The King’s Peace
published in 2000
When I put together the list of science fiction and fantasy books I’d planned to read for my Year of Reading Women project last year, I’d knew I’d want something familiar and enjoyable to close out the year, as a reward. Looking over my bookshelves the choice was easily made: I hadn’t read The King’s Peace since it had first come out in 2000 so it was high time I reread it. Back then I had come to it cold, without any preconceptions other than Jo Walton’s reputation as one of the best posters on the rec.arts.sf newsgroups. Rereading it now, having read more of her novels and also knowing somewhat more about the setting she used or at least the historical inspirations for it, have changed The King’s Peace for me, in a positive sense.
To start with the setting, you could call The King’s Peace an Arthurian romance set in a fantasy Britain, but that’s not quite right. I prefer to call it a histoire à clef, where Walton has taken post-Roman Britain at the time of the Saxon invasions and changed it. So the Roman Empire here is called the Vincan Empire, the Saxony raiders are Jarns, Britain is called Tir Tanagiri and instead of a King Arthur there’s king Urdo whose Lancelot, Sulien ap Gwien is the first person narrator of the story. When I first got to grips with the story more than a decade ago this all seemed needlessly complicated and I wondered why she hadn’t just written a straight Arthurian story. But I think it makes sense.
Had Walton set The King’s Peace in anything recognisable as actually existing history, she would’ve had to deal with all the expectations that would’ve brought with it: she would’ve had to get both the history and the Arthurian mythology right. By creating her own version of Britain Walton could take the broad strokes of British post-Roman history and put her own interpretation on them, with the same for the Arthur legend, while still rooting her story in the “reality” of both history and legend, something she wouldn’t have had if she had set it in a completely made up fantasy world.
What you also need to understand going into The King’s Peace is that Jo Walton genuinely believes that the Roman abandonment of Britain in the late fourth/early fifth century CE was a tragedy, that in her version of this history the barbarians are at the gate and civilisation in Britain/Tir Tanagiri is slowly being extinguished by hordes of invaders. This attitude is reflected in her protagonist/narrator Sulien, who was brought up in the Vincan way by her mother Veniva, for whom the Vincan Empire still is civilisation. It’s hard not to see some of Walton’s own opinions being reflected there. Yet The King’s Peace as a story is not a tragedy, not about the disappearance of civilisation under a long dark night of barbarism, but about finding news ways of re-establishing civilisation, of making peace both for the civilised and the barbarian.
The story starts when Sulien is attacked, raped and left for dead under her brother’s corpse by Jarnish raiders who have also plundered her family’s land. She then is sent out on a conveniently escaped warhorse to the new king her family and its ruler have only recently sworn allegiance to, but she runs straight into another Jarnish raid, one fought by strange armoured soldiers on horseback, whom she immediately joins in attacking the Jarnsmen. That’s how she meets Urdo, a king with much bigger plans than just being yet another ruler of a small kingdom unable to beat off the Jarnsmen on its own.
Urdo wants to build peace over all of Tir Tanagiri for everybody who lives in the land and is willing to abide by his peace, including Jarnsmen. But to do this, he first needs to make war, which is why he has build up his alas, regiments of armigers, mounted warriors armed with lances and swords, fighting as disciplined heavy cavalry, almost unstoppable when properly used. Sulien becomes one of his armigers, impressed by Urdo and his dream. In his quest Urdo is also supported by the priests of the White God, a new god in the islands, this world’s equivalent of Jesus, who was stoned rather than crucified and whose priests are about as intolerant as Christian priests in real life were of other gods, if much less nasty about it. Sulien herself is a proper pagan, willing to respect all gods and praying to her old, familiar gods of her family, practising practical magic in their names.
Magic, though much much less flashy than in most fantasy, is real in Tir Tanagiri, playing a role in everyday lives as well as warfare. We first see it in action when Sulien is forced to heal the leg of her rapist, while in one of the big battles Urdo uses his privileges as king of the land to contact the gods for help when he and his troops are surrounded by the enemy. The only ones not given much to using magic are the White God’s followers, either unable or unwilling to do so, though there are incidents in which it’s clear the White God can assist his believers if needed.
The King’s Peace is told through the memory of Sulien, reflecting back on the events of her youth after a long life and is somewhat choppy in its narrative. She tells both the story of how the King’s Peace was achieved, but also her own personal story, from her rape to her rise as one of Urdo’s most trusted lieutenants, his Lancelot, but fortunately without the love triangle. Though that doesn’t stop her comrades gossiping about her and Urdo…
I was a bit annoyed with the rape at first, largely because it’s such an overused conciet to give a heroine her motivation, as if women cannot become heroes unless they have a nice juicy trauma in their past. Luckily, this was not how Sulien’s rape was used. It is an important plot point, both for Sulien’s personal life as she meets her rapist again, as well in the wider scheme of things; it has consequences for her, not the least of which is that she feels she could never have sex or be married, but it’s not an overwhelming melodramatic trauma that keeps driving her. She becomes an armiger because she believes in Urdo’s dream, not because she wanted revenge on the people that hurt her. Sulien is also relentlessly practical, something what reminded me of the narrator/protagonist of Walton’s latest novel, Among Others.
As anybody who has actually been reading my booklog over the past few years knows, I’ve been reading a lot about the fall of the Roman Empire and the transformation of Late antiquity into the Early Middle Ages and about whether the Roman world really fell or was just transformed and how that would’ve looked like to the people living through it. The King’s Peace may be set in a disguised, fantasy version of this part of history, but I think it got it as well as anybody could’ve gotten it. The world changes, but change does not have to be bad and although what was lost could not be recaptured, what was built in its stead is good in its own right. A very complex, bittersweet and mature attitude for a fantasy novel to take.