Tue
May 21 2013 11:00am

The Enduring Appeal of Arthurian Questing: Kevin Hearne’s Unfettered Story “The Chapel Perilous”

Unfettered Kevin Hearne The Chapel Perilous Shawn Speakman

A special five story preview of Shawn Speakman’s epic fantasy anthology Unfettered will be released at Phoenix Comicon this Memorial Day weekend. This week, we’re taking a look at all five stories, many featuring new glimpses of our favorite fantasy worlds.

There’s something incredibly engaging about the Arthurian story of the knight-errant. I always perk up when I know that a knight is leaving court, the location of his target unknown, with the commandment to quest, to do right, to slay evil and maintain his honor. I grew up on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and have long loved the mystique of the isolated knight questing through less civilized lands. That’s the structure Kevin Hearne chose for “The Chapel Perilous,” his new short story in the Unfettered anthology. Although it stars Atticus O’Sullivan, the star of Hearne’s urban fantasy Iron Druid Chronicles, “The Chapel Perilous” sees O’Sullivan looking back on days long gone in Britain, days when there were more knights, and more druids, too. Indeed, he looks back to the most Arthurian tale of all, the quest for the Holy Grail. Apparently that was O’Sullivan’s quest, he’s the one who found the thing. Who knew?

(There are some spoilers for the story below, although “The Chapel Perilous” is more of an experience than a tale that can be spoiled.)

Apparently, according to Atticus O’Sullivan, the story of the Grail is much older than the Christianized account we’ve received in story and song and Monty Python movie. The Grail is actually a “graal,” specifically Dagda’s cauldron of infinite food, and instead of being hidden as a test for the virtuosity of mankind, it was stolen by “some bloody Pictish git.” Atticus is approached by Ogma, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and tasked to retrieve it from this git, in exchange for this great being’s gratitude. This isn’t much­ reward, but it carries with it the unspoken surety that failing to comply will result in less gratitude. The druid quests forth, with the aid of the talking horse Apple Jack and magical sword and armor, both courtesy of the smith god Goibhniu.

In his voyage west, Atticus passes through a number of magically imperiled environs. There is a cursed inn which people can travel away from but never leave, the titular perilous chapel which seems to specialize in killing druids with self-propelled necromantic arms, and the portion of Wales that an evil necromancer has transformed into a desert. On the way Atticus encounters challenges that form entrancing mini-episodes in his legend. This is very much the pattern of Lancelot’s quest for the Holy Grail. It’s one of the things that makes these stories so fun and strange. You don’t know what you’re going to get, or what the hero is going to have to encounter, but you know that it’s going to be weird, and that if you don’t like it there will be a new challenge soon.

Another wonderful touch is the marvelous specificity of the magical artifacts Atticus encounters. The sword he’s borrowed from Goibhniu, Fragarach, can force anyone to tell the truth, and which holds them in place before its tip until they’ve answered his questions. There’s no hint at this before it happens, but somehow that feels right. And the graal itself, of course; it creates infinite food, but not all at one time. Every day, a certain amount of food, enough to feed a certain amount of people, which is great in a siege, but not enough to feed an entire kingdom.

There’s a second major inspiration I see for Kevin Hearne’s story: the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. One of the greatest Arthurian stories ever written, and the one that contains my favorite encapsulation of the excesses and degradations of Arthur’s court, which was always too idealized to function sustainably. After Gawain answers the Green Knight’s challenge, chopping off his head in exchange for allowing the same to be done to him after a year, it is determined that he will quest out and find the Green Knight, to find the secret of his invincibility and defeat the impossible sentence. A grave and pressing task for the honor of Camelot, indeed, and for Gawain’s own safety. And yet, this is what follows:

Yet till Allhallows day with Arthur he lingers; and Arthur made a feast on that festival for the hero’s sake, with great and gay revel of the Round Table. Knights full courteous and comely ladies all for love of that man were in sorrow; but nevertheless they spoke only of mirth; and many a joyless one there made jests for his gentle sake.

Translation to modern English by W.A. Neilson, the full text available here. In the face of this deadly, timed peril, Gawain parties at the Round Table for ten months. Good job, Camelot.

So what’s the connection? First of all, Gawain is the name Atticus O’Sullivan uses in his quest. In Hearne’s version, Atticus invented Gawain, and in finding the Holy Grail also created the legend of the Green Knight. The ultimate enemy “Gawain” confronts is a necromancer named Dromech, who defies death and corrupts courts, a parallel to the unkillable Green Knight who exposes the corruption of Arthur’s court. He is a strange, foreign figure among Christian knights, not unlike Atticus himself. It’s a lovely reference to make.

Retelling Arthurian legend isn’t new: From Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1138 and Thomas Malory in the 1470s, to Guy Gavriel Kay and Marion Zimmer Bradley in the modern era, the Arthurian tradition is deep, broad, and rewarding. Kevin Hearne approaches the tradition from an angle, repurposing the Grail legend into a non-Christian tradition and putting it in the mouth of a modern (but ancient) character, framed for the enjoyment of a teenage apprentice and a hungry dog. He takes the structure of the questing knight, journeying from perilous adventure to perilious adventure, without accepting the moral core of those legends. This is not a tale of striving to conform to the impossible standards set by the ideal (but still fallible) king, the struggle to be good enough on Earth to impress, and maybe even emulate Heaven. Nor is it the story of the quiet, ongoing dissolution and disappointment that those ideals must spawn.

But that is more than alright with me. “The Chapel Perilous” is the story of an outsider who has almost been pushed out of society, but who can still venture into danger and make the world better for it. He doesn’t cling to a code of honor, but he goes on the quest anyway. For me, that’s the best part.

 

Check back with Tor.com tomorrow for a look at Peter Orullian’s “The Sound of Broken Absolutes,” and how grief shapes our actions in hideous and beautiful ways. More about Unfettered.


Carl Engle-Laird is the production assistant for Tor.com, resident Stormlight Archive blogger, and one of the rereaders of The Way of Kings. You can follow him on Twitter. He has long desired to be a knight.

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