For the past approximately 15 years, I've been attempting to write a novel about Sir Kay, the Orkney knights, and weird Arthurian family dynamics. It's one of those things that I pick up about my extent draft of approximately every five years, think "huh! maybe with some extensive revision," get halfway through the extensive revision, realize I still haven't figured out how to do it, and put it down again. Maybe someday! With extensive revision!
Anyway it was probably about five years ago that I realized that someone had already written this book, sort of, and since then I've been hunting in bookstores for used copies of Phyllis Ann Karr's Idylls of the Queen
, which I have now finally acquired and read.
This was a weird reading experience in the way that it always is when reading a book that's almost
the book you would have written. About half the things that she's doing are very specific things that I am also really interested in, and it's deeply mysterious to me I arrived at them completely independently when she was already there three years before I was born. And then there are things that I never in a million years would have done, like making Sir Kay desperately in hopeless love with Queen Guinevere. What? I mean, OK, sure, but I
wouldn't have ever gotten there. There must be a word for this, that weird feeling of almost-mine-but-not-quite.
Anyway, the thing that Karr does that I think is most
interesting -- that I would like to do and probably will never do half so well -- is the way that she looks very closely at Arthurian stories from Malory and various lays and legends and hews very much to the letter of What Happens In Them, while also sort of shaking them inside out and looking at how that might have looked to the various different humans involved (often, especially, the women). It's really clever and a lot of fun, while also being about as disturbing as anything that takes much of Malory and various other early Arthuriana literally would have to be.
The actual plot
of the book involves Queen Guinevere being accused of murder, and Sir Kay and Mordred going on a DETECTIVE SPREE ends up getting tangled up not just in Guinevere's alleged crime, but also all the weird backstory Orkney blood feud stuff of who murdered whom in revenge against whom. Eventually there's a Locked Room Denouement in full Poirot style, but first there is the TWO MOST ANNOYING KNIGHTS IN THE WORLD on a ROAD TRIP, hanging out with various Arthurian side characters like Nimue and Morgan and Sir Pelleas and Sir Ironsides and irritating the heck out of all
of them, and it is honestly amazing.
KAY: I'm traveling with Mordred because he's the worst, and because he's definitely a suspect for the murder.
SOME RANDOM NORMAL ROUND TABLE PERSON: Sir Kay, why are you traveling with Mordred? He's the worst! Aren't you worried that his bad reputation will rub off on you?
KAY: Um, excuse me? I was given to understand that I
was the rudest and most annoying knight of the Round Table? I'm pretty sure you should be worried that my
bad reputation is going to rub off on this poor, innocent child, so why don't you lay off??
Mordred: I am totally ready to be murdered by ANYONE, probably YOU, probably TONIGHT. Here I am, LANGUISHING IN MY BEDROOM, WEAPONLESS -
KAY: CHILD! why are you such a DRAMA LLAMA
MORDRED: Now, hypothetically considering the possibility that maybe Guinevere did
want to murder someone -
KAY: I'll fight anyone who accuses the queen! I'll fight you anytime, anywhere! How very dare you imply that it's even REMOTELY POSSIBLE that the Queen might have been in ANY WAY responsible for -
MORDRED: lololol look who is the drama llama! PS are you ready to murder me yet?
(To be clear, Mordred is like in his thirties in this book.)
[KAY AND MORDRED ARE ARGUING AGAIN]
KAY: Suddenly, I feel like shit! Why is this!
NIMUE: That's because I cast a spell of magical depression on you to get you to briefly -- oh, so blissfully briefly -- stop talking.
KAY: Mordred is the one who was ruder, why didn't you cast it on him?
NIMUE: You're the one who told me that Mordred was very emotionally fragile and I should be careful of his tender ego!
KAY: ...ugh, so I did. Ugh, and I meant it. Fine.
Basically what I'm saying is that it's still remotely possible that someday I will get my version into shape for other human eyes to see, but despite the strangeness of the experience, I'm not mad that Karr did it first.