KINGDOM OF THE GRAIL
by Judith Tarr
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the eighth century, as Charlemagne was consolidating the lands which would eventually become his empire, part of his army was defeated at Roncevalles by a tribe of Basques. Eventually, this skirmish was immortalized in the eleventh century Chanson de Roland. Although other epics about Charlemagne and Roland were written, they haven't captured the twentieth century Anglophone imagination the way the stories of King Arthur have. In Kingdom of the Grail, Judith Tarr attempts to rectify that neglect by merging the Arthurian tales with the story of Roland and the historical Charlemagne.
Although Roland was an historical figure, little is known of him. Tarr shows him as a child, befriending his long imprisoned ancestor, Merlin, in the wilds of Brittany. Roland is revealed to be partly supernatural and warned of his role in life as the defender against a creature of the ultimate evil who is quickly revealed to be Ganelon, Roland's nemesis in Chanson de Roland.
Tarr's plot is intriguing, blending the mythic elements of the poem with the historical depictions found in the writings of Einhard and Notker (two of Charlemagne's biographers). She manages to capture the reader's attention by the question of whether she will change history by allowing Roland survive or how she will handle the treacherous death of her hero and his failure to defeat Ganelon before the ambush. Tarr has an interesting solution and continues the story past Roncevalles to show the historical revolt against Charlemagne by his son Pepin the Hunchback, tying it in to the scenario previously set up.
While Tarr's plot is complex, the pace at which she tells the story does not work. Too slow to be an adventure novel, the book doesn't quite have the feel of an introspective, philosophical novel. It drags in too many places. The romantic interest that Tarr includes seems more a matter of predestiny than of affection. As soon as the mysterious Sarissa is introduced, it is clear that she and Roland will wind up together. Unfortunately, Tarr does a much better job of showing her at odds with Roland than in love with him.
Kingdom of the Grail is a clever idea of bringing together the popular legend of Arthur and the Grail with the overlooked story of Roland. Tarr takes an interesting premise which manages to sustain the reader's interest, but presents it in a way which almost distances the reader from the characters.
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