Review: Hawk of May by Gillian Bradshaw

Gillian Bradshaw was only 17 years old when she finished the first draft the first book in her acclaimed Arthurian fantasy trilogy: Hawk of May. It was released in 1980, and won an award in its manuscript stage. I’ve seen many hyped-up versions of “super-hero” beginnings of  a literary career, just like this, only to be disappointed in the final product. This, however, is NOT one of them. I was highly impressed with this book. Supposedly a young adult-targeted novel, I say this novel can teach us adults quite a lot!

Although Hawk of May is an interpretation of Arthurian legend, and many of those already existed by the time the novel was published, this book is unique. Telling the story of Gwalchmai (otherwise known as Sir Gawain), the novel approaches the person and history of King Arthur from a backdoor perspective. The early years of Gwalchmai are featured here, and it is he who is the subject–his struggles with the temptation of darkness (one could say evil or the dark arts), of proving himself against opposition and odds,  and the topic of faith even when all seems to be crashing in around him. Gwalchmai is the younger son of the evil sorceress Morgawse, and her warlord husband, King Lot of the Orcades. Our hero is not a typical warrior–he is a loner, is as talented as the great bard, Taliesin, with words and song, and fights with his mind and intellect as well as through the unconventional method of  battling from horseback.  His brother Aggravain is both loving and cruel to his younger brother, and quite obviously his father’s favorite. Medraut, the youngest son, is closest to Gwalchmai, at least in the beginning.

After battling his inner demons (as well as a few tangible ones), making daring escapes, and testing his own faith, Gwalchmai’s one desire is to join Arthur’s innermost circle, “The Family,” yet no matter how he tries to prove himself, he is rejected. We all know that Sir Gawain was one of Arthur’s trusted warriors, but how he manages to overcome Arthur’s distrust is the mystery this book seeks to unravel.

The topic of spirituality  is dealt with here, very intelligently and thoughtfully, in my opinion. In some ways, I saw this story as a metaphor of our human struggle with faith in a power we cannot see or hear; faith that a succession of events will culminate in our ultimate best good, and in a grand plan for the good of all.

The story is also a commentary on the corruptive effects of power, a philosophizing about the nature of man and right and wrong, and a consideration of the spiritual control of a higher power over the will of man.

The Light* of its–his–own nature must always be right . . . and I believed that it was. But the world of man is mixed, good and evil together, and there was no simple and clear struggle . . .(p. 219)

(*is what I interpret as being a metaphor for God, as opposed to the Darkness, the devil)

This quote is just one of many such ponderings, which is one of the aspects of this book that turn it into more than just an entertaining story (which it is as well). It caused me to think deeply about my own faith, my own trust in a higher power and ability to “let go and let God” and “to do His will” that is the basis of my personal spiritual beliefs. I can only guess that the concepts of light and darkness spoken of in this book were a reference or comparison to Christianity of a sort, although I may be wrong.

This is no preachy plot, however. It is a gentle discourse of spiritual issues with no reference to a particular religion, and for the author’s delicate handling of this topic, I have great respect. The magical elements in this book fit seamlessly and believably within the tapestry of the story and the topic of spirituality as well.

If you haven’t yet read Hawk of May, I highly recommend it. And you can be sure I’ll soon be digging into books two and three in the series.

***On a practical note, Gillian Bradshaw is the daughter of an English mother and American father, attended the University of Michigan and then proceeded to Newnham College, Cambridge. She currently lives in Britain, which explains the mystery of why I was reading British spellings in this reissue, when her short biography on the back page stated that she grew up in Northern Virginia!

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