I hope no one is so jaded on Arthurian fantasy that they can’t enjoy this glorious retelling and meticulous tear-down of every facet of the over-familiar stories. Every character comes to scurrilous life in By Force Alone, as that title phrase echoes over and over throughout this dynamic, hilarious and strangely moving book.
I say moving, perhaps, because like most people I’ve felt the urge to mythologize ugly realities of the past or present, and books like this take that longing for the heroic and stomp it in the dust. We’re doing terrible things to ourselves in the era of Trump and Brexit, so let’s look it squarely in the face and forget the illusions!
By Force Alone runs through the full cast of Arthurian characters. Here’s Uther Pendragon, disguising himself as a rival lord with Merlin’s help so that he can rape Igraine who gives birth to Arthur. Here’s Arthur the skinny street-fighter and knife wielding thief in the streets of a wrecked Londinium, in collapse after the withdrawal of the Romans. Here are all the gangs of that tumbledown city of crowded alleys and every kind of thievery, murder and drug dealing.
As Arthur, by treachery and double-dealing, unites the gangs to form the basis of the ever expanding power he longs for, the malevolent spirits of Fairyland and other realms, pick their favorites, make their deals and watch the mortals kill each other.
Lancelot is a kung-fu master from Judea, executing one crazy Kill Bill maneuver after another, openly going to bed with Guinevere, who is a knife fighter herself deciding to try a whirl as queen of the increasingly powerful Arthur. There is Gawain, leading a foolish Galahad into the living and ever-changing Zone (homage to Roadside Picnic or perhaps the Southern Reach or both), where the Grail may or may not be found.
One by one, the elements of Arthur’s rise to power fall into his hands at just the right moment, but each is also a tool of larger forces. The spiritual powers of the land, embodied in the Nine Fae, watch as the humans squabble for power among each other. Their hidden manipulation makes a mockery of the human refrain, By force alone! It is not the force of arms they wield but the force of contesting spiritual powers that use humans to accumulate their own power, even as men like Arthur believe they are acquiring all the power of the world for themselves.
The writing is full of energy and brilliance, full of references to Shakespeare, Whitman, T.S. Eliot, David Byrne and a dozen others, but always an original force in itself. Yes, it’s full of blood and guts but amazing humor too made out of the sadly fatal exploits of these backwater gangland knights and the women who trick them all.
Lavie Tidhar applies his supercharged imagination brilliantly in By Force Alone. He is at once constructing detailed fantasy realms within realms and blasting them apart. We see Fairyland through Merlin’s eyes as he tries to gain entrance only to find his way blocked.
“There is always a Fairyland. There has been one around for as long as there have been people. It is the twilight realm where dreamers go in dreams, the place that children see when they awaken in the dead of night. … The world of Fairyland is but a dull reflection of the real world, containing all its ghosts and echoes, the shards of memories and dreams. … It is a shithole, Merlin thinks.”By Force Alone, Tor hardcover edition, page 140
Looking for the way in, he encounters the giant Grendel and his Mami, who have been hired to kill him, and evades them by turning into a mouse and skittering away. So he has to find out who is trying to keep him out and also frustrate his plans for Arthur. He comes to the Weald, the forest that surrounds Fairyland “like a crown of thorns”.
It is a timeless place where trees were never born and never die, where the dark is as thick as oil and where his magic has little power. But then he thinks of the timeless truths of mathematics and recites such powerful numbers as the square root of two or pi, the irrational numbers, to defeat or make vanish everything blocking his path. Merlin here is a magician who starts a long process of debasing and undermining magic itself.
Throughout By Force Alone, Merlin helps energize people to take up arms under Arthur to fend off the other, whether it’s rival gangs in Londinium or the six big crime bosses/kings of Britain or the invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes. He also cultivates the myths that will give people of Britain something to yearn for in the future. In the face of Arthur’s indifference, he plans and constructs a beautiful city and castle of Camelot, and after Arthur’s death he offers people the consolation of a fictional resting place for the king and plants the idea that one day he will return.
In one of the strangest scenes, Galahad, the “Pure”, wakes up screaming to find himself inside a kind of glass cage filled with a luminous green liquid and vague figures outside of it studying him. They are the masters of the Zone where the grail is buried and are talking truth to him, cutting through all the lies of myth. He screams at them and tries to explain how great the old days were, insisting that each murderous chapter in the Arthurian story wasn’t like that, wasn’t about murder and rape. It was great, we were knights, it’s a glorious time. He dies, decomposes and then reassembles into the 64th or 65th version of Galahad, but each time he wakes up screaming to the same interrogators. They offer him a chance at whole new worlds, but he will have none of it.
Tidhar is merciless in debunking each hero and myth against the background of muck, murder, greed and the lust for power, yet he does it with such incredible verve and wit and narrative drive that I find it irresistible.