A.A. Attanasio, Alfred Tennyson, Arthurian Romances, Chretien de Troyes, Idylls of the King, King Arthur, King of Ages, Le Morte D'Arthur, Medievalist Monday, Nancy McKenzie, Queen of Camelot, Sir Thomas Malory, T.H. White, The Dragon and the Unicorn, The Once and Future King
I have been enamored with the legend of King Arthur since I was a child, a fascination that continues still to this day. Over the years I have read the stories in many iterations and seen a handful of movies and television shows. As I have been working my way back through T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, I thought it would be a good time to cover some of the Medieval source material for the legend, as well as some more modern telling that I have enjoyed.
Before we begin, here are a few of the Medieval sources I will not be discussing in depth since I have not read them personally, nor do I know much beyond that they contain references, or pieces of, the Arthurian legend. The three I’ll mention are Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, Layamon’s Brut, and the Welsh telling found in the Mabinogion.
- Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory. This here is the source of all major source material for the King Arthur legends. It is truly epic in its scope and material, but the method of storytelling back then was more episodic in nature than the novels we are used to reading today. This makes it both difficult for a modern reader to sit and enjoy, yet also makes it easy to pick up and read in short spurts. If you crave lengthy details and a straightforward, continuous narrative without seeming plot holes (such as a person who died in Book II reappearing in a later book) than this one might be a struggle. But oh how wonderful this book is to read! I cannot wait to dive in a second time, this time being the Norton Critical Edition.
- Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes. This is composed of five tales, Erec and Enide, Cligés, The Knight of the Cart, The Knight with the Lion, and The Story of the Grail. These were all written by the French author, de Troyes, who is said to have been the first to write about the Holy Grail quest. That just so happens to be one of my favorite tales, and is one of the best-known Arthurian stories out there. He wrote these in the 12th century, which predates Mallory by a few centuries and I understand there are some clear inspirations for Mallory in here. It is the next book I plan to read as soon as I finish The Once and Future King and cannot wait to find out how this stacks up to the others on this list.
- Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson. I find that I can relate a lot to Tennyson, as he was also a life-long fan of the Arthurian legend. He spent twenty years working on the composition of these twelve epic poems, which are lyrical and elegant and absolutely enjoyable to read. He hits upon many of the major stories in the Arthurian legend, though he clearly could hit upon them all in twelve poems. In many ways he embodied King Arthur with the virtues valued by his Victorian time period. Overall this is a fantastic read worth having in any collection.
- The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Of course this also would need to be considered a required reading for King Arthur. Drawing much inspiration from Mallory, even at times directly referencing Mallory’s works and pointing the reader there for a full, better description of the events that transpire. The first part of this book is clearly where Disney pulled inspiration for parts of their Sword in the Stone cartoon adaptation, which should be a comfortable and comforting beginning. Part one follows Arthur as a young child being raised in King Ector’s court and ends around the time that Arthur becomes the king. Part two focuses primarily on the Orkney children and King Pellinore/the Questing Beast. Part three is heavily about Sir Lancelot, including his relations with Guinevere and Elaine, and also includes the Grail quest. The last part concerns the final weeks of Arthur’s reign as king. This one is a great one and a solid place to begin because it has a foot in the Medieval inspiration and one in the modern tellings.
And then for those interested in modern retellings that stray from the usual approach seen in the four works above, these are two of the best and most unique I have encountered so far.
- Queen of Camelot by Nancy McKenzie. This book takes the approach of following Guinevere from her birth on through the entire series of events. While I know many look to Bradley’s Mists of Avalon for a female-led Arthurian story I found that I simply couldn’t get into Bradley’s tale. I pushed on for half the book before finally setting it aside. Which makes me appreciate McKenzie’s telling even more, as I found this one nearly ten years ago and have loved it since. It was, for a long time, the first book I would recommend to everyone and I am yet to have someone read it and be disappointed. Which means that you should read it, too.
- The Dragon and the Unicorn by A.A. Attanasio. This one is interesting. Perhaps the most unique King Arthur telling I have ever read so far, this one captured my imagination years ago. I suppose I can do no better at selling this than the blurb, apart from emphasizing that this one was ridiculously good, and that there are four books in the series and it’ll be memorable!
This epic retells Arthurian legend with a cosmic spin. Old as the Big Bang, the demon Lailoken assumes human form in Roman Britain as Celts battle Saxons for mastery. The witch-queen he serves calls him Merlinus and sends him to find her true love. Led by a unicorn and hunted by a dragon vast as the planet, Merlinus matches wits with gods and elves as he weaves the destiny of the most famous king.
3. King of Ages: A King Arthur Anthology. Yes, I had to include this one here. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet of this anthology of stories, you are missing out on an interesting collection. Merlin lives backwards through time (something that is also present in The Once and Future King) and each story places Merlin and Arthur at some point in time together. My own story, “The Saga of Artur Uthersson”, is in here along with many other excellent stories. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, this is going to be FREE tomorrow through Thursday (6/21/16-6/23/16) on the Kindle, so be sure to snag it while you can!
What are your favorite Arthurian stories? Have you read any of the ones on this list? Are there ones I missed that you would recommend?