Alice Walker wrote The Same River Twice about the process of turning her novel The Color Purple into a movie. The title itself is a paraphrase of the philosopher Heraclitus, and is more fully translated as, “You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on.”
In 2011, I wrote Dark Jenny, the third in my Eddie LaCrosse series, which put my hero into a very Camelot-like kingdom, where a knight has been poisoned and the queen is blamed. I tried to write about the difficulty in living up to ideals, the dangers of self-delusion, and above all, the need for heroes most especially in worlds that tend to tear them down. I used Arthurian legend as my jumping-off point, most particularly the story of the poisoned apples and the false Guinevere from Le Mort d’Arthur. I changed the names, because I’d already created my own fantasy world in prior books, but I didn’t disguise the source. The source was part of the point.
But as it turns out, I wasn’t the first to use this bit of folklore as a novel’s inspiration. And thanks to an online friend (exactly who I can’t recall; if I do, I’ll update this), I’ve now read the work of someone who crossed this particular river long before I even thought of it.
1982’s The Idylls of the Queen, by Phyllis Ann Karr, starts pretty much as my novel does: with the murder of a young knight by poison. Like my novel, her main character——in her case Sir Kay, Arthur’s foster brother and seneschal——is our first-person narrator, and functions throughout as a sort of detective. But that’s where the similarities end, and I’m delighted to say an entirely different novel unfolds.
Karr is interested mainly in the various feuds, grudges, family secrets and entanglements of the Knights of the Round Table. Everyone, it seems, is someone’s brother, father, nephew or bastard son, and the cavalcade of names is almost as overwhelming as it is in Malory. The novel is mostly conversations, chiefly between Kay and Mordred, the incestuous bastard son of Arthur and his half-sister. There are also ladies: Nimue, the Lady of the Lake; Morgan Le Fay, supposed enemy of Arthur, her half-brother; and Guinevere, whom Kay has secretly loved for decades.
This is, in effect, a cozy locked-room mystery that finally plays out in a very “I suppose you wonder why I’ve asked you all here tonight” final confrontation. Kay is a grumpy, bitter, yet noble point of view character, and his observations keep readers interested even when the parade of similar names (i.e., Gawaine, Gaheris, Ywaine, etc.) threaten to make our eyes cross.
It’s very rare that you get the chance to read an alternate version of your own book. Not only is this Arthurian, it’s a mystery, told in first person, about the same bit of folklore I used to begin my book. It also makes pithy observations about the dichotomy between the knights’ chivalric ideals, and the considerably less noble reality. There are differences, of course; mainly in tone, in the choice to use the actual Arthurian setting instead of a Camelot-like one, and in the identity of the poisoner. But at the same time, it was like walking back through a garden I thought I’d already thoroughly explored, only to find a maze of alternate passageways hidden in the hedges. And, to be fair, Karr did it first.
And she did it very well. Once I started reading, I could barely put down this book to make sure my children were fed. If you’re a fan of Arthuriana, you’ll adore this. And if you enjoyed Dark Jenny, you’ll especially get a kick out of crossing that same river again with The Idylls of the Queen.