Monday, April 11, 2011

Musings: Hawk of May

Hawk of May
Hawk of May, by Gillian Bradshaw, is the first book in her Down the Long Wind Arthurian trilogy.  It was first published in the 1980s.  My copy is an old mass market paperback and does not have the cover shown to the right- but I was happy to find that the book has been republished after being out of print for so long!

Hawk of May  is the story of Gwlachmai (Gawain), son of Arthur's sister Morgawse and King Lot.  Growing up, he had no skill at the arts of war he was expected to learn.  Instead, he was an excellent horseman and bard.  His father didn't appreciate these arts, though, and thought Gwlachmai useless, giving him none of his time and all of his temper.  So Gwlachmai was led down the path to the Darkness by his sorceress mother, trying to use magic and evil to gain power.  It was only after one particular episode in which Morgawse went too far that Gwachmai was able to pull away from her influence and escape the Darkness that wished to consume him.  His escape and his quest after that to join King Arthur's family make up the majority of this story.

I always wonder what leads me to finally pull a book down off my shelves after it's been waiting there for years.  In this case, after reading The Drawing of the Dark, I realized that I was in a mood for more King Arthur and that I had Bradshaw's trilogy conveniently located on the shelf.  So voila!  Now I have started the series, and I hope I feel motivated enough to read the rest of it soon, too.

I was predisposed to like this book for several reasons but mainly because I love King Arthur and have been on a fantasy binge this year.  And the book didn't disappoint on those counts.  One of the aspects of Arthurian literature I most enjoy is that Arthur symbolizes not just a battle of civilization vs. barbarism or of one race of people trying to keep invaders out.  His era is also that final clash between Old and New in Britain.  It's the rise of Christianity against the old mythology of the British Isles, and every time, I admit, I wish the old gods would win, or at least manage to stick around, because the history and folk lore is so fascinating and rich.  In a weird way, I also love the futility of the Arthur story.  A king who knows what his downfall will be decades before it comes for him.  A man and his followers fighting to the end in what is inevitably a losing battle.  It's a heart-wrenching story, but there is so much beauty and goodness in it, too.

In Gillian Bradshaw's retelling, there is no Merlin (a great disappointment to me as my favorite Arthur retelling remains Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy).  She bases her story on the original Welsh stories and draws in Irish mythology, too.  It's interesting to see the way she approaches the religious clash as well.  Morgawse symbolizes the Darkness and it seems that all sorcerers practice evil.  Arthur himself is portrayed as a (fairly) devout Christian.  Gwlachmai is not Christian but he is a warrior for the Light, which is a complex combination of Christian belief and his Irish ancestry.  I didn't love this interpretation mainly because I always thought it was Guinevere who was very religious and Arthur who was much more pragmatic.  However, I did like how open Bradshaw was to the Otherworld and the Sidhe and all those other beings that populate Celtic mythology.  I loved that she brought those elements in and made a place for them in her story.  There were some very high-level spiritual conversations in this story that I wasn't expecting to come across and tended to scan over, but if you are in the mood for religious debate, then you will probably enjoy them more than me!

I enjoyed this book.  I loved being immersed in post-Roman Britain once more and seeing the battle between the old ways and the new, fought so clearly in massive battles.  I also really enjoyed Gwlachmai as a narrator.  He's just a really good person.  It was wonderful to get to know him better, particularly as he is one of the most famous knights of the Round Table and has a significant amount of mythology relating to him.  (He also shows up for a cameo in Silverlock.)  He is a very engaging narrator, and seeing him through his personal struggles is a very absorbing way to spend an evening.  I am very glad I finally picked this book up off my shelf, and I look forward to reading the next two in the series, too (Kingdom of Summer and In Winter's Shadow).  Highly recommended for fans of Arthurian fiction!


  1. I hope to read this trilogy one of these days. I have the first book but not the other two. I should add it to my list to get when I am at the second hand store. I have seen her books there, but never remember to pick those two up.

  2. I always really want to be a fan of Arthurian fiction, but almost none of it ever works for me. I resent Guinevere for being such a twit (all the more so because Guinevere is the original version of my name, says the baby name book I had as a little girl), and Arthur for being all sanctimonious and then dying tragically, and Lancelot for not keeping it in his pants, and Merlin for not saving the day. And all the villains for being villains. I can't figure out a way to escape these cranky cranky views of the characters, and enjoy some good (as this sounds) Arthurian literature.

  3. Kelly- Oh, really? I don't think I EVER see those books in the used bookstore. I am pretty sure I got mine when I was a member of paperbackswap, but maybe now that they're being reissued, it will be easier to find them all!

    Jenny- I understand your concerns completely! I also think Guinevere is a complete idiot (and I assume you were named after one of Arthur's PREVIOUS two wives, both of whom were also named Guinevere). I also don't like Lancelot, though I'm a fan of Merlin and many versions present Arthur as much more pragmatic than the original tales. So I still like them :-)

  4. I have so many books that deal with Arthurian Legend (including The Merlin Trilogy, which I picked up on your recommendation), but haven't yet read any of them. I am looking forward to a less busy time when I can get them all out and intersperse them with some of the other books I want to read. It does sound like this book was a bit different than most of the others out there, and I think I would particularly like the fact that some of it centers on spiritual concerns. I am glad that you found a new series to love and am eager to hear what you think about the following books. I might just have to add them to my ever growing collection if you love them! Fantastic and thorough review!

  5. I've wondered about these books. Thanks for the review - I'll have to pick them up at some point.

  6. I've been wanting to add an Arthurian series to my reading but have had no idea which way to go - there are so darn many. As you sound like a true fan, and you're the second person who has mentioned Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, and you say that's your favourite, I'm going to add that to my tbr list.

    I know it's not your review, but it pointed me in the right direction, so thanks! :

  7. For some books Arthur books never work for me, they are all just so bloody depressing :(

  8. I love Gillian Bradshaw's writing -- I'm not an avid Arthurian but she might be enough to propel me to do so!

  9. I like Gillian Bradshaw's work too, and didn't know about these Arthurian books, so thanks! Have you ever read another book, also called 'The Hawk of May', also about Gawain, by Ann Lawrence? I blogged about it here:

    It's very good.


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