Meeting King Arthur

No, I haven’t actually met the man! A reader in Canada has asked me to recommend some reading on the subject of King Arthur: he’d like to know more.

Well, I’ll try. The only problem is, people all over the world have been adding to this story for over 1,000 years, and it’s hard to know where to begin. But at least you’ll never run out of cool stuff to read.

Here are some of my recommendations. Believe me, you can start anywhere.

Le Morte D’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory. This was the first book ever printed in English, in 1485, and it’s still great. Countless Arthur novels, movies, TV shows, plays, and poems have been based on it. If you’re worried about getting bogged down in the old-fashioned language, there are many modern English versions available. And it’s a big book, too–Sir Tom tried to tell the whole story from beginning to end.

The Once and Future King, by T.H. White. A little cute for my taste, but it’s always been tremendously popular. The hit musical Camelot and the Disney movie, The Sword in the Stone, were based on it.

Arthur Rex, by Thomas Berger (who wrote Little Big Man). Fast-paced, just a bit flip, and lots of fun–if you can live with a little irreverence thrown in.

The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth–A runaway international best-seller when it came out in 1136: not an easy thing to achieve, before the invention of the printing press. There’s a very nice paperback edition by Penguin Books. No one had more influence than Geoffrey on the development of the King Arthur story (which occupies about two-thirds of his book): Geoffrey also “invented” Merlin. Don’t be intimidated by the antiquity of this book–there’s a reason why people almost 1,000 years ago went to so much trouble to get it. Highly entertaining!

If you get really curious about Arthur–sooner or later you’re going to ask, “Well, what really happened?”–I recommend two books by Norma Lorre Goodrich, Arthur and Merlin. Mainstream scholars sort of hate her, probably because she operates from the premise that Geoffrey of Monmouth mostly told the truth, and from there goes on to try to prove it. Any time you want to get a serious scholar cheesed off at you, just invoke the name of Geoffrey–and then duck. Nevertheless, Goodrich’s arguments are ingenious and reasonable, and these books will get your brain cranking.

OK, now you’ve got a few years’ worth of reading, and I didn’t even mention Mary Stewart or Gillian Bradshaw or Bernard Cornwell. Along the way, you’ll bump into many others. The treasure is inexhaustible.

Bon appetit!

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