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Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington, eds., Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices
by Mark Rasmussen

Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington, eds. Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices. New York: Vintage Books, 2021. xiii + 465 pp. ISBN: 9780593081891. $17.00 paperback.

 

New Lives for Arthur?

As we all know, one of the great initiatives in medieval and early modern studies over the last few decades has been to re-think the works we study in the light of our own engagement with such topics as gender and sexuality, colonialism, and race. On the evidence of this anthology, we academics are not alone. Edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington, the volume collects sixteen short stories that seek to offer (as its jacket copy proclaims) ‘gender-bent, race-bent, LGBTQIA+-inclusive retellings’ of stories from the Arthurian tradition. Most of the stories are genre fiction—fantasy, sci-fi, young adult, romance—and many of their authors are well-known in those fields, with devoted readers and fans.

I approach this collection with a particular set of interests. One of the courses that I teach most often at Centre College (usually every other year) is a survey of the Arthurian legend from its beginnings in early Latin chronicles to the present day—this fall we ended with the 2021 film The Green Knight. Since I first taught the course in 2004 it has always been popular, and in its early years I sometimes had to work against that. More than half of those who take the course are women, and when students would say (for instance) how much they were moved by Arthur and Guinevere’s parting in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, I felt compelled to ask, since no one else was doing so, ‘But aren’t you bothered that she’s lying prostrate at his feet throughout this scene—isn’t it depressing to hear Arthur tell her, “I forgive thee as Eternal God / Forgives”? Isn’t that kind of a problem?’ Let’s just say that I don’t have to ask these questions any more: nearly two decades later, students immediately raise them on their own, and that’s a great thing. But now I have the opposite problem. Rightly disturbed by elements of a legend that (in the canonical versions of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory) begins with a rape (Uther’s of Igrayne) and that even in modern versions tends to limit female characters to stereotypical roles, not to mention one whose iconography has been readily adopted by British imperialists and white supremacist groups, some students today find it hard to connect with the story in any other spirit than that of critique. In a course about cultural transmission, I want my students to be alert to the ideological uses of the legend, but I also would like them to remain open to being moved and challenged by its central values, characters, and themes. So, do the stories in this collection not only question the legend’s assumptions, but also extend its possibilities to make them more accessible to me and my students in the here and now? In other words, given what I want to achieve in my Arthur course, should I add Sword Stone Table to the syllabus? Well, let’s have a look.

The collection’s sixteen stories are divided into three sections: ‘Once’, ‘Present’, and ‘Future’. I’ll comment briefly on ten of the stories, beginning with three that I particularly admire, each of which re-imagines the legend through a cross-cultural lens. The collection’s opener, ‘The Once and Future Qadi’ by Ausma Zehanat Khan, caught me up right away. It begins with an Islamic judge from Seville being summoned to Camelot to investigate charges of adultery against the Queen. Much of the tale is told from the Qadi’s point of view, as he interviews the parties involved (Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot) and comes to his own conclusions, with a plot twist toward the end that would have made Agatha Christie proud. The three interview scenes are riveting, as the sophisticated Qadi engages characters from a culture that strikes him as backwards and yet oddly admirable. Especially intriguing is his internal dialogue with a cultural practice of idealising women that has points of similarity and difference with his own. Khan wants us to remember that Provençal fin’amor may have found its roots in Arabic love poetry, so that here the wayward offspring is contemplated by its source.

My one problem with the story was that, while it traces the Qadi’s background in some detail—trained in Córdoba, a magistrate in Seville—and locates its events in the years of the early Crusades, it depicts Camelot as a court in an unnamed and seemingly generic Frankish kingdom. I couldn’t make that piece of the puzzle fit, and I wondered if I was missing something. What moved me, though, was the Qadi’s conclusion that all three characters from the legend had been at fault, unable to live up to values they had claimed as their own. Their failures may have been due to wounded pride or self-absorption or the shifting of desire, but as presented by Khan they seem relatable in a contemporary context, and of course the inability of human beings to fully sustain an ideal is one of the great themes of the Arthurian tradition. So this was one story whose fresh take on the legend gave some of its core values a welcome reboot.

Another story in this group of three, ‘Once (Them) & Future (Us)’ by Preeti Chhibber, from the section tagged ‘Present’, revisits one of the legend’s most familiar motifs, asking how the hope for Arthur’s return (rex quondam, rexque futurus) might be reimagined if history is conceived not as linear (one death, one return), but as cyclical (death and reincarnation as a series of returns, ‘every iteration of Arthur to get closer to Avalon’ [384]). The story opens in present-day London, with Merlin awakening from his centuries-long sleep, now a young man. He sets off in search of Arthur, who turns out to be a university student of Indian heritage named Arjun, out for a stroll with his roommate and sister, Morgan. To varying degrees all three characters retain some awareness of their previous lives. This awareness is least fully developed for Arjun, amounting to a vague but immediate sense of connection to Merlin and a feeling that they are destined for great things; the two men become lovers. Merlin (who calls himself ‘Emrys’ in this new incarnation) and Morgan/Morgana remember much more of their pasts, and the story’s central conflict arises when Morgan claims that Merlin must give up all memory of himself if he is to help Arjun/Arthur get closer to who he needs to become. Here, too, a central Arthurian theme—the need to sacrifice the claims of the self for a greater ideal—is given original and vivid expression, as the story, told from Merlin’s perspective, flickers between his consciousness and that of Emrys, until finally Merlin chooses to erase his own memories of who he once was. Together, Chhibber and Khan’s stories imaginatively recast the romance and tragic strains of the Arthurian tradition, in particular a belief in the vitalising potential of ideals and an awareness of how prone human beings are to fall short of them.

Nisi Shawl’s story, ‘I Being Young and Foolish’, captivated me. The ‘I’ in the title is Merlin, but the tale is told entirely from the perspective of an African woman, Nia, an albino living in exile who visits Merlin in early medieval Wales. While Merlin’s magic masters time and space, Nia identifies intensely with nature and takes as ‘her chosen destiny, the knitting together of the world’s webs’ (67). Especially dazzling are those passages early in Shawl’s story that convey Nia’s attunement to her environment, as the lives of plants and animals pulse through her veins. At one point she buries herself overnight in the forest floor, to be fed by roots and earth.

As the allusion in the story’s title suggests, the encounter between Merlin and Nia is not unlike that between the speaker and his love in Yeats’ ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’, with Merlin’s magic representing a self-conscious attempt to master the natural world that Nia so utterly embraces. Merlin is always referred to as ‘the magician’, and twice he calls Nia a ‘sorceress’, a mistake she doesn’t bother to correct—she is more of a natural healer. Ultimately what’s at stake here is a contrast between Western rationality and the animism of Nia’s homeland, located with some specificity in the region of Lake Nalubaale (later Victoria). As in ‘The Once and Future Qadi’, there are points of similarity as well as difference between the Western and non-Western worlds. And Merlin himself contrives that Nia shall displace him as counsellor to King Bear (Arthur/Arcturus), a transition epitomised in a brilliant re-vision of the sword in the stone.

This story didn’t quite match my formula of a critical perspective that helps revitalise the Arthurian tradition—instead, we are invited to entertain a radical alternative to that tradition’s norms—and some readers may worry that Nia’s closeness to nature essentialises gender, race, or both. (I think that Nia is too strong-willed a character, and Shawl too honest a writer, for that.) But I was won over, quite frankly, by how exquisitely the story was told, and I would love to explore its intricacies with my students.

A fourth story that offers a cross-cultural take on the legend, ‘Heartbeat’ by Waubgeshig Rice, is written in the mode of young adult fiction, narrating the experience of a twelve-year old boy named Art who lives on a hardscrabble Indigenous reserve in Canada. Like Rice himself, who is a prominent writer on Indigenous themes, Art is part of the Anishinaabe community; the tale is set in the 1980s, when tribal language and cultural practices have been strictly proscribed. Art studies in secret with a tribal elder, who mentions to him the rumour that a set of ritual drums has been hidden beneath a huge boulder on the reserve. During a pick-up baseball game the ball becomes wedged beneath the rock, and after several others have tried, Art finds the unexpected strength to lift the boulder and discover the drums. He uses one of them to beat out the rhythms he has learned, and members of the community are drawn to the sound, singing the songs of their people once again.

Probably no story in the collection repurposes an Arthurian motif—in this case, of course, the sword in the stone—in such an unabashedly positive and culturally inclusive way. The story’s ending may sound sentimental, but I find myself moved each time I read it. As a piece of young adult fiction, though, ‘Heartbeat’ necessarily lacks the more nuanced engagement with the Arthurian tradition found in the other three tales.

Two other stories in the collection stand out precisely because of their aesthetic complexity, written by authors known for their dedication to craft. Alexander Chee’s ‘Little Green Men’ is a sci-fi riff on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the poem’s opening in Camelot relocated to a lavish party on Mars. Arturo is the star of a reality show beamed back to Earth, and those involved with him never know what is, or is not, part of the script. When the Green Knight crashes the party, Arturo’s friend Gavin takes up his challenge. It turns out that the Green Knight is an android version of a former lover of Gavin’s—Manav, the name that Chee gives him, is that of the first humanoid robot manufactured in India[1]—which explains the replaceable head, and the famous kisses exchanged between Gawain and his host are put to amusing, and quite tender, use. The last tale in the collection, and one of the shortest, ‘Little Green Men’ has a puckish inventiveness and wit—everything is part of a game. It would be fun to have my students pit it against the 2021 film The Green Knight, which has a great deal to recommend it but is lugubrious and long.

‘Mayday’, by Maria Dahvana Headley, clocks in at fifty pages, by far the most of any story in the collection, and it is a wild ride. Readers of The Spenser Review will recognise Headley as the author of a bold, slangy translation of Beowulf, where the initial ‘Hwæt’ becomes ‘Bro!’, as well as of a novel, The Mere Wife, a contemporary recasting of the same poem from the perspectives of Hrothgar’s wife and Grendel’s mother.[2] The title of her story in this collection refers to the date of Mordred’s birth and to the episode in Malory where Arthur gathers all the children born on that day and sends them off on a ship to die. Headley mainly locates her story in late nineteenth-century America, though its events extend to generations before and after then and are not narrated in any linear way. Instead, the story takes the form of a detailed inventory of thirty-four items found in a locked lighthouse in 1975 and put up for auction. These items include letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, a bloodied tuxedo, and a feral parrot, and from their descriptions the reader puts together, piece by piece, the story of what has occurred. It is a complicated exercise in sleuthing, so spoilers are to be avoided at all costs. All I will say here that both Uther Pendragon and Arthur are portrayed as unscrupulous businessmen and sexual predators, operating in a Gilded Age world of corrupt politics and cynical exploitation.

The events from Malory that Headley reimagines are ones that always trouble my students, and rightly so: not just the episode of the Mayday slaughter, but Uther’s rape of Igrayne and Arthur’s premarital sexual career, fathering children first with Lionors and then with his sister Morgause. By the end of ‘Mayday’ some of its women have had their revenge, and so far as Arthurian idealism goes, Headley takes a scorched-earth approach. (The one moment when Arthur urges his followers to unite behind a common goal comes during a transparently hypocritical stump speech.) As with her Beowulf translation, Headley’s Arthurian story launches a seriocomic assault on white male privilege, in this instance with a particular emphasis on race. The reader feels a muckraker’s joy at putting the pieces of the puzzle together and discovering who has done what to whom, with some real surprises along the way. I think my students would like seeing their own qualms about the legend given such clever artistic shape, and would enjoy the hunt.

The six stories that I’ve just summarised represent the top tier of the collection for me. Eight others fall within a wide middle range, each adopting an interesting premise but not pursuing it as suggestively as the top six. Perhaps my favourite among this middle group was ‘Flat White’ by Jessica Plummer. In it, Elaine, a barista in a London coffee shop, gets entangled in the lives of Lance, Gwen, and Arthur, well-heeled twenty-somethings. Elaine’s experiences are a mash-up of those of three of the legend’s side-lined women: Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, and the Elaines of Astolat and Corbenic (Galahad’s mother). At the tale’s end, Elaine walks away from the emotional train wreck, though not after some pretty nasty scenes set in a world of cell phones and binge drinking and posh London bistros. Plummer’s story is a resistant re-writing of the legend, giving voice to three disempowered characters in one, but what I liked was that the voice was so much fun to overhear—slangy and self-deprecating in a Bridget Jones sort of way. In a collection whose stories can take themselves a little too seriously, it was a treat find myself laughing out loud.

Other stories in this group re-imagine the lives of characters from the legend: in ‘A Shadow in Amber’, a sci-fi story by Silvia Morena-Garcia, the Lady of Shalott lives in lofty isolation on the top floor an ultra-modern skyscraper, connecting with Lancelot in virtual reality memories bought on the black market, while ‘The Quay Stone’ by S. Zainab Williams casts the temptress Nenive as a club-hopping teen in modern-day Singapore, and Roshani Chokshi’s ‘Passing Fair and Young’ offers an Elaine of Corbenic who declines mythic glamor in favour of a happy domesticity with Lancelot and their child. (A very different version of Lancelot is offered in Daniel M. Lavery’s ‘How, after Long Fighting, Galehaut Was Overcome by Lancelot Yet Was Not Slain and Made Great Speed to Yield to Friendship; Or, Galehaut, the Knight of the Forfeit’, which portrays Lancelot as the not-so-obscure object of masculine desire.[3])

Also in this middle group, but worth summarising more fully, is the collection’s one Spenserian entry, ‘Do, By All Due Means’ by Sive Doyle, a rewriting of the House of Busirane episode from The Faerie Queene. (Its title tweaks ‘Be bold, be not too bold’.) In Doyle’s version, when Britomart rescues Amoret the two fall passionately in love, and the pair rides off into the sunset, leaving a petulant Scudamore behind. Doyle knows her Spenser and makes some canny plot adjustments along the way: the face that Britomart sees in Merlin’s mirror is not Arthegall’s but her own, and she is the one to discover the armour of the Saxon warrior Angela, rather than being tipped off about it by her nurse. Meanwhile Scudamore and Busirane become a pair of exceptionally creepy brothers. Still, the romance between Amoret and Britomart gave me a sense of déjà lu, and then I remembered: same-sex desire is already there in Book Three, all over the place, with Malecasta, with Glauce, with the mirror image of Arthegall seeming so much like Britomart, without being her. It is hard to top our poet when it comes to tracking the tangled paths of gender and desire. Plus Doyle’s story relies on a reader’s knowledge of The Faerie Queene to achieve its full effect, and, sad to say, most of my students in the Arthur course have never heard of the poem.

Finally, there were two stories that didn’t really belong in the collection. Sarah Maclean is a romance writer with a huge fan base, but ‘The Bladesmith Queen’ was a head-scratcher for me. It centres on a female blacksmith who forges a sword for an unnamed knight, and the story seems to exist mainly for its long soft-porn scene between the muscular pair, full of aching desire and caught breaths and thrusting strokes. Maclean is a prominent advocate for romance fiction as empowering to women, but the story had nothing to do with Arthur.

The other story falls short for the opposite reason: it is just too derivative of earlier work. Alex Segura’s ‘Black Diamond’ tells the story of a baseball player, Arturo Reyes, languishing in the minor leagues, whose father Umberto had been a star in the majors until he was mysteriously killed. When one of his father’s former teammates, Jimmy Merlin, gives Arturo a bat called Excalibur, Arturo’s playing improves dramatically, he is called up to the Charlotte Knights, and the story ends as he strides to the plate for a crucial at-bat in the playoffs. Baseball and chivalry are an intuitive match, with their ritualised combat and idyllic settings where cultural values are put on display; however, it has been seventy years since Bernard Malamud brilliantly exploited that connection in his 1952 novel, The Natural. The magic bat in Malamud’s book is called Wonder Boy, and Roy Hobbs’ rise to the majors and subsequent fall are placed within an intricate web of Arthurian and Jungian allusions and linked to a strain of cynical idealism in post-war American culture. As a novel, the book has its flaws, but Malamud makes fascinating use of the legend, and there’s no point in going back to that well.

So, to return to my opening question: Will I put Sword Stone Table on the syllabus for my Arthur course the next time around? You know, I think I will. The collection is definitely a mixed bag, but several of its stories expand the possibilities of the Arthurian tradition in ways that speak to me and may speak to my students, and the volume as a whole testifies to the continuing power of the legend to provoke and inspire. I thought that Spenserians might like to hear (if they haven’t already) that this collection is out there right now.

 

Mark Rasmussen

Centre College



2 Maria Dahvana Headley, Beowulf: A New Translation (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020) and The Mere Wife (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). For an appreciative review of the Beowulf translation, see Ruth Franklin, ‘Mothering the Monster: A “Beowulf” for Our Moment’, The New Yorker, August 31, 2020, 72-75.

3 A tip of the hat to Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner’s great essay, ‘Le Chevalier de La Charrette: That Obscure Object of Desire, Lancelot’, in Norris J. Lacy and Joan Tasker Grimbert, eds., A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005).

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Cite as:

Mark Rasmussen, "Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington, eds., Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices," Spenser Review (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed December 6th, 2022.
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