Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Last Defender of Camelot

The latest in the my series of Roger Zelazny book reviews!

I'm trying to alternate reviews of stuff I liked with stuff I didn't. (There's the family stuff too, but the people who read that tend to do so when the blog feeds into Facebook.) Since my Lord Demon review was rather harsh, today I'm covering one of my favorites.

Even compared to by my rather intense devotion to Roger Zelazny's work, I just love the Last Defender of Camelot. It's a wonderful short little story that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.

Interestingly, there were two anthologies named after the story, one in 1980 and another in 2002.. Hard to say which one I prefer. Both lineups are pretty strong and they each have "For a Breath I Tarry". If I really had to pick, I think I'd go with the second collection. It's got "24 Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai" and "Home is the Hangman."

Hey, now that I think of it, 24 Views has a female protagonist. I take back what I said earlier about Zelazny never featuring women.

I also like the introduction:

I wrote this one for The Saturday Evening Post and they asked me to cut it to 4500 words. It is 9000 words in length. Crossing out every other word made it sound funny, so I didn't.

Weird that the Post would have commissioned this story though. I think of them and picture the Norman Rockwell covers, and I can't reconcile the two. Rereading it for this review made me marvel how perfectly every element comes together. Every description, every line of dialogue is absolutely pitch perfect. I probably it consider the best of Zelazny's shorter works. I've always liked Arthurian stories (though I don't like them quite as much as my friend Greg, who will soon earn his PhD in Mordred Studies!) ever since I appeared in a grade school production of Camelot.

The hero of the story is Lancelot Du Lac, mysteriously immortal and working as an appraiser in hopes of finding the Holy Grail.

He encounters Morgan La Fay who is passing the time as a fortune teller.

"Is it that you do not believe in such things?" she asked, her eyes scrutinizing his face.

"No, quite the contrary," he replied. "I am willing to believe in magic, divination and all manner of spells and sendings, angelic and demonic. But—"

"But not from someone in a dump like this?"

He smiled.

"No offense," he said.

Lance has his own theory about his immortality: I really like Lance's voice. He's no longer an idealist, but nor is he jaded. I'm reluctant to call him a realist, though either. I think Zelazny does an excellent job of portraying a straightforward thinker who has had many years to think on complex issues, and has arrived at his conclusion through constant ruminations. It makes me think of the constant pressures of erosion wearing a stone to smoothness.

"I decided that it was—my sin," he said. "with...the Queen."

"I don't understand."

"I betrayed my Liege, who was also my friend, in the one thing which must have hurt him most. The love I felt was stronger than loyalty or friendship—and even today, to this day, it still is. I cannot repent, and so I cannot be forgiven. Those were strange and magical times. We lived in a land destined to become myth. Powers walked the realm in those days, forces which are now gone from the earth. How or why, I cannot say. But you know that it is true. I am somehow of a piece with those gone things, and the laws that rule my existence are not normal laws of the natural world. I believe that I cannot die; that it has fallen my lot, as punishment, to wander the world till I have completed the Quest. I believe I will only know rest the day I find the Holy Grail. Giuseppe Balsamo, before he became known as Cagliostro, somehow saw this and said it to me just as I had thought it, though I never said a word of it to him. And so I have traveled the world, searching. I go no more as knight, or soldier, but as an appraiser. I have been in nearly every museum on Earth, viewed ail the great private collections. So far, it has eluded me."

Morgan corrects him:

Your story is fascinating and your theory novel," she began, "but Cagliostro was a total charlatan. Something must have betrayed your thoughts, and he made a shrewd guess. But he was wrong. I say that you will never find it, not because you are unworthy or unforgiven. No, never that. A more loyal subject than yourself never drew breath. Don't you know that Arthur forgave you? It was an arranged marriage. The same thing happened constantly elsewhere, as you must know. You gave her something he could not. There was only tenderness there. He understood. The only forgiveness you require is that which has been withheld all these long years—your own.

She later tells him of Merlin:

"He is mad, Launcelot. Many of us felt a great relief at his passing. If the realm had not been sundered finally by strife it would probably have been broken by his hand, anyway."

"That I find difficult to believe. He was always a strange man—for who can fully understand a sorcerer?— and in his later years he did seem at least partly daft. But he never struck me as evil."

"Nor was he. His was the most dangerous morality of all. He was a misguided idealist. In a more primitive time and place and with a willing tool like Arthur, he was able to create a legend. Today, in an age of monstrous weapons, with the right leader as his catspaw, he could unleash something totally devastating. He would see a wrong and force his man to try righting it. He would do it in the name of the same high ideal he always served, but he would not appreciate the results until it was too late. How could he—even if he were sane? He has no conception of modem international relations."

Merlin, like another who shares the name, is a bit of a douche.

"The complete restoration of my powers and their increase will require a sacrifice in this place."

"Then you planned this for me all along!"

"No. It was not to have been you. Lance. Anyone would have served, though you will serve superbly well. It need not have been so, had you elected to assist me. You could still change your mind."

"Would you want someone who did that at your side?"

"You have a point there."

"Then why ask—save as a petty cruelty?"

"It is just that, for you have annoyed me."

Great ending too.

It passed slowly before him in a halo of white light. He removed his sticky fingers from his side and rose to his feet to follow it. Solid, glowing, glorious and pure, not at all like the image in the chamber, it led him on out across the moonlit plain, from dimness to brightness to dimness, until the mists enfolded him as he reached at last to embrace it.




  1. I randomly decided to re-read "The Last Defender of Camelot" last night.

    It was one of the greatest decisions of my life.

    (To be fair, though, I haven't exactly led a life of good decisions. But still!)

  2. I think that for every story, there is is a platonic ideal of that story, where the author never says lightning bug when he means lighting and the story on the pages matches the author's vision exactly. Last Defender comes as close that that ideal version as any story I've ever read.