A king should write his own story, especially a Briton. We're a race of musical liars, and who you are may depend on who's singing your song. Many's the tree-spirit come tripping out of yesterday to find itself a saint today and rudely surprised by the change. I've been called Artos and Artorius Imperator, but it seems to stick at Arthur, the way the monks write and the bards sing. That's unimportant; what matters is who we are and what we did. I want to write of us the way we were before some pedant petrifies us in an epic and substitutes his current idea for ours. As for poets and bards, let one of them redecorate your life and you'll never be able to find any of it again. --Arthur, Firelord
Have you ever finished a book with a lump in your throat and a tightness in your chest, not because the ending was happy or sad, but simply because the book was finished and you wanted it to go on and on? Have you ever finished a book and consciously realized that you had a different view of the world, maybe a better view, for having read it? Both have happened to me, and both happened because of the same author. That author is Parke Godwin.
Back in high school I was rather obsessive about all things Arthurian. I read dozens of books and stories on the Arthurian legend, everything from T.H. White to Mary Stewart. One day I picked up Godwin's Firelord -- and I haven't read much Arthurian fiction since. Why? Because reading Godwin is like sitting down over dinner with a celebrity and getting the real story, when all you've known about the person has been what you've gleaned from gossip columns and tabloids. His Arthur, in fact all of his characters, are so real that it's difficult to believe that Godwin didn't know each of them personally.
Godwin's work deals primarily with two periods of history. The first era, when Roman rule of Britain was fading away, Christianity was pushing out the old pagan traditions, and the Saxons were beginning to settle the country and displace the Britons, is the setting for his three Arthurian novels, Firelord, Beloved Exile, and The Last Rainbow. Firelord is the story of Arthur, and yes, it's all there...Guenevere, Morgana, Bedivere, Merlin, Lancelot, Modred. As Godwin says in the preface to Firelord, "That they didn't all live at the same time is beside the point. Very likely some of them did. Assembled on one stage in one drama, they make a magnificent cast." And indeed they do, though perhaps the play's not quite as you think you remember it. No, this is an Arthur who is a real person, with real motivations and a real personality. He and his knights are not some impossibly pure romantic heroes, they're men living their lives as best they can. Even the 'villains' of the piece are well developed human beings. The plot lays real flesh over the bones of the legend, and illuminates much of the story that has been hidden or ignored in the past.
And Guenevere...Godwin's Guenevere is my hero. Beloved Exile picks up where Firelord ends, with the death of Arthur and the breaking of the fellowship of his knights. It's the story of the rest of Guenevere's life. Did you ever notice that the story always ends when Arthur dies? Not this time, because Guenevere has her own story. She's a leader in her own right ("Most kings have only wives. I had a queen", says Arthur on his deathbed), and she has some amazing adventures after her attempt to keep the country together is undermined by a traitor. She ends up for a time as a slave to the Saxons, and returns to a very changed Britain, where she makes her strong, vibrant, brilliant influence felt yet again.
The Last Rainbow is a bit of a prequel to Firelord, taking place among the Picts of Ireland and the wild nomadic Faerie, a generation before Arthur's birth. Rainbow is the story of Padraic, a shepherd enslaved by the Irish who later escaped and returned to preach Christianity to the pagan Picts -- as Father, later Saint, Patrick. The Faerie are not the Fey beings that we generally think of, but the last remnants of Bronze Age primitives who roam the Isles with their flocks. Even the barbaric Picts look down upon the Faerie, and the very ambitious and fervent Patrick decides that he will prove the worth of his ministry to the recalcitrant Picts by converting the wild Faerie to Christianity. But Patrick, like Arthur, is a real person in this novel, and he will fall in love, lose his faith in God and then regain it, and eventually return to the Church to become the Patrick that we think we know of from our history lessons.
This states the condition at it's best...The human soul is a passionate pulp writer, dramatizing Fall and Redemption in a script that makes you the star, when the moment of Creation and Fall were simultaneous, no more -- and magnificently no less -- than the terrible beauty of knowing you existed for a little and would end, and your myths the hack-written product of a mind that will ever put what it feels above what it thinks or sees. -- Coyul, The Snake Oil Wars
Godwin took a break from historical fantasy in the late 80's to explore more fully some of the themes that run through all of his work, namely God (or "that pregnant silence where we think He hides"), religion, and faith. In Waiting for the Galactic Bus Godwin writes of Barion and Coyul, two brothers from an incredibly advanced race of energy beings who are stranded on Earth five million years in our past and who decide to tinker with the indigenous lifeforms. Their intervention leads to the rapid evolution of humanity, an evolution that brings us to advanced intelligence and technical skill, but which occurred so quickly that our emotions never developed properly, making humanity brilliant but violent and stubborn. The brothers busy themselves with the post-life energy of humans, Barion founding Topside and Coyul preferring Down Below. Naturally Barion is mistaken for God and Coyul for Satan.
In Bus, Barion and Coyul endeavor to prevent Charity Stovall from marrying her intended, Roy Stride. Stride is a charismatic Neo-Nazi type, and Charity is highly intelligent. The brothers realize that a child of Roy and Charity's could be worse than Hitler, and they decide that they must intervene. Charity and Roy are hijacked to Down Below, and "re-educated". We meet Yeshua of Nazareth ("They've spent two thousand years turning me into something out of Oxford or a Tennessee Bible college. Both my parents were Hebrews, I look like an Arab, spent all my life in the desert, and if they let me into one of their nice 'white' restaurants at all, I'd get the table by the kitchen door."), as well as Judas Iscariot and actor "Wilksey" Booth. Bus is brilliant commentary on Fundamentalist religion, fascism, myth, belief, and the sense of entitlement that so many humans seem to have.
The Snake Oil Wars picks up where Waiting for the Galactic Bus leaves off. Barion has been taken back to his home planet to stand trial for illegally interfering in Earth's evolution. Coyul gives custody of Down Below to Judas and moves Topside to take care of things Upstairs. Unfortunately, many of the faithful of various denominations are furious to discover that Barion was not the God-figure they thought, but an alien, and they believe it to be a lie made up by Coyul ("Satan"). Radical right wing hero Lance Candor attempts to assassinate Coyul, and Coyul sues him. The case becomes a debate on the nature of gods and Coyul must attempt to prove that he is not the Devil. We meet such enjoyable characters as counter-culture hippie Scheherezade Ginsberg, who loves Lance, and Purji, a high school classmate of Coyul's who has most recently been functioning as a fertility goddess for a primitive alien race. The attorneys for both sides are a special treat, but I won't give them away as they are incognito through much of the book.
The Barion/Coyul books have enjoyed a well deserved cult following and are among my personal favorite science fiction/fantasy crossover novels. Godwin's treatment of religion and faith reminds me somewhat of Douglas Adams' atheist writings, though Godwin never absolutely denies the existence of a God -- in fact, he frequently refers to God. It's just that Godwin portrays God far more realistically and with far less awe -- and yet oddly more affection -- than do many authors; consequently, God comes off quite favorably in Godwin's books.
The kings and the earls gave the orders, but we were the ones who brought them to the folk, the link between one and the other. You...you get used to seeing things done right, so understand when I say it's my country they took. Not the king's, but mine, Marian. -- Robin of Denby, Robin and the King
The second era Godwin deals with so magically and with such authority is the turbulent time in history surrounding the Norman conquest of Saxon England. The Saxon invaders of Arthur's time have worked the land for hundreds of years. Living in a society where each man knows his worth and has his rights and responsibilities according to the ancient Witan laws, the English clash horribly with the new Normans and their rigid divisions of lord and peasant, privilege and poverty. Lord of Sunset is the story of Harold II, the last Saxon king of England, his beloved wife Edith, and the political intrigue that led to William of Normandy's final victory. A Memory of Lions is the same history, writ smaller on the lives of lesser known folk in the heart of Northumberland, where the family of Baron Eustace Neuville has been given the land which once was the Saxon holding of Brandeshal, and where Eustace and his family will clash with the much older family and gods which inhabit the land of Tees.
Finally, Sherwood and Robin and the King are, as must be obvious from the titles, the story of Robin of Denby, better known to us as Robin Hood. Robin is the son of the lord of Denby, Aelred, who was killed in one of the final battles against the Normans. As the first lord of Denby to live under Norman rule, Robin walks a fine line and is ultimately outlawed for refusing to follow the new and unjust Norman laws. Ralf FitzGerald, Norman knight and the new Sheriff of Nottingham, must defend the new laws against the outlawed lord and his followers. Again, the full cast is present: Marian, Will, Little John... But, like Firelord, this is not the story you think that you know. Godwin's Robin Hood books are so much deeper and richer than the popular tale -- Robin, like Arthur, is a real person, sometimes stubborn when he should yield, sometimes willfully ignorant, deeply in love with his wife (yet not above a wench here and there when far from home), a man who loves his country and his folk and does his best to protect both. Though his tale has a tragic ending, this is by far the best version of Robin Hood that I've ever read, and it had the same ultimate effect on me as Firelord did for Arthur -- I seldom read Robin Hood fiction anymore. It so rarely rings so heartbreakingly true.
I've never watched lovemaking before. Porn, yes, but that's for laughs, a nowhere fantasy...Real sex is awkward, banal, and somehow very touching to watch. It's all the things we are or want: involvement, commitment, warmth, passion, clumsiness, generosity or selfishness, giving and receiving or holding back, all stained with the colors of openness or fear, lovely -- and very vulnerable. All that, and yet the words are inadequate; you can't get any of that from watching. Like the man said, you had to be there. -- Gayla Damon, "The Fire When It Comes"
Parke Godwin was a professional actor before he became a writer, and his writing reflects that theatrical background. He writes lyrically, using words precisely and carefully, turning plain and simple language into something deeper and sweeter. Much of his prose could easily translate to theatrical monologue. And the single theme that runs through all of Godwin's work, and benefits most from his powerful talent with language, is love. Romantic love, sexual love, love of home and hearth and family and the simple comforts of life: Godwin writes of these things joyfully and sadly, flippantly and solemnly, but always, always with great passion.
What is it about homilies make you want to wretch? I mean, I'll light their silly candle, but someone's damn well going to hear about the dark. -- Sir Tristan, Firelord
Have I forgotten to mention his sense of humor? Parke Godwin sees the ridiculous in life and points it out at every opportunity. Again, he sometimes reminds me of Douglas Adams: darkly witty, silly, bawdy, and always with a bite. Some of his best humor can be found in his short stories. His 1984 collection, The Fire When It Comes, contains some of the funniest and wisest short material to be found anywhere. The title story is the poignant yet witty tale of an actress who wakes up in her apartment, only to realize there are new tenants, because she's been dead for years. "Unsigned Original" and "The Second Stroke of Genius" are darkly humorous, and "The Last Rainbow" (also about Faerie, this is a sort of precursor to his book of the same name) is just plain funny. "Influencing the Hell Out of Time and Teresa Golowitz" is a sweetly funny tale of redemption and kindness.
Men carve their gods from the best of themselves. What is left must define their fears. They can't help it. -- Sigyn, The Tower of Beowulf
In what version of Beowulf did we ever spare a thought or a moment of compassion for Grendel? Did he want to be a monster? Was Beowulf really such a hero? Thus, another theme that Godwin repeats throughout his work; the Dark men fear from birth, and the painful things that our fear of the Dark drives us to. In this Beowulf, Godwin interweaves the epic tale with Norse myth and once again humanizes the hero, the gods, and the monsters all at once. The Tower of Beowulf deals with honor and valor and as always, love. I've always loved the story of Beowulf and Grendel, and I was very happy when Godwin chose to rewrite this particular legend (though I've always secretly hoped that he'd go with Eleanor of Aquitaine).
A few of these books are out of print, but even those are available
online or through many used bookstores. Also look for Godwin's science
fiction novel Limbo Search, and his collaborative efforts with Marvine
Kaye, Masters of Solitude, Wintermind, and A Cold Blue
Light. Like our beloved Book Review Editor, Grey Walker, I never buy
a book unless I intend to read it more than once; consequently, I've replaced
most of my Godwins at least once, and even now my entire collection is
once again becoming dog-eared. If you've never read anything by Godwin,
go out and pick up Firelord. I'll bet that your copy ends up loved
into tatters, too.