Lev Butts Lists the Best of Self-Publishing VIII

Since last month's post started out as an intro to this one that grew in the telling, let's just jump right in to my selection for this month's great self-published book.

Jump in like Holmes and Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls

The Swithen by Scott Telek

I have been a fan of the King Arthur legends since I was old enough to read, so much so that I am writing my own version of them.  This series, then, is of particular interest to me. It is certainly the most ambitious.

As anyone who has studied Arthurian myth knows, what we tend to think of as "Arthurian" legend really comes from one book: Thomas Malory's Le Mort D'Arthur and one or two other related texts, usually Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and sometimes Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the King's of Britain or Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian poems.

However, Arthurian legends are much more than three or four texts. There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of Arthurian legends that never made it into Malory. Not to mention these guys:

You didn't really think I'd let an Arthurian article go without mentioning them, did you?
Most authors generally pick one or two main texts and create their own riffs on them. And there's really nothing wrong with that. These books are often fantastic pieces of fiction. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon remains one of the premiere modern Arthurian novels due to Bradley's decision to tell the Arthurian stories only through the eyes of the women, voices that are generally silent in the original texts. Richard Monaco's Parsival series takes a decidedly postmodern look at Wolfram von Eschenbach's thirteenth century epic poem. Other modern retellings, such as Tennyson's Idylls of the King or T. H. White's The Once and Future King have themselves become canonized entries into English literature. But each of these writers have had to alter the original texts or stray far from the original legends in order to create their own unique visions of the Arthurian world.

Not so with Scott Telek.

Telek has taken as his objective to write a series of Arthurian novels that sticks only to events that happen in the original texts of the extant myths. While, like others, he does have to figure out a way to explain inconsistencies between different texts, Telek refuses to add any scene that is not at least implied by the original legend, though he will add characters and scenes rather liberally depending on the needs of the narrative. For example, the story of Merlin’s birth takes only a few lines in the original text, and his mother is never even given a name, so Telek must naturally elaborate on this. Additionally, he makes an effort to introduce gender equality into his retelling, but not at the expense of contradicting previously written legends. His method is to invent a psychology and background or connecting events that slot seamlessly into the existing legend without changing it. As he explains on his webpage:
The Swithen is a series of epic fantasy novels that honor the actual historic legends of King Arthur while re-examining the old, musty gender roles inherent to the tale, and giving women their rightful place as equal and important drivers of the story. Most Arthurian stories don’t tell the real ancient legends because they are too weird and the morality too outdated. This series is committed to keeping the stories intact, but filling in the psychology and re-examining the roles of men and women in way that brings the emotions and characters to life for modern readers.
And this is a herculean task. He has twenty five books planned that span from Merlin's birth two generations before Arthur's through Arthur's death. His primary source material ranges from such well-known texts as Le Mort D'Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to more obscure texts like The Prose Merlin and the Vulgate Cycle.

According to Telek, the title of the series comes from Middle English: “‘Swithen’ is a Middle English term from slash and burn agriculture that means the burning of a field to make it fertile for the next generation.... It refers to the grail quest, in which Arthur and his men are told that their way of life is ending and to make way for the new.”  He has completed the first three volumes of this epic undertaking, and I have to admit, it has the hall-marks of becoming one of my favorite Arthurian series. 

The first volume, Our Man on Earth, tells the story of Meylinde, a young woman in ancient Britain who finds herself at the center of the devil's plan to create an antichrist, a combination of demonic and human nature, to counteract Christ's blend of divinity and humanity. The result of this experiment will be Merlin.

Meylinde must find a way to protect both her own soul and that of her unborn child as she fights for her life against a legal system that requires death for fornication.

I didn't expect to enjoy the book as much as I did, but Telek manages to make the story intriguing, however, through his use of characterization, psychological realism, and a keen eye for how an ordinary person would react to such extraordinary circumstances. “These are ordinary people facing these overwhelmingly strange circumstances,” he explains, “and a lot of it so far has been dealing with Merlin, who is like nothing they’ve ever encountered before.

While there are some possible anachronisms within the pages, they do not detract from the story. In fact, one might read them as nods to the original texts in which anachronisms such as full sets of medieval armor in the Roman era are rampant.

The second novel, The Sons of Constance, is even better than the first as it is here where Telek begins to play in more familiar ground. It tells the story of Vortigern's rise and fall as king of Britain, and skillfully combines historical fact with legends and myths so that Vortigern's witnessing the fight between two literal dragons seems just as realistic and believable as his treaty with the Saxons to provide muscle for his subjugating the land. Again his use of psychological realism in this book is exquisite. Through our knowledge of Vortigern's thoughts, the audience is able to see him less as the traditional villain of pre-Arthurian times, and more as the victim of his own moral failings. He becomes a sympathetic character by the end of his life, so much so, that I almost felt sorry for him as he watches the army of Uther and his brother surround his tower.

While I have not yet read the third volume, The Void Place, I am anxious to get started on it. It tells the story, apparently of Uther's affair with Igraine, and will end with Arthur's birth.

In short, Telek's The Swithen series is well worth your reading time, and each novel is fairly short, not enough to feel rushed, just enough to feel satisfied when you end it. The first three books of the series are available separately or as a bundled trilogy.

We'll see you in Camelot, though it is a silly place.


Griselda Heppel said…
Wow, 25 novels planned! Telek is clearly a powerful player in the world of Arthurian legend, and his books - and the thinking behind them - sound intriguing. Squaring the aim of giving women an equal role in the telling, with a determination not to veer from the traditional legends, sounds a formidable task to me, but good for him for attempting it. I adored The Once and Future King, though parts of it made bleak reading. These novels sound well worth a try.
Leverett Butts said…
They are, Griselda. I'm really enjoying them.

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