Era of Dragons: The Lost Tales of Gwenhwyfar
Book One: The Dragon’s Harp
By Rachael Pruitt
Growing up, Arthurian legends were practically part of who I was, having been told them at my mother’s knees; later she began to expose me to written accounts, which I greedily consumed. I’ve lost track of how many or even which versions of the various tales I have read, but one thing is certain: there wasn’t much heard from the perspective of one very central character: Guinevere. So it was with great interest I learned of Rachael Pruitt’s novel of Gwenhwyfar—the Welsh spelling of this queen’s given name—where she came from and what made her the person she became.
It is fitting that Pruitt opens the novel not only from Gwenhwyfar’s point of view, but also beginning in the twilight of her life, when she has much to look back upon: this is no naïve girl telling her story as it begins and moves forward, but rather a mature woman utilizing hindsight and the wisdom gained over many years to simultaneously examine her own (and others’) behavior. Now, however, her husband murdered and children gone, Gwenhwyfar shares a moment on the sands with a gull, an encounter reminiscent of the many cultures, such as hers, in which the spiritual wisdom of animals is revered and incorporated into tradition and cultural habit.
Born into fifth century Wales, the young Gwenhwyfar, presented to us by her older self, is at this time eight “sunturns”; she reveres her parents but still recognizes the divisions existing between them as her mother has embraced the new religion. Occasionally Ceridwen acts upon outrages from her new perspective, her own mother somewhat of a go-between in the moments when she oversteps her bounds.
Gwenhwyfar has known war her entire life, and though she still retains some of the innocence of youth, her perspective clearly incorporates the reality set around her:
I tiptoed, even though there was no one to hear me, only the oppressive stillness of damp watching stone, its grey gloom penetrated by a faint haze of light from arrow slits rock-cut at each outward turning of the stairs. The worn steps felt like carved bowls beneath my summer-bare feet.
Nevertheless, Gwenhwyfar is, as she reminds herself, a Battle Chief’s daughter, “not to be bested by shadows.” So it is she wills herself to investigate mysteries that present themselves to her, including by listening in on conversations, one scene drawing me back to Stewart’s Merlin crawling through the unused furnace to eavesdrop on conversations in the palace rooms above him. Gwenhwyfar has inherited her father’s tough stance, even if she does on occasion duck behind her mother’s skirts.
[Remains of the keep at Dinas Emrys image to be replaced]
As the young girl comes of age at Dinas Emyrs, she certainly faces her share of trials, told to us in language filled to the wondrous brim with poetry and magic. Pruitt’s sentences are so fluid readers not only move from one scene to another many pages away without realizing how far they’d travelled, but also do so as part of the story itself, indeed, as part of their surroundings. “I dug into my soul,” Gwenhwyfar confides, “resisting his pull, as if I were digging my toes into sand so as not to get swept out with the tide.”
This, indeed, is how both author and protagonist set it out: the latter by commencing her story at a fireside to a young girl, the former with a “storytelling hearth” aura, the flickers of which can periodically be felt as the pages turn. While the mark of a great “wayback” story tends to be that readers are so immersed in it they forget it is being told from an older or other vantage point—while that is a strength, Pruitt manages to defy the dichotomous nature of that method and still keep us mesmerized within the flow of the tale: Gwen’s metaphorical digging in of her toes is reminiscent of the beach she surveys before she begins her story, and the gull who gifts her a shell, a raven who leaves a feather.
Readers are drawn into the events, warlike and magical—and the two are not always exclusive of one another. Indeed “magic and bloodshed went hand in hand,” as Gwen discovers at a turning point in which her whole world changes in a way that even death had not done. Merlin, her uncle in this telling, reminds her that greatness is typically found in the midst of ordinariness. The merging of elements with dual nature is a theme carried through the story within personalities, relationships, worship, beauty, even to the outcome of how it affects those involved: to their benefit or detriment. The “soft breath of dawn” might awaken to a cruel day; the presence of one with evil in her heart might walk through a night in which “the stars themselves grew tired.” Even the novel’s cover might speak to naked brutality or beauty, most likely both.
There is violence portrayed in The Dragon’s Harp; truth be told, it could not be any other way. Gwenhwyfar’s sixth-century Wales was a violent place where vacuums never existed for very long, a condition which surely also must have influenced the girl to grow into the woman, queen and wife she later became. It was exceedingly breathtaking a tale, a glimpse of sorts, into a world and time of her life many previous storytellers have skipped or ignored in terms of its influence on later history, as if Gwenhwyfar didn’t exist until she became a queen.
Fans of Merlin will also find a treasure within, as the mage appears, as mentioned earlier, as Gwenhwyfar’s uncle and, later, tutor. A seminal moment, one those familiar with the legends will recognize, involves Merlin as pertains to his meeting with Vortigern, who tradition says demanded the blood of a youth without a father to be sprinkled upon the foundations of his constantly collapsing fortress. The boy Merlin is dragged off to be sacrificed, but instead tells the engineers of a pool beneath the foundation, within which two dragons, one red and the other white, nightly battle it out, thus causing the destruction.
Pruitt’s telling is rather different and the duel between red dragon and, in this case white serpent, is not instigated by a superstitious and desperate king, though a young person in peril is present. The author stays true to the legend, however, and her imagery is punctuated by thunderous music from the skies as magic and community work together to ensure the defeat of red over white, leading to Merlin foretelling the freeing of this sacred land from their enemies and the coming of Arthur.
There are trying times ahead in the novel for Gwenhwyfar and Pruitt’s insight into the girl’s character as well as her times indicates a studied approach to an era in which magic reigned, as well as love and respect for those who lived within it. The detail of characters and perspective is impressive, and it is difficult to overstate Pruitt’s mastery with words, the more so given it is of a world that has all but disappeared to those of the modern world. Rachael Pruitt brings it back for us, a gift from our past sweeping us through time to reach the telling. Along the way readers will find this book exceedingly difficult to put down, and late nights are surely in the stars.
Fortunately for us, Pruitt has plans for four more installments in the Era of Dragons: The Lost Tales of Gwenhwyfar series, the title of which perhaps will lead us to clues as to how the tales finally, thankfully, come back us after so long.
This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.