Snapshot 2016

The Aussie Spec Fic Snapshot has been taking place periodically since 2005, when Ben Peek interviewed 43 people involved in Australian speculative fiction. Over the years the project has expanded enormously, and it’s taking place again! My interview with David McDonald can be read here, where I’ve announced a couple of new projects that I am very excited about. The rest of the interviews can be found at the Snapshot website and they make for wonderfully interesting reading. If ever you wanted to find out what’s going on in Australian spec fic, this is the time!

Return of the Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

I’m watching the original Star Wars movie on the original 1992 video tape, which amazingly still works. The cover art on the VHS tape is – hm, interesting. Luke is a sword-and-sorcery type with his shirt ripped open, raising aloft a blinding white sword while Leia drapes herself in front of him with a split skirt definitely not seen in the movie. Han doesn’t feature at all. Nor does the title A New Hope, it’s just called Star Wars. The movie is prefaced by a hilarious ad for Lost in Space, another science fiction landmark from my childhood that I may end up reviewing someday. And there’s the 20th Century Fox music that I still associate, indelibly, with Star Wars. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The Galactic Republic is long gone, the galaxy now controlled by Emperor Palpatine and his vast armies, but civil war has broken out once again as rebels seek to overthrow him. They score a significant victory when agents of the rebellion manage to steal plans to the Emperor’s most secret, and most powerful, weapon: the Death Star, a military space station with enough destructive force to obliterate an entire planet. The plans are given into the hands of Leia Organa, a Senator and Princess of Alderaan. Her spaceship is boarded by imperial soldiers in a swift and brutal attack led by Darth Vader, the Emperor’s right hand, but she manages to hide the plans inside her droid – R2-D2, at the scene of pretty much every important event in Skywalker family history – and together with a confused, amnesiac C3-PO, R2 escapes the captive spaceship in an escape pod. They land on that most inescapable of planets, Tatooine.

Surrounded by clone troopers – now known as stormtroopers – with the rest of her crew either imprisoned or dead, Leia doesn’t give an inch. “Darth Vader,” she says coldly. “Only you could be so bold.” She claims to be on a diplomatic mission. Vader calls her a traitor and arranges for a false story to be distributed that all aboard the ship were killed, presumably in some sort of freak accident, to prevent Leia’s supporters in the Imperial Senate generating sympathy for the rebellion. When the missing escape pod is noticed, a detachment of stormtroopers are sent down to recover its contents.

R2-D2 and C3-PO have a bilingual confrontation, in beeps on one side and insults on the other – C3-PO won’t followed R2 down what looks like a more difficult way (it’s ALL SAND DUNES, there is no easy way) and is promptly seized by Jawas. To be fair, so is R2. I seriously love Jawas. They’re tiny and a bit dangerous and they have the best language. On a completely unrelated note, the first computer I ever used had a Star Wars screensaver and if you left it unattended too long the Jawas would steal bits from all over your desktop. It was brilliant. I’m feeling the nostalgia today.

Anyway! The kidnapped droids are taken to a moisture farm and offered for sale to Owen Lars, who initially picks a different droid. That one malfunctions. Present for the exchange is Owen’s nephew Luke Skywalker, who takes C3-PO’s advice and suggests they get R2 instead. Luke doesn’t actually want to be there. He wants to be hanging out with his friends instead of cleaning up a pair of talkative droids and sulkily swoops a model spacecraft around while C3-PO chatters, though he laughs when C3-PO gets mixed up and calls him Sir Luke. Could it be any more obvious that this is a fairy tale with spaceships?

While he’s fixing up R2-D2, he accidentally switches on a projection of Leia, looping through the same few seconds of her recording. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi,” she says, over and over again. “You’re my only hope.” Luke is instantly captivated. R2 claims to be the property of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Luke connects the name to an eccentric hermit known to live around here, called Ben Kenobi. Cunningly, R2 convinces Luke to remove the Jawas’ restraining bolt, and Luke is subsequently distracted by his aunt Beru calling him inside to eat.

It’s a tense meal. First, Luke mentions Obi-Wan and his aunt and uncle exchange very shifty looks. Next, a well-worn argument erupts as Owen tries to convince Luke to stay on at the farm for another year. Luke wants to submit an application to the Imperial Academy to become a pilot and Beru is inclined to let Luke have his way. “He has too much of his father in him,” she points out, when she’s alone with her husband. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Owen says grimly. Fair enough, considering. Frustrated, Luke walks out into the evening, where the twin suns are setting. He learns that R2 has taken off on a hare-brained quest to find Obi-Wan for himself.

Luke gives chase early the next morning, once it’s light enough, and soon catches up, but is ambushed by Tusken Raiders. He appears to have no self-defence training and is promptly knocked out. Fortunately, Obi-Wan arrives while the Tusken Raiders are, well, raiding Luke’s possessions and scares them off with a predator’s mimicry. He’s unsettled by Luke using his name, a name he has not used in a very long time, and isn’t sure what to make of R2, but takes them and C3-PO (who was damaged in the fight) home with him. Having seen the prequels, it’s doubly sad to see how isolated Obi-Wan has become – also, it’s noticeable how the time-frames don’t quite match up, with Obi-Wan claiming to have gone by the name of Ben since before Luke was born.

Other lies fit better into the narrative. Luke has been told his father was the navigator on a spice freighter, but Obi-Wan tells him that Skywalker Senior was a Jedi Knight who fought in the Clone Wars, the best star-pilot in the galaxy. He leaves out ‘genocidal cyborg Sith Lord’, but hands over Anakin’s old lightsaber. “Not as clumsy or random as a blaster,” Obi-Wan says wistfully as a shimmering green blade bursts from the hilt. “An elegant weapon from a more civilised age.” Luke is rather enchanted. His mood turning darker, Obi-Wan speaks about the persecution of the Jedi and claims that Anakin was killed by Darth Vader, which is only true in a poetical sense. He also tells Luke about the Force, an energy that ‘binds the galaxy together’. How much of my life have I spent quoting bits of this movie?

Obi-Wan watches Leia’s recording. She is aware that he served with her father in the Clone Wars (good on you, Bail Organa, for raising this excellent human being) and asks him to take the Death Star plans to Alderaan now that she’s unable to do so herself. Obi-Wan takes approximately one minute to make up his mind, and tries to recruit Luke for the mission with the promise of teaching him how to use the Force. Luke, though torn, feels a duty to his family and feels helpless against the overwhelming monolith of the Empire. The best he can offer Obi-Wan is a lift to the nearest town.

Meanwhile, the imperial officers aboard the Death Star are arguing over what they should do next. When Vader doesn’t like the direction this dispute takes (a casual dismissal of the Force that really drums home the radical social shift since the very title of Jedi commanded awe throughout the galaxy) he chokes a dissident half to death until Grand Moff Tarkin, the person who is actually in charge around here, calls an end to the ‘bickering’ with elegant distaste. The Emperor has just dissolved the Senate for good – he is that powerful – and is relying on the Death Star to keep the star systems in line. That means they have to find out where the plans went, and fast.

On their way across the desert, Luke and Obi-Wan find the wreck of a Jawa vehicle, its occupants slaughtered – seemingly by Tusken Raiders, but Obi-Wan sees at once that the attack came from stormtroopers on R2-D2’s trail. Horrified, Luke makes a frantic dash for home. It’s too late. The farm is on fire; his aunt and uncle are dead. As he stands there staring at their bodies, it is unnerving how much he looks like Anakin.

With nothing left to lose, Luke recklessly pledges himself to Obi-Wan’s mission and they travel to Mos Eisley spaceport to find a pilot who will take them as far as Alderaan. Stormtroopers are searching the place, but Obi-Wan gets them through with a tidy Jedi mind trick. They end up in a cantina full of disreputable-looking characters, where Obi-Wan gets talking with a very familiar Wookiee. Though it would seem they’re not familiar to each other. Chewbacca is now co-pilot on the Millenium Falcon, working with his friend Han Solo. The cantina has a rigid no-droids policy but is well-populated with thugs; the one who picks a fight with Luke gets his arm sliced off by Obi-Wan (his old go-to attack move, if history serves). Luke is awed.

In quite a rush to get off the planet, Obi-Wan accepts Han’s opportunistic asking price in return for a rapid departure and no questions asked. Han would also like admiration for his reputation as a pilot, but Luke’s being indignant about such obvious fleecing and Obi-Wan hasn’t been impressed by anything in decades. Plus Han has his own problems. He gets cornered by a bounty hunter called Greedo, who has tracked him down on behalf of crime lord Jabba the Hutt after a business transaction gone very sour. This scene got notoriously edited in later editions of the movie, but Han DEFINITELY SHOOTS FIRST. In fact, I don’t see any evidence that Greedo got the chance to shoot at all, only that he really wanted to. The extended editions also include a personal confrontation with Jabba that Han manages to talk his way out of, but the original skips straight to a shoot-out with stormtroopers just as the Falcon is taking off.

Han and Chewbacca are a formidable team, though, even with Luke peppering questions at them in the cockpit. The jump to lightspeed gets them away.

Darth Vader has tried and failed to torture the location of the rebel base out of Leia. Tarkin takes a different tack. “I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash,” Leia bites when she’s brought before him. “I recognised your foul stench when I was brought on board.” He’s already decided to execute her, but has brought the Death Star into the Alderaan system to test its weaponry on her home planet first. Appalled, she chokes out the location of a base on Dantooine, but Tarkin fires on the planet anyway. It is destroyed instantly before her eyes.

On the Falcon, Obi-Wan has begun Luke’s lightsaber training, trying to teach him to act on instinct, and R2-D2 is beating Chewbacca at a holographic board game. Obi-Wan crumples suddenly as the shockwaves in the Force caused by Alderaan’s destruction hit him hard. He doesn’t know what has happened, only that many people have died. Han jeers the very idea of the Force. The only greater power he believes in is luck. When they arrive at the co-ordinates for Alderaan, however, all that’s left of the planet is a field of debris.

Leia may have been devastated, but she did not give Tarkin what he wanted. The rebel base on Dantooine has been deserted for a long time. Tarkin is ridiculously indignant about this.

A short-range imperial fighter ship attacks the Falcon and Han chases it towards a small moon, hoping to destroy it before it can report their presence. Obi-Wan is the first one to realise that they are not heading towards a moon at all – it is a space station of previously unheard of size, and it sends out a tractor beam that drags the Falcon in towards it no matter what Han does. Once they have the ship captive, stormtroopers board and search it. They’re dealing with a higher level of sneaky here, however. Han conceals everyone in the floor compartments he uses for smuggling and together with Luke, overcomes two stormtroopers to steal their armour. They also manage to take over the communications centre overlooking the hanger bay. Obi-Wan slips off on his own to disable the tractor beam, gently dissuading Luke from following him. “The Force will be with you,” he says before he leaves. “Always.”

Han slouches grumpily in a chair and Chewbacca mutters darkly. R2 is more constructive. Having found Princess Leia in the computer system, the droid pinpoints her precise location and her dire circumstances. Luke is determined to rescue her. He wheedles Han around with promises of a hefty reward and they march off with Chewbacca as a fake prisoner between them, leaving the droids to hide as best they can. The three rescuers manage to claim another control centre on the way to the cell blocks, but the commotion is overheard and Han completely stuffs up subtlety by shooting out communications mid very awkward conversation. Luke gets to Leia, who spots the height discrepancy between him and his armour at once (“aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”). Upon hearing he’s here with Obi-Wan Kenobi, she launches out of the cell at top speed.

She’s not the only who knows Obi-Wan is aboard. Vader feels his presence through the Force. His imperial colleagues are more skeptical about it, insisting that the Jedi ‘religion’ is extinct, and are much more concerned with Leia’s escape. Vader storms off to face Obi-Wan himself.

Another shoot-out takes place in the cell block as stormtroopers corner the escapees, and Leia is amazed by the sheer incompetence of her new allies. “This is some rescue,” she snaps, and leads them down into the garbage chute. They end up in a sort of disgusting swamp. And they can’t get out. Han and Leia start screaming accusations at each other and an unidentified thing drags Luke under the filthy water. I hope he’s up to date on all his vaccinations, because the number of diseases he’s being exposed to is mind-boggling.

Leia and Han scramble to help him, but they soon have bigger problems. The thing releases Luke and disappears, aware of what the sudden clunking means – the garbage disposal is compacting, i.e. the walls are literally closing in around them. Luke shrieks urgent instructions to C3-PO while the others try vainly to brace the walls apart. Just in time, C3-PO gets the message (he’s been busy talking his way past stormtroopers, quite effectively I might add) and turns off the garbage disposal. The elation of unexpected survival doesn’t hold their group in harmony for long; being prickly people, Leia and Han soon fall into argument.

The rescue party head for the Falcon and split up when they are attacked again – Han runs headlong towards a mini-blockade of stormtroopers, loyally followed by Chewbacca, only to turn and hurtle in the opposite direction when it’s clear he’s too badly outnumbered. Luke and Leia, already getting along very well, take a different route. Leia proves handy with a blaster and Luke gets creative with a grappel hook, swinging them across a chasm to safety. She kisses his cheek. It would be a sweeter moment if they knew they were siblings, but it’s a tad awkward with that knowledge.

Obi-Wan, meanwhile, has reached his goal and disabled the tractor beam. On his way back, he meets with Darth Vader, who is triumphantly certain of victory. They battle in the corridor, red lightsaber against blue. The stormtroopers guarding the Falcon see the duel and move away to handle that crisis instead; Luke sees it too, just as Obi-Wan shuts down his lightsaber and allows Vader to strike. His cloak is empty before it hits the ground. Vader pokes it just to be sure. Han and Leia yell at a stunned Luke to get moving and they bolt for freedom.

On board, Luke sits grieving and Leia joins him in silent sympathy. Within the space of a day or two, they have both lost everyone they loved at the whim of the Empire. There’s no time to mourn yet, though, with imperial fighters surging in pursuit. Han and Luke command the Falcon’s gun towers to combat them and Luke shows talent; the Falcon gets away unimpeded. And that’s exactly what Vader wants. He’s put a tracking device aboard the ship. Leia suspects something of the kind. Her pragmatism isn’t what Han wants to hear and he reminds her that he’s not a part of her cause, he’s in this for the money. Her response is a chilly withdrawal. Luke is bewildered by their mutual antagonism, and quietly possessive of his princess when Han speculates idly over his own relationship potential with her.

They land on a moon around the planet Yavin, true location of the rebel base. It is a hive of activity. The leaders greet Leia with relief. As they hoped, the Death Star has a weakness – a small fighter ship, considered to be no threat against the huge space station, can travel through trenches in the exterior armour to a thermal exhaust port. A precisely aimed shot should set off a chain reaction that will destroy the entire station. The rebel pilots are doubtful that such a shot is possible, but Luke is optimistic. “May the Force be with you,” a rebel leader says as the pilots are sent off, proving that not everyone sees the Jedi as extinct.

Han is preparing to leave with his reward. Luke is hurt. He’s jumped headlong in the cause and rejects Han’s offer of crew membership out of hand, pointing out how badly the rebellion needs their help. “May the Force be with you,” Han says, by way of goodbye and apology. Luke goes to complain to Leia, who kisses his cheek again (it’s faster than therapy) and C3-PO bids an anxious farewell to R2 as pilot and droid get ready with the rest of the rebel fighters. As he takes off, Luke hears an echo of Obi-Wan’s voice as ghostly encouragement.

The Death Star arrives in the Yavin system and prepares to fire on the planet. If the rebel fighters fail, everyone they’ve left behind is going to die. It’s a desperate obstacle course just getting past the initial defences and that’s before the imperial fighters head out to do battle directly. Vader leads the counter-attack personally. Everything else may have changed, but he’s still a lethal pilot. The rebel fighters are picked off one by one. Leia listens helplessly from the planet while Tarkin scornfully rejects any notion of an evacuation protocol.

No one has successfully made the shot. It’s Luke’s turn to try. Vader guns straight for him but is sent spinning off into space by a blast from the Falcon as Han changes his mind and comes back to help. I think Chewbacca’s discontent may have had a part in that, also the enormous soft spot Han tries to pretend he doesn’t have. At the last minute, Luke hears that echo of advice from Obi-Wan again and impetuously decides to listen, turning off his targeting computer and relying on the pull of the Force to make that crucial shot. R2 is damaged in the approach. Luke is alone now. It is a matter of seconds before the Death Star fires on the base.

Luke takes his shot. It goes in like a dream. The Death Star explodes into fiery wreckage and Luke lands to wild celebration, hauled into a group hug with Han and Leia. They are seriously adorable as a trio. R2 is taken off for repair, C3-PO worrying all the way, and a ceremony is arranged to honour the two pilots who brought down the Death Star between them. Leia presents Luke and Han with a medal each (and a little smile). It remains one of the inexplicable injustices of the Star Wars universe that Chewie doesn’t get one.

There’s a much bigger war to win. But this is a victory worth celebrating.

Review – Tam Lin

Tam Lin – Pamela Dean

Firebird, 2006

Originally published in 1991

The day she arrives at Blackstock College for her freshman year, Janet is told that her room is haunted, but really she’s more concerned about the roommates that are very much alive. There is enough oddness on campus, from Janet’s enigmatic advisor Melinda Wolfe to the quietly domineering presence of Professor Medeous, to Janet’s melodious but entirely unreliable classmate Nick and his theatrical friends, without bringing ghosts into it. The strangest things, however, do not always announce themselves so obligingly. They creep up on you unawares, or linger at the corner of your eye. And Janet is not entirely willing to look.

This retelling of the ballad ‘Tam Lin’, set in the 1970s in an American university, is immensely readable and given my current blog project, very relevant to my interests. It’s a book infused with literary references, some more obscure than others, and Dean conjures a dreamy sense of mystery throughout. That said, I would have liked a clearer pay-off for all those hints, drawing in a greater number of the intriguing side characters, and I wanted to see more of Thomas Lane, as he spends rather too much of the book being quiet or absent. Janet is excellent. She’s delightfully pragmatic and very stubborn. My Firebird edition also includes the original ballad at the back, which is a lovely touch.

Ladies of Legend: Black Annis and Gentle Annie

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, An Encyclopedia of Fairies (Pantheon Books, 1976) by Katharine Briggs, http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/blackann.htm, http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A14129318

What is it about obscurely terrifying women that appeals to me so much? Because these two are the definition of enigma but everything about them fascinates me. Black Annis came from the Dane Hills in Leicestershire, in the English East Midlands. She was a blue-faced ‘cannibal hag’ associated with storms and winter, with wild hair, yellow fangs and iron claws that she used to carve out a cave called Black Annis’ Bower. An oak tree grew in front of this cave and Black Annis hid behind it in order to ambush lambs and small children when they passed by. Displaying somewhat vampiric tendencies, she would then drink their blood, eat the flesh and hang up the skins in her cave like a macabre tanner so that she could wear the leathers. In the absence of glass panes, locals used to hang up protective herbs so that Black Annis wouldn’t reach through windows into their children’s cradles.

It used to be an Easter Monday tradition in Leicester to hold a ‘drag hunt’, pulling a dead cat soaked in aniseed from Black Annis’ cave to the house of the mayor, a custom that fortunately petered out at the end of the 18th century. Annis’s legend remained strong, however. A folk story recorded during World War II sets her up as a very vocal presence in the landscape, whose teeth could be heard grinding for miles around.

It was said that daylight would turn her to stone. The White Dragon website recounts a story about three children sent out to fetch wood by their wicked stepmother, but who wisely took with them a ‘witch-stone’ (a stone with a hole worn through the middle by natural means) and with that talisman they saw Black Annis approaching. Promptly dropping their bundles of wood, the children fled for home. Black Annis stumbled over the branches, returned to her cave to treat the cuts and still managed to catch up with the children at the door to their house. Fortunately, their father met her with an axe. She ran off screaming “Blood! Blood!” and died at the first peals of Christmas bells – or so that version claims, anyway.

Gentle Annie makes a better first impression. Being mild-mannered and unremarkable of looks, she didn’t need to hide behind trees to get her nasty work done. She came from the Scottish lowlands and governs storms; there is apparently a gap in the hills near the Firth of Cromarty through which she called in gales. Her temperament seems to have been a capricious one; under her influence, a fine day could turn stormy without warning, threatening local fishermen.

It’s possible both Black Annis and Gentle Annie are distorted derivatives of the ancient Celtic water goddess Danu (mother of the Tuatha Dé Danaan), the earth and fertility goddess Anu or the moon goddess Aine, all of whom can be conflated depending on the story. Other alarming ladies of the British Isles include Jeanie of Biggersdale, a murderous spirit haunting the Mulgrave Woods in Yorkshire; Caillage Ny Groagmagh, an elderly fairy from the Isle of Man who travels about as a giant bird to collect firewood and will influence the weather to ensure a good stockpile; Peg O’Nell, a water hag from Lancashire, specifically the River Ribble, who expects a token sacrifice every seven years – a bird or small animal will do – but will claim a human life if she doesn’t get it; and green, sharp-toothed Peg Prowler, another water hag, this one from River Tees in north-eastern England, who drowns anyone unlucky enough to set foot in her waters.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Return of the Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

It should be admitted up front, before we get stuck into the third installment of my Star Wars rewatch, that I do not like this movie, and I will probably be crying. The final movie in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, it brings us into a galaxy torn apart by war. The Republic is led by Chancellor Palpatine, the Separatists by Count Dooku. When the terrifying Separatist general Grievous manages to abduct Palpatine the very heart of the Republic, a ferocious battle is fought above Coruscant. This scene shows the viewer immediately what warfare in the Clone Wars looks like – the galaxy is on fire.

Among the combatants are Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. Anakin, particularly, is in his element here – even R2-D2 has had a few lethal upgrades (behold a cute moment in this otherwise doom-laden movie when Obi-Wan and Anakin yell praise at R2-D2). Thanks to Anakin’s sharp-shooting, the two Jedi get aboard Grievous’ ship and fight their way up to the level where Palpatine is being guarded by Dooku himself.

Dooku is – just really excellent. Obi-Wan is knocked out early on, leaving Dooku and Anakin to battle it out. At last, Anakin gets revenge for his severed arm with a wicked blow that takes off both Dooku’s hands and then, on Palpatine’s order and against his own better judgement, Anakin cuts off Dooku’s head. Palpatine also tries to abandon the unconscious Obi-Wan, insisting there’s no time to help him, but Anakin won’t leave him behind. Not that the gesture really helps, as they are all swiftly recaptured by Grievous, a huge insectoid cyborg-type creature with a lightsaber fetish. Once more R2-D2 saves the day with a well-timed distraction, allowing the Jedi to slash their way out of there and land the badly damaged spacecraft safely on Coruscant. Though Grievous got away, it is still an important victory for the Republic, confirming Anakin’s war hero status.

But he has other things on his mind, like a reunion with his secret wife. In a really public location, behind a Very Discreet Pillar. Anakin feels Padme shaking and assumes the worst (this is a very bad habit of his), only to be told that she is pregnant with his child. Which is – not the best news, under the circumstances, what with her being a high profile, already controversial Senator and him a supposedly celibate Jedi, how is it that they can build advanced prosthetics and sentient droids in this society but have not mastered reliable contraception? Anakin tells her not to worry about the future. Spoiler alert, he will not take his own advice.

Grievous, now leader of the Separatist droid army, is instructed by Darth Sidious to move their base of operations to the Mustafar system. Sidious does not consider Dooku’s death to be any great loss, telling Grievous that another Sith Lord, younger and more powerful, is already waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, Padme has not taken Anakin’s advice either, being her usual proactive self and planning where she’s going to have her baby (on Naboo, somewhere quiet and peaceful) while Anakin gazes at her with burning intensity. They argue over who loves who more. The happy interlude lasts until Anakin falls asleep, when he has traumatic dreams of Padme dying in childbirth. He is terrified they will come true. WHAT KIND OF FUTURISTIC SOCIETY DO YOU CALL THIS? You can have CLONE ARMIES but not safe childbirth? What the hell does that say?

(Sexism is the word you are looking for, sexism is what it says, and lazy plotting, and the unquestioned narrative expectation that childbirth is a medieval torture scenario. I am not crying, I am enraged. What’s more, Padme admits that her Queen will probably not allow her to continue serving as a Senator when news of the pregnancy spreads. Apparently maternity leave is not a thing. )

Padme is gentle with Anakin, since the last time he had dreams like that they heralded his mother’s death, and suggests bringing Obi-Wan in on the secret. Anakin dismisses that idea at once. He does go to Yoda, to ask as vaguely as he can about premonitions, but Yoda’s response is to tell him that death is a natural part of life and Anakin should rejoice for those who ‘transform into the Force’. He advises Anakin to focus on letting go of ‘everything you fear to lose’. Yoda, frankly, sucks at advice.

Anakin’s next difference of opinion is with Obi-Wan, who is troubled by the accumulation of new powers that wartime has given Palpatine. Anakin sees it as a necessary cutting of red tape; summoned to speak to the Chancellor in private, it is clear he doesn’t so much see Palpatine as a friend but as a mentor, like a morally questionable grandda. When Palpatine appoints him as his personal representative on the Jedi Council, the rest of the Council are just as outraged as you might expect and take it out on Anakin by refusing to make him a Jedi Master. Obi-Wan (also on the Council, as an actual Master) later confesses that the only reason Anakin’s appointment was accepted at all was in the hope he would turn spy against the Chancellor.

It is a terrible thing to ask of Anakin, who is fervently and unflinchingly loyal to those he considers worthy. Obi-Wan is also in a difficult position, defending his former Padawan against Yoda and Mace Windu’s suspicion and distrust. When Anakin shares his unhappiness with Padme, she offers an even more unpleasant view of events: that the Republic itself may have twisted out of all recognition, becoming its own true enemy. She asks Anakin to speak to the Chancellor, to persuade him to reopen diplomatic relations with the Separatists, but of course Anakin sees the request as another exploitation.

Palpatine offers a different way to end the war: Grievous has been found and Palpatine wants Anakin to be the one sent to deal with him. He tells Anakin of his fear that the Jedi Council want full control of the Republic, not just its armies; Anakin doesn’t know what to think. “Good is a point of view, Anakin,” Palpatine continues, and relates the legend of a Sith Lord so powerful he could keep loved ones from death. Instead of wondering just how the Chancellor of the Republic knows so much Sith history, Anakin’s attention zeroes in on the promise of miraculous power. It is a tantalising possibility.

With resources stretched thin, Yoda heads out to Kashyyyk to support the Wookiees, but joins the Council from afar as a hologram to discuss what to do about Grievous. Anakin unwisely announces Palpatine’s request that he should take this mission; predictably, the Council goes against him, choosing to send Obi-Wan. Yoda then turns to the battle at hand, and we get to see an army of Wookiee warriors tearing apart war machines WITH THEIR BARE CLAWS.

Obi-Wan tries to downplay the snub to Anakin, and gently counsels him to have patience. Anakin appears to take his words to heart. They separate on excellent terms and Obi-Wan heads out, bantering cheerfully with his clone lieutenants. Anakin, however, is in no such light temper. He feels Obi-Wan doesn’t trust him, knows the Council don’t, and has become so obsessed with the idea of ‘saving’ Padme that he doesn’t seem to understand she’s still very much alive and well.

Landing in a remote settlement to refuel for his search, Obi-Wan is told that the people there are being held hostage by Grievous and his battle droids. Obi-Wan sends his fighter craft back to the main ship to fetch reinforcements while he remains behind; riding the most incredible lizard, he scales the sheer rock of the settlement’s walls to reach the level where Grievous is based and jumps out of hiding to face him and a circle of battle droids all on his own. The only reason he isn’t shot down straight away is that lightsaber fetish Grievous has – he wants to defeat Obi-Wan personally and claim his weapon as part of the super creepy collection he’s got going. Whirling a lightsaber from each of his four limbs, he turns into a glow-in-the-dark scything machine and Obi-Wan is doubting his life choices.

A few well-aimed strikes even the odds, though, bringing Grievous down to two lightsabers and distracting him while Obi-Wan’s clone forces move into place. They launch their attack; Obi-Wan uses the Force to throw Grievous into a wall. Grievous calls it a wash and makes an escape, with Obi-Wan in hot pursuit on his (really, really adorable) lizard. The clone leading the attack reports to the Jedi Council and Mace Windu orders Anakin to pass it on to the Chancellor personally, alert to any tells Palpatine may let slip. The Council is so concerned about Palpatine’s personal authority that they have begun talking about how to remove him…just as he told Anakin they would.

Anakin is very uneasy about Obi-Wan going into battle without him; I get the impression that they usually fight together (I haven’t watched the animated series The Clone Wars, so I can’t say for sure). Palpatine hones in on that anxiety, and on Anakin’s growing feeling of isolation from his fellow Jedi, assuring him that the Council are envious of his power. Palpatine reveals that he, too, has studied the Force, both the Light Side and the Dark, and offers – sounding deeply reasonable – to widen Anakin’s horizons. Anakin puts it together and draws his lightsaber. “You’re the Sith Lord,” he accuses, and Palpatine calmly asks if Anakin is going to kill him.

Anakin does not. He doesn’t know what to do. Palpatine may be a Sith Lord, but he offers a chance to save Padme…who is STILL NOT DEAD, for pity’s sake, Anakin, just research some decent medical care!

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is battling Grievous. He’s not doing too well. Hanging over the edge of a cliff, he manages to draw a gun to his hand and sets the flesh sections of Grievous on fire – the Separatist general falls to the ground, very dead. Mace Windu has just been informed of that when Anakin arrives to impart what he’s learned about Palpatine. Responding in true ‘I suck at basic human relations’ Jedi Councillor fashion, Windu first refuses to bring Anakin in on the arrest of Palpatine and then makes it clear that he’s only now coming to trust Anakin’s word (because Anakin has told him what he wanted to hear…). Left alone to brood on Palpatine’s promises, Anakin’s internal conflict reaches fever pitch. Hayden Christensen is a brilliant actor, conveying the internal breakdown without dialogue or action, just through the desolate look on his face. Anakin was the boy who could do anything. Now he is the man who might do anything.

Mace Windu brings a group of Jedi to apprehend Palpatine, who responds by drawing a red lightsaber and launching into a dizzyingly swift attack. Windu draws his own lightsaber (purple, the coolest lightsaber of them all, bar none) but Palpatine is unstoppable, taking out all three of Windu’s Jedi and pushing Windu’s own abilities to the limit. Anakin, having decided to disobey his orders, arrives in time to see Palpatine disarmed, to all appearances terrified under Mace Windu’s descending lightsaber – until lightning bolts shoot from Palpatine’s hands. Using this power drains the life out of Palpatine’s face, ageing him rapidly, but Mace Windu is being forced backwards. Each one is calling the other a traitor, looking to Anakin for help.

And Anakin tries. He wants Palpatine to stand trial; Mace Windu, pointing out Palpatine’s power in both the Courts and the Senate, wants to finish this now. When he brings down his lightsaber, Anakin cuts off his arm, and Palpatine kills him with a massive jolt of lightning. The loyalties that held Anakin to the Jedi Council have snapped. He is Palpatine’s creature now, a slave again, this time in his own head. The only thing he asks in return is to keep Padme alive. Palpatine takes him as his apprentice, and renames him Darth Vader.

It is a choice. Everything that happens afterwards, happens not because Anakin made that choice – it happens because he never once looks back, just wades deeper into bloody waters, and every step he takes is his own choice. I will be calling him Vader now.

Palpatine tells Vader that the Jedi will kill both of them once the truth of their actions is known (probably true) and kill all the Senators (definitely not true, though Vader swallows it down without effort). When Palpatine orders the destruction of the Jedi Order – including the death of Obi-Wan – Vader accepts that too. Leading a battalion of clone troopers, Vader walks through the doors of the Jedi Temple and commits a massacre. He kills everyone there, people who had trusted him, including the children. Across the galaxy, the clone armies receive a secret order from Palpatine and turn on their Jedi leaders. It is a betrayal monumental in scope, and I do not want to be watching it.

I really do not like this movie.

The shockwaves of so many deaths hit Yoda in an almost physical way. He is very small, and very old, and he is very, very hard to kill. When his clone troopers turn on him, he fights back and the Wookiees help him. Am I crying? Yes. Yes, I am.

It is at such times that you find out who is willing to stand up and take a risk. Bail Organa, an ally of Padme’s in the Senate, goes straight to the Temple to find out what is happening and sees a Jedi child gunned down in front of him. He gets away with the knowledge this wasn’t a rebellion, it was a slaughter.

But Obi-Wan has survived; he crashed into deep water, though that gorgeous lizard was not so lucky. The Wookiees help Yoda escape in a shuttle. One of those brave allies is Chewbacca – it’s not the last time he’ll have to make choices about which side to take in a battle over the Force, only unlike Anakin Skywalker, Chewbacca has EXCELLENT JUDGEMENT. Bail Organa, bless that man forever, reaches out to find any Jedi who may remain alive and gets through to Obi-Wan, warning him of what’s happening on Coruscant.

Padme, who only knows that there was an attack on the Jedi Temple, gratefully welcomes her husband’s return. He feeds her the propaganda about a Jedi rebellion and announces his intention to serve the Chancellor, overriding Padme’s concerns for Obi-Wan. This entire scene is desperately creepy. Telling her that he’s going to the Mustafar system to finish off the Separatist leaders (also on Palpatine’s orders), Vader leaves. Padme lets him. She trusts him.

R2-D2 has doubts. Always the voice of reason, that droid.

Obi-Wan and Yoda meet up aboard Bail Organa’s spacecraft and the full scale of the disaster begins to sink in. Learning that a coded signal has gone out, calling all the Jedi back to the compromised Temple, Obi-Wan is determined to get to Coruscant and disable the signal in case it lures in any other survivors. Bail Organa receives a summons of his own to an emergency Senate meeting.

In the Mustafar system, Vader enacts another massacre, this time of the Separatist leaders. Among them is the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, who has been Palpatine’s pawn all along and now dies for it. It is notable that Vader leaves R2-D2 with the ship – his droid has more of a conscience than he does. And might tell Padme.

At the Temple, Yoda and Obi-Wan cut a path through the clone guards to get inside. They walk among their dead. When they find the bodies of children killed by a lightsaber, they know the betrayal came from among their own. In the Senate, Palpatine declares that the fractured Republic will be pulled back together as a Galactic Empire. “So this is how liberty dies,” Padme says bitterly to Bail, “with thunderous applause.”

Obi-Wan recalibrates the code to warn any survivors to stay away from Coruscant, then recovers footage from the attack. He is horrified to discover that the traitor is his own former student. He knows the Sith have to be stopped but begs Yoda to send him after Sidious instead – Yoda, however, knows he is not strong enough to take on the Master. Obi-Wan will have to kill the man he thought of as a brother. He goes to Padme, telling her what Vader has done; she frantically tries to deny it and when Obi-Wan has left, sets off for Mustafar to question her husband for herself, taking only C3-PO with her. Of course, Obi-Wan stows away on board her spacecraft.

Padme pleads with Vader to come away with her, to leave this hellscape behind. How she could still want that after he borderline confirms he killed the Jedi, I don’t know. Maybe it has not sunk in yet. When Vader eagerly expounds on his new abilities, however, Padme starts backing away, seeing what Obi-Wan has seen. This is not the man she loves. “Don’t you turn against me,” Vader threatens her, which says absolutely everything about the type of ‘love’ he is capable of. When he sees Obi-Wan emerging from the craft, he assumes she has betrayed him and chokes her unconscious with the Force – would have kept choking her, from the look of it, if not for Obi-Wan’s intervention. Predictably, Vader blames Obi-Wan for everything. He shouts about the lies of the Jedi while Obi-Wan checks that the woman he’s supposed to love above everything else is even still alive. That’s the real motto of the Dark Side: there is always somebody else to blame.

Vader attacks. There’s something terrible about seeing two blue lightsabers fighting against each other. It is savage, fought above the lava flow of a volcanic planet. On Coruscant, another duel explodes between Palpatine and Yoda, within the Senate building itself. Both sets of combatants are very well-matched. Palpatine has lightning; Yoda can contain it. Vader is an expertly-trained warrior; Obi-Wan trained him that way. But Palpatine has the stronger position, and Yoda is forced to flee with Bail Organa’s help. On Mustafar, Obi-Wan gains the upper hand, giving Vader near-fatal wounds, but can’t bring himself to strike the killing blow. The lava sets Vader on fire and Obi-Wan walks away, unwilling to help, unable to watch.

He returns to Padme. She is in a bad state of what looks like shock and they leave the planet at once. Palpatine, meanwhile, arrives on Mustafar and finds Vader horrifically burned, but living. Obi-Wan rejoins Yoda and Bail Organa, bringing Padme to a medical facility for treatment. It’s not enough. She has lost the will to live. While Palpatine rebuilds Vader with a new body of metal, the medical droids operate to save the twins Padme is carrying. Obi-Wan, a true friend to the end, stays with her. He is the first person in the world to meet her children, Luke and Leia. He is the last person in the world to see her alive. She insists to the end that there is good in Anakin; Vader’s only question on waking up is where Padme is, and is told that he killed her. Which is more or less true.

The people who really care about Padme take her body back to Naboo and decide how best to keep her children safe. Leia is taken in by Bail Organa. Obi-Wan agrees to take Luke to Shmi Skywalker’s family on Tatooine. Why they imagine Vader won’t look there, if he decides to start looking, I don’t know, it seems obvious to me. But Obi-Wan plans to stay and keep watch over Luke. Yoda tells him that in his self-imposed exile, Obi-Wan will be training with…Qui-Gon…dead Qui-Gon, who is a ghost now? Immortal, in that ‘one with the Force, can’t actually help anybody’ kind of a way? It’s really, really weird, but it makes Obi-Wan a tiny bit happy on the worst day imaginable, so let’s let that one go.

Vader is at Palpatine’s side aboard a Star Destroyer, overseeing the construction of the Empire’s ultimate weapon: the Death Star. Bail leaves C3-PO and R2-D2 with Antilles, one of his captains, with an order to wipe C3-PO’s memory, clearly not trusting in the droid’s discretion. On Naboo, a funeral procession is held for Padme, the escort including her old friends Jar-Jar Binks and Boss Nass. I’ll say it again: these are the people who loved her. And her babies are safe in other arms.

The original trilogy is a very simple story, really, running on fairy tale logic: heroes versus monsters, good versus evil. Our protagonists are comfortingly attractive while Darth Vader, the Emperor and Jabba the Hutt are suitably grotesque. The prequels, however, are a more complex myth. Yes, our hero is a beautiful man with a charming smile, but he is not to be trusted. The Jedi Order are stagnant in arrogance; the Republic is corrupt. The only thing that makes a person good is their choices, and Anakin Skywalker chose to destroy everything he ever loved. And the prophecy fulfilled itself, simply by existing, because prophecies are not to be trusted either. At the end of Revenge of the Sith, the Force is indeed in balance: two Sith, and two Jedi.

But that is all about to change.

Ladies of Legend: Guinevere

References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (Dover Publications, Inc., 1991, originally published in 1907) by Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2005) by Howard Pyle, The Politics of Myth (Melbourne University Press, 2015) by Stephen Knight, England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York (Amberley, 2015) by Elizabeth Norton, http://www.britannia.com/history/biographies/guinever.html, http://www.kingarthursknights.com/, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Gramercy Books, 2003) by Thomas Bulfinch, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

Guinevere is the Yoko Ono of myth and legend – the girl who broke up the beloved band of knights, the Pandora of Camelot, the Eve who doomed a golden age through her sin. I can keep producing comparisons for some time, because sexism is not original. She was described by the 18th century writer Thomas Percy as ‘a bitch and a witch/ And a whore bold’ while some writers completely removed her from the narrative. Over the years, Guinevere’s story has overwhelmingly been told by people who do not like her.

According to The Politics of Myth, she was the leader to twenty beautiful maidens and daughter of the giant Gogryfan Gawr/Ogrfan Gawr of Castell y Cnwclas. A Germanic version makes her the daughter of King Garlin of Galore, while Geoffrey of Monmouth gives her Roman lineage. In Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, her father is King Leodegrance of Cameliard, Arthur’s political ally. In the Welsh legends she has a sister, Gwenhwyfach, who marries Arthur’s nemesis Mordred. This ties in to the French romances, in which a ‘false Guinevere’ (half-sister to the true queen) dupes Arthur and his court for two and a half years. The only one not fooled by her is, surprise surprise, Guinevere’s lover Lancelot.

And it can get weirder! One very old and incomplete story has Arthur marry three consecutive women sharing the same name (Gwenhwyfar daughter of Cywryd, Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr ap Greidiol and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Ogrfan Gawr, according to http://www.britannia.com), which suggests that either Arthur had a creepy fixation or that Guinevere may have originally been a triple goddess, manifesting as the maiden, mother and crone. Her name even means ‘white spirit’.

Another ancient incarnation of the queen comes from the Welsh folk story ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, in which her name is Gwenhwyfar/Gwenhwyfar. She is married to the Arthur of that story and valuable enough to him that, when his cousin Culhwch comes to court asking for a favour, Gwenhwyfar is exempt from any arrangement he makes. A wise precaution, since another ancient Welsh legend has Gwenhywfar taken by Melwas, lord of the summer country (though it is unclear whether she left with him willingly or not). In that one, it takes a saint’s intercession to negotiate her return to Arthur.

So Guinevere, like Arthur’s mother Igraine, is a woman of enigmatic heritage – but who is she as a person? It depends heavily on which account you read. Most portray her as a stately but morally unreliable woman, her beauty being her most prominent characteristic. Thomas Bulfinch’s Guinevere watches on as Arthur fights to save her father’s castle, trembling and telling her friends how she hopes to marry him. Howard Pyle introduces her as a beautiful damsel in distress, meeting Arthur first while he’s lying injured then again when he’s disguised by Merlin’s magic and coming to rescue her from an unwanted marriage with Duke Mordaunt of North Umber. Later, Pyle sets her up in a tidy Madonna-Whore paradigm by contrasting the queen against Lancelot’s other lover Elaine (having conflated the two Elaines of Lancelot’s romantic history and conveniently erased all the flaws in both).

To my surprise, it’s Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that treats Guinevere with the most respect. After their meeting in Cameliard, when Arthur went to support her father against the attacking King Ryence, Arthur describes the woman he means to marry as ‘the most valiant and fairest lady that I know living’. Which implies she did more than look on while her home was under attack. It would be very romantic if Arthur didn’t so badly want the Round Table Leodegrance has in his keeping – once the possession of Uther Pendragon, passed on to Arthur as a wedding gift. Love may be involved but this is a marriage of political symbolism, to better cement the young king’s reign.

In fact, the Guinevere (spelled Guenever) of Malory has a mixed bag of a wedding any way you look at it. Arthur’s nephew Gawain asks to be made a knight on that day, and since Arthur is in the kind of mood where he’s granting favours all round, his friend Pellinore’s illegitimate son Tor claims a knighthood at the same time. During the wedding feast, a white hart charges through the hall, pursued in succession by a whole pack of dogs, a shouting lady and an unknown knight, precipitating a quest right in the middle of Guinevere’s big day. It’s just rude. Gawain ends up making a terrible mess of his part in the quest and Guinevere lays an ordinance on him to atone for his mistakes by always serving the causes of women. She also passes judgement when Lancelot sends defeated opponents to her for sentencing, decisions in which Arthur plays no part. While this is obviously a gesture of loving fealty on Lancelot’s part, it emphasises Guinevere’s authority as a queen.

She’s also a good networker. Lancelot may be Guinevere’s favourite knight, but she’s fond of Arthur’s foster brother Kay and nobody makes her laugh like Sir Dinadan. She has a fellowship within the Round Table called the Queen’s Knights who bear white shields to show they are in her service. She even has a pen-friendship with the other famously tragic queen of Arthurian legend, Isolde. They write to support each other during difficult times and when an illness prevents them from attending the same tournament, Guinevere eagerly demands details about her friend from the knights who went.

Her relationship with Arthur is, overall, a secure, respectful and professional one, tending towards agreement on important issues – for instance, the two of them are passionately opposed to the Grail quest. When he goes to war shortly after their marriage, she goes with him and chooses to risk crossing dangerously turbulent waters rather than fall into his enemy’s hands. She shows her courage again when, later in her life, she is ambushed by the traitorous knight Meliagrance. “I had lever cut mine own throat in twain rather than thou shouldest dishonour me,” she tells him flatly, but chooses to surrender rather than allow her knights to be killed by Meliagrance’s greater numbers. She not only manages to get a messenger away to fetch help, she is so intimidating that she manages to keep her entire party within her sight at all times while they are held captive, despite it being in Meliagrance’s interests to separate her from them.

Of course, Lancelot comes to the rescue. His arrival frightens Meliagrance into an apology and Guinevere accepts it with the statement “better is peace than ever war”, but then Meliagrance – hoping to distract attention from his own crime – accuses her of unfaithfulness to Arthur and traps Lancelot in an oubliette to prevent him from fighting on the appointed day to clear her name. Lancelot nevertheless manages to escape (with the help of his rather lecherous female guard) and defeat him. When he looks to Guinevere for her orders, Lancelot reads the shake of her head for the death sentence that it is. Guinevere will not tolerate harm done to those she loves.

Which is not to say that her love affair with Lancelot remains a secret, because pretty much everyone except Arthur knows. Lancelot can’t go on a quest without random women bringing it up and trying to change his mind – one even accuses Guinevere of witchcraft, which is an incredibly low blow – and Morgan le Fay tries time and again to wave broad hints under Arthur’s nose, from sending an infidelity-detecting horn (that does not reach its intended target) to a shield that depicts a knight standing upon the heads of a king and queen, lord of them both. This is the only attempt Morgan le Fay makes at interacting with Guinevere in Le Morte d’Arthur.

The truth is, I never cared much either way about Lancelot or about the Arthurian love triangle until I read Malory. Guess what? I became FIERCELY INVESTED.

When Lancelot travels to the Grail Castle, where his presence has been foretold, the sorceress Dame Brisen tricks him into believing Guinevere is in his bed when it is really King Pelles’ daughter Elaine. Upon his return to Camelot, Elaine rapes him a second time. Guinevere walks in on them and believes herself betrayed; Lancelot, unable to accept her subsequent rejection, suffers a breakdown and disappears into the wilderness. Guinevere confides her grief to Isolde and spends a fortune to send out a fellowship of knights out to search for Lancelot, whose sense of self-worth is so broken he ends up sheltering with Elaine. Even there, he commissions a black shield bearing the emblem of a silver queen. Later  on, Guinevere turns him away again after Lancelot breaks the habit of a lifetime and wears Elaine of Astolat’s token during a tournament. Guinevere refuses to believe it was worn solely as a disguise.

But nothing can keep them apart for long. It is arguable that Arthur and Guinevere’s marriage only functions because Lancelot is there. When she is accused of murdering a knight with a poisoned apple, Arthur doesn’t believe for a moment that she is guilty, but it is Lancelot who fights for her (and his foster mother, the sorceress Nimue, who eventually clears her name). What’s more, Arthur fully expects Lancelot to take the role of queen’s champion. When Guinevere is abducted by Meliagrance, the messenger she sends goes straight to Lancelot and he throws aside courtly pride, riding in a lowly woodcutter’s cart after his horse is killed, doing whatever he can to reach her faster.

Then there’s all the little details. Lancelot talks about her in his sleep. He recognises her cough. They would rather be with each other (or with Arthur) than anyone else, and it’s just really, really adorable. And yes, for the record, it is a bad thing that Guinevere cheats on Arthur. But Arthur is hardly an angel in this regard himself – while there’s no evidence he ever cheated on Guinevere, he did sleep with the very married Morgause as a young man, a decision he only regretted when he found out she was his sister. Of course, by then it was too late, because Morgause gave birth to Mordred and Mordred is a truly terrible person.

He recruits his half-brother Agravaine to help expose Guinevere’s infidelity. Lancelot fights his way out of the trap they set – killing thirteen of the fourteen knights sent to capture him, including Agravaine, and injuring Mordred – but Guinevere believes it will make the situation worse if she escapes with her lover and chooses to remain behind. Enraged, Arthur betrays her in turn and sentences her to be burned at the stake. It may be the traditional law of the land, but it is nevertheless a choice; his eldest nephew Gawain tries to talk him out of it, and though Gawain’s younger brothers Gareth and Gaheris are forced to attend the execution, they go unarmed as a protest.

Lancelot swore to Guinevere that ‘while I am living I shall rescue you’. He keeps his word. Slashing his way through former friends to reach her before the pyre is lit, he unknowingly kills Gaheris and Gareth. Overwhelmed by grief and rage, Gawain demands Arthur go to war against Lancelot. Even after the Pope intercedes, ordering that Arthur take Guinevere back and make peace with Lancelot, Gawain continues his war-mongering – because it was never about Guinevere. He holds no grudge against her whatsoever.

Which doesn’t mean she’s not dealing with plenty of the consequences. Left behind in England while Arthur and Gawain take their war to Lancelot’s ancestral lands across the Channel, she’s in a crushingly vulnerable position and the terrifyingly ambitious Mordred knows it. He claims to the country that their king is dead and takes the crown for himself, then tries to take Guinevere as well. She responds with such skilful diplomacy that he lets her travel to London to make ‘wedding preparations’ – whereupon she seizes the Tower of London and nothing Mordred throws at the siege can get her out. She once again declares she would rather die than live under the control of a man she despises.

Getting word of Mordred’s takeover, Arthur immediately returns. Gawain is killed in the first battle; though word is sent to Lancelot, the war is over by the time he arrives. Arthur and Mordred have died at each other’s hands and Guinevere, overcome by grief, has retreated into the abbey at Almesbury. She blames herself and Lancelot for what happened to the realm and though it breaks her heart to do it, she sends him away. Her life becomes one of religious contemplation. Of course, she rises to the position of abbess pretty much straight away.

Less than a decade later, Lancelot has a vision that she is dying and hurries to the abbey. She prays to die before he reaches her – she never could resist him, after all – and gets her wish. Respecting her wishes, as he always has, Lancelot buries her beside Arthur at Glastonbury (or at least, the corpse believed to be Arthur’s) and grieves so desperately over the two of them that he dies himself only six weeks later.

People generally agree that Guinevere brought about the fall of Camelot through her affair with Lancelot. People are generally wrong.

You can blame Mordred, who pretended to love Arthur then stole everything from him out of an insatiable drive for power. You can blame Gawain, who became so fixated on vengeance that he would not see reason. You can blame Arthur himself, who would have stood by and watched his wife burn. You could – and I do – blame Merlin and Uther Pendragon, for their deceit, laying cracks in Camelot’s very foundations.

But the truth is? Golden ages do not last. That’s what makes them golden, the sepia tint of hindsight, and there’s always blame enough to go around when something good is lost, however inevitable it may be. Guinevere made her mistakes. She paid for them. And she is so, so much bigger than them. She was a courageous and capable queen; hot-tempered, generous and loyal. And, as Malory said, “while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end.”

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – Kid Dark Against the Machine

Kid Dark Against the Machine – Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Book Smugglers, 2016

You just can’t get away from superheroes these days. Every six months a new name is called up by the mysterious machine that gives ordinary humans extraordinary powers, but the detail people tend to overlook is what happens when those powers get taken away. It’s a detail Griff doesn’t want people to think about too deeply, or something he wants to think about himself for that matter. That’s what the ‘secret’ in ‘secret identity’ is for. Between helping out at the Boys Home where he grew up and figuring out what to do next with his life, he’s got enough to worry about. But then one of the boys under his care starts having dreams about a second machine, a machine that makes supervillains and from the sound of it, is calling up its next candidate. And it looks like this is Griff’s problem after all.

This new novella is set in the same universe as Tansy Rayner Roberts’ story Cookie Cutter Superhero, first published in the anthology Kaleidoscope, but you don’t need to have read it to understand Kid Dark Against the Machine. Both stories evoke, critique and generally mess about with all sorts of superhero tropes – in this case, what happens to the kid sidekicks? It’s bright and sharp and sarcastic, and I would happily read a series of novels set in this universe. You can read the story for free or buy the e-book on the Book Smugglers website, and Roberts has also written an essay on her inspiration and influences.