonomy, and their friendship is emphasised. And it’s that second approach to Láeg that I’ll be talking about over the next however long.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a novel from 1894 to read. Please feel free to join me.

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A Medievalist Reads ‘Blackheart Knights’ by Laure Eve

I’ve drifted away from reviewing books over the last couple of years, and I’ve also developed … not an aversion, but a certain wariness towards retellings where I’m too familiar with the source material, as I inevitably end up getting annoyed at them. But when the publicist for Jo Fletcher Books reached out to me about Blackheart Knights, I realised I was going to have to break both of those habits:

From the acclaimed YA author of The Graces comes the first adult novel – a unique retelling of the Arthurian legend, set in a London where the knights are celebrities, riding on motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money – think Chamelot meets Gotham! Full of magic and secrets, Blackheart Knights is a wonderfully immersive read. It’s dark, it’s sexy and Laure’s expert world-building will have you gripped.

Was it possible, I thought, that somebody had finally written the weird, queer, knight-focused Arthurian retelling I was craving? One that recognised that the individual knights and their quests were the main draw in many of the medieval stories, not Arthur himself, who is usually more of a background figure? One that did something creative enough, strange enough, new enough to get past my inherent suspicion of Arthurian retellings?

I needed to find out. And when I saw the cover, I needed it even more.

So, I signed up to participate in the social media blast, Jo Fletcher Books generously sent me a proof copy, and here we are. Let’s talk about Blackheart Knights.

A photograph of 'Blackheart Knights' by Laura Eve. The cover features a knight riding a motorbike amidst bright swirls of electricity and/or magic. The book has been positioned so that it appears to be standing on Peter Ackroyd's retelling of Malory's "Morte D'arthur", and Simon Armitage's "The Death of King Arthur".
My elderly copy of Malory wasn’t photogenic enough to make it into this picture.

First of all, this is an intensely difficult book to review, because I don’t want to spoil anything. While as a chronic re-reader, I’m wary of anything that can be undermined by spoilers — shock reveals can only be a shock once — there are definitely parts of this book where you benefit from going in blind. I want you to have the same experience I did, of dropping the book on the bed after a reveal, swearing loudly to yourself, and feeling like a complete fool for not putting two and two together sooner.

It’s pretty rare that I get completely bamboozled by books, and I have a weird talent for guessing plot twists based on nothing at all; I once guessed at random that a character was another character’s future self travelling back in time, thinking there was no way that could possibly be right, and… turned out to be right. I was mad at myself for spoiling that one, I can tell you.

So when a book does manage to mislead and misdirect me to the point where I don’t figure things out, I’m always as much impressed as I am annoyed at myself — especially if it’s something that, as a medievalist, I really should know. In this regard, Blackheart Knights reminded me of the experience of reading American Gods for the first time, and how angry I was that I hadn’t figured out sooner who Wednesday was, considering I was preparing to study Old Norse at uni…

But is this book the knight-centric book I was expecting or hoping for? Not exactly. Arthur — Artorius Dracones — is still a significant character, and the overall plot/vibes owe more to Malory etc than to Chrétien de Troyes, as often seems to be the case. (Having said that, there were a few deliciously unusual details, such as a reference to Lailoken, which made me very happy.) The stories of the knights are tangled together with the larger narrative, in the way that suits modern storytelling, rather than reflecting the episodic, individualised ways their stories are often presented by medieval authors. Of your classic Round Table knights, only a few appeared, and weren’t always easy to identify because of how Eve played with the naming.

It is, however, the most I’ve enjoyed an Arthurian retelling in a long time.

There are a few reasons for that, but one of the most important is that for a long time, I couldn’t tell what stories it was retelling. There was enough creativity and invention to disguise the source material enough that it never started feeling predictable. In fact, for a while I wondered if it was even retelling any specific story at all, or whether it was more the concept of an Arthurian court that Eve was borrowing, so it caught me out whenever the story circled back to an ‘expected’ element. I never felt like I knew exactly where we were going, which meant I stayed hooked.

It also wasn’t trying to be historically accurate in any way, which should be obvious from the blurb: motorbikes and magic and the media abound. I am, for the most part, very tired of Arthurian retellings which try to be ‘historical’, which generally means setting them in some nebulous early medieval world, stripping out all the weirdness of the original stories and making all the most obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. They’re also rarely actually accurate, particularly in regards to their insistence on removing all the Christian elements of the Arthurian stories. While Blackheart Knights has its own religious system, Christianity also exists, which I found to be an interesting choice; the fact that faith seemed to play a role at all was refreshing, considering how prominent it is in the medieval sources.

And to my delight, Eve also doesn’t make obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. The book is set in a queernorm world — e.g. our heteronormativity and gender roles don’t seem to exist, at least within the present setting. There’s a brief reference to women not always having been permitted to train as knights, but this is long gone, as evidenced by the fact that our main character is Red, a girl training to be a knight. She’s also bisexual, or something similar — there’s no discussion of terminology, but that speaks to a world where labels aren’t needed because sexuality isn’t categorised particularly.

There are also two nonbinary characters who use they/them pronouns. Again, there’s never any discussion of terminology or a forced explanation: they’re just there on the page, using neutral pronouns. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen two they/them characters in a book that wasn’t explicitly about trans stuff, and the fact it was so normalised and never questioned was refreshing. It’s weird how books never feel the need to specify, “Art was a boy”, but often when there’s a nonbinary character, authors feel the need to point this out. But Eve just introduced Garad and Dario with they/them pronouns and never felt the need to shoe-horn in a reason. Most excitingly, Garad is a knight — let the version of me who loves to wave a sword around rejoice!

Throughout the book, the past and present are interwoven: Art becoming King, and the early years of his rule, and Red’s training as a knight. Because I never figured out where the story was going until it got there, I was kept hooked by this dual timeline, trying to work out what we were building up to, and Eve did a masterful job of misleading me and then pulling the rug from under my feet with a reveal that made me question my understanding up until that point. I normally don’t love dual timelines (I’m good at ignoring chapter headings, so I tend to get confused), but these two threads felt distinct enough to minimise any confusion, and it kept the whole thing very compelling. I ended up staying up until 1:15am to finish it, because I had to know where we were going.

The worldbuilding was, as promised, immersive, although that did make the opening of the book a little challenging as I tried to get my head around the world and the unfamiliar terminology. I felt we didn’t necessarily see as much of this world as I’d have liked; I’m not sure if there’s to be a sequel (though based on the ending, there’s a space for one), but if there is, I’d like to see more about how the world works. We have seven kingdoms, one of which is London; another is Kernow, but what are the others? Do they map to their current real-world locations? I could also have used a map of this version of London, but maybe there’s one in the finished version of the book.

That the book is set in London seemed a slightly strange choice. The creative worldbuilding and use of language means it didn’t feel much like our London, and could realistically have been anywhere, so I wondered why Eve hadn’t chosen a place with more obvious Arthurian resonances. Some of the Brittonic-sounding placenames (Cair Lleon) seemed odd transplanted into such a seemingly ‘English’ location. However, the geography was different enough for it not to annoy me the way some Anglicisations of Arthur do, so this was more of a question mark on my part than a flaw.

Relatedly, I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on linguistically. Not being set in our world, there’s no reason that the names and terminology should follow a logical pattern based on our history, but it was still a little puzzling. There were plenty of Brittonic names and a fair few Gaelic ones too, but the names for types of magic users seemed to be Old English, and Latin, or a version of it, also seems to exist.

This wasn’t a flaw — I actually enjoyed how many different influences there seemed to be, because Arthuriana has never been limited to one country or language; from its Welsh origins it very quickly found a foothold in France, England, and beyond. But it did make it a little more challenging for me to figure out some of the worldbuilding, because I was probably overthinking it and looking for logic where there wasn’t necessarily any. I couldn’t figure out whether this terminology was associated with specific places or people-groups (e.g. was Old English used for ‘godchildren’, those with magical powers, because they’re underground and hidden, compared to the Latin-sounding name of the ruling family?), or if the world of Blackheart Knights was very much a melting pot of cultures, but I’d have liked to have more of an explanation for that, as well as for whether people spoke different languages or whether they’re only reflected in the proper nouns. This is probably just me being a nerd, though.

The blurb above doesn’t quite explain the setup with the knights and their televised fights — it’s for more than fame and money that they fight. They’re basically extremely violent lawyers, fighting to settle disputes (although the knights themselves aren’t supposed to know what the fight’s about, in case they end up throwing the fight or otherwise influencing the outcome). This actually felt pretty medieval to me — there are a lot of stories where a knight fights on behalf of a maiden in travails, and of course wins, because he’s in the right and because he’s the coolest. Having them belong to a ‘stable’ and be hired out to particular claimants was less medieval, since the procedure in medieval texts seems to be ‘find knight in the middle of nowhere, possibly in need of rescuing himself, and ask him to help you, calling in a favour if you have to’, but that suited the setting and gave it a modern, commercialised twist.

Having said that, this setup really only provided the background to the main characters’ machinations; I felt perhaps it could have been more central. I was kind of hoping that two knights who cared about each other would end up fighting, like Yvain and Gawain at the end of The Knight of the Lion, but I think I have a type when it comes to making friends fight each other. But it was only after I finished the book that I felt the lack of more development of that concept, not while reading it, and I think it’s a symptom of the fact that the worldbuilding here felt a lot bigger than one book alone, so I’ll be intrigued to know if there’s a sequel, and if so, where the plot might go next…

I’ll tell you nothing more about the story itself, because I really do think this is a book that rewards reading without foreknowledge. This means I can’t show off my Arthurian expertise or explain any of the references, but since some of them took me until the final chapters to get, I feel like I’ve surrendered my authority in that regard! So I’ll just tell you that for the most part, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience which kept me up far too late at night. Finally, an Arthurian retelling that didn’t annoy me — can it be true? (There have been others, but not recently, and several major disappointments in between…)

I still await my Chrétien-esque knights-centric Arthurian novel, ideally featuring Yvain and his lion, but I had a lot of fun being bamboozled and misled by Laure Eve in the meantime. And while I’m not sure anything will quite compare to the experience of reading it for the first time, I look forward to rereading one day and spotting all the clues I missed this time around.

So this medievalist’s judgment? Fun! With some intriguing references that’ll make you feel clever when you spot them, but enough creative divergences from the source material to stop it becoming predictable.

I’d love to give you my medievalist’s opinion on other retellings, Arthurian or otherwise, so please drop suggestions in the comments. And if Blackheart Knights sounds up your street, you can find it on Amazon UK (affiliate link) or on (normal link) — or of course at your local bookshop!

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