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So I finally finished Gillian Bradshaw’s Hawk of May this week. I have to sing its praises for a brief minute! This 5th century tale is steeped in British history and culture, with a simple yet riveting plot line and a delicious touch of magic. It seems like the Arthurian audience is divided in half when it comes to this book. They’ve either read it back in the ’90s (along with its sequels) and consider it a classic, or they’ve never heard of it. Obviously, I was one of the latter– but now that I’ve read it in full, I can definitely say it’s a journey any hardcore Arthurian (or British history) fan should take.
A Druid-Gone-Wild Gawain
Our protagonist, Gwalchmai (the Welsh/Brittonic equivalent of the name, “Gawain”), is painted in a way we don’t often get to see. In fact, he’s depicted sort of the way he is in the beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Young, inexperienced, “feeblest of wit”, as he calls himself. He’s a bard, first; gentle-spirited, in tune with the earth, not nearly as skilled in combat as his older brother, Agravain, but breathtakingly skilled in the arts. This version of Gawain would have picked up a harp, first, before he’d ever pick up a sword. He’s also skilled in the arts of magic. This is thanks to his terrifying mother, the Queen of Air and Darkness, Morgawse. A boy desperate for his father’s approval, Gwalchmai tries with everything he has to become what he’s always dreamed; a mighty warrior. But when that attempt fails time and time again, he turns to witchcraft, taught by his mother in secret sessions. YES, friends, Gawain started out in the Darkness, using dark sorcery (mostly to make his sad, angsty teen self feel powerful.) But it’s when Morgawse crosses the line with her magic, forcing Gwalchmai to kill someone entirely innocent, that he renounces her ways and flees from home. Running for his life (literally, racing his horse at full speed), he leaves northern Scotland and enters the strange land of England. And there, after an encounter with Celtic sun god, Lugh (yes, you read that right), his life begins. Within the span of this quick-paced tale, Gwalchmai goes from trembling at the thought of conflict to going into full fledged wild-warrior mode in the heat of battle, defeating the Saxons with a charge to be written into songs for ages.
But. Renouncing the Darkness to serve King Arthur doesn’t go without its consequences. Both from Morgawse…and from Arthur.
A Cold Arthur
I never thought I’d read a YA fantasy book where Arthur is depicted as cold and harsh– but strangely, it doesn’t make him too unlikeable, either. (His reasoning is understandable once you reach the story’s end.) Arthur is one of the most powerful forces in this book, simply by being the badass, street-smart, honorable war leader that he is, associated entirely with the Light. So it only makes sense that when Gwalchmai, still drenched in his mother’s Dark energy, requests a place in Arthur’s service, Arthur verrrry strictly refuses. It’s the amount of times that Gwalchmai proves himself over and over again, and the amount of times Arthur harshly refuses, that paints our High King as a rather cruel and fearful Arthur. But this does, of course, keep the stakes super high. My heart sank every time Arthur so much as gave him a look of disapproval, knowing how longingly Gwalchmai secretly craves approval from an adult male figure. Not to mention, acquiring a place in Arthur’s “Family”, as he calls it, is a dream incomparable to any in the world. Nothing else would matter once attained. Because it’s Arthur. Hell, halfway through the book, I wanted to put on my chainmail, grab my sword and go find King Arthur, myself, and beg him to knight me, too.
The tale has such a simple plot line– but it keeps the reader extremely hooked throughout the entire tale.
A “Realistic” Arthurian Britain
Another great component of this book is its HUGE history lesson we’re taught within Bradshaw’s beautiful language. I learned more about 5th century Britain reading this book than I did researching it in the New York Public Library. Bradshaw covers the political climate; not just regarding the decline of the Roman Empire and the inevitable rise of the Saxons, but the reality of having one of the first High Kings of Britain, and what that would actually mean. Having a Pendragon, or “head dragon”/chieftain of all the island would have meant something new in regards to taxes, raids, warbands, marriages and religion. Especially when men are flocking from all over Europe to serve Arthur. Not that they come running because Arthur promised them gold or huge pieces of land– but simply because he’s Arthur. Any man would serve him for free, as is true in any Arthurian story. In reality, the idea of this would have terrified men of authority (like the Roman Catholic Church) and it made Arthur LOTS of enemies. All of this is depicted wonderfully throughout the book, through Gwalchmai’s quick-learning observations. It keeps the stakes high and made me feel like I was sucked right into that very turbulent Britain, in a heartbeat.
Along with politics comes culture. And Bradshaw tackles that like a professional football player. She brilliantly describes the differences between various peoples that inhabited Britain at the time; the Saxons versus the British, versus the Irish, and the cultural differences within them all. The thick fluidity of the Irish tongue, versus the short, choppiness of British. The fact that Orkney would have been called “The Orcades” and would have consisted of people who spoke Irish and worshipped Irish gods. The differences in weather and agriculture, depending on the area of Britain. Bradshaw even makes it a point to examine Gwalchmai’s first time seeing a road (a real road, built with stone by the Romans) and trees. Someone raised solely in the Orkney Islands would have only ever seen flatlands with dirt roads, sand and sea. (A small but significant detail no one thinks about!) Bradshaw yanks you into Gwalchmai’s world and keeps you just as deep throughout, lacing scrumptious little details into descriptions and dialogue.
A Touch of Magic
While all of this history and culture is woven into the story, however, it wouldn’t be a complete Arthurian tale without a little magic, would it? Gwalchmai’s sword, “Caledvwlch”, is a sword of Light, given to him by the great Lugh, in his Hall. (Literally. Lugh gives him a sword that lights up with fire when someone holds it. If the wrong person holds it, the flames grow wild and dangerous; if the right person holds it, it’s like a glowing beacon of hope.) Gwalchmai also grows enormously attached to his horse– not Gringolet but a wild, untamable, god-born horse, “Ceincaled”– whom he tames in a heartbeat, to peoples’ utter shock. It feels so strange to say that in this book that’s so history-based, the main character has a magic sword and a magic horse. But here we are. 🙂 It makes perfect sense in within the context of the story!
All in all, Hawk of May is brilliant prequel story for our beloved Sir Gawain, and I hope each of you get the chance to give it a read someday, if you haven’t already. ❤