Gather around children, as the storyteller would say in days of yore. It’s time for a story about stories and how they work, time to explore Juliet E. McKenna’s use of intertextuality in The Cleaving.
Reflecting Past Tellings
The Cleaving is a retelling of the King Arthur myth that gives focus and agency to the women of the story – Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere. They walk a new path through the elements of a story familiar to fans of fantasy and folklore, reweaving the threads of British legend into a dramatic new cloth.
By its very nature, an Arthurian telling has a level of intertextuality. For the writer, it’s a chance to respond to and rework previous versions of the myth, and strands of those versions are present in The Cleaving. For the audience, it’s impossible not to compare, contrast, and draw meaning from other tales, unless this is the very first version of Arthur they’ve read.
McKenna uses intertextuality as smartly and discreetly as Marvel did at the start of their film run. You don’t need to know other Arthurian texts to enjoy the story, but if you do, then you’ll get more out of it. It’s a bonus, not the backbone. It’s an approach that rewards readers instead of making demands of them. And unlike those Marvel cameos, The Cleaving doesn’t lose its way later on.
But that’s not the smart part.
Dealing With Gender
It’s not uncommon to talk about how retellings hold a mirror up to past versions of a story. That’s particularly true in The Cleaving, as like a mirror’s reflection, it reverses key elements.
The Cleaving doesn’t flip the genders of any of its characters, sticking with outwardly traditional forms. But it does flip the gender of the story’s perspective, shifting its weight from the male characters onto women. We see sides of this mythical medieval court that other stories might hint at but seldom make their centre.
While this would make for a great story in its own right, it’s a stronger story when it’s read in relation to previous texts. Standing by itself, it’s a cool story about women threading their way through the ugly tangle of other people’s ambitions. Lined up with older Arthurian books and films, it points a finger at them and loudly shouts “Oy, you, look what you’ve been missing!” It demands a conversation about what is absent from the (uh, I hate this word, but I’m going to use it…) cannon.
That textual contrast, by its very nature, takes shots at other established bodies of fantastical and mythological work. Once you see what’s been missing from Arthuriana, with all the interesting nuances McKenna applies, you can’t help looking at other stories and wondering what they’ve left out. Where are the Sherwood stories that centre Maid Marian? Who was that woman whose cakes King Alfred burned?
And to be clear, I’m not saying that these versions don’t exist – 1980s children’s TV did good work for Marian – but The Cleaving, at the very least, sends you looking for them.
And that’s still not the smartest part.
Raising the Stakes
No, my favourite thing about the use of intertextuality in The Cleaving is how it raises the tension.
Other versions of the Camelot story hover like ghosts around the edges of this one, raising spectres of what might be. McKenna doesn’t need to spend a lot of time foreshadowing Mordred as a threat, because the moment his name is mentioned, we know that fucker’s going to be trouble. Oh, yeah, sure, he’s just some prince living on a distant island, no need to worry about that. *narrows eyes* I’m watching you, boy.
For anyone familiar with the legends, Mordred’s name is menace. Small mentions of him build tension. We know he’s coming, but in what form? Will he be the traditional villain? Someone else’s scapegoat? In the mirror world of The Cleaving, is he in the right? We’re left gripping the book tight, waiting for him to arrive, waiting for McKenna to reveal her angle.
For readers not steeped in these legends, it still makes sense when Mordred turns up and does his thing. But for those in the know, he’s a struck nerve that leaves the story tense.
The Drama of Disappointment
Then there’s Lancelot, my favourite detail. As a character, he’s seen more reinventions than Mordred, because he’s a more dramatic part of the myth. Traditionally, he’s the ideal hero, the man of divided loyalties who tumbles into tragedy. We’ve seen him as the sidekick, the romantic lead, the broken heart, even the fraudulent sham of a hero. And so, again, we’re left wondering what McKenna’s version will be like. How will this tragedy play out? We watch and wait and then…
Remember how I said that this story flips our perspective on the gender dynamics, rather than flipping the characters? Lancelot is an example of that. We watch the beats of his arc play out as tradition and fate dictate, and then we get disappointment. Glorious, perfect disappointment. The moment where the ideal knight turns into the sad side of dating. He’s not a shining paragon. He’s not the tragedy of temptation. He’s not a secret villain, the anti-Lancelot, the dark face of chivalry. He’s a bit of a crap bloke, in a way that the other men in the story wouldn’t understand.
It’s a brilliant take on the character because, by comparison with all the others, it’s unexpected, and yet it makes perfect sense.
To create this character without intertextuality would mean spending a whole book polishing the shell of Lancelot, only to crack him open at the end. But this guy isn’t worth a book’s worth of our attention, and because the other texts exist, we don’t need that. We know this is going somewhere, and once again, waiting to see where builds tension.
Efficiency and Absence
The Cleaving doesn’t rely on the great scaffolding of Arthuriana to hold it up. This is an effective story of women living in a world dominated by men and of the hubris that comes with power. But the existence of that scaffolding allows McKenna to leave gaps that her readers will fill with the tensions and contrasts between texts. It adds power to the story without weighing it down, for a telling whose efficiency adds to its readability and whose significance makes it stick in the mind.
This is how to make powerful use of intertextuality – not with passing in-jokes, though those have their place, or with the tangled continuity that makes some stories inaccessible, but by letting contrast and comparison add tension to a story that stands in its own right. Making a whole body of mythology into a mirror that your story can peer into and say to itself “damn, I look good.”
If you want an actual review of The Cleaving, instead of one obsessive ranting about a point of technique, then The Middle Shelf has you covered. I also recommend Juliet McKenna’s blog for thoughtful insights into her own work, as well as the wide world of fantasy literature. She’s done a lot of good work on and off the page, and is someone worth listening to.
Ashes of the Ancestors
In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.
But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.
As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.
A fantasy story about tradition and our relationship with the past, Ashes of the Ancestors is out now:
Luna Press for physical books