Manuscript vs Myth: Legendborn
After her mother dies, sixteen-year-old Bree Tanner finds herself chasing the mystery of her mother’s death. What secrets was she keeping? Who was she hiding from? And how is Bree connected? Her hunt for answers leads her to the Legendborn – a secret society descended from the knights of the round table – a society that may very well want her dead.
Legend states that King Arthur, the Once and Future King of Camelot, is not dead, merely sleeping. It is said that one day, the king will return, and save his people from certain doom. In Tracey Deonn’s novel, ‘Legendborn’ that day has come. The society that protagonist, Bree, discovers are not only the descendants of the knights, but also their potential reincarnations. In times of trouble, the knights incarnate into their eldest descendant, gifting them powerful abilities at the cost of a long life. In all the time that the society has been active however, things have never been dire enough for King Arthur to incarnate. Until, it seems, now. The walls between the worlds have been damaged, and terrible demons are coming through, demons that may only be stopped by the return of the king.
The myth of King Arthur’s prophesised return is popular in media. BBC’s TV show ‘Merlin’ concluded with the body of a deceased Arthur sent on a ship to Avalon – with a promise that he will one day rise again. The Meg Cabot novel, ‘Avalon High’ features the characters from Arthurian myth reincarnated as high-school students. And in Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ series, the protagonists are aided by a group called ‘the sleepers,’ the knights of King Arthur, bound in sleep until they are called upon.
The knights of Deonn’s ‘Legendborn’ stand out through the magical powers that they gain after being called upon by their ancestor. The powers come from a fifth element in the air, known as ‘aether’. Through channelling this aether, the Legendborn are able to augment their strength, construct weapons, or even heal. While it does not directly link to Arthurian legend, aether (or ether) was once thought to be a fifth element, denoting a purer, ‘upper air’ that existed beyond the scope of the moon. The Greek deity Aether, was the personification of a purer, upper air, breathed by the gods.
In addition to the general abilities that the Legendborn have, each of the incarnations have their own abilities and characteristics which harken back to the legends of their ancestors. For example, the descendant of the line of Gawain, William, was the group’s healer. In several old texts about Gawain, the night is ascribed with either a great skill in healing, or a great knowledge of medicinal herbs and plants. Felicity, a descendant of Lamorak, apparently inherited her ancestor’s trigger-hair temper, with Lamorak being known as one of Arthur’s fiercest knights.
Of course, the legend of King Arthur would not be complete without his famous magical companion, Merlin. In ‘Legendborn’ this role is played by Selwyn Kane. Unlike the rest of the Legendborn, ‘Merlin’ is not a reincarnation – instead it’s a title used to refer to a powerful magic user, bound to serve the current descendent of Arthur. The one thing that all Merlins have in common, is that they are not fully human.
While some myths do depict Merlin as a wise and powerful, human, prophet and advisor to King Arthur, other legends give him more supernatural origins. In some, Merlin is the son of a spirit who impregnated his mother, in others the ‘spirit’ is in fact a demon – often depicted as an incubus. In these legends, Merlin is a Cambion, half human, half demon. It is these legends that Deonn draws from for the Merlins of her own work. In ‘Legendborn’ each Merlin is given the title because they are a Cambion, and therefore able to use magic and the aether in ways that a human couldn’t.
Deonn’s novel does not, however, only draw on the mythology of Arthurian legend. Shortly after learning about the Legendborn, and aether, protagonist Bree learns of another kind of magic – Root magic. Both Legendborn and Rootcrafters draw from the same place – they both use the fifth element (aether, or root). However, while the Legendborn call this Aether, Bree learns that her mother knew this element as ‘Root’ – a magic used not as a weapon, but for healing, protection, and self-knowledge. Root practitioners remain secret from the Legendborn, as the society has a history of treating any form of magic, other than their own, as a threat.
Deonn has said that while Rootcraft is not a direct example of any existing belief, it was inspired by African American spirituality developed during slavery, in particular the practices of Hoodoo, drawing on similar themes of ancestral worship and protection. Each family has their own branch, passed mother to daughter, father to son – however, Bree’s mother died before she ever had the opportunity, or perhaps desire, to pass it on to her daughter. Bree’s disconnect from her own heritage is contrasted to that of the Legendborn, who are capable of tracing their ancestry back thousands of years to the time of King Arthur, while Bree and many other African Americans were cut off from their history and culture due to slavery.
In Deonn’s essay, ‘Every King Arthur Retelling is Fanfic about who gets to be Legendary’, she explores the nature of Arthurian legends as well as the apparent ‘right’ to access these legends. While there is some evidence to suggest that King Arthur was based on a real king, his companions and their journeys were almost certainly not. Despite this, both ‘Merlin’ and ‘The Green Knight’ faced backlash for casting actors of colour (Angel Coulby, as Guinevere in ‘Merlin’, and Dev Patel, as Gawain in ‘The Green Knight’) on the basis of ‘historical inaccuracy’ or being unfaithful to the ‘canon’ of the myth. The legends of King Arthur however, as with many myths and legends passed orally, do not have one strict canon, and instead hundreds of regional variations and changes as the legends were passed down, and characters were added and removed. Lancelot, for example, despite being one of King Arthur’s most well-known knights, is thought to be a later, French addition to the Arthurian legend.
While many aspects of the Arthurian legend change and adjust, one key element of the myths is that of unity – Arthur was said to have united Britain, driving off the Saxon invaders. Similarly, to this, Bree’s own journey involves coming to terms with her past and her present and unifying two very different, and in some ways contradictory, legacies inside her. Her maternal legacy as a Rootcrafter, and Bree’s own connection to the Legendborn.
Overall, Deonn creates a gripping homage to the legends of King Arthur, creating a new narrative about how these legends are, and can be used. ‘Legendborn’ is a stunning mix of genuine joy in the vast mythos of Arthurian legends, as well as a condemnation on the ways that these myths may be twisted as an exclusionist tool.