Green fields thick with mist, ancient forests resonant with pagan magic, and battlefields alive with swords and shining armor: These are the images that Arthurian lore calls to mind, and they, along with others, have enchanted readers for centuries. Written in poetry and prose, in English, French, Latin, and Welsh, the legend of Arthur has long been a source of inspiration for writers, as well. Alex Epstein, the author of the new novel for young adults “The Circle Cast,” has chosen for his corner of the legend the thrilling, and underreported, life of Morgan le Fay.
Morgan’s role varies across the tellings, but Mr. Epstein has followed a tradition of portraying Morgan as Arthur’s half sister, who was sent off to the pagan wilds of Ireland, returning only as an adult to overthrow Arthur and his Round Table. The old stories say little about what Morgan was up to in the intervening years, and this is the space that Mr. Epstein enters, giving readers a full and humanizing portrait of the young girl who would, according to some, become the avenging angel of pagan ways in a world moving toward Christianity.
Mr. Epstein worked in the film industry in Paris and Los Angeles before moving to Montreal, where he has a successful career as a film and television writer. His two previous books are the nonfiction “Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made” and “Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box.” This, then, is a very different kind of book for Mr. Epstein, and it is clear that it’s the passion project of a lifelong lover of Arthurian legend, fantasy, and speculative fiction.
He sets his story in the fifth century, a time when the Roman Empire is just beginning to fall into the past and the Christian way of the future is just beginning to make itself known. Pagans and Christians coexist, and Latin and English are both spoken in England. When Morgan is sent to Ireland, a land where paganism still reigns, she is thrust deeper into the old ways. While most of the lore casts Morgan as evil, the prototypical wicked witch and seductress, Mr. Epstein isn’t the first to re-examine, and reimagine, her story. Marion Zimmer Bradley did so in her famous “The Mists of Avalon,” giving a sympathetic, and feminist, slant to her story.
Mr. Epstein’s originality is in how deeply he goes into the girl Morgan’s mind and how vividly he renders her voice. Launching into Morgan’s story, we are taken directly into the thick of the battlefield and the admixture of peoples in the Britain of 500 A.D. Here are the Picts, “wild barbarians from the north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, with strange tattoos all along their arms, and long beards.” Here is Gorlois, Morgan’s father, one of the last to stand for the Roman Empire, with his tall bearing and his “long Roman nose,” and here is Uter, the small, tough, pug-nosed Briton. All are united against the Saxons as the story begins, but soon, of course, they’ll be battling one another.
“The Circle Cast”
Tradewind Books, $12.95
And it is to this family story that Morgan, still a child called Anna, bears close witness. Even while he lays out the political and familial associations of the battlefield, Mr. Epstein writes deftly and movingly of the young girl and her perspective on her parents and the events that will change the direction of her life. We are deep within Morgan’s experience, as when Ygraine, the mother Morgan will soon lose to Uter, lulls her to sleep: “. . . her mother’s voice was a spell that wove the soft grass and the warm blanket into an embrace. She wasn’t sure if she was asleep yet. And then she was.”
Morgan watches with dawning comprehension as Uter attempts to seduce her mother, and as her father goes to war with Uter as a result. Her uncanny abilities are already in evidence, when, in a dream, she experiences the death of her father on the battlefield.
Mr. Epstein’s tale of Morgan le Fay’s quest for vengeance and for homecoming provides a canny view of the lore as a whole, and in elegant and poetic writing he makes the thoroughly researched settings as real as can be. As with all the best adapters of myth, he makes Morgan’s story relevant to our times as well, skillfully joining contemporary language to the ancient settings and tales. Morgan speaks, most often, like a contemporary girl, responding spontaneously to the things she sees around her and to the magic she learns.
The magic is another innovation of Mr. Epstein’s. He has undertaken not only a rigorous research of ancient Celtic paganism, but he has also, with great success, crafted the magic out of contemporary Wiccan practices. Thus the drawing of the circles, the elaborately described rituals in which giant straw crows are set aflame, the spells cast to draw the spirit of the land into her presence, to draw Morgan’s lover, Conall, toward her, all are based on contemporary Wiccan practice. As Mr. Epstein himself explains on his blog, “The witch draws an invisible circle around herself, which is meant to keep in any power she invokes. Then she calls in the powers of the four elements — earth, air, fire, and water — to cleanse and empower the space. Then ‘the circle is cast.’ ”
This blend of the ancient and the modern works seamlessly in Mr. Epstein’s retelling, all of it linked by the deep connection we feel to the character of Morgan, who, bridging the pagan and the Christian worlds, the old ways and the new, ultimately falls on the side of the old, choosing the vengeance and honor upheld by her father over forgiveness. Whether or not we can entirely agree with Morgan’s choices, Mr. Epstein makes sure that we sympathize with and understand them. And it is this addition to the lore, the creation of a conflicted and determined young woman in the space that was left by Morgan and the “lost years” between her departure from England and her furious return, that Mr. Epstein offers.
Those with a longstanding love of Arthuriana are sure to take pleasure in this new vision of Morgan, and those who are new to it will no doubt be drawn into the pleasures of this multivoiced literature after reading “The Circle Cast.”
Alex Epstein has spent many summers in East Hampton, where his parents have a house.
Sasha Watson is the author of the young-adult novel “Vidalia in Paris.” A former reporter for The Star, she lives, writes, and teaches in Los Angeles.