Finding Camlann

  • Sean Pidgeon
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 352 pp.

History, myth and language combine to deliver a new take on Arthurian legend in this debut novel.

Reviewed by Harriet Douty Dwinell

If your heart leaps at the discovery that the word Belak (raven woman) comes from the extinct language Aquitanian, a precursor of Basque, then you will love Finding Camlann, debut novel by Sean Pidgeon. Even if word origins are not your strong suit, there is much to like in this literary thriller/novel that is one part legend of King Arthur and two parts Welsh nationalism — historic and contemporary — leavened throughout by an engaging love story and seasoned with Oxford glamour, academic backbiting, multigenerational relationships and evocative descriptions of the English and Welsh countryside. At the center lies Camlann, lost location of Arthur’s last battle.

The book begins with Donald Gladstone, a 30-something archeologist, struggling to “disentangl[e] the real Arthur — if there is such a creature — from the many threads that bind him.” Donald lacks a popular touch. He doesn’t realize that you can’t simply upend the Arthurian legend without putting something else in its place. Julia Llewellyn, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary, whom Donald knew briefly at Oxford and whom he meets by chance over a game of Scrabble in a pub, understands that human beings will not leave a vacuum unfilled for long.

Two events propel the complex narrative. The first is the dramatic discovery at Devil’s Barrow near Stonehenge of the skeletal remains of 15 men who had been subject to a gruesome three-fold death by stone, stabbing and drowning. Above this pile was found a man of “unusual stature and strength,” and on top, the remains of a woman clutching a ceramic cup tinged with blood. Scattered about were Roman coins dating from the fifth century. A rival of Donald’s, Paul Healy, hints on television that this might be the remains of Arthur and Guinevere. Another scholar, Lucy Trevellan, a caustic American who inhabits the “thinly populated intersection of women’s studies and archaeology,” argues that the scene dates back to the first or second millennium B.C. when all Europe was matrilineal. Lucy is Donald’s ex-wife.

The second and more complicated storyline deals with two Welsh rebellions more than six centuries apart, fueled by passionate Welsh nationalism and a hatred of the British who these Welsh feel have usurped their identity and appropriated their heroes, including Arthur. At the heart of this storyline is a lost poem, “The Song of Lailoken,” attributed to the medieval Welsh poet Sîon Cent that was discovered by Oxford scholar Caradoc Bowen at the ancestral home of Hugh Mortimer, to whom our etymologist Julia Llewellyn is unhappily married. “The Song of Lailoken,” presented here in Welsh and with Bowen’s English translation, conflates Arthur and Owain Glyn Dŵr, who, in fact, led a rebellion against England at the start of the 15th century and, in fiction, appears as Owen Glendower in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I.” Like Arthur, the story contends, Glyn Dŵr lies asleep, awaiting his people’s call. But where might that be? Julia’s catch of Bowen’s mistranslation of the word ffrydian proves key.

The contemporary Welsh rebellion also centers around Caradoc Bowen who at Oxford became a catalyst for angry young Welshmen, including the noble Hugh. When the English government proposed a plan to flood the Cwmhir valley to provide water for Midland England, an act that would destroy Hugh’s ancestral home at one end of the valley and Julia’s family farm at the other, Bowen may or may not have encouraged his young followers to blow up the engineering firm doing much of the work, causing death and loss of limb. Was Hugh, Julia’s husband, involved in murder? Was her father?

With mathematical precision that crosses blood and matrimonial lines, Sean Pidgeon sets out an assortment of conflicting interests among his cast of characters. He seamlessly interweaves fact and fiction, history and invention. Internet research suggests Lailoken is as real as a mythical sixth-century seer can be real, but the poem on which much of the narrative hinges — “The Song of Lailoken” — is not. (Pidgeon wrote the poem, both the Welsh and the English translation.) The poet Sîon Cent is real, but, of course, his account of receiving “The Song of Lailoken” is not. Many of the personages mentioned seem to be real — Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cyndeyrn, Cambrensis — to mention just a few. The group of Welsh nationalists, the Plaid Cymru, is real, but the Dragon’s Fire, Bowen’s band of radical students, is not. A scheme to flood parts of Wales to provide England with drinking water is real, though the novel’s particular plan to obstruct it and the resulting dire outcome are not. Finding Camlann is steeped in this sort of English and Welsh history. Such detail can be confusing, particularly to an American reader, but need not be a deterrent.

Pidgeon, an academic book publisher, spent 16 years researching, writing and rewriting Finding Camlann and his efforts show both in the ingenious creation of character and event but also in a researcher’s inability to let go of material. The novel is afflicted with too many characters and too much information. At the same time, it is harmed by certain absences. Despite a contemporary feel, there are no cell phones, email or computers of any kind, though the carbon dating process is used. Just when did this story take place? Furthermore, as the characters constantly raced back and forth from Oxford to assorted spots in Wales, I hungered for a more helpful map with place names that are part of the novel, instead of the fuzzy rendering at the book’s beginning with few relevant geographic labels.

But as for Belak, the “raven woman”: how did she make her way from a lost language thousands of years old into sixth-century Welsh? The answer lies within this fascinating mystery that will engage readers attracted by history, myth and language, a novel that delectably opens up possibilities rather than closing them down.

Harriet Douty Dwinell is a Washington writer and frequent contributor to The Washington Independent Review of Books.

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