Discovering King Arthur

By: E.J. Lawrence

The legend of King Arthur is one that has endured for over a thousand years. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, also known as History of the Kings of Britain, popularized the legend around 1130 and has spawned hundreds of stories, plays, movies, and television shows. The book is not solely about Arthur, but it did endeavor to trace Britain’s history back to Aeneas and the fall of Troy, thus establishing Britain as having Classical roots. This origin story is seen in many of the Arthur tales. The blending of Greek, Roman, Welsh, Celtic, and Gaelic mythologies makes the legend distinctive because it does not belong to any one specific country or culture, but to many different ones all at once.

The evolution of the Arthur tales is particularly interesting, as they are primarily a written tradition. Rather than evolving like a game of telephone, the Arthurian legend evolves in the hands of each writer, almost like a pen and paper role-playing game. I often refer to Arthur as “the first fan fiction,” since anyone could put their mark on a story. In the days before copyright, when anonymous writers were the rule instead of the exception, all it took was a pen to expand the realm of Camelot.

With so many different versions of the legend spanning over a millennium, many wonder where to start exploring the legend. Without knowing the tastes of the reader, this is difficult to say. Also, there are so many King Arthur works out there that few can claim to have read them all. Thus, there is no "best" version. However, here are ten good texts to start with (or explore more thoroughly), and the reasons why they’re worth your time.

The Most Comprehensive

Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory

Once the Arthurian text, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is a complete rendering of the King Arthur story, from the conception of King Arthur to his death, and even a bit after. This version of the legend includes Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, the Lancelot/Guinevere affair, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the final battle between Arthur and Mordred. Prior to Malory, most versions focused on one of the aspects (and may have even mentioned others), but none really put all of them together as completely as Malory did.

I always make this my first recommendation, especially to people who are only somewhat familiar with the legend, or who only know it from pop culture. It’s also a fairly easy read, written in the straightforward medieval style, which demanded action-oriented sequences over any sort of internal character monologues.

To speak to the potential difficulties a modern reader might have with the text, it is different. It’s not a novel. There is no linear timeline, it doesn’t follow one main character, and there’s no such thing as a point-of-view character. It’s plot driven, and loves to linger over intense (and gruesome) battle scenes, with very little of what 21st century writers would call character development. That said, Malory is ahead of his time in his ability to write poetic prose. And while it’s true that his style is generally straightforward, he will occasionally stop the action to muse for a few paragraphs over philosophical ideas such as love or loyalty. His passage on “Love in Summer” is particularly powerful. So even fans of lyrical wording can appreciate Malory’s style.

When searching for this text, you might find there is a “Caxton MS” and a “Winchester MS.” I find the Caxton MS an easier read for first-time readers; however, the Winchester is more authoritative. If you’re used to an older style of writing, you might appreciate the Westminster. Otherwise, the Caxton would probably be a smoother introduction.

Just the Mythology

The Mabonogion

Want to explore a King Arthur legend that’s more rooted in fairy tales and myths? The Mabonogion is the authoritative collection of Welsh mythology. Not all of the myths contained within are King Arthur-based, of course. However, “Culhwch and Olwen” makes reference to King Arthur and is about one of his knights.

For those King Arthur fans who prefer exploring the Celtic and Welsh roots of the legend, this is a good text. Also, Welsh mythology, though it shares the similarities many other mythical traditions do, has several differences from other Western mythologies. It’s not as fatalistic as the Norse, nor as martial as the Romans.

For a children’s take on The Mabonogion, check out Lloyd Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles. Though not a pure sampling, it’s a great introduction to Welsh legend.

All about the Quest

La Queste del Saint Graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail) by Anonymous (12th century)

Ah, the classic grail quest. For the reader who wants the original, get The Quest for the Holy Grail, the 12th century “French book.” It’s the first text to make the quest explicitly Christian. That’s not to say there weren’t Christian elements in earlier texts. However, this one skips the occasional symbolism and goes straight for the allegory. And the grail quest as an allegory for one’s spiritual journey is key to understanding many other Arthurian texts. For example, Brody even tells Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “The quest for the grail is the quest for the divine in all of us,” which shows this allegorical impact has held through the ages.

Though this text also, in the style of medieval narratives, is plot driven, the prose (even translated) is lyrical. I particularly am struck by the beauty of the symbols in this piece—the connecting of nature and the divine is poetic.

A Great Intro

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green

If the idea of reading a medieval text is completely overwhelming, you could try this version first. It’s also an excellent introduction to the legend for kids in the middle grade to YA range. This one, written in the 1950s, reads like a modern novel, so the style is much more familiar to today’s readers. It’s also as comprehensive as Malory’s version, since it is predominantly based on his work. That’s not to say this one includes everything Malory does (it doesn’t), but it definitely hits the highlights. And since it was written for the 10- to 15-year-old crowd, it’s a quick read, so don’t be fooled by the book’s length.

Roger Lancelyn Green was also in the Inklings writing group, whose membership included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams—famed medieval scholars and Arthurian aficionados in their own rights. So you can trust the book’s material was thoroughly screened for accuracy.

A Version that Grows

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

In Thomas Malory’s version, the lines written on Arthur’s tombstone read (translated from Latin): “Here lies Arthur, the once and future king.” T.H. White’s title comes from this simple line. The book itself was written in the early 20th century, and contains a fair bit of political commentary. So, in that sense, the book may not seem relevant one hundred years later. However, that’s just a glance at the surface. The book itself is a brilliant critique of society, including the notion that “might makes right.” This novel was developed during WWII, and White makes some parallels between what felled Camelot and what led to a second world war.

Yes, there are some outdated references and Britishisms that might slip past a modern American audience. However, that shouldn’t detract from the book as a whole. It does grow with you, and, more importantly, it “grows with Arthur.”

I remember as a child loving the first part of the book, but getting bored halfway through and abandoning it. As an adult, I tried it again and found the first half endearing, but the second half profound. That’s because, as Arthur grows up, White’s style also grows. The first part, with Arthur as “Wart,” is silly and playful. However, by the end of Arthur’s kingship, the tone of the text becomes melancholy, as Arthur realizes his “perfect kingdom” never really existed.

This text is not necessarily an authoritative account. There isn't a single medieval version where Merlin is a goofy old wizard who turns Arthur into a squirrel to teach him about the facts of life. However, it does bring the Arthur story into the current era and shows us that the lessons of King Arthur are still relevant to an audience in the modern world of machines and technologies and tragic wars.

Fun fact: The Disney movie The Sword in the Stone is based upon the first part of White’s novel.

A Quick Read

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous

This one’s a poem in four parts and can easily be read in an afternoon, and is a popular reading assignment for high schools. It focuses on the character of Gawain, his obsession with perfectionism, and the realization that perfection for perfection’s sake is a fruitless goal. Gawain happens to be my very favorite of Arthur’s knights, so I enjoy this one immensely. And since it was written as an epic poem, but also as an allegory, the poem can be read on multiple levels. On the one hand, it’s a fun adventure story with a twist; on the other, it’s an allegory about the dangers of perfectionism and the acceptance of forgiveness.

Another suggestion: If you’ve read this one before, or want to know more about the origin of the strange “beheading game” in the legend, check out the Celtic legend “Bricriu’s Feast,” which is the first of the beheading game stories. Oddly enough, the beheading game trope was popular in early medieval literature.

For the Teens

The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff

While a teen can read any of the stories I’ve mentioned so far, this one is specifically written for a YA audience. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a King Arthur book. However, it’s a version of the story that imagines Arthur as a historical figure who drove out the Romans. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur also was a historical figure who fought the Romans and helped establish Britannia as its own kingdom. Thus, The Lantern Bearers is meant to be a more realistic take on the legend, and in fact calls itself a historical adventure. Unlike the other versions I’ve mentioned, there are no magic or fantastical elements. I pulled an all-nighter reading this one when I was in college, so I can attest to the fact that it’s fast-paced and engaging.

The Most Fun (and American)

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

This one has very little to do with King Arthur, despite the name. However, it’s a laugh a minute, especially if one has any familiarity with the Arthurian legend to begin with. Twain skewers modernism and medievalism both with brilliant strokes. If you’re looking for a King Arthur version that’s more Monty Python than Malory, this is it. Plus, Twain’s lingo is as American as apple pie. No need to figure out the difference between “thee” and “thy,” or wonder why everyone swoons all the time.

The Most Poetic

Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

For the lover of narrative poetry, no one does it better than Tennyson. Tennyson himself was fascinated by the tragedy of the Arthurian legend—that is, the betrayals that led to the downfall of Camelot. Merlin betrayed by Nimue (Vivian), Arthur betrayed by Lancelot and Guinevere, Gawain betrayed by Lancelot, on and on. Tennyson’s take on the legends is melancholic, but it’s a lovely, wistful melancholy. If it’s raining outside, this one is a good one to read while sipping tea next to the fire.

My Personal Favorite

The Complete Works of Chrétien de Troyes translated by David Staines

The Complete Works of Chrétien de Troyes is a collection of stories. Still, I can’t pick just one Chrétien work. Perceval, if I was forced to choose. However, “The Knight and the Cart” is excellent as well. In addition to being the legend that introduces us to the Lancelot/Guinevere affair, where their affection becomes physical, “The Knight and the Cart” was an idea conceived by Marie de France, who had a profound influence upon the legends as a whole. Perceval, however, is all Chrétien’s own work, and though unfinished, it is one of the best character portraits of an Arthurian character. The medieval legends are so plot driven that we know very little about the characters except what we can infer from their actions or social standing. Yet Perceval lets us follow one knight from boyhood to grail quester, giving us more insight into his motives and personality. It also gives us a complete character arc—we see Perceval as initially being impulsive and uncaring. However, we follow his journey so that he learns to be more conscientious and thoughtful in order to be worthy of the grail quest. Few medieval legends allow us this insight and depth of character growth, so Perceval, even as an incomplete work, is well worth the read.

There are, of course, many, many other versions, including those in film and TV. If you would rather watch your King Arthur than read him, I can’t suggest Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or Monty Python and the Holy Grail strongly enough. That might sound strange, suggesting Monty Python for a better look at Arthur. However, Terry Jones (a member of the Monty Python group) is actually a medievalist, and the film weaves in a great many winks and nods at the actual legend. The famous black knight scene in particular (“It’s just a flesh wound!”) is a direct parody of a scene from Chrétien. So actually, reading Chrétien and then watching that film enriches the experience that much more.

Happy questing! And whether you discover the elusive questing beast or the grail itself, may you find illumination.

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