With all my mentions of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in previous posts, you might have gathered that I have a thing for Arthuriana. I’m not a romantic type, but when reading bits and pieces of this text during my first year as an English major, the adventures of knights still struck a chord in me.
Ever since, I began reading more books about King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, and there’s a lot of it out there. Some are great, some not so much, and there’s a ton in-between. So, where do you start? Well, you can start anywhere. I’ve started with Le Morte D’Arthur, but you can also start with something more modern. It’s up to you and whatever sparks your interest.
But what about the original text?
Well, here’s the thing with Arthurian fiction — and a lot of folk tales, legends, and mythology, for that matter — there is no original text. These tales used to be told orally, which meant that storytellers would change things depending on their audience or memory — or even their interpretation. It’s only later that these tales were written down and began taking a more ‘definitive’ shape, but even then there is a lot of variety between these sources. It’s a matter of interpretation.
There are a couple of famous old texts worth mentioning, however. I’ve already mentioned Le Morte D’Arthur, which is probably the most influential on what we know as Arthurian fiction today. It gives a very solid basis on the events, characters, and recurring themes of chivalry, courtly love, and morality. Unfortunately, it’s not a very easy read — I daresay that it’s even a bit tedious to get through simply because Malory doesn’t have a very nice and fluid writing style. There’s a lot of repetition and lists you’ll have to slodge through which can get quite long-winded. There is also Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances, which is a bit easier to read, but it’s unfortunately unfinished. It does offer more detail about certain famous tales, such as ‘The Knight of the Cart’ (which, by the way, can be credited with the first appearance of Lancelot). The Vulgate Cycle is also a major source, but a bit tricky to acquire. Finally, there is The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, but only the last couple of pages deal with Arthuriana. It’s still interesting to read because of the story of Merlin and Vortigern, and the text also serves as a starting point for a lot of the later texts. And it has giants. Needless to say, you should take the ‘history’ part with a grain of salt…
Anyway, because there is no real ‘original text’, there are a lot of different interpretations and sources. The texts discussed in the previous paragraph are very Christian, but the legend has its Welsh and Briton roots as well. These influences, as well as more historical angles, can be found in more modern adaptations. Even outside of religious, historical and cultural contexts, focus and genre tend to vary a lot as well. A story can be a traditional ‘knight saves damsels in distress’-stories or Arthur himself keeping the Saxons at bay. It can be a coming-of-age story of whatever character is the focus — each story different in their portrayal of famous characters and events. Mordred is or isn’t the villain, and the same goes for Morgan le Fay and Morgause. There are the traditional romances, incestuous romances, and even romances on the LGBT-spectrum. There are even gender swaps, such as a female Arthur and Mordred in the Japanese Fate-franchise. I’ve even heard of a high school romance, though that doesn’t pique my personal interest. The point is, however: as long as you can justify it, it probably qualifies as Arthurian fiction. I personally think that’s one of the fun things about Arthuriana: the different forms the characters and events will take, and there are a lot of creative interpretations out there.
The same seems to go for names, though.
With all that out of the way, here are some recommendations of Arthurian fiction. If you really want to start with an old and famous text, I’d say go with Le Morte D’Arthur for reasons I’ve already mentioned, but if you want something else? Keep reading, because below is a list of Arthurian fiction that I feel are excellent.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This is also quite a famous book (Disney’s Sword in the Stone has been based on its first story), but I do feel that it’s important to mention. It deals with familiar themes of chivalry and knighthood. To be fair, I almost gave this one up. I felt the first two stories were a bit too whimsical and even childish to my liking, but by the end of the second story its tone picks up a lot. It’s almost as if the story and its themes mature as the book progresses. The fourth and final story, ‘Candle in the Wind’, is actually amazing and has one of the best endings I’ve read in fiction. Ever. There’s a fifth story, ‘Book of Merlyn’, but it was published posthumously. It wasn’t included in my copy and I don’t even dare to read it because I fear it will ruin the book’s beautiful ending.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
This is actually a medieval chivalric romance poem, but I love it. It’s about my favourite character, Sir Gawain, who embarks on a quest and finds himself conflicted between chivalry, honour, temptation, and his nature. The most famous modern translation is by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, but it is actually written by an anonymous medieval poet. There are a lot of different interpretations about this poem, ranging from Christian, Feminist, Postcolonial and even homoerotic views. Its ambiguity is very interesting, but what I like so much about this text is that Gawain is portrayed in a human way without necessarily taking away from his knightly virtues.
The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell
The first installment of The Warlord Chronicles, this is actually a more gritty and historical take on the Arthurian legend. In this trilogy, Arthur is an idealistic warlord capable of keeping the invading Saxons at bay. Some characters such as Nimue play a bigger role in this rendition, while more famous characters are dramatically changed, placed in the background or even removed altogether. It’s a very compelling story told from the point of view of a soldier under Arthur’s command with interesting characters. This trilogy has my favourite portrayal of Guinevere ever.
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
The first installment of a series, the first three starring Merlin. The Crystal Cave is a coming of age for Merlin as he deals with his powers and the politics surrounding Arthur’s ancestors. The books afterwards deal with Merlin orchestrating Arthur’s birth and ascension to the Throne. The setting is very detailed, and I like the roman and pagan influences. The only downside is that the portrayal of gender in this book series is…a bit of a product of its time, in a way. The fourth book in this series, The Last Enchantment, is also worth checking out, by the way, because it has a great and layered portrayal of Mordred. The fifth one was a bit disappointing, though.
The Road to Avalon by Joan Wolf
If you like romance, this is probably the most interesting book on this list for you. It’s about the forbidden romance between Arthur and his half-sister Morgan le Fay (incest happens a lot in Arthurian fiction, especially between these two). What I especially liked was the portrayal of Arthur himself, which is far less perfect and idealistic than what he sometimes turns out to be. Morgan’s portrayal is a bit bland by comparison, however, but she definitely isn’t terrible. I also like how Mordred’s innocence in this book is in stark contrast to the usual interpretations of Arthur’s illegitimate son.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Wait…what? This is probably the more loosely defined Arthurian book on this list, but I do count it as one (even though I hadn’t expected it when I began reading it). It’s actually a very calm story about an elderly couple looking for their son in a post-Arthurian setting, with some mythical/magical realism thrown in, such as mist that causes amnesia. Gawain makes an appearance, and Arthur himself is mentioned, but the Arthurian legend is not the focus in this story. Still, I wanted to include this because it’s a bit different from what you’d usually expect on a list of Arthurian books. That, and it’s a wonderful and interesting story that’s a bit unusual. Just don’t expect a typical fantasy.
Any other great Arthurian books you feel I’ve missed? Do feel free to share them in the comments!