It befell in the days of Arthur Pendragon that there lived a thief and a lover of men called Tomas, the Red Rose Knight… When Tomas O’Lincoln, half-fairy and outlaw, learns that knights from Camelot hunt him in the forest, he fears he must pay for his crimes. Desperate for shelter, the Enchantress sends him on a reluctant quest to find his way to the Fortress Impenetrable, deep in the darkling heartwood. Only behind the high black walls of the Archimago’s castle will Tomas learn a Truth Most Vital and come face-to-face with his destiny… But is it a destiny he wants?
Bawdy, humorous and magical, ‘The Dust of the Red Rose Knight’ is a queer Arthurian romance from the acclaimed author of The Ben Garston Novels, in the finest tradition that never was.
‘A stylish Arthurian romp offering swords, sorcery and witches seen through a contemporary comic prism.’ — Juliet E McKenna
‘A joyous romp of a thing that will no doubt annoy all the right people. A most excellent addition to Arthurian legend.’ — James Oswald author of ‘The Inspector McLean’ novels
King Arthur never died. Oh, I know that the myths said he did, fallen to his bastard son at the Battle of Camlann and sleeping somewhere in a cave until a time when Britain needs him again. I explored as much in my post-Arthurian trilogy The Ben Garston Novels, published worldwide by Orbit Books. There is still so much to tell in that world, if not directly connected to those stories, and I thank kickass writer Chuck Wendig for letting me waffle about the subject here today.
As I prepared to release my sort-of-spinoff novelette The Dust of the Red Rose Knight, I considered the long history of Arthurian retellings and it was plain to see that, no, Arthur Pendragon, Dux Bellorum, the Bear, Subduer of Giants, Conqueror of Saxon and Pict, the King of All Logres, has been with us the whole time, one of our most abiding mythographies. These stories have always struck me as an example of the noblest heights of human endeavour, along with the peril of pursuing perfection, the poison of betrayal, and eventual downfall. All heady stuff!
Where did you first find Arthur? In the hills? Under a mountain? Travel in Britain and you’ll find Arthur everywhere, from old stones to pub signs to theme parks, each laying claim to our cherished national tradition. For me, I found Arthur in the pages of Susan Cooper’s seminal The Dark Is Rising sequence. Or perhaps in the tales of Roger Lancelyn Green. These tales themselves are retellings, of course, going back centuries to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859) and back again to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) and again to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) and then spinning on into the mists of Welsh myth and who knows how many previous iterations? Arthur has paraded on screen, in music and in comic books throughout the modern era. Hell, you can buy tea towels that feature Arthur. Some historians even suppose that Arthur was a real person, a Romano-Celtic war leader who inspired all of these stories, which Monmouth greatly embellished to give the English nobility some form of numinous and indisputable source.
Yes, King Arthur has always been here, threaded in various shape and form through the famous works of Mark Twain, TH White, Mary Stewart, Rosemary Sutcliff and others. Innocent, martyr, tyrant, zombie (yes, I went there) and more… Visit any bookshop and you’ll find Arthur, most notably in recent times in Bernard Cornwell’s grounded outing The Winter King, Lavie Tidhar’s grimdark take in By Force Alone, the upcoming The Cleaving by Juliet McKenna and the magical gender-swapping of Nicola Griffth’s standout 2022 novel Spear. Fair to say that Arthur is hardly dozing under a rock somewhere. Nope. Our particularly British adaptation of the Bible myth (messiah, betrayal, reincarnation – it’s all there) has remained a central, vital and possibly immortal part of our collective cultural consciousness for age upon age.
We all know Arthur, don’t we? As a character, he’s impressive, a Chosen One from a backwater briar who pulled a sword from a stone and rose to a shimmering throne, but he’s perhaps too well-trodden to write about distinctly. Thankfully, there were offshoots from the central saga that have gone overlooked, forgotten, dusty and lingering on the fringes of classical literature. One such figure is Tom a Lincoln, that ‘ever renowned soldier’, the Red Rose Knight. The Most Pleasant History of Tom a Lincoln was an Arthurian oddity written in two parts in the late 16th and early 17th century by a (then) well-known Elizabethan writer called Richard Johnson. Johnson himself became more obscure than the character in question and not much is known about him these days. We know he lived in London, an apprentice and later freeman who was the author of chapbooks, almanacs and devotionals that featured the Nine Worthies and the Champions of Christendom, the fantastical adventures of the saints who served as the superheroes of the day. It seems that Johnson, popular at the time, is rather eclipsed by Shakespeare when it comes to our historical regard.
During the upheaval of the 17th century, the Arthurian tradition fell out of favour, with the notion of kings and queens itself coming under attack (and some overthrown and beheaded to boot). Back then, Arthur became more of a political device than a romantic one, the followers of James I heralding him as the ancestor and heir of the legendary king, a dubious claim at best. When James made a bid for absolute power, his fabled origin got trashed as a result with many insisting that Britain was in fact a Saxon nation, founded upon the ancient laws of those people, and thereby distancing themselves from a perceived Welsh and Celtic threat. As the dispute exploded into civil war, Arthur got ‘cancelled’ and all but vanished from the literary scene, sinking into the smoke and mists of history. Ironically, after 1634 saw the publication of Sir Thomas Malory’s weighty and tragic epic Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur himself didn’t fully re-emerge from his cave for two whole centuries.
And Tom a Lincoln was politely forgotten. When you consider Johnson’s bastardisation of the original text, a winding yarn about a low-born hero, plus the non-canonical mash-up of mythical figures ranging from Prester John to Robin Hood (not to mention the themes of theft, adultery and cannibalism(!) in the tale), it isn’t hard to see why his prose was popular at the time, challenging as it does the divine right of kings and poking fun at the nobility. Nor why the prudish Victorians coughed behind their handkerchiefs and swept poor Tom under the rug. The grand revival of the myth in those times left the Red Rose Knight in the dust.
Today, scholars regard Tom in less than glowing terms. Seen through the lens of a modern perspective, The Most Pleasant History of Tom a Lincoln is admittedly critical of aristocracy, a misogynistic and staunchly anti-romantic outing that while reprinted several times in its own era was never going to make the cut in a more forward-thinking and inclusive world. But the figure of Tom himself remains fascinating nonetheless. If one were to draw on the essential threads of it, rework it into a modern retelling and naturally, queer it to kingdom come, then surely one might redeem the character – after a fashion – and present him afresh for today’s audiences.
Have to say, the idea appealed. When Alistair Sims of Books on the Hill contacted me about his ongoing ‘dyslexia-friendly books for adults’ campaign, I fired up my chaos engines and decided to have a crack at it. Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects reading and writing skills. The NHS estimates that up to 1 in every 10 people in the UK have some form of dyslexia, while other dyslexic organisations believe that more than 2 million people in the country are severely affected by the condition, from children to adults, and ostensibly many more worldwide. To call on major publishers to consider releasing dyslexia-friendly books struck me as an inclusive, progressive and noble cause, and the campaign has garnered much praise in the national press, attracting works from bestselling authors such as Peter James, Bernard Cornwell and Gareth Powell (Further information can be found here: https://www.booksonthehill.co.uk/dyslexic-friendly-books-for-adults-/)
And now it’s my turn with Tom a Lincoln. As a lifelong sufferer of dyscalculia, the numerical form of dyslexia, and with a love of all things Arthurian, I put my mind to writing something for the campaign. The result was The Dust of the Red Rose Knight, a fairy tale romp for adult readers in which I was able to retain Tom’s wayward, raunchy and fiercely independent character and send him forth on a brand new adventure. The historical resonance that Tom is doing so in a slender volume much like an Elizabethan chapbook isn’t lost on me. Our dubious hero gallops out of the past in red leather armour with a macaw feather stuck in his cap, mischief in his heart and an eye for the knights. At heart, this is a tale of gay emancipation, high adventure and derring-do, and it’s as gleefully anti-romantic as it gets in these terms. But what fun! And it’s such an honour to add, in my own small way, to the long, rich history of Arthurian retellings.
You see, Arthur isn’t dead. Far from it. Nor is Tom. Nor is any old story that finds a reader, brought back to life whenever we crack open a book.
I hope readers enjoy The Dust of the Red Rose Knight. Perhaps, if fortune is kind, then Tom a Lincoln will ride out again.
James Bennett is a British writer raised in Sussex and South Africa. His travels have furnished him with an abiding love of diverse cultures, history and mythology. His short fiction has appeared internationally and his debut novel ‘Chasing Embers’ was shortlisted for Best Newcomer at the British Fantasy Awards 2017. His latest fiction can be found in the well-received ‘The Book of Queer Saints’, BFS Horizons and The Dark magazine. Novella ‘The Dust of the Red Rose Knight’ comes out in March 2023 and a short story collection ‘Preaching to the Perverted’ is set to follow next year from esteemed publisher Lethe Press.
James lives in the South of Spain where he’s currently working on a new novel.
James Bennett: Twitter
The Dust of the Red Rose Knight: Amazon