Fans of Arthurian legend are going to be very happy with Sean Poage’s ‘The Retreat to Avalon.’ This is a novel that takes its reader by the hand for a detailed tour of the Arthurian Age. If modern novels are a Michael Bay novel with a million cuts and scene changes per second, ‘The Retreat to Avalon’ is ‘Chinatown,’ willing to dedicate five minutes to Jack Nicholson driving along in a convertible just because it’s awesome. Even though that sensibility lines up with my own preference, I still found it took me a minute to find my bearings in Sean’s novel. Once you let the symbiotic alignment happen, ‘The Retreat to Avalon’ takes you on a heck of a journey.
There are a lot of things this novel does really well, but most of them are subtle things. I respect the way Poage takes himself out of the storytelling and respectfully keeps the focus on the source material. The language is very straightforward, and so your attention isn’t on the writing but on the scenery. What’s also interesting is that there is a lot of focus on day to day life, how people lived, loved, and played in the era of King Arthur. This is a bold choice since Arthur himself doesn’t appear for the first third of the book. But the choice pays off when Arthur does arrive, because now the reader has been “in” the Arthurian age for a while and is granted something remarkable, a chance to see Arthur in a different way.
There are many novels that take on gigantic literary characters like King Arthur and seem to think that just invoking the name invokes all the prestige of the character. But I think that doesn’t work, the author must start with the reverence surrounding the character like Poage did. Actually, I’m reminded of ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ where it’s a long time before Arthur appears but when he does his entrance is memorable. I remember Twain’s description that emphasized the power and the barbarism of the man, but also the uncertainty and the burden of responsibility.
Poage’s version of Arthur is very good I think. The people that surround him treat him as legendary, and he knows he must play to that as a part of leadership, but he does so without arrogance. It’s hard to represent genuine humility because a character that is too aware of his humility ceases to be humble. Poage hits the right tone regarding Arthur, the humility is there, but Poage doesn’t hit you over the head with it. This is an example of the excellent subtlety of this novel that I mentioned before. Poage has a lot of respect for his readers, and the novel really works.
There is no shortage of action in this book either. The novel follows Gawain for the first part, and there is an exciting spear dual that will leave the reader captivated. Two men stand 50 paces apart and launch spears at each other, with the knowledge that if the opponent flinches, he loses his head. This is a high stakes moment of sport, and it’s highly believable that such a game might have been played in the Arthurian age, particularly in the case, as is here, of a group of soldiers pausing at a tavern on their way to war.
This brings me to another example of the excellent subtlety of this book, it feels as though it’s very well researched. When considering Arthurian legend, we’re always left with speculation, but even very sincere speculation can often seem fantastical. ‘The Retreat to Avalon’ approaches the Arurian age with the diligence of a scholar, and the reverence of a poet. Arthurian legend has become a massive library of stories and legends with varying artistic interpretations. However, to my knowledge there aren’t any other treatments like ‘The Retreat to Avalon,’ and this work fills a significant hole in the vast tapestry of Arthurian legend that I wasn’t even aware existed. This is a book to be read and discussed, and it’s going to be of particular interest to Arthurian scholars. A fine achievement.