The Camelot series is set in Arthurian times, of course, but we see little of Arthur and Guinevere (at least until the third book) though the royal couple are always there in the background. The hero of the first book, Camelot’s Shadow, is Sir Gawain, and the heroine (in the sense of hero, for she is a hero) the nineteen-year-old Lady Rhian, whose father had promised her at birth to a sorcerer in exchange for her mother’s life.
Sir Gawain rescues her from the sorcerer, who is in league with the wicked witch Kerra, who in turn is employed by the even more wicked Morgaine in her intricate spider-like schemes to encompass the downfall of Arthur; and battle commences.
At the heart of the story looms the fabled Green Giant, an ancient god of the land whom Kerra, the witch, attempts to manipulate and make use of against Gawain, for the plot of this book is based primarily on the poem of Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight. It is also in some ways the closest that any recent writer has come to reproducing Tolkein’s all but inimitable style: she even has a creature who accuses poor Rhian of being a sneak (‘Sneak! Sneak!’ it cried. ‘Thief!’) when her situation is quite as desperate as Frodo’s ever was.
Like the poem, the novel contains both the human and natural and the mystical and magical. It is full of magic. Kerra, for instance, flies with the ravens; Rhian is transformed into something resembling a pig (this never happened to Frodo – and even on Circe’s enchanted island it only happens to men, which doesn’t seem so shocking somehow); and things are not what they appear anywhere, either in the enchanted forest or the ensorcelled hovels that seem to be castles or the castles that seem to be hovels.
Next comes Camelot’s Honour, with Arthur and Guenevere and Merlin still in the background, but in the foreground this time Sir Gawain’s brother, the young knight Sir Geraint, battling magic with honour and honesty.
Lady Elen, whose father is dead, lives with her mother and brother by Pont Cymryd, a strategic bridge between the kingdoms that Urien, the powerful neighbouring chief, wishes to control. But the bridge is more than that, for once a year, on Midsummer’s Night, it gives onto “the other world”.
Urien, with the support of Morgaine (Urien being, no doubt, one of her many lovers), attacks Pont Cymryd and only Elen survives. But she has the love of Geraint. He wins her back from Urien in a knightly contest and together they flee across the bridge into …
‘Where is this place?’ whispered Geraint.
Elen licked her lips and chose her words carefully. ‘If I say it is the home of our good neighbours, will you know what I mean?’
Geraint’s face went white …
Now their adventures really start. And they are not helped by the fact that Morgaine has removed Elen’s heart, and she has become like a dead thing.
‘Elen!’ Geraint threw himself from his horse to run forward and grasp her shoulders. ‘How …’
With a shaking hand, she touched the clean edge of her bloodless wound. Revulsion gathered in the pit of her stomach. What am I become? Am I a corpse? Like the Grey Men? I cannot die because I am already dead?
Camelot’s Sword is the third of these wonderful medieval romances set in the Arthurian period and in this story, for the first time, Guenevere plays a major role (though Arthur remains in the background) (and Sir Lancelot comes to the foreground – but I must not give away this sub-plot). The hero this time (or the male protagonist, for the real hero in all these books is the heroine) is another of the sons of Lot and Morgause, Gareth.
Gareth is still a squire, and we first meet him during the course of a marvellous seven-page description of boys training to be knights with Sir Lancelot as their teacher, but he is growing up, is now Lancelot’s senior squire, and also getting a bad reputation for bedding the girls – and the ladies.
The book opens, however, with the heroine, as always in this series. A damsel in distress. Lynet of Cambryn is the younger of two sisters. As a child of thirteen she was fostered to King Mark’s court at Tintagel, where she waited on Queen Iseult and became the go-between for Iseult and her lover, Sir Tristan. After their tragic death, Lynet, now aged sixteen, returned to Cambryn in disgrace.
They found [Iseult] on the shore beside Sir Tristan who had been left for the carrion birds. She was as dead as he, without a stain upon her. A broken heart some said. Poison said others. It hardly mattered. She was dead, and he was dead, and the whole court was in a frenzy. Suddenly Lynet found herself in the midst of a nest of furies who called her foul names and struck her face, pinched her body, and pushed her into the mud. She hid trembling in the cellars until Wellan found her there, dragged her out by her hair and tossed her down in front of King Mark and his men in Tintagel’s hall. She grovelled at his feet, too afraid even to plead fro her life.
‘Let her go,’ was Mark’s sentence. ‘Let her go back to her father’s house and tell him what she has done, and let me never see her face again.’
Never is a long time. Now, though, after only two years, trouble is brewing in Cambryn. War looms. When the two sisters find themselves alone with only a few servants and soldiers around them and two sparring tribal chieftains at loggergeads and demanding judgement, Laurel, the elder sister (and unlike Lynet, of blameless reputation) sends Lynet to contact Queen Guenevere at Camelot. for Cambryn is her family home and it is under her that Laurel and Lynet’s father holds it as Steward.
So far, so simple. It transpires, however, that it is Morgan le Fay, Morgaine the sorceress, Arthur’s half-sister, who is behind all the trouble.
Still, the sisters are not without defence against sorcery, for their mother, Morwenna, was the daughter of the Sea and they have inherited both psychic powers and a magic mirror – the mermaid’s mirror. All of which Lynet will need when out at sea she confronts the malevolent morverch (“corpse pale they were, yet life flowed abundantly within them“) and on Bodmin the daughters of the moor with their pitch black hounds. And when she confronts Morgaine, who, as we know from the other stories, is a shape-shifter and regularly takes the form of a black horse or raven, and even on occasion of Guenevere herself. Not to mention the fact that the mirror itself (like all magic?) is dangerous and in the long run deadly to use. It facilitates astral travel (there are marvellous descriptions of this, too) but the more Lynet uses it (she feels she has to keep ahead of events and in touch with her sister while she is on the long journey to and from Camelot) the harder it is for her to return to her body, until in the end … Enough said.
And so finally we come to Camelot’s Blood, the last in this series. Laurel, heiress to Carnbrae and Cambryn, Guinevere’s own ancestral lands, has renounced her claim in favour of her sister Lynet and Lynet’s husband Sir Gareth, youngest of the sons of King Lot and Queen Morgause (who are also the nephews of King Arthur – and of Morgaine).
But Laurel, as we have seen, has powers of her own, for she and her sister are “Daughters of the Sea” – or more specifically, granddaughters, for their mother, a true Daughter of the Sea, gave up her heritage in order to marry Laurel and Lynet’s father – and died as a result.
Now Laurel must marry Sir Agravain, brother to Sir Gareth (and to Sir Gawain, Sir Geraint – all the heroes of the other books) and travel north with him to Din Eityn (Edinburgh) where Lot is dying and Agravain must succeed him as king. However, awaiting him there are Morgaine, and her son by her half-brother Arthur: the Black Knight, Prince Mordred.
Old Lot has been mad for years – drievn mad by Morgaine’s sorceries – and the castle and the kingdom are in ruins. Will Agravaine be able to stand up against the earthly power of Mordred? Will Laurel be able to withstand the unearthly powers of Morgaine? For Arthur and Guinevere do not come with them, and Merlin seems in despair.
I have to say that I find Sarah Zettel’s Merlin less than convincing, but, apart from that one weakness, these Camelot books remind me of Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series (Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows and Child of the Prophecy) and are the only recent books I have come across comparable to it. These two modern series both transport the delighted reader into the heart of a world of Celtic magic that no other author except Tolkein has come near to achieving. And his Middle Earth was not a Celtic world, but owed more to Anglo-Saxon mythology. (See Brian Bates’ The Real Middle Earth.)