|Title: Hawk of May|
Author: Gillian Bradshaw
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark (Kindle Version)
Synopsis: (from Goodreads) On the path toward greatness, every hero makes a choice. Legends sing of Sir Gawain, one of the most respected warriors of King Arthur’s reign and one of the greatest champions of all time. But this is not that story. This is the story of Gwalchmai, middle son of the beautiful, infinitely evil sorceress Morgawse, and gifted student of her dark magical arts. A story of an uncertain man, doubting his ability to follow his elder brother’s warrior prowess and seeking to find his own identity by bonding with his frightening and powerful mother. Disappointed in himself and despised by his father, Gwalchmai sets out on a journey that will lead him to the brink of darkness…a tale of loss, redemption and adventure, Hawk of May brings new understanding to Sir Gawain, the legend of King Arthur, and the impact of choices made—and the consequences that follow.
Hello everyone! It’s me again, back on my chosen calling of reviewing books about Sir Gawain. If I ever doubted his awesomeness after reading Mary Stewart’s Wicked Day, my faith is restored to me now.
Warning for Spoilers
Warning for Spoilers
The Twist: Gawain, here called by his Celtic name Gwalchmai (literally “Hawk of May”), grows up the despised second son of Lot of the Orcades and his wife Morgawse. In most of the stories of him I know about, Gawain/Gwalchmai is usually the firstborn unless Mordred was born first. In this story, it is Agrivain who is the firstborn and most honored. Agrivain is the warrior. Gwalchmai is not. Gareth and Gaheris, the other brothers, don’t exist. Medraut (Mordred) is there, and of course it’s an open secret his father isn’t Lot. It’s an unusual story about Gawain—he is not often associated with his mother’s Dark magic. Here he feels tainted by it throughout his young life, even after he is accepted into service to the God of Light. He is also given his warrior’s skill as a gift from the Light rather than being born with it. Arthur distrusts him for a long time while readily accepting Agrivain into the Family (aka the Round Table). The reason for this is eventually revealed, but much of the second half of the book is Gwalchmai trying desperately to prove his worth to Arthur only to be rejected once again. Additionally, Arthur is one of Uther’s bastards, not a legitimate son, so he has to gain the High Kingship and the title of Pendragon after his father’s death by conquering and forcing all the other kings of Britain to submit to him.
The Plot: The story begins with news of the death of Uther coming to the Orcades. Gwalchmai is a young boy who is not sure what his place is. He’s not much of a warrior, though his father and older brother don’t help by standing around being critical. The only things he’s good at are the bardic skills of singing and playing the harp, and horseback riding. But the sons of kings don’t become bards and warriors at this time spend battles on foot (though this changes when Arthur introduces cavalry as a serious weapon). In his uncertainty, Gwalchmai accepts his mother’s offer to tutor him in magic. He enjoys learning Latin, the first part of his studies, but is uneasy about the actual magic they perform. He has an inner sense that it’s wrong and evil, and tries to keep his younger brother Medraut away from it. He adores Medraut and sees him as too good, innocent and pure to be corrupted by the magic he and their mother are working. A change from other stories where Mordred is often described as being corrupt or doomed at birth due to the nature of his conception.
Meanwhile, all the lesser kings of Britain are fighting over who will take the title of High King. Lot and Agrivain spend several years campaigning. Finally when Gwalchmai is fourteen Arthur rallies his band of warriors and defeats all the other kings, including Lot. Agrivain is taken as a hostage and Lot returns home. Morgawse plans a human sacrifice to lay a death curse on Arthur. Gwalchmai freaks out when he learns this plan, and that Medraut is to participate. He flees; Medraut chooses to stay.
Gwalchmai escapes the dark being Morgawse summons to kill him with help from the Sidhe, who take him to the Otherworldly Isle of the Blessed. In this case the Sidhe are lesser immortals (not gods, but close) who serve the God of Light, the epitome of all goodness and the antithesis of the Dark spirits Morgawse serves. They accept Gwalchmai into the service of the Light and give him a magic sword to help him battle physical and magical enemies. Gwalchmai is then returned to Britain with the injunction to serve Arthur—two and a half years later, though for him it’s only been a day. He’s now a seventeen-year-old in a fourteen-year-old’s clothes, with no idea where he is (I find this image hilarious for some reason).
Turns out he’s in Saxon territory and is captured. He pretends to be a British slave and is sold to Cerdic, a Saxon king. He escapes with the help of a magical horse and eventually meets up with some of Arthur’s warriors, including his brother Agrivain who despite his hostage status has given his loyalty to Arthur. The rest of the book is Gwalchmai attempting to prove his trustworthiness to Arthur only to be rebuffed. He also discovers that, along with the sword, he’s been gifted by the Light with extraordinary warrior skills, at the cost of getting “battle fever”—he remembers nothing about his fights and barely feels wounds sustained. After he decides to leave Camlann because his presence is so disturbing to Arthur, Arthur finally comes clean as to his reasons for distrust and Gwalchmai joins the Family.
As the blurb about this book says, it is about the importance of making choices. Gwalchmai thinks he has little choice but to learn Dark magic since he isn’t a warrior and can’t become a bard. He eventually learns that he did—and does—have choices. When he chooses to serve the Light, the Light helps him and makes him into the warrior he always dreamed of being. Everyone, Morgawse, Medraut, Arthur, Agrivain, and even some minor characters make specific choices of whom to serve both on the physical plane and the spiritual.
Gwalchmai (Gawain): A great main character. He grows from a boy constantly worried about his future to a young man certain in his purpose. He is extremely relatable because he’s always worried whether he’s doing the right thing. He also remains modest and empathetic despite the extraordinary gifts he is given over the course of the book. Even after swearing allegiance to the God of Light and being given gifts from the Sidhe, he still has some doubts about himself. He worries he’s been tainted by mere association with Morgawse, since he of her three children looks the most like her and he willingly learned her Dark arts for awhile, and assumes this is why Arthur inexplicably can’t stand him. He grows more and more certain, however, that serving Arthur is the right thing to do because of the kind of empire Arthur is hoping to build. Eventually he is proven right and it is Arthur who misjudged him. He earns everything he has by the end of the book through loyalty and seeking to do the right thing: his sword, his horse, his warrior skills, and eventually Arthur’s trust. His encounter with the Sidhe has left him so changed that everyone who meets him afterwards believes at least for a moment that he’s not fully human.
Agrivain: Gwalchmai’s older brother, taken as a hostage by Arthur but eventually serves the High King willingly. Of Lot and Morgawse’s sons, he most resembles Lot. He starts off the story a bully, which sets young Gwalchmai looking for other ways to gain power besides warriorship. However, he has grown up considerably when he and Gwalchmai meet again as adults and is delighted to see the brother he thought was dead. He still has a quick temper, however, and a strong sense of family loyalty. Anyone insulting Gwalchmai insults him, and he still looks for a fight when in a bad mood. He disbelieves Gwalchmai’s story about where he was when he disappeared for almost three years until Gwalchmai fairly defeats him in single combat (to Gwalchmai’s astonishment as much as anyone’s).
Morgawse: The Queen of Air and Darkness, she has succumbed fully to her hatred and is barely human by the time Gwalchmai flees the Orcades. She plotted against her father Uther (she and Morgan are his legitimate daughters) and plots even more viciously against her bastard brother Arthur. She seduced Arthur knowing they were siblings, while he still had no idea Uther was his father. She appears several times after Gwalchmai flees, as a dark spirit doing battle with Gwalchmai’s Sidhe patron Lugh over Gwalchmai’s fate.
Arthur: I liked him before we’re even officially introduced to him. It’s his reaction to the British Kings continuing to fight each other as the Saxons are invading that did it. Arthur is acknowledged by all as a brilliant commander, but he’s one of Uther’s bastards and can’t take up the Pendragon title automatically when Uther dies. When the story begins, he is the leader of the war band whose sole purpose is to protect Britain from the Saxons. But he can’t do that well if there’s no High King, so after two years of civil war he clearly says to himself “Screw it, if these idiots aren’t willing to band together to beat the Saxons, I’ll become High King myself and make them.” Awesome. And he does, by conquering each and every king in lightning-fast moves with his new cavalry. He also shows himself to be gifted in diplomacy, carefully balancing his treaties with each of his lesser kings, his allies in Brittany, and the Saxon tribes who live in Britain. He is a great king, and everyone who meets him can’t help but admire him. He is haunted, however, by his single night of incest with Morgawse—like Gwalchmai, he feels tainted by the Dark even though he fights for the Light. This is the reason he distrusts Gwalchmai for so long: he believes Gwalchmai knows Medraut is his son and is ashamed every time he sees him. He wanted to believe Gwalchmai had also been corrupted no matter what proof Gwalchmai offers that he serves the Light. Eventually in the face of overwhelming evidence that Gwalchmai is a good man he admits to being wrong.
Medraut (Mordred): Arthur’s son by Morgawse (duh), though this is the big shocking reveal at the end of the book. Gwalchmai notices the physical similarities but doesn’t put the pieces together until Arthur tells him straight out. Medraut and Gwalchmai are close when they are children, but Medraut’s curiosity about magic proves his undoing. Gwalchmai realizes much later that Medraut was as trapped by lack of options as he was, since it was no secret Lot was not his father, but Medraut’s ambitions to become more than just a bastard prince drove him to accept Morgawse’s teachings when Gwalchmai rejected them.
Lot: A strong warrior, which leads him to favor his older son above his younger. Like Agrivain, he is a bully towards Gwalchmai. While he is the King of the Orcades, it is obvious that it is really Morgawse who rules. He spends most of the first part of the book off fighting in the civil wars in order to make himself High King; after Gwalchmai flees the Orcades he is rarely mentioned since Morgawse is the real foe Gwalchmai must face.
Cei (Kay): Arthur’s infantry commander. He dislikes Gwalchmai for most of the book and continuously calls him a sorcerer, to Agravain’s chagrin. Eventually, he and Gwalchmai come to respect each other.
Bedwyr: Bedwyr as himself and not a stand-in for Lancelot! I am fairly certain there is no Lancelot in this trilogy at all. This Bedwyr is a wise man and a seasoned warrior (he leads the cavalry) who has had enough dealings with the forces of Light and Dark to recognize that Gwalchmai has been touched by the Light when the young man mysteriously reappears in southwest Britain almost three years after vanishing from the northern Orcades.
Taliesin (Merlin): Arthur’s chief bard and also (probably) the bard of the Sidhe court that Gwalchmai hears during his visit. As is usual for the half-crazy old man in the background, he seems to enjoy saying cryptic but wise things and not answering questions (think Yoda). He is given great respect and seems to know things before they happen.
Gwynhyfar (Guinevere): Briefly appears when she nurses Gwalchmai’s wounds after a battle. Gwalchmai likes and respects her.
I loved this book and will probably return to it many times. It’s not my absolute favorite version of Gawain (that honor belongs to Gerald Morris’s portrayal in his Squire’s Tales series), but for a serious version of Gawain it’s excellent. I found the themes of self-doubt and making choices very resonant.