The Fourth Gwenevere
John James, Jo Fletcher Books, 280pp
In the late 1960s John James published three extraordinary historical fantasies set in the Roman and Dark Ages: Votan and its sequel Not for All the Gold in Ireland follow the travels of Photinus the Greek merchant in Britain and Northern Europe, making clever use of the Norse myths, the Mabinogion and the great Irish epics. Men Went To Cattraeth draws on Y Gododdin, an epic tale of doomed warriors. In the mid-seventies came The Bridge of Sand, in which the satirist Juvenal leads Roman soldiers in an attempt to conquer Ireland. All four novels were characterised by the sheer rude vigour of their telling, their narrators springing from the page to buttonhole the reader. James’s characters were lovable rogues but also men of honour, who did what was needful, no matter the odds. No one told a story quite like John James.
And now, belatedly, we have one last novel. The Fourth Gwenevere was left incomplete at James’s death in 1993, and it is thanks to the diligence of a fan, Penny Billington, that James’s children located the computer files. According to the Matthewses, who then took on the task of editing the novel, more than two-thirds of it already existed and from what was there they felt able to provide the rest. Who wrote what precisely is not stated, which is frustrating because, try as I might, I cannot see this last novel as the seamless whole the editors and publisher obviously intend it to be. However, neither can I tell whether the shift in register from his earlier novels comes about simply because James is here an older writer, or because the previous novels underwent a polishing process that is inevitably absent this time around, or because the presence of the Matthewses as writers is a little more intrusive than one might hope for.
The main story is narrated by Morvran, ‘the ugliest of the Three Ugly Kings of Britain, an admitted bard, King of Gwent and Prefect of Caerwent, ruler of all men from Ross to Avan’. Morvran, as is typical of James’s narrators, presents himself as a simple man beset by idiots, but it is obvious that he is clear-sighted and the person everyone else looks to when complex matters need to be dealt with. On this occasion, the unity of Britain is at stake for Arthur, the Grand Duke, has been assassinated, the many kings of Britain are squabbling over the succession and Gwenevere, vital to this process, has seemingly been abducted. It falls to Morvran to find her and bring her home.
This is familiar territory and none the worse for that. Morvran drags his reluctant band of men out of England and into Gaul, threatening dire punishments for those who disobey him but unwilling to sacrifice them to what has become his personal gesa. And it is obvious that his men would follow him to the ends of the earth, grousing as they went. We see too the making of Arthur’s legend, somewhat at variance with the truth as witnessed by Morvran, but a remaking that even he recognises as necessary in order to preserve the kingdom.
The journey is for the most part worth the taking, even if there are places where the humour seems more strained than I recall, or the plot a little thinner than I’d like. The more liminal moments too can seem a little lacklustre though the description of the countryside ravaged by the White Plague, the cities standing empty, is spine-chilling. And there are one or two elements in this story which are so unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in James’s work that I do wonder about their provenance.
And unusually for James, there is also a second narrative thread, with parts of the story told from the point of view of the Fourth Gwenevere herself, in sections interpolated between the main chapters. According to the editors some of these were in the material they received from the family but their presence in the text seems awkward, as though they have strayed in from elsewhere. One can only surmise that James was, commendably, attempting to redress the necessary absence of the Fourth Gwenevere within the main story. Yet one can’t help wondering if the novel remained unfinished because James struggled to reconcile these two narrative elements. I wonder too about the novel’s Prologue, again somewhat out of character with his other work.
Given that this novel comes as a late bonus, it seems churlish to criticise, but I would be lying if I said that this is vintage James, or as the editors claim, his best novel yet. It falls a little short of that but enough persists of what made James’s earlier novels so wonderful to make The Fourth Gwenevere also worth the reading.