Bookish Villainy’s Guide to Arthurian Fiction

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.

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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…

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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.

43545The 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.

Gawain-and-the-Green-Knight-tolkienSir 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.

fdaa13c5-f644-4036-8a49-4a1dc2cf03fdimg100The 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-CaveThe 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.

692969The 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 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.

buriedgiant_ishiguroThe 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 interest story that’s a bit different. 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!

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My most anticipated reads for 2017!

Happy new year everyone!

This is usually the time for making resolutions, and though I’ve set some goals for my personal life, I don’t actually have any reading goals other than trying to complete my GoodReads reading challenge (which I’ve set to 40 books). I usually read whatever I’m in the mood for with hardly any planning. Nonetheless, there are some books I’m definitely looking forward to reading. So here’s a list of my most anticipated reads of 2017 — and who knows, maybe I will have read all of these by the end of the year?

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Before the Feast by Saša Stanišić
I do like the occasional magical realism, and I’ve seen this on a list of recommendations of the genre. I don’t know anything about the book other than its genre and what little I’ve read on the blurb, so I’ll be going in completely blind.

Genre: magical realism

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Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

I doubt this is a surprise for anyone who has read my review about Ancillary Justice, but I definitely can’t wait until I have a chance to read its sequel.

Genre: science fiction (space opera)

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Het smelt by Lize Spit
I was a bit hesitant to include a Dutch novel (by a Flemish author), but I find the blurb so intriguing that I couldn’t help myself. Apparently, an English translation is coming up anyway. The title translates to ‘It’s melting’ and it’s a revenge story with a woman as its main character. I’m quite curious!

Genre: contemporary

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Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski
I’ve already read the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, so I would like to continue reading this series. Especially because I have the video game The Witcher III: Wild Hunt lying around as well!

Genre: fantasy

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Traitor’s Blade by Sabastien de Castell
I won a signed copy of this book (along with its sequel, A Knight’s Shadow) through a give-away by the American Book Center. The setting seems entirely up my alley, so I definitely want to check this out in the near future.

Genre: fantasy

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Pet Sematary by Stephen King
I have quite the list of books by Stephen King to read, but this one is on my shortlist. I actually started reading this last year, but after one of my dogs died I couldn’t bear reading about dead animals for  a while. I hope to give this one a try this year — and if not, I want to at least read one book by Stephen King!

Genre: horror

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Taliesin by Stephen R. Lawhead
I’ve seen this series on various lists involving Arthurian books, so I really want to check it out. It apparently involves a historical approach (correct me if I’m wrong?), which I find an interesting angle to take when it comes to Arthurian fiction. Plus, it’d be nice to read something Arthuriana again without a thesis looming over my head.

Genre: fantasy, historical

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Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas
Throne of Glass was perhaps one of the books I was surprised to have enjoyed so much — especially because young adult can be a hit-and-miss for me. I really liked the setting and the main character, so I want to see how this develops throughout the series.

Genre: young adult, fantasy

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf
I keep meaning to read this for years, so I intend to finally get around to it this year! I didn’t quite enjoy Mrs. Dalloway  by Woolf, but the subject material of this book seems a lot more interesting. Woolf was a remarkable person and I’ve read a bit of her essays, so I definitely want to give Orlando a chance.

Genre: contemporary

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The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
I love The Warlord Chronicles by this author, so it makes sense that I would check out his other book series that include a Saxon. I have about five books of this series sitting on my shelf, so I want to start reading it in the near future.

Genre: historical

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The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Another book that has been on my TBR list for ages, but haven’t gotten around to yet. My best friend has read this book and keeps recommending it to me, so I should definitely check it out some time soon. It want to see the anime Gankutsuo as well, which is based on this classic, but I want to have read the book first. Finally, it’s a revenge story and I tend to enjoy those.

Genre: classics

What about you? Any particular plans for this year? Books you definitely want to read? Feel free to share them in the comments.

My favourite reads of 2016!

With December and 2016 nearly drawing to a close, it’s that time of the year again for reflection. It hasn’t exactly been the greatest year ever for me, but I did manage to finish 43 books. Considering I had been busy with my master degree and my thesis the first half of 2016, I’m still surprised by the amount of books I’ve managed to finish. I don’t think I’ll finish more books in the next few days, so I thought it’d be fun to make a list of my favourite reads of the year. This list doesn’t include any books I’ve reread. Also, these books are in no particular order and they have not been necessarily released this year.

 

51p0v6v97l-_sx308_bo1204203200_The Redbreast (Harry Hole #3) by Jo Nesbø
Genre: crime (Scandinavian)

I’ve read this book for an elective about crime fiction. It was the very first Scandinavian crime novel I’ve ever read, and man, did it leave a good impression. It requires some suspension of disbelief when it comes to the culprit, but the characters are interesting, there are multiple POV even across various time spans, and the narrative includes a historical angle that exposes the role of Norway in WWII. I would definitely like to read more by this author.

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on Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: science fiction (post-apocalyptic)

As I’ve already mentioned in my review, this was easily among my favourite novels of the year. The lovely prose, the interesting setting, the wonderful characters, and the way the narrative unfolds with POVs across different points in time made this an amazing read. I also loved the way the book argues that mere survival in a dangerous and fallen world is not enough, and how a comic and the plays by Shakespeare still survived.

 

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Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Genre: young adult (contemporary, lgbt)

I’m not a fan of romance fiction, but this was packaged in such a remarkable way that I still decided to read it. Okay, and the recommendation by a coworker might have done the trick. Though Albertalli does not shy away from issues like homophobia, in the end this is an adorable and heartwarming story about friendship and family, and includes a very sweet romance. It was nice to read a happy book dealing with this subject material!

 

20955368The Republic of Thieves (Gentleman Bastard #3) by Scott Lynch
Genre: fantasy

I love this series because of the interesting characters and their interactions and the amazing worldbuilding. This third installment of Lynch’s series involving con artist Locke Lamora definitely doesn’t disappoint. There’s plenty of action, scheming, (political) intrigue, witty remarks, and heartwarming moments that made me love the previous two books. Also, this book finally included the amazing Sabetha. Can’t wait for The Thorn of Emberlain!

 

51nln7yvmnl-_sx325_bo1204203200_The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Genre: historical/fantasy-ish

Though this book was admittedly a little style over substance, the beautiful prose more than makes up for this (for lack of a better term) “flaw”. There isn’t much character development in this novel, and the plot is a little thin. However, this book is not about the characters or telling a story. It’s about a thing, the titular Night Circus, the atmosphere the prose and its subject matter manages to convey, and the effect it has on its (fictional and actual) audience. The magical duel of its characters and its thin plot are merely a device to paint a very intriguing circus.

 

leckie_ancillaryjustice_tpAncillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1) by Ann Leckie
Genre: science fiction (space opera)

As mentioned in my review, this was a book that made me think. Though this is a wonderful space opera with action and political intrigue with an AI of a ship as its main character, Ancillary Justice also questions gender and identity.  Though initially confusing, partly due to its gender ambiguity, and definitely not an easy read, this is definitely a novel that will stay with me over the years. I can’t wait to read the other two parts of this trilogy.

 

So, this includes my list of my favourite books of 2016. There were plenty of other books I also enjoyed, but that would make this list way too long, so I ended up limiting myself to the ones I felt were the most interesting. What were your favourite books this year? Anything that was particularly interesting? Let me know in a comment below.