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A Cathedral of Myth and Bone

July 7, 2019

Because my friend Jonna urged it on me, I not only picked up Kat Howard’s new book of short stories, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, from the table at the ICFA banquet but made room in my suitcase for the hardback, and now I’m glad I did.

There are lots of good stories, most notably “Returned,” which is the story of how a boy named Orpheus keeps forcing his unwanted attentions on a girl named Eurydice until she kills herself to get away from him, only to find that he has brought her back from the dead to continue to endure his caresses:
“You remember that, even though you were dead, you ran from him, under the red-black sky of the land of the dead, on the white, white bones of the corpse road. Ran much farther than a mile without stopping. Ran into eternity, fleeing into death, away from the pursuing voice that called out how much he had loved you, loved you so much, why couldn’t you see it, he would make you see.”

The standout story, though, is Once, Future,” a story of King Arthur retold with graduate students, in a style that reminded me of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. At almost 120 pages, it’s practically a novella tucked in with other, shorter stories. The characters are taking a seminar on “The Arthurian Legend in Time” and the syllabus “promised a semester-long engagement with all the variety of ways the story of Arthur and Camelot and its fall got told and retold, across time and medium. One day in the third week the discussion was about “T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and two adaptations of it—the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone, and the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot—and how they all connected in the mythology around the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s.” It sounds like a class I’d like to take!

One of the grad students in the class, during the third-week discussion, says “Of course the writer is manipulating things, making sure the underlying pattern of the story is recognizable. But I also think this particular story has a pattern that likes to fit. It is almost like self-replicating DNA. The story makes it easy for the writer. That’s why there are so many retellings.” Another student responds: “So you’re saying that if you just took a bunch of people sitting around today and named them Arthur and Gwen and Lance and Mordred, they’d wind up repeating the fall of Camelot?” And the professor says “I think we should find out.” So the story is a semester-long retelling of the Arthur legend, from the point of view of the student who is assigned the role of Morgan.

Seeing from the point of view of one of the characters makes the story real, both to the character and to the readers. Here’s one of the points where that becomes obvious:
“You forget the end of the story when you’re living in it. I mean, it’s right there in the name: Le Morte d’Arthur. The Death of Arthur. Death. There are no versions of the original legend where he gets out alive, unless you count that whole once-and-future bit, where he’s taken offstage to sleep on the island of Avalon. The story of Arthur is always a tragedy. The only question is what the rest of the body count looks like.
Intellectually, I knew that. Everyone in Professor Link’s seminar did. We spent hours talking about it every week, the way each version of the story either stopped just before the end or walked headlong into disaster and grief.
But it didn’t occur to me that we were in for the same thing. Not at the beginning, anyway. Not when Sabra pulled a sword from stone, not when magic became like breathing for me, not until later. Not until too late.
Maybe that’s the nature of tragedy. That you don’t notice. Or you see the signs gathering around you, and still you think: not us.”
What a time for this story, when as a nation, we can see the signs of authoritarianism and nascent fascism gathering around us, and yet so many aren’t noticing.

During one class discussion, the students bring up “the free will problem. Merlin can warn Arthur about the consequences of his actions—in some of the stories he does—but Arthur still makes his own choices.” This is where the professor’s interest in retelling the story with her students starts to seem odd. When a student says that Nimue “didn’t bother stealing Merlin’s foreknowledge when she sexed him out of the rest of his power” the professor says “Nimue earned her power. Not sexed it out of Merlin.” The students ask which version of the story she means and the professor says only “the true one.” And we, as readers, start thinking about Professor Link’s first name, which is Viviane.

Morgan starts to do research on magic: “my plethora of interlibrary loans had finally come in. As I had suspected, none of them gave any real hints about magic.” But she also orders
“thick, scholarly tomes on Morgan, and those coughed up a couple of pieces of relevant information.
Morgan, it seemed, was associated with ravens because one of her original titles was that of necromancer, a magician with power over the dead. Ravens were psychopomps—creatures that carried souls between life and death.”

All of the graduate students get caught up in the story, and in their roles, until one of them says “I don’t trust Link. Or any of this, really. Because whether or not the names would have done a damn thing on their own, it’s clear that something else is going on. Link hasn’t aged in over fifty years….So it’s not just names, and the story is still a tragedy.”

Morgan spends the last days of the semester trying to save the student who is playing the role of Arthur. She intends to use the cauldron from the Preiddeu Annwn: “it’s one of the treasures of Britain. Arthur went into the underworld and brought them back. There’s a theory that this is the thing that got turned into the Holy Grail when Christianity got hold of the story. It supposedly resurrects the dead.”

Morgan’s use of the cauldron might not be what you expect, as she has pieced together all the bits of the legends in a new way, so that by the end of the story “the tower that used to hold Professor Link’s office is gone.”

Of all the marvelous stories in this collection, “Once, Future” is the most marvelous and the most original. Like the Eurydice story (“Returned”), many of the stories are feminist retellings–another good one is “The Green Knight’s Wife”–but with “Once, Future,” Howard has elevated retelling to a whole new level, one where you’ll hold your breath hoping that this story, this time, could end happily.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    July 7, 2019 10:25 am

    I loved The Once and Future King so I definitely want to read Once, Future: it sounds brilliant.

    • July 9, 2019 4:00 pm

      It is. It’s great how she weaves in what the graduate students do with the events of and variations on the Arthur legends.

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