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Book Reviews

The Eagle

by Jack Whyte

With The Eagle, B.C. writer Jack Whyte celebrates the completion of one of the most ambitious writing projects in Canadian fiction. The sequel to Clothar the Frank, The Eagle is the final volume in Whyte’s epic re-visioning of the Arthurian tales, a nine-volume work that’s been more than three decades in the writing.

The Eagle begins months after the conclusion of Clothar the Frank, with the Frankish lancer (whom Arthur refers to as Lance and most readers will know better as Lancelot) and the High King of Britain hiding from invading Danes during an early winter blizzard. In their cave sanctuary, the two men discuss Clothar’s idea of forming an order of the King’s most trusted commanders and prized companions, united under the benediction of Arthur’s sword Excalibur. In Whyte’s retelling, this is how the order of the knights of Camelot is born.

For a novel so rooted in epic, The Eagle is a surprisingly intimate story. Narrated by Clothar, it revolves around questions of honour and loyalty, wisdom and experience. This is not a pulpy genre piece, but a carefully considered, thoughtful work that prizes insight over action and reason over gratuitous fight scenes. It is a novel of politics rooted in personalities, and of lengthy strategizing in dark, smoky rooms.

The novel is also a self-reflexive examination of storytelling and an inquiry into the nature of the Arthurian myth itself. Whyte repeatedly plays with notions of perception and reality, juxtaposing the myth of Camelot against the fictive “reality” of Camulod. In a novel that includes such events as the birth of Clothar’s son Galahad, the marriage of Arthur and Gwinnifer, and the arrival of Arthur’s bastard son Mordred at Camulod, Whyte writes against readers’ keen awareness of the mythic story. He at once gains emotional resonance from our recognition of the material and gains force from refuting the cornerstones of the mythic account (the round table, Merlyn’s sorcery, etc.) with gritty realism and convincing historical specificity. His account of the relationship between Arthur, Clothar, and Gwinnifer, for example, differs starkly from the mythic love triangle, but rings true, at least for the characters in this account.

The Eagle is not for every reader. Those new to the series should begin at the beginning and allow themselves to be immersed in the full sprawl of four generations of characters and about a century of events. Readers looking for a mere retelling of the Arthur stories will be surprised and possibly disappointed. Readers expecting action-packed fantasy will likely be perplexed by the novel’s thoughtfulness and deliberate pace (and the lengthy conversations and strategy sessions), but those who are open-minded enough will find much to love (and return to) here and in the series as a whole.

There is an elegiac tone throughout The Eagle. Whyte doesn’t dwell on the fall of Camulod or the death of Arthur, but in its brevity, his account of the end of the High King’s dream is heartbreaking. The closing paragraphs of the book are devastating, as the force of nine volumes rushes in with keen emotional acuity. With the novel’s last words, Whyte achieves what many would have thought impossible: he has recreated one of the great myths of Western culture, and made it fresh and vibrant.