In terms of date this novel shouldn’t be in our collection, but until we run out of space I am inclined to keep it! Victor Canning was a astonishingly prolific writer with a long career, from the 1930s to the 1980s. (See previous reviews of his novels Fountain Inn (1939) and Green Battlefield (1943).) In his later career he predominantly wrote detective stories and thrillers, but The Circle of the Gods finds him writing historical fiction – an Arthurian romance. This is the second book in a trilogy. The first is The Crimson Chalice (1976), the second The Immortal Wound (1978).
Review by John S:
Atmosphere rather than plot is at the core of this book, the second in a trilogy on fifth century (post-Roman) Britain. The Circle of the Gods concerns the boyhood, adolescence, and early manhood of Arturo, better known to us as Arthur. Arturo has a Roman mother and a British father, the chieftain of a small tribe in the south-west. As a teenager, Arturo goes to Isca (Exeter) and trains as a cavalry officer in the forces of the prince of that city. Finding southern Britain at the mercy of Saxon invaders, and the incumbent authorities disinclined to resist them, Arturo breaks away to form his own paramilitary group. He acquires a beautiful wife and a loyal band of ‘companions’. Arturo and his followers then set about a campaign to drive the Saxons out of the Thames Valley: he calls it ‘the cleansing of the valleys of all your kind’ (p.127). The Circle of the Gods is, of course, Stonehenge, and in the final chapters dramatic events take place in the shadow of the great stones.
Canning was very popular and prolific between the 1930s and 1970s. Most of his books are set in the twentieth century. The Circle of the Gods is one of the exceptions. It is a very atmospheric novel. Canning glories in describing the British countryside, birds and their calls, the beauty of wild flowers, the different moods of sea and sky, and the changing seasons. His story unfolds sedately, like a summer evening in fifth-century Devon.
Given that The Circle of the Gods is the middle novel of a trilogy, the reader can be pretty certain that Arturo will survive. From time to time Arturo does kill people (mostly Saxons), but he remains an oddly genteel and somewhat high-minded paramilitary leader compared to the bloodthirsty and amoral Orm the Bear Slayer, hero of Robert Low’s popular Viking adventures. Whereas Arturo slays out of duty and a sense of destiny, Orm just likes chopping his enemies up.
From childhood Arturo is convinced that he is the saviour chosen by the British gods to rid the land of the foul and, we are assured, smelly Saxon interlopers who rarely if ever bathe or wash their togs. After defeating one band of Saxons, Arturo puts the survivors into a boat and sends them off down the Thames, presumably back to the continent. Orm the Bear Slayer would be appalled by such weakness, but Arturo has a message to convey. ‘This night’, he tells an elderly Saxon, ‘has begun the cleansing of the valleys of all your kind (p. 127).’
Canning was writing in the mid-1970s, well before the Balkan conflicts brought the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ into common use. Is there a tension between the nature mysticism in The Circle of the Gods and Arturo’s very modern – though still comparatively humane – project of ethnic cleansing? I am not sure. Arturo clearly sees himself as the personification of the spirit of fifth-century Britain. The Circle of the Gods may well be more blood and foraging moorhens than ‘blood and soil’, yet Canning never questions Arturo’s mission to purify Britain of aliens.
I recommend The Circle of the Gods to anyone interested in ‘Dark Age’ Britain. Canning is a graceful writer. Although there isn’t a lot of action, he knows how to raise the pace when necessary. He is stronger on nature than he is on characterisation. If the book has a deeper message, it is an ambiguous one – I know nothing of Canning’s politics. I would willingly read the other books in the trilogy.