The first Arthurian narrative I ever knew was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I must’ve been… twelve? Anyway. I hated it. I had no idea what was going on, other than randomised stupidity and French people throwing things at the guys who pretended to be on horses (that one made sense because I have read Enid Blyton).
Then I read… I forget what it was. A collection of Arthurian tales. Lots of them concerned Lancelot and Guinevere. I hated those, too.
And then a friend of mine got… sort of… obsessed. With Casseiopeia. I forget the details, but LizardPeople lived somewhere in the vicinity and were… ok, they were either going to invade us or we actually descended from them or we were gonna meet them and have a grand orgy together. I remember being very bewildered. And I went online to investigate, but got sidetracked to a translation of Historia Regum Britanniae (“A History of the Kings of Britain”). And I was hooked, and I worked backwards and forwards from there. It took years, and I’m still not done.
Who was Arthur? It doesn’t matter. The Western world has reinvented him over and over through several centuries. He’s been conflated with extra myths that had nothing to do with him – thank the gods for that, or we wouldn’t have Merlin – and therefore possibly Gandalf, and very likely Dumbledore, and quite possibly Nysander and Professor Diggory Kirk. They all have a bit of Merlin in them, you know. Just as Aragorn, Aileron, Simon and Harry Potter have a bit of Arthur in them. (There’s not much improvement on the originals, though.)
Lessee. My essential list of Arthurian reading would be (skip to 5 if you want the more modern and contemporary stuff):
1. The Mabinogion – this is a collection of old Welsh tales, dating all the way back to the 14th century. They contain references to Arthur and other tales that got appropriated into the Arthurian web a while later. Even if you don’t give a damn for Arthur these are charming narratives, full of magic – however you choose to interpret that 🙂 – and a great depth of feeling. I imagine the original must sound absolutely glorious, because the poetry of it rings clear even in a contemporary English translation.
2. Historia Regum Britanniae (written sometime in the 12th century AD): It’s kinda dull, insane and full of lies. I love it. I cannot explain why. I think it’s because it is insane. The author (Geoffrey of Monmouth) was clearly having a grand old time making up his stories as they went.
3. If you read and like The Mabinogion, Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances (also 12th century, translated from the French) are a must. I think these are the tales that actually inserted Lancelot into the narrative (I think some guy named Bedwyr got displaced as Arthur’s Best Bud), and the Lancelot-Guinevere romance, too. These, so far as I know, are the narratives that established the Arthurian court as a court, with troubadors and knights and Christian love and honour. And adultery and men giving their hearts to cruel women who accepted and rejected them at once.
(I’ve never read the Vulgate Cycle. It’s a pity because I think this is where Morgause, mother of Mordred, shows up.)
4. Now, while I’m willing to let people off on reading all of the preceding, I think that no one who is interested in the contemporary Arthurian “complete” narrative can do without reading Le Morte d’Arthur (“The Death of Arthur”) written by Thomas Mallory sometime in the 15th century. It was written in English, which really, really makes me wonder about the title. (Apparently the publisher had a case of the hard-of-thinkking and gave it the wrong title). Le Morte d’Arthur is interesting as a narrative and if you’d like as an examination of social/economic roles in Mallory’s time. Whatever. It makes for optimistic, hopeful, trusting reading. It’s about love and honour, duty and desire. And it ends in tragedy. You know it does. Ambiguous Maybes at best. And still it holds you, for it is looking at a really, really good man.
5. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (1889). I debated between the Tennyson poems and this one, but come on. Twain was ever so much more readable. Also, this is steampunk. It’s funny steampunk. It’s got bicycles and charlatans. America and England, the young poking fun at the old. There’s just no way you can’t read this novel whether you like Arthur or not!
6. The Once and Future King by T. H. White (1938 – 1958). Whether you love them or hate them, T. H. White set a rather cool standard for Arthurian narratives to follow. He softened the Lancelot-Guinevere romance, steadied the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere relationship. He wrote of a normal man whose greatest virtue was that he loved, and whose greatest flaw was that he was normal, and whose tragedy was that he listened, when he was, to the wrong advice. There is a great nobility in the Arthur he draws here, and it is, perhaps, more accessible than the Arthur we find in earlier books. (I recommend not that you read “The Book of Merlin”, often cited as the fifth book in the sequence, mainly because White took half of it out and put it into the first book (“The Sword and the Stone”); he never rewrote TBoM, though I think he intended to.
7. Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliffe (1963): I don’t actually remember much about this novel save that it was rather gory and it didn’t have Merlin. I do remember liking it very much, though, and I think that when you remove the Merlin figure, much as I love him, Arthur becomes a much less shackled character. (Mary Stewart is one of the few people who completely manages to have Merlin do his full part without making Arthur a dependant and slightly chained figure.)
8. Mary Stewart’s Merlin series (1970-1989): This is, really, my favourite of the lot. Mary Stewart rewrote the Arthurian saga from Merlin’s point of view, for as long as she could make Merlin live. She humanised Merlin, and I think this is the most successful rendering of the man who was a wizard I’ve read. Merlin – the Ideal Merlin, the one we think of when we think of Merlin – served. He counselled, and he guided, and he aided, but when push came to shove he was there so Arthur could be king. Stewart writes a Merlin with those purposes, with human reasons for those purposes. I like it. (The books suffer a tad because Merlin apologises heavily throughout for the sad fate of women in his time. It rings a little off, as though Merlin sort of had a bug in his head whispering: Feminism! Feminism!) I believe you can read just the Merlin trilogy, and leave out That Wicked Day, which is told from the third-person and picks up the tale after Merlin leaves it. It’s not quite as successful in drawing a layered Mordred (which I think it is trying to do), and it makes rather a hash of the Lancelot-Guinevere romance (In these books Lancelot is replaced by Bedwyr, whose correct spelling I have forgotten). The third Merlin novel, however, ends on a wistful, hopeful note. It reminds us that Arthur is forever, and that Merlin is still waiting. It reminds us of all the things that Arthur now stands for, and gives us another man to look to for a role model, should we choose not to lead but rather to serve.
9. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck (1976?): To be honest, this should not be here. Steinbeck never completed it, and he left the damn book on a cliffhanger. Besides, his work was no more and no less than a translation of Mallory’s text into accessible English, and accessible ideas. But it’s so tender a novel, and so humourous, and so beautifully written. Here is where I think the passion between Lancelot and Guinevere, and their ties to Arthur, ring clearest to me. (And it’s really short.)
10. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1979): I don’t personally like this text myself, but it revises the Arthurian saga, un-demonising the central “evil” women characters from the traditional tales, and looking at the pre-Christian religions that may have flourished (she fantasies them up, which annoys me a little, I cannot say why. I think it just felt Not-Really-“Pagan”) before Christianity came in and (perhaps) began to oppress women left right and centre. Readers tend to go either way on this book, and while I don’t like it very much myself I’m glad I’ve read it. Now I know it’s out there. (It does away with Morgause. Arthur has always had an uncomfortable number of sisters, but I like Morgause. I need her.)
Of course, you have to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It hilarious, it’s beautiful, and it reminds us more than anything else in this world that Arthur is a figure who cannot be diminished. He’s always here, and he’s always gonna be here.
Other suggestions include The Book of Taliesin (Taliesin was a sixth century Welsh poet, and some of the poems in tBoT are Arthurian) and A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond – one of the loveliest Taliesin-related contemporary tales I’ve read (aSitH has very little to do with Arthur, though). You could try Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry (1984-1986) (I wish he’d written that entire series around Arthur, to be honest), Stephen Lawhead’s The Pendragon Cycle (1987-1999). (I don’t recommend it myself, but other people seem to like it.) You could try Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen (late 1500s). (Preachy but pretty. It sort of fetishes knights as having particular virtues.)
And last but not least, I link you to “Arthur, King of Time and Space“. Paul Gadzikowski intends to tell the story of Arthur in a webcomic, and he’s going to take about 25 years to do it. (That’s about how long he estimates Arthur to have ruled.) He’s playing around with the story in a way that is really only possible in the webcomic format, and he’s not afraid to give us the gag and the story at one go. He switches genres, time periods and chronologies confusingly and charmingly, and he too reminds us that Arthur and Merlin were people, doing the best – the glorious and hard best – that they could.
Arthur tried. And failed. And he’ll never go away. That’s why we love him.