(Copyright © Heather M. Dale, 1997)
The King Arthur (or Arthurian) legends have been passed along by an oral storytelling tradition since the 6th century. The stories have been told in both castles and huts, embellished by trained Bards and Ol’ Grandad alike, resulting in a lively legend with thousands of variations.
But the written accounts that have survived from the Middle Ages can sometimes be difficult to get into. And reasonably so, as they were written for a very different audience than today’s reader. One way to liven them up is to read them to children, stopping frequently for "description breaks". Children can have great imaginations; let them tell you what they see at the Grand Tournament or at Arthur’s Christmas Feast! In general, the older the stories, the more purely adventure-oriented they are. The early Welsh storytellers loved to throw in giants and witches into their tales, and many a Knight has had to battle his way into a castle to save a fair damsel. And feel free to spice up your storytelling with new variations; there is no "one true way" to tell the story of King Arthur!
Modern fiction has produced some exciting and innovative tellings of the legends. Two main trends I’ve noticed in 20th century Arthurian fiction are the "Realism School", whose writers place the story of Arthur in a realistic Dark Ages setting (often with a dash of Old Magic), and the "Feminist School", whose writers reinterpret the female Arthurian characters as strong and complex women. Recent film and TV adaptations seem to favour the purely legendary and magical "castles in the mist" idea (i.e. 1995 "First Knight" film, the 1998 "Merlin" TV-movie). There’s a lot of variety nowadays, so don’t be afraid to look around until you find a style that you enjoy.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started on the road to Camelot!
RECOMMENDED MODERN FICTION:
Zimmer Bradley, Marion. The Mists of
(Del Rey/Ballantine, New York, 1982)
A very powerful interpretation of the whole
Arthurian saga, using the perspectives of the female characters. Zimmer Bradley
tells the tale against the backdrop of religious conflict between the Morgaine’s
Old Celtic and Guinevere’s New Christian faiths, and has a knack for weaving
tragedy out of the fallible humanity of each character.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Summer Tree, The
Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road.
(Collins, Toronto, 1984, 1986, 1986)
This fantasy trilogy incorporates an
interesting twist on the "once and future King" idea, even though It
isn’t immediately apparent (Arthur and his chums don’t even appear in the
first book). By far the best feature of this epic trilogy is Guy Gavriel Kay’s
incredibly poetic use of the language; his writing is very close to actual epic
storytelling and can only be described as beautiful.
Stewart, Mary. The Crystal Cave, The
Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment.
(Coronet Books, London, 1970, 1973, 1979)
A down and dirty account of Merlin’s youth
in the war-torn 6th century. Mary Stewart has created a realistic
feel for her story, based on her research and speculations about life in Dark
Ages Britain. Born with Second Sight, Merlin grows up in the shadow of his
parenthood: a Welsh Princess and her avowed "demon-lover". His
heritage propels him into the plots of kings and warlords, and he discovers some
remarkable things about himself even as he shapes the future of Britain.
Whyte, Jack. The Skystone. (Sequel: The
Singing Sword, and more all the time)
(Penguin, Toronto, 1992, 1993)
I never thought I would love this book. On
first glance, The Skystone looked rather dry and overly concerned with
the tactics of Roman armies. But Whyte’s writing is surprisingly engaging, as
Varrus, a centurion-turned-smith, tells us of his role in the fight to keep the
last remnants of British-Roman civilization safe from the advancing barbarians.
A good read, and fascinating to anyone interested in the workings of the Roman
Sampson, Fay. Wise Woman’s Telling,
White Nun’s Telling, Black Smith’s Telling.
(Headline, London, 1989, 1989, 1990)
Like Mary Stewart, Fay Sampson goes for a
realistic 6th century setting in her novels. She tells the story of
Morgan’s turbulent youth and womanhood from three different perspectives, all
from people who have been bound to her in some fashion. I very much liked the
oral storytelling style of the books; I could easily imagine hearing it
firsthand by the fire on a cold winter’s night.
White, T.H. The Sword in the Stone
(1939). (also The Once and Future King, 1958)
This classic could just as easily be in the
"literature" section; it is a funny and adventurous look at Arthur’s
youth with his eccentric tutor Merlin. The Sword in the Stone is often treated
as a children’s story, but it is well worth a read by anyone who wants to take
a light-hearted look at Arthur and at the life of early English schoolboys.
RECOMMENDED EASILY-READABLE LITERATURE:
Culhwch and Olwen.
Found in the Welsh "Mabinogion" story collection, pre-11th
The Welsh storytellers sure knew how to send
their characters on a good romp! This is a great adventure tale where young
Culhwch (KULL-ookh) wants to marry the Giant King’s beautiful daughter Olwen,
but her father sends him on two dozen impossible quests first. King Arthur’s
knights help Culhwch triumph over mad boars, giants, and witches, then they
cheerfully chop off the Giant King’s head, freeing Olwen for marriage.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight. (in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo;
Christopher Tolkien, ed.; Unwin, London, 1975, 1979)
Besides writing about Hobbits and Wizards,
Tolkien was a well-respected Arthurian scholar. His translation of the anonymous
15th century tale of brave Sir Gawain is a good read, and has a
wonderful poetic style. The Green Knight barges into Arthur’s feasthall and
challenges the Knights to try and cut off his head, which Gawain successfully
does. The headless giant tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year’s
time for the same treatment, and the adventure begins!
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Idylls of the
If ever there was a true poet, Lord Tennyson
was he. This is his powerful telling of the legend, written in the Victorian
"Golden Age" of colonialism (which also saw some of the best
illustrators and painters turn to Arthurian themes). While Tennyson is rather
unsympathetic to the female characters, he paints a passionate Camelot full of
smouldering desires and betrayal. Lots of fun, and it rhymes!
Tristan and Isolt (versions by
Gottfried von Strassburg, 13th c., and Thomas of Britain, 12th
Ah, the most tragic of love stories. Tristan
is sent to collect his uncle’s Irish fiancée, Isolt (or Iseult, or Isotta, or…)
but they accidentally drink a love potion and fall irrevocably in love. They
spend the next few years vainly fighting their desires, while trying to hide
them from Isolt’s husband, King Mark. Some versions end with Mark discovering
them and killing Tristan (only to have Isolt die of a broken heart), though
Thomas of Britain’s unique ending has Tristan poisoned in a faraway land and
Isolt arriving too late to heal him. She dies of grief, but two vines rise from
their graves and entwine together for eternity.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Morte D'Arthur.
(Two versions available: original Medieval
15th c. Caxton edition; also Eugene Vinaver's 20th c.
edition based on Malory’s unedited manuscript discovered in 1924 in the
A word of warning: don’t read the whole
thing, and don’t necessarily start at the beginning. Malory’s epic
masterpiece has some rather rambling and confusing sections (like the whole
story of the Holy Grail), but his skill at creating an air of heroism and
tragedy is unparalleled. Find a story you enjoy, and then read Malory’s
version of it! (Hint: The final battle between Mordred and Arthur is excellent.)
Troyes, Chrétien de. Lancelot (The
Knight of the Cart), Perceval (The Story of the Grail), Erec and
Enide, Cligés, Yvain (The Knight with the Lion) (12th
These are classic quest stories, though fairly
heavy on the courtly romance. They can be a bit slow-moving in some
translations, but would make great abbreviated bedtime stories for children. The
Knight of the Cart tells how the newcomer Lancelot pursued and rescued
Queen Guinevere from her kidnappers, and Perceval tells the tale of a
comically bumbling young man who decides to become a knight, and eventually
becomes a respected member of the Round Table.
Copyright 1997, Heather Dale. All rights reserved.