In her vivid and action-packed Arthurian trilogy, academic turned novelist M K Hume opts for the latter, lending the legendary kingdom of Cadbury a darker and richer flavour than the more familiar sugary prototype.
The Bloody Cup is the final instalment of what has been an ambitious and exciting series in which idealised images of the medieval leader are swept away to be replaced by a flawed, violent and very human warrior king.
This Arthur is attractive, charismatic and brave, he has brought peace and prosperity to Britain and spurned the despotism of his predecessor Uther Pendragon, but he also has ruthless enemies who would not hesitate to sweep him from power.
To add authenticity and historical accuracy, Hume endows her characters with their Celtic and Saxon names – Arthur becomes the original Artor and his queen Guinevere is here known as Wenhaver.
Now in his 60th year, world-weary King Artor has a tendency to dwell on the past rather than make plans for the future and his increasing vulnerability has sown the seeds of discontent.
‘Artor is ready to fall,’ declare the Saxon pagans. The king is too old and too cosy with the Christian church but the malcontents need a symbol to unify the common people and lead them into a popular revolt.
The long-buried, ancient Cup of Bishop Lucius of Glastonbury could change their fortunes if they can convince the sceptical Celts that the Christians stole the cup from the pagan god Ceridwen for their own evil purposes.
Meanwhile, in the cold north of Britain, Artor’s half-sister Morgan, a witch-woman with hatred in her heart, has a vision of a battered tin cup overflowing with blood and she knows that it could wash them all away.
And in far-off Cymru, Taliesin, eldest son of Nimue, the Maid of Wind and Water, is called by ethereal voices to stand with King Artor in Cadbury because the Bloody Cup is soon to come.
The wheel of fortune is slowly starting to turn...and as Cadbury awaits the return of Lord Gawayne’s son Galahad, perhaps the greatest warrior in the world, threats to Artor’s rule could be closer to home than anyone thought.
Epic in scope and full of malevolence and raw adventure, The Bloody Cup is a superb sign-off to a compelling series.
(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)