After enjoying “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” and “Pride and Prometheus,” I kept flipping through that same issue of F&SF and got caught up in “The Twilight Year,” by Sean McMullen. It begins in Britain long after the Romans have left little behind but ruins. The narrator is a bard who seems to have an effect on his host, the priest of a small shrine, similar to the effect of Lefty the Cowboy or Cacafonix the Bard. A third man, Valcian, abruptly joins them. Both challenge the verity of the narrator’s favorite ballads. To which he responds:
“If my ballad says that Arturian won, then Arturian won,” I said firmly. “Some people do not appreciate poetic license.”
So we’re in familiar territory, a story about the possibility that Arthur was based on a historical figure. The characters are also familiar: the trickster bard, the honorable warrior, the degenerate lord. The people and the setting are well realized, and the narrator’s talents show us an amusing take on the legendary nature of King Arthur.
The story adds an intriguing touch of setting it in the year 535, which–as the headnote tells you–may have been a year without summer and the beginning of a decade or so of disastrous weather, possibly caused by an eruption of Krakatoa. The main evidence the characters remark on is red dust coloring the snow. While it’s cool to have bloody snow, I was thrown out wondering whether volcanic dust actually colors anything but sunsets red. (I believe the dust itself is volcanic glass and black.) Still, I liked the idea that this story is only a small part of a worldwide twilight, even if you really need the headnote to put you there.
So never mind the historical record, Arturian won.