(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!


Zimmer Bradley, Marion. The Mists of Avalon.
(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 mind.

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.


Culhwch and Olwen. Found in the Welsh "Mabinogion" story collection, pre-11th century.

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 King. (1885)

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 c.)

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. (15th century)

(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 Winchester Library)

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 century)

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.