Gatherer of Souls, by Lorna Smithers, is a collection of poetry and short stories about Gwyn ap Nudd that offers a radical re-think of Arthurian mythology. Physically speaking, this is a small book – 114 pages – but what it covers is both vast and important.
Lorna has been studying Arthurian mythology for some time, going into older texts, and reading in more detail than most of us do. What she’s unearthed – and followers of her blog will already know about this – is the questionable nature of Arthur’s activities. We’re been sold Arthur as chivalric hero, protector of Britain, once and future king… but get into his stories and it’s all slaughter and theft. He’s a personification of patriarchy, and a killer of old mysteries and magics.
This is a book that assumes its readers have probably read some of the Arthurian material and aren’t basing all their knowledge on modern, pop-culture representations. I suspect that without at least an awareness of the older material, this would be a challenging read.
The Gatherer of Souls referred to in the title is Gwyn ap Nudd – a character whose story is interlaced with Arthur’s in legends. It seems likely that he is a far older figure. He is the ruler of Annwn – the realm Arthur plunders for treasures. He’s associate with faery, with otherworlds, underworlds and the dead. He is the enigma at the centre of the book, and even though Lorna gives us some pieces in his voice, he remains beyond us, essentially unknowable.
The use of voices in this collection is fascinating – across time, they speak of experiences and encounters that connect with Arthurian versions but recast them from different perspectives. The voices of those who have no voices in the usual versions of the tales. Often these are figures whose deaths are a brief interlude on the way to some victory or another. In telling these other tales, Lorna deconstructs the way Arthur as patriarch abuses wildlife, women, and anything magical or other.
It’s a very intense book, and I found I had to read it slowly and make time for digesting before I tried to move on. I’m confident it’s a book that will reward re-reading because there’s so much going on here that one read doesn’t do it justice. I find these are stories I needed. Arthur has been in my life as long as I can remember. I first became uneasy about him as a figure when failing to plough through Le Morte D’Arthur, struggling with the absence of real enchantment. It came into focus for me while working on a graphic novel of the same book and seeing again how empty and uneasy I find this supposedly chivalric dream.
I’ve been following Lorna’s blogs for some time, and I’ve learned a great deal from her work on Arthurian myths. I find the creative responses she’s shared in this book answer a need in me. A hunger I didn’t know I had for some other, wilder, and not-kingly take on things.
I heartily recommend this book. You can buy it here – https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/publications/gatherer-of-souls/