Where new writing finds its voice

The Pendragon Legend

Hannah McSorley

By Antal Szerb
Pushkin Press, 2006

If life were just, The Pendragon Legend would be as famous as The Da Vinci Code. Antal Szerb’s novel is certainly the equal of Dan Brown’s thrill-wise, with a better story and richer, funnier writing. Like The Da Vinci Code, this book plays on the popular, exciting notion that the rich would stop at nothing to defend their wealth and secrets, to create a romp of breathtaking pace and humour in an invented corner of history where the identities and preoccupations of the past are hopelessly enmeshed with those of the present. Various genres including the romance novel and gothic horror are mercilessly satirised in the process.

Our narrator is the always amusing, yet rarely insightful, Hungarian scholar-dilettante Janos Batky, who entertains us with endless revelations, never quite as frank as he thinks, of his various exploits and desires. His cocktail-drinking, anecdote-spinning existence is interrupted by a chance encounter with the notoriously reclusive Earl of Gwynedd, who immediately issues Janos with an invitation to his Welsh castle. The Earl is beset by rumours, both about his personal life and his rôle in a bloody and mysterious family history.

The Pendragon legend concerns ‘the night rider’, or spirit of the sixth earl who stalks the night avenging past misdeeds. The family are associated with the proto-masonic secret society the Rosicrucians. Once inside the decidedly uncomfortable castle, Janos meets the dreadful Cynthia, and plays out a cringing pastiche of a romance with her. Cynthia is a hopelessly romantic aristo-academic who leaps upon Janos in the mistaken belief that he’s learned. The Earl himself is a cold host who spends his days and nights conducting mysterious experiments, leaving Janos with Cynthia and his heir, the frigid and cagey Osborne. The hapless Hungarian also has to contend with the company of a violent Irish rock climber, and a woman whose sexual prowess can drive men to the very brink of madness. Eccentric as they are, these characters are positively conventional when compared to the army of oversized servants who stalk the castle corridors by night. The mortal inhabitants are repeatedly woken in the middle of the night by awful apparitions, their luggage is raided and an attempt made on the Earl’s life.

Janos develops a dangerous fascination with the myth and its modern day protagonists. He soon finds himself fighting faceless enemies on behalf of the Earl in clandestine manuscript exchanges at the British Museum and in the arms of the greatest lover of his life, yet it becomes hard to trust either the Earl or his mysterious adversaries. The last sequence of the novel sees Janos treading a fearful path into the darkest forest in Wales in search of the truth behind the fantasy, and I would well advise you to follow close behind him.

The Pendragon Legend flings the most unlikely people into the path of greatness and adventure. Janos is excellent company for the reader; and parody upon parody of the country house murder mystery format makes this a hilarious page-turner, with no shortage of bumps in the night. The reader will pick up the book thinking to have a quick dip and emerge blinking, having raced through its 300 pages within a sitting. If you aren’t scared by the paranormal in your literary diet, this is a true classic and not to be missed.