Despite my longtime interest in Arthurian myth and fiction, the classic romance of Tristan and Isolde had never truly captured my attention. While reading Anna Elliott’s new historical novel Twilight of Avalon, I've been trying to analyze why. As tradition has it, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drink a love potion while en route to her wedding to his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. This serves as the catalyst for an intense conflict between love, honor and duty that ends ultimately in tragedy for the young couple. However, I’ve always found it hard to believe in a romance enhanced by magical means, and in a strong, beautiful heroine made weak by love.
Other recent fictional takes on the legend include Dee Morrison Meaney’s heartrending romantic tragedy (Iseult), Rosalind Miles’s proto-feminist triumph (Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle and its sequels), and Diana Paxson’s complex historical fantasy epic (The White Raven). All are moving, poetically written, and worth seeking out. Among them, only the latter found a place among my favorite retellings. It relegates selfish Esseilte to the background while her more intelligent and rational cousin, Branwen, steals the spotlight and gets her man. All too often, Isolde has been a woman whose circumstances earned my sympathy but who I found difficult to like or even admire; that is, until now.
Twilight of Avalon bears small resemblance to the earlier novels and indeed to the Arthurian saga most are familiar with. The genealogical chart in the opening pages let me know I was in for something different. The novel is set firmly in 6th-century Cornwall, a land beset by political turmoil, seven years after Camlann. Arthur’s heir, Constantine, has been killed fighting the Saxons, or so it's believed, and his widow, Isolde, is left alone, distrusted by everyone. The bastard daughter of Modred and Gwynefar – King Arthur’s traitorous son and his adulterous wife – Isolde was married to Con in an arrangement of political necessity.
Now that her husband the High King is dead, Isolde is helpless to do anything except try to heal soldiers’ battle-wounds and ponder her unknown future with dread. She is thought by all of Britain’s lesser kings to be a witch, though her powers of Sight – inherited from her grandmother Morgan – have been blocked, and her pre-Camlann past forgotten through force of will. King Marche of Cornwall, who is chosen the new High King by his fellow monarchs, forces her hand in marriage, though Isolde refuses to submit to his mistreatment. Her only sometime ally is Trystan, a part-Saxon, part-Briton prisoner whose suspicious outlook and desperate actions reflect the violence of the age. They form an unlikely, reluctant partnership to flee from Marche’s clutches at Tintagel and uncover evidence of his treason.
Readers looking for scenes of chivalrous romance or sweeping Celtic enchantment won’t find them here: this is not a Camelot-style fantasy world but a vividly evoked early medieval Britain of uneasy alliances and swift, surprising brutality. The characters express a healthy cynicism about how their reality will be transformed over time into glorious legend, as has happened with their forebears, but accept its inevitability and work it to their own benefit. This isn’t to say there’s nothing magical about the tale, though. Aside from Isolde’s own limited supernatural powers, Twilight of Avalon celebrates the magic of storytelling in ways that pay tribute to both the legends and their historical origins. Most notably, Isolde, for all of her initial powerlessness, is never a weak character. She knows what she must do to escape her situation and the long odds of her success; she has a few tricks up her sleeve as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed this inventive retelling, in all its gritty authenticity. It would be horribly unromantic of me to say it works better without the passionate love story, so I won’t go that far. Rather, it plants the seeds for a deeper connection between Isolde and Trystan that I’ll be eager to see develop in the next two volumes.
Twilight of Avalon was published in May by Touchstone Books ($16.00/C$21.00, 428pp, 978-1-4165-8989-9). Anna Elliott's website is http://www.annaelliottbooks.com/.