Xanthe Gresham believes (as, presumably, does Nick Hennessey though he expresses no opinion on the subject except through infusing harp and voice with echoes of old English, melodic divinity in a delicious rendition of Tennyson’s Lady of Shallott), that Morgana was once a goddess. They call her ‘fay’ after all, and what is a fairy but a goddess who has shrunk through lack of appreciation, and a tendency toward spite?
We begin to wonder, is it her own or the historians’ and memory-keepers’ tendency toward spite (toward goddesses, toward women with more tricks up their sleeve and indeed more sleeve than the “phallic pens” of Thomas Mallory et al would like or feel comfortable acknowledging) that shrinks her? But there is no time: Gresham’s formidably researched, charmingly framed, set and spaced, exquisitely worded, perfectly paced and whimsically imagined, beautifully enunciated narrative has leapt upward and onward, further and deeper to reveal alternately expansive, bracing cold and clear, or claustrophobic, fertile and febrile, vistas and valleys, forests and foundations of towers, fogs and bogs and mists over pearl-strewn moonlit fathomless seas, high-windy windows and abysmal wells, all equally literal and metaphorical, that light up and bring to life the times of nine naiad sisters with bowls of sweet water, music and magic, and the woman who was at once or by turns an unwary mongrel, an accidental renegade, a delighted hedonist, a clever and committed activist, and a worker of prophecy and fate.
A chequered draughts board doubles and triples, meanings proliferating, as storytellers’ stage that manifests tales as towers and building blocks, fort of fortunate and unfortunate meetings and partings, supernatural trap and dream-come-true, real and figurative playground for games of fickle love and faithless faith, power, chance, and representational politics. It is scattered with jewelled crowns, bouncing horses, swords, horns and singing copper bowls, silver drums and wooden chests — all the toys and talismans of myth, legendary desire, and historical fantasy. A queen of feathers, fruit and flower, hair like a sheet of silver and gold, mimes her inevitable betrayals and melodramatic demise; she rises and removes her wig to become a darker, yet more mischievous thing: Italian fata, Cornish mermaid, medieval bard whose words will change the world. She is accompanied by a cross between balladeer, builder, and masculine foil, the perennial Janus-faced lover feeding passion and offering comic relief with the wit and the warbling of a wise fool, an audience closer and more reliable than the uncertain, sceptical spectators of an ancient and evolving fiction.
What is not to adore, to be transported and transformed by? Gresham takes on the “big boys of mythology” with inimitable grace, intelligent self-assurance, and exuberant aplomb, the thoroughness and thoughtful exquisiteness of a lyrically imaginative intellect. If her attempt to trace the roots of Arthurian epics back to Isis and Osiris and her treatment of the role fluidity of gender/sex has played in origin stories feels mildly forced or appropriative or otherwise strikes a slightly false note, the attempt is nevertheless brave, and juxtaposition, patch-work and medley-making is vital, traditionally as well as specifically here and now, to Gresham’s zestful story. And the final effect, the whole so much greater than the sum of its million lovely and elemental parts, sparkles, unforgettable.