Nov 23, 2008

I am Morgan le Fay by Nancy Springer

I am Morgan le Fay is the first person tale of Arthur’s infamous half sister and antagonist. Rather than retelling the main events of Arthur’s saga, this story takes place in the fringes of the well-known myth: it begins in Tintagel, when Uther Pendragon deceives Queen Igraine (and as a result Arthur is conceived), and it ends just before Arthur’s coronation. Though filled with familiar characters, like Merlin, the Lady of Avalon, Igraine, and of course Morgan herself, for the most part what we have here is a story that is new. I am Morgan le Fay also incorporates elements of the story of True Thomas or Thomas the Rhymer, imprisoned by the Fairy Queen.

Though I expected to enjoy this book (Arthurian Myth! Morgaine!) What's there not to love?) I somehow didn’t expect it to be quite as good as it actually turned out to be. I guess it’s impossible for me to think of an Arthurian retelling that uses Morgan le Fay’s point of view without immediately thinking of The Mists of Avalon. And it’s tempting to think that there’s nothing new that can be done using this approach, but this book proves that's definitely not the case.

I am Morgan le Fay is darker and edgier than The Mists of Avalon. I remember The Mists of Avalon being mostly conciliatory – and I don’t mean this as criticism, as that’s really one of the things I like about it. But this book is different. What it does is not quite as simple as inverting things, making Morgan le Fay “good” and Arthur and Merlin and co. “bad”. Morgan is our narrator, so we immediately sympathize with her, but this doesn’t mean she isn’t flawed. As for Arthur and Merlin, they remain ambiguous. We never get to see Arthur directly, and Merlin only makes a few appearances. But because we only have access to Morgan’s perception of them, they remain distant, troubling, even menacing.

Above all, I liked how I am Morgan le Fay puts the finger in the wound when it comes to issues like war and violence, power and the lack therefore, the treatment of women, etc. This is a short book, but one that deals with several themes. As the story moves along and Morgan grows up, it becomes more of a personal tragedy. That’s when True Thomas comes in, and the story turns to topics like love, possessiveness, freedom and grief.

Another thing I loved was the writing. Nancy Springer’s prose is so elegant. Plus she uses the exact right storytelling voice. I am Morgan le Fay is a beautiful, complex and satisfying book. I will definitely be reading its companion novel, I am Mordred.

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31 comments:

  1. This sounds so good. I watched Mists of Avalon and loved it. I want to read a book like this someday.
    excellent review ;)
    its always great when a book turns out to be better than expected.

    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  2. I've been really curious about Nancy Springer's books. Now I know I'll like them. Thanks!

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  3. This is going on my TBR list! I enjoy reading Arthurian themed books. The only ones I can remember off the top of my head that I've read are the Pendragon Cycle books by Stephen Lawhead. Have you read them?

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  4. Re-imagined myths are a lot of fun. C.S. Lewis tackled the story of Cupid and Psyche in Till We Have Faces, which almost no one ever reads. Also, Michael Cadnum wrote a similarly redacted short, "Medusa", for the YA collection Firebirds.

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  5. Hmmm--might be time for another Nymeth list for Trish. It has been years since I've read some of the Arthur myths, so I don't remember Morgan at all. I've seen the maybe not so good but contains one hot kiss movie, First Knight, several times, but other than that I feel like I'm in the dark. Sounds like a beautiful book, though! Where does one (Trish) start with Arthurian legends?

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  6. Naida: I remember watching the mini-series, but it was too long ago for me to remember it properly. I can say, though, that the book is better :P And yes, that's always great indeed :)

    Robin: I really think you will!

    Andrea: I haven't read those yet, no. There are so many Arthurian retellings out there! And though I almost always enjoy them, I need to space them a bit.

    Loren: I actually heard of Till We Had Faces for the first time a few months ago, when it was mentioned by some fellow bloggers. Cupid & Psyche is one of my very favourite myths, so I'll have to get to it eventually.

    Trish: I think my favourite Arthurian retelling is still The Mists of Avalon. It's actually pretty faithful to the original myth (and pretty detailed too), except it uses a different perspective and it gives the characters different motivations, which is just how I like my retellings :P It basically retells the whole story from a female perspective. Although a lot of people love it, I know others hate it with a passion. You know how I said it was conciliatory? It's because it also looks at the arrival of Christianity to the British Isles and the subsequent decline of Paganism. And though the book's perspective is pagan, it really doesn't villanize anyone, which is something I really like about it. I know some people are wary of it because it's often associated with new age movements, pagan revivals, etc, but you really don't have to be into that to enjoy it. I'm not and I absolutely loved it. It's just a great story.

    Another classic is The Once and Future King by T.H. White. The Disney movie The Sword in the Stone is actually based on part of it. It's aimed at younger readers, I guess, but it's the kind of children's book that is complex enough for adults to be able to enjoy it on a whole other level. It starts of very lightly but it gets much darker as it goes along. And like The The Mists of Avalon, it's huge :P But I guess most Arthurian retellings are, unless they only focus on part of the story.

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  7. It's weird how just reading the title of a book can make you want to read it. What I know about Morgan le Fay could pretty much be counted on one hand but she still intrigues me.

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  8. the only merlin/ arthur books I've ever read were the Mary Stewart books:
    the crystal cave
    the hollow hills
    the last enchantment
    and I also remember enjoying them alot!

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  9. I'll have to look for this one. I do like Morgan le Fey even if I'm not a huge Arthur fan. :-) Thanks for the great review, Nymeth!

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  10. You write such wonderful reviews. This book sounds fascinating and I'm not really into the Arthur myths. I still need to read "The Sword in the Stone."

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  11. Wow, thanks Nymeth! I have read at least parts of The Once and Future King as well as parts of Idylls of the King (I think we had a couple of weeks devoted to Arthurian legends in 10th grade, but that was years ago!). Hmmm, and parts of The Fairie Queen...doesn't that have some of the mythology in it? And of course Monty Python and the Holy Grail. :P I'll have to check out The Mists of Avalon!

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  12. Great review, Nymeth! Makes me want to run out and get the book now.

    I've watched "The Sword in the Stone" when I was young and was fascinated by it. "The Mists of Avalon" is in my Nov reading list and I really should get started on it before the month comes to an end.

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  13. Sounds good - I haven't read anything Arthurian, but I want to. I suppose I'll start with Mists of Avalon and then get to this later, definitely sounds interesting!

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  14. I'm glad Trish asked the question, or I would have had to. Arthurian legend is an area in which I have like zero background. This book sounds really wonderful, but I really think I need to do me some other reading first so I can get all there is to get from it.

    By the way, for some reason that cover gives me a bit of a dark chill.

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  15. How come the books you write about always make me want to run to the bookstore? :)

    I don't like Arthurian tales as much as I used to, but this one seems like one I would love, especially if there's a bit of True Thomas in it!

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  16. She's always been such a mysterious character! It would be nice to see things from her point of view for once. Thanks for an intriguing review!

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  17. Dear Arthurian legends,

    Please come make out with me.

    Raych.

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  18. What you describe about your initial expectations in regards to your feelings about Mists is one of the things that often keeps me from reading books that look and sound similar to ones that I've had a really great experience with. It isn't to say that I don't read them, but it does make me pause and often I go in a different direction. I'm glad the book exceeded your expectations. That is always a pleasant surprise and makes you realize just what skilled authors can do with material even if it has been told in many ways by others before.

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  19. Ladytink: That happens to me too!

    Deslily: I really really want to read those! I was hoping to get to them in time for the Arthurian Challenge, but it doesn't look like that'll happen.

    Literary Feline: She's a great character, isn't she?

    Framed: Thank you!

    Trish: You're welcome! I haven't read either Idylls of Kings or The Faerie Queen, and I have to confess that both intimidate me a bit. There's also the fact that I have the impression that they use Arthurian lore in an allegorical way, and I tend to run away from allegories. And yes, one cannot forget Monty Python and the Holy Grail :D

    Alice: Can't wait to see what you think of Mists of Avalon!

    Joanna, I hope you enjoy both :)

    Debi: Another good source is the The Age of Chilvary volume from Bulfinch's mythology. Bulfinch tends to "clean up" his myths, but he's still a good source for the basic plots, and plus he's fun to read. About the cover: after reading the book I really don't like it much at all! It makes Morgan seem so malicious. And that's now how she is in the book at all.

    Marineko: I could ask you the exact same :P

    Jenclair: You're welcome! She really is mysterious.

    Raych: lol :D I sympathize.

    Carl: Yep, I tend to avoid some books for that reason too. But I'm very glad I didn't in this case!

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  20. Hmm. Well, I'm on a bit of a Merlin kick at the moment because of the BBC series 'Merlin'. It bears very little resemblance to any of the Arthurian legends but is great fun... so I'm thinking I might really enjoy this book. Thanks for recommending it.

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  21. Sounds like a book I need to read. Thanks!

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  22. I read the first paragraph of this post and thought "Huh, sounds a lot like Mists of Avalon." Which I really need to re-read at some point.

    One of the things I liked best about Nancy Mackenzie's Queen of Camelot was its portrayal of Mordred (otherwise, Guenevere spent a lot of time in that book wringing her hands and weeping). He's a really interesting character when done at all sympathetically. I'll be interested to see how Springer portrays him.

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  23. I'm not much a fan of Arthurian legends. Not that I don't want to read them, I just don't know what to read. This make me want to read about King Arthur though. A perspective from Morgan le Fay is interesting.

    At least I've read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight :P

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  24. I had never heard of this and was really excited. When I read "Though I expected to enjoy this book" I got wroried that you were going to be disappointed y it. Then I kept reading and was very happy again! It's gone immediately on my list.

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  25. I couldn't read Mists of Avalon! someday maybe....though I love Arthur and the Arthurian books, so I'm going to give this one a try, it sounds really interesting. Thank you, Nymeth, wonderful review! Have you read any other Nancy Springer books?

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  26. PS Not because I don't like Marion Bradley, but because I started right after giving birth to my first child, and when I got to where she has to give her first baby up, I burst into tears and I've never been able to pick it up since!

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  27. Cath: You're welcome! I hope you do enjoy it.

    Kylee, you're welcome!

    Fyrefly: It was surprising how unlike The Mists of Avalon it ended up being! And yes, I think that Mordred can be very interesting in the hands of the right author.

    Lightheaded: I hope you enjoy whatever you decided to start with. And I vote The Mists of Avalon :P Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is still on my list.

    Rhinoa, you'll love it for sure!

    Susan: wow, talk about bad timing for reading something like that! I remember that scene, and it was indeed heartbreaking. This was my first Nancy Springer, but now I really want to read more.

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  28. sounds good! Of course I loved Mists of Avalon because it was from morgaine's perspective, but it'd be interesting to read a new take on it:)

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  29. Thanks Nymeth, I had not heard of this. Sounds really good!

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  30. This is one of the few books by Nancy Springer that I haven't read yet - I'm not sure why, I guess I just haven't gotten around to it. Sounds like I'd better remedy that! Great review. :-)

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  31. I loved this book I picked it up in middle school 5yrs ago n im still in love with this book I still read it bcuz i still fall inlove cry n smile with this story love it love love it

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