By Jared Kavanagh
The Arthurian legendarium is one of the most extensive corpuses in literature, having been told and retold more times than can easily be counted. So why not have one more retelling, this one with a more diverse and inclusive bent than most previous iterations?
Sword, Stone and Table: Old Legends, New Voices came to my attention in a different way from most of my reading material. It was referenced as the preferred style in a call for submissions for another anthology (that one was Greco-Roman mythology). I checked out the first story in this anthology via Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to get a better feel for what that other anthology call was looking for – and that was enough to get me to buy the rest of the anthology.
Retelling of Arthurian myth is part of alternate history or at least adjacent to it (SLP has put out one book which looks at this topic), and this anthology features a diverse range of retellings sufficient to interest 100% of all the SLP forum members I know who’ve read it (i.e. me).
Sword, Stone and Table features a diverse range not only of representation, but also of styles and genres. There’s stories told in legendary style which would fit right into the earlier legendarium, there’s contemporary short stories with an Arthurian bent, there’s futuristic science fiction tales, and several other styles. There’s Spanish-speaking Arthurs, a Ugandan Lady of the Lake, Gawain retold on Mars, Excalibur as a baseball bat, and a host of others. There’s even a nineteenth-century Arthur leading a march on Washington DC as part of his presidential election bid.
As could be anticipated, several of the stories focus on the most well-known characters in the mythos. Arthur is frequently present (shock, horror), as are Guinevere and Lancelot, whose love triangle is retold in a range of settings and from varied perspectives. There’s many versions of Merlin (perhaps too many). However, there’s also some exploration of some of the minor characters of the legend, including two stories on Elaine (both intriguing ones), and one of Gawain, among others.
If I have one criticism (and it’s not a large one), it’s that several of these stories had only a superficial connection to Arthurian legend. That didn’t make them bad stories by any means – one of my three favourite stories in this anthology was among them – but it meant that they were stories where the Arthurian elements could have been subbed out and the story would still have worked pretty much as is.
As with most anthologies, some stories worked better (for me) than others, but they were all well-written. The anthology was divided into Past, Present, and Future. On the whole I preferred those stories in the Past section, though Alexander Chee’s Little Green Men in the Future section was worth the price of admission by itself.
Several individual stories particularly stood out for me. The Once and Future Qadi by Ausma Zehanat Khan was a fascinating tale of a Muslim jurist who’s been invited to Camelot to investigate allegations of adultery against Queen Guinevere. The outsider’s perspective was perfect for this story.
Daniel M. Lavery presented How, after Long Fighting, Galehaut was Overcome by Lancelot Yet Was Not Slain and Made Great Speed to Yield to Friendship; Or, Galehaut, the Knight of the Forfeit. A hilariously presented, overdone and grandiloquent tale in the manner of chivalric romances of lore – well, you get the idea. A fun read.
Sarah MacLean’s The Bladesmith Queen gave an intriguing perspective on the Lady of the Lake, exploring more of a minor character and managing to fit a lot more emotional weight into a short story romance than I’ve read for a while.
Do, By All Due Means by Sive Doyle was an entertaining retelling of the tale of Britomart from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene – with a twist.
Mayday by Maria Dahvana Headley used the AH-familiar format of telling a story through newspaper clippings, (descriptions of) photographs, and other epistolary content. And a rollicking good story it was, too – Arthur of the Pendragon Company for President.
White Hempen Sleeves by Ken Liu provided a fascinating tale of identity, ego and exploration of the self – but was one where the connection to the Arthurian legendarium was thin. I loved the story, though felt it would have worked just as well without the Arthurian connection.
Little Green Men by Alexander Chee retold the story of Gawain - one of the more underappreciated characters in the legendarium – in a hilarious and self-aware manner, providing a perfect finish to the collection.
Overall, this was a well-written anthology which should have several stories of interest to anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with Arthurian legend – and even those who aren’t.
Jared Kavanagh is a writer of alternate history, speculative fiction and sometimes just plain weird stuff. He is the author of the Sidewise Nominated Lands of Red and Gold alternate history series, and editor of the Alternate Australias anthology. He has also had several short stories published in anthologies from Sea Lion Press and B Cubed Press.