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The Pagan King
Edison Marshall
Green Knight Publishing, 336 pages

Marc Fishman
The Pagan King
Edison Marshall
Born in Rensselaer, Indiana, August 28, 1894, Edison Tesla Marshall was the son of a newspaperman. He began writing at the University of Oregon in 1915, but was unable to complete his studies due to lack of funds. The first story he sold was "When the Fire Dies," which appeared in the May 1915 issue of The Argosy. His first work of science fiction, "Who is Charles Avison?" (1916), is regarded as a minor classic in the parallel world genre. After a stint in the army, in 1919 he published "The Flying Lion" in The Blue Book Magazine, the first of the From a Frontiersman's Diary series, tales of horror combined with adventure in the genre of Kipling and of Burroughs' Tarzan. As early as 1920, his work was included in a 15 best stories of the year anthology edited by O. Henry.

Through the 1920s and 30s he wrote a number of adventure novels, including the acclaimed Og, the Dawn Man, (The Popular Magazine, March-April, 1928) retitled Ogden's Strange Story (1934) for book publication; and Dian of the Lost Land (1935), a lost race novel set in Antarctica.

A life long traveller and big game hunter, Marshall was best known for his later historical novels, which received high critical acclaim in the 1940s and 50s. His best-known novel of that era was Yankee Pasha, and his Son of Fury and The Viking were adapted to the screen, the latter starring Kirk Douglas. His over 50-year writing career ended upon his death in Augusta, Georgia, October 30, 1967. His historical retelling of King Arthur's rise to power, The Pagan King, was published in 1959.

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Green Knight Publishing

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

If you thought recent films like First Knight and particularly A Knight's Tale were a joke in terms of historical or cultural accuracy, or you are tired of the standard Christianized Arthurian romance of an idealized Camelot, then The Pagan King is the book for you. Narrated by Arthur himself, he is first a rustic farmboy, discovers through Merlin's help his true identity as the legitimate heir to Vortigern's throne, and goes on to lead his Cambrian troops to the conquest of Britain. Gone are the standard characters of Lancelot, Kay, Gawain and others; the Holy Grail is absent; and Mordred is recast as Arthur's rakish and conniving half-brother. In general, The Pagan King derives much more from the Welsh traditions of King Arthur than the French and later British romances.

The Pagan King is set in a world where the Romans' departure, now some generations past, has left civilisation crumbling in England and all sorts of factions and races at each other's throats. Vortigern, a ruthless tyrant, has kept himself in power and the land fairly peaceful by playing his enemies one against the other, but is universally hated, and faltering. However, but nobody has the guts to stand up to him.

Ambrose, as he is first called, goes to the pagan fertility feast of Beltane at Vortigern's court with his cousin and trainer Gerald, a young man of Roman ancestry. There the young Ambrose meets the love of his life, Elian of the Lake, daughter of Llewelan of the Lake (Lancelot). But here, unlike the courtly Arthur of medieval romance, this teenager is just plain horny, and hopes to take Elian off to the bushes for some traditional Beltane fun. However, Mordred, the suave aristocratic playboy arrives and nothing is consummated. After the next day, when Ambrose defeats Mordred in combat, and his true identity is revealed, Arthur and Gerald must escape Vortigern's assassins on the way home to Cambria. There begins Arthur's ascent to power according to the prophecies of the Song of Camlon. But Arthur, while a great warrior, is neither a politician nor a bastion of morality. While betrothed to Wander of Cornwall (Guinevere) for political reasons, Arthur beds the exciting but dangerous witch Vivain, while in his heart remaining desirous of Elian. As in conventional Arthurian romances, the three women in his life wreck havoc in his life and their own.

Throughout The Pagan King, pagan beliefs, sacrifices, auguries and superstitions are common, Christianity remaining just a small derided fringe cult. The people both high-born and low-born aren't clean, die violent or agonizing deaths through warfare and disease, and knights aren't off saving damsels in distress, but fighting off Picts and Saxons. The battle scenes are not particularly graphic or lengthy, but certainly don't give the impression of stately knights in shining armour prancing around with lances; the warfare is much more one of swords and shields borne by peasant foot-soldiers and the carnage that ensues. Throughout the novel the main conflict is much more one between Mordred and Arthur, than between Vortigern and Arthur. Each side makes their points, Arthur first defeating Mordred, Mordred embarrassing Arthur by sleeping with Guinevere, and so on. Mordred is suave, savvy and while perhaps not evil, certainly unscrupulous. Arthur is straightforward, a bit naïve, but a powerful leader who knows to surround himself with the best advisors. Throughout everything, Edison Marshall ably threads many of the standard events, locations and characters of the Arthurian myth into the complex and ever-twisting plot, while keeping the story well-grounded in historical and social context.

The Pagan King is the book you want to read if you want to have some idea what the historical Arthur might have been like, not what Chrétien de Troyes or Sir Thomas Malory (or Hollywood) wanted him to be. While nobody knows or likely will know the true story of Arthur (some authorities doubting he existed at all), Edison Marshall's first person narrative is certainly as good an approximation of Arthur's life as you're likely to find, and, by good fortune, it bears forty years of Marshall's consummate skill at writing adventure yarns, and his attention to detail and research in his historical novels.

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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