One of the most political King Arthur stories is the basis for the upcoming Magic: The Gathering expansion, Wilds of Eldraine. Roy Graham, lead writer at Wizards of the Coast, sat down with Play Gamez at MagicCon Minneapolis to talk about the stories that inspired the new set. He talked about how T.H. White’s The Once and Future King informed both the whimsy and darker sides of the plane of Eldraine.
Eldraine couples Arthurian legends with Grimms’ fairy tales and other European fables. Magic players first journeyed there in 2019 with Throne of Eldraine, a set announced with a lighthearted trailer featuring a pair of animated cookies. Throne of Eldraine focused on the courtly life there, whereas the newer Wilds of Eldraine focuses instead on the fictional land’s wildernesses, filled with fantasy creatures like elves, fairies, and goblins. It might seem like an unlikely pairing, but White’s retelling of Arthurian legend makes The Once and Future King the perfect template for this particular Magic story.
White’s novel tells the story of King Arthur, named Wart in this interpretation, as an orphan boy. The collection largely follows his early education, a lot of which is surprisingly political. In one section, Merlyn transforms Wart into various animals to teach him important lessons about various political systems. Of course, White wrote the books during and in the aftermath of World War II. Many critics argue that his stories contain potent political messages, biting then and still relevant in modern times. Graham agrees.
“I’m a huge King Arthur fan,” Graham told Play Gamez, “It’s a really fascinating book, I think, because the beginning is a very sort of childish adventure where Arthur is getting turned into a bird to learn about fascism by Merlyn, and it’s very charming. It’s very whimsical. And then the second half of that book is incredibly dark. Arthur dies at the end of the story and he’s betrayed by his closest comrades.”
A portion of the Wilds of Eldraine story follows Will Kenrith and his twin sister, Rowan, following the death of their father, Eldraine’s king. The two seek to unite a fragmented land that a witch named Eriette has cursed, shrouding the land with evil. Much like Wart, Will takes up his father’s sword to try and rescue his homeland, but Rowan thinks she can instead wield magical power to undo the witch’s devastation. The story, which will play out in serialized bits of fiction by K. Arsenault Rivera on the Magic website, evokes some of the same emotions as White’s own retelling of Arthurian legend:
“All of the anger she’d felt then, watching her father die, all of the sorrow she’d felt after—as current through a wire she lets them course through her, unimpeded. But there is something else coming along with the anger, the sorrow. Something new and terrible. Rowan knows it not, yet like poison it courses through her veins, setting her afire.”
For Graham, this dichotomy between the childlike nature of The Once and Future King’s earliest stories and its dark themes later on formed a fitting match for the duality of Eldraine.
“It was an interesting balance,” he continued, reflecting on the process, “to tell a story that has the kind of whimsy and the silliness that a lot of people expect from Eldraine, while still keeping true to [that warlike theme]. It was an interesting line to walk, and I think the story is darker, and it’s more serious than the last trip to the plane.”
Play Gamez asked Graham, given the dark tone of the story, if there was any space for hope.
“There’s definitely hope. Absolutely,” he said, emphatically. “I don’t want to say too much because the story is not out yet, but I think Will and Rowan’s story is the darker half of the story. There’s another character who has yet to be revealed, but that is doing a lot of the heavy lifting on Eldraine as this sort of whimsical fairy tale. Which, you know, they generally have good endings — at least in the versions we’re taught as Americans.”
Wilds of Eldraine arrives digitally for Magic: The Gathering Arena on Sept. 5, with a physical release set for Sept. 8. More portions of the story by K. Arsenault Rivera are available online. You can download The Phyrexian Arc, the previous narrative arc for Magic: The Gathering, as a free ebook.