By Sean Pidgeon
HarperCollins, 352 pages, $22
FOR more than 1,000 years, people have been captivated by the legend of King Arthur. Stories about him have withstood the test of time. Yet when it comes to knights and wizards and fabled lakes, the truth may not be quite so strange as the fiction after all.
That the myth of King Arthur has been greatly exaggerated is the hypothesis of the fictional archeologist Donald Gladstone, who, in this new literary novel sets out on a quest to discover the true origins of the Arthurian legend.
Sean Pidgeon, a publisher born in the U.K. who now calls the U.S. home, weaves an enchanting narrative that takes his characters from the hallowed halls of Oxford to the sprawling Welsh countryside. A few notable British landmarks including Tintagel Castle, reverently associated with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and Stonehenge, arguably one of the world's most puzzling archeological mysteries, are central to Pidgeon's work of literary fiction as well.
Pidgeon writes with stunning geographical detail. The rustic landscapes and provincial towns of Finding Camlann take on a role of their own in these characters' lives.
A recurring subject throughout the novel is Welsh nationalism, which becomes a catalyst of sorts to Pidgeon's plot. Donald, an Englishman, gains new insights into Arthur -- the man, the myth and the legend -- after meeting a couple of Welsh scholars who inevitably become research associates.
Finding Camlann calls to mind other recent novels centred on scholarly or historical pursuits, including Deborah Harkness's All Souls Trilogy and The Thirteen Hallows by Michael Scott and Colette Freedman.
A variety of scholarship drives Donald's research from the earliest written records of Arthur's exploits to British geological maps. His collection of sources demonstrates exactly how far-reaching the legend has become.
The Camlann of the title refers to what is thought to be the site of Arthur's final battle and burial. Still, the novel is about much more than discoveries of unearthed burial grounds and musty manuscripts.
That the Arthurian legend lives on in unexpected ways is thoroughly believable. A call to arms, magical inspiration, tests of friendship and forbidden love are age-old experiences; courage, faith, loyalty and passion are timeless virtues.
Pidgeon's modern characters certainly bear resemblances to their medieval counterparts in this way, and they see this in themselves.
Though they live rather quiet lives, in triumph and heartbreak Pidgeon's characters are convincing and memorable.
The pacing of Finding Camlann is a bit plodding at times, but sharp dialogue allows his characters to remain utterly compelling through to the novel's thrilling conclusion.
The secret to Pidgeon's success with Finding Camlann is the allure of good mysteries, those of Arthurian legend and longstanding grudges between colleagues alike.
Jennifer Pawluk is a Petersfield-based writer and proofreader.