Heresy, destiny, and free will

Morgan Le Fay: Small Things and Great by Jo-Anne Blanco

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r/suggestmeabook: I want an Arthurian-cycle-based adventure with a precocious 5-year-old Morgan and a suspect Merlin.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 302

Publisher: Publish Nation

Fata Morgana Series Book 1

Advance Reading Copy provided by Love Book Tours

From the publisher: Morgan is a little girl who lives in Tintagel Castle by the sea, loved and sheltered by her noble parents, the Duke and Duchess of Belerion. An extraordinarily clever child, extremely sharp-eyed, exceptionally curious. A little girl unlike other children.

One stormy night a ship is wrecked off the coast, bringing with it new friends – Fleur the princess from a far-off land, Safir the stowaway with a secret, and the mysterious twins Merlin and Ganieda. Morgan’s visions of another world awaken her to the realisation that she can see things others cannot. That she has powers other people do not possess.

The shipwreck initiates Morgan’s technicolor adventures, which move rather quickly, as you find yourself running into names from the Arthurian cycle such as Igraine, Merlin, Pellinore (offscreen). Other names are bandied about up as the book progresses, including Uther Pendragon (in this version, Ambrosius is his brother). Then there are the Celtic elements visiting Cornwall at the outset, such as the Great Hunt and Cernunnos.

The mix of worlds and the writing itself were enjoyable, and the twist on the Arthurian legend is clever. The characters, for the most part, are all off-the-shelf mix and match, but when the protagonist is a 5-year-old, it’s unlikely that a close POV would provide much nuance about character, so I wasn’t much bothered by that. Instead, the parts of the book that stuck out to me were factors that interfered with my suspension of disbelief.

The black clouds swirling above her seemed to breathe fire; as Morgan watched, she began to see fiery eyes appearing one after another, like evil stars, glaring down.

Jo-Anne Blanco, Morgan Le Fay: Small Things and Great

From around my junior year in high school through a year or so after I married, I was obsessed with the Matter of Britain. To name a few books off the top of my head: The Once and Future King, Idylls of the King, The Crystal Cave, and Merlin’s cameo in That Hideous Strength. Around this period, the movie Excalibur came out. When possible, I chose Arthurian themes for papers in school, both high school and college.

At the time, I was firmly ensconced in an evangelical Christian community, trying to explain how magic could be reconciled with Christianity, comparing Merlins across various books. (I also liked to work on how different English kings used the Arthurian legend to bolster their reigns.) I ended up choosing to have magic in my life, but that’s a different story.

After a very long period of reading very little Arthuriana, here comes Jo-Anne Blanco’s version. She’s a heretic, but an interesting one.

First, Morgan Le Fey is the protagonist, a solid feminist choice. Given the overall gloomily misogynistic tropes in Arthurian legend, it’s a nice change of pace. And Merlin, well, Merlin is clearly going to be a Bad Boy.

Merlin’s eyes went cold and his mouth twisted. Taliesin saw the look and said hastily, “I should go, Lady Morgan. I’ll be back before nightfall.”

“Yes, go, page boy,” Merlin said before Morgan could reply. “No one will miss you.”

Jo-Anne Blanco, Morgan Le Fay: Small Things and Great

I’m guessing that in the many, many years since I last read a novel related to the Arthurian cycle, there have been other attempts to rewrite the stories to have a feminist conscience, but as it was new to my experience, I found myself resisting the portrayal more than I would have expected. From an intellectual point of view, I’m really good with the change, but from an emotional standpoint, it’s kind of like pointing out to me that my best friends in high school were actually bullies. There’s a lot of motivation to preserve the nostalgia, no matter how irrational.

Perhaps part of that resistance could be attributed to my problem accepting that a 5-year-old as the originator of the thoughts and actions described in the book. It’s always tough with kids because people will tend to compare them to the children of the same age when they visualize them, and my granddaughter is six. Not only that, child developmental theory is a pet interest—in no way an expert, but one of those annoying people with just enough knowledge to spread discomfort.

Ignoring Sebile’s infuriated shouts, she scurried along the stricken coast and shoreline, the wind buffeting her small body so hard that she couldn’t walk straight. She searched for anything that might look like children from the ship.

Jo-Anne Blanco, Morgan Le Fay: Small Things and Great

Anyway, I bounced my resistance to young Morgan’s precocious apprenticeship and her participation in rescue efforts off my husband, and he reminded me of the early chores and duties that fell on children in subsistence farming, and the upped the ante by reminding me of a friend of my father’s.

This man, whom I only knew as a fighter pilot in my dad’s squadron and my piano teacher’s husband, had been separated from his grandmother in Berlin during WWII and ended up having to survive on the streets. He was three. THREE! I never learned any more details than that they were parted while getting on some form of public transportation and he was able to reunite with his family after the war was over.

So, okay, kids can be capable of far more than we see in environments dissimilar to what my granddaughter sees. But what about her ability to deal with complex moral issues, an ability to see more than black and white, and her altruism? Her friend Fleur’s inability to see past her religion is much more developmentally accurate than Morgan’s attempts to reconcile Druidism and Christianity.

The other problem is that the relatively flat characters are consistent with a 5-year-old’s black and white thinking, but when she is able to experience altruism and see greys in the moral spectrum, it’s more troubling that there’s not more depth to the characters, and makes it harder to stay in her world.

So I’m not as convinced of the historical/environmental differences part of this one, but, hey, magic? Morgan (and seemingly everyone around her, to lesser extents) is the Chosen One (as one can surmise by the publisher’s blurb), so she may just be ahead of the game. It’s magic, right?

“You were not exchanged for anyone, Morgan. You can do all of these things because you are special. Unique. One day you will understand. There is no one like you, my child, and there will never be anyone else like you.”

Queen Diana, Jo-Anne Blanco, Morgan Le Fay: Small Things and Great

I suppose. I’m interested to see how this mega-novel* goes (as this book is clearly just a resting point and not a complete story) and if there was a compelling reason to have Morgan quite so young. Even a few years older, and I’d have had less head cocking at certain passages.

Yes, Morgan as the Chosen One is also heresy. Centering her in the Arthurian legend is different than also giving her the mantle of superiority, at this point seemingly above Merlin and with Arthur not in the picture. But I rather like an approach that tacitly says, no, the chroniclers and oral historians got it all wrong, they erased Morgan’s contributions from the narrative, demonized her.

The other heresy arises because Morgan is almost desperately trying to reconcile the Christian beliefs with the Druidical—and with her own experiences. The book opens with a nightmare that would be chilling for an adult, much less a 5-year-old, and she correlates them with the fall of Lucifer and the biblical Flood. (No telling what they are at this point.)

“My lord, there are many of my fellow Christian priests who unfortunately cling to stories of devils and demons to try to explain what they cannot understand. But I assure there is almost always a reasonable explanation for situations such as this.”

Elfodd the priest to Duke Gorlois, Jo-Anne Blanco, Morgan Le Fay: Small Things and Great

This approach appears to be modeled on her father, the Duke, who is trying out freedom of religion in his little corner of the world, allowing both the Christians and the Druids to exist without interference. But Morgan, whose parents at least are nominally Christian, has the daily input from her mentor, of the Druidic persuasion, and her best friend, the rigidly Christian Princess Fleur.

Fleur spoke up. “There was an old Druid man there. He was saying things, Aunt Igraine. Horrible things. He said you were a Druid and a heathen and that you learned heathen things.”

Jo-Anne Blanco, Morgan Le Fay: Small Things and Great

Not surprisingly, there’s also a skulking hardline priest running around who’s got it in for the live and let live crowd.

In addition to the theme of competing beliefs, free will features prominently, with many references to higher powers being confined by the free will of the creatures beneath them. Not all that surprisingly, no one addresses the fact that Morgan has been gifted with additional powers, and Morgan is understandably confused by the choices less fortunate children make about their fates.

Since this was a difficult book to critique in terms of the writing—it’s stolidly competent—the issues of Morgan’s credibility, of the Chosen One, of the discussion of tolerance and free will are more high profile for me, but if you are more someone who likes plot more than character development and those bits don’t trouble you, check the book out. I’m not entirely sure where Blanco is going with the somewhat overt moral of the story, but I’m a little concerned I’m not going to like where it’s headed. However, I liked it well enough to read the next one!

* Thanks to Ria Cheyne, who used this term in reference to ASOIF in “Fantasy: Affirmation and Enchantment,” Disability, Literature, Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction, 109-34. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019. Accessed November 29, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctvsn3pp7.8.