Mordred’s Curse: postmodernism Arthurian style

One of the greatest pleasures Dallas has to offer a booklover is time spent in Half Price Books. My favourite HPB location is the cool, airy behomoth branch at Northpark, a huge space that manages to combine more books than you could read in several years with the atmosphere of serenely focussed passion found in a few great libraries.

Its packed shelves embrace the printed word in all its astonishing variety – 1930s pulp fiction, 1920s magazines, remaindered books on every topic from high fashion to histology, and several miles of secondhand paperback novels. Despite the difficulties which have always attended getting published, there are some books in print that only a parent could love, but here they are tenderly shelved and cared for until they find a reader.  I visit once a year, and never fail to find treasure, but in some ways I like the dross even better.

The thrill of picking up an old paperback at random in a secondhand bookstore is that you never know what you’ll find. The scuffed spine, the faded colours on the creased but still lurid cover, the foxed off-beige pages, that unmistakeable cheap old paper odour, add up to an unprepossessing package, but you never know. There’s always the chance that this stock fantasy by a Z-list author, this piece of pseudo-historical or faux-scientific nonsense, will metamorphose in your hands from the wallflower sitting out the school dance into a red-hot raver when you get to know it better. So for me, picking out a couple of cheap books to read on the plane home from the rows of fading paperbacks in HPB is an extra pleasure, the  fudge sauce on top of the visit.

I got two books for the plane on my last trip, and was pleasantly surprised by both. They didn’t exactly seduce me, not to the extent where I’ll be hunting for the rest of the authors’ back catalogues, but they were unexpectedly enjoyable company on the flight back to London. One was a postmodern Arthurian fantasy  called Mordred’s Curse, by Ian McDowell.

Mordred’s Curse was published in 1996 by Avon Books on their Avonova fantasy imprint. The cover blurb has Poppy Z. Brite calling McDowell “one of the best authors working in dark fantasy”  but it isn’t very dark in 21st-century terms. The magic and sex are competently done, with plenty of of grimy physical reality, but are unlikely to shock or offend a generation raised on millenial, multicultural TV, film and comics.

It’s a competent, enjoyable rite-of passage tale, securely founded in the complex Arthurian mythos, retaining the magical and legendary elements as settings for an almost entirely contemporary cast. It also recalls T. H. White’s take on the Orkney clan in The Once and Future King. Only Arthur is an old-fashioned hero, and he’s presented as a well-meaning but sanctimonious buffoon, and incompetent to boot. With tips of the hat to Brite, Neil Gaiman and Tori Amos in his introduction, McDowell aligns himself firmly with the cool kids. His Mordred would be at home in any contemporary classroom or teen TV drama. Asserting from the start that this is his story, not Arthur’s, he stamps himself on the familiar outlines of the legend as a convincing, if not entirely likeable, teenager.

What the story lacks is any sense of the weight of legend. In his efforts to present his characters as wholly comprehensible modern humans in a world where magic still lingers, McDowell has resolutely stripped them of mystery along with mystique. The Arthurian legends were generated partly out of a love of a good story, but increasingly as part of what the authors and literary authorities of the day described as the Matter of Britain. That’s ‘matter’ as in ‘the stuff from which Britain is made.’ It suggests that we are made from our legends, that our society is founded in the glorious insanity of Celtic and mediaeval imagination with its yearnings for a commonwealth of heroism and beauty.

McDowell’s book ignores the glittering follies of the Matter of Britain and focusses squarely on making the magical mundane. There are gains to keeping it real, notably access to a new audience for whom the brand of heroism attributed to the classical Arthur is incomprehensible, even ridiculous. There are also losses, especially for those who enjoy the glamour of the old-style hero-tale. But McDowell has done a good job and written a readable book. There are other places to go for all that old-fashioned glitz and heroic glamour.

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