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Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government
December 19, 2011 6:27 PM   Subscribe

How well do you really know old Arty? It all began with the Welsh: The The Annales Cabriae (inside) and parts of the Welsh oral tradition (later collected into the Mabinogion) give a very different picture of the popular King Arthur than contemporary readers are familiar with: no Lancelot, three or four different Guens, no love triangles or Holy Grails. A look at the vast scope of the Arthurian legend.

The Annales Cabriae (c. 960-80) is one of the first references to the King Arthur mythos:
516. LXXII. Annus. Bellum Badonis, in quo Arthur portavit crucem Domini nostri Jesu Christi tribus diebus et tribus noctibus in humeros suos et Britones victores fuerunt. (The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were victors.)
537. XCIII. Annus. Gueith Camlann, in qua Arthur et Medraut corruere; et mortalitas in Brittania et in Hibernia fuit. (The Battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell, and there was devestation in Britain and in Ireland.) (Translated by ACL)
Geofrey Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae may not be the most accurate history, but it does provide one of the first non-Welsh account of King Arthur (as well as the first account of the King Lear story). The full text can be found Historia regum Britanniae (introduction in German, text in Latin) or The History of the Kings of Britain (English, trans. A. Thompson); the King Arthur sections are listed separately here.

Stanzaic Morte Arthure and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Introduction. The two are very different poems. The Alliterative:
The King Arthur of this poem is neither the "somewhat childish" romance king who appears in Sir Gawain nor the helpless cuckold he so often seems in French romance. He is a warrior king, shifting his troops about, sending out skirmishers, and ever ready to do battle himself. This is primarily a poem of battles, and there are no better accounts of late medieval warfare than we find in this poem. Nor are there any more sobering reminders that all was not heroic and romantic in this age.
The stanzaic, on the other hand, is an English "condensation of the French prose romance La Mort Artu" (manuscript copy here , summary and comparison to Le Morte de Arthur here), which formed the basis for parts of Malory's Le Morte de Arthur.

The Avowyng of Arthur (introduction, work) and the The Awntyrs off Arthur (introduction, work). . Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Greene Knight are two more familiar versions. A list of other Medieval English Arthurian texts, with introductions and text for many of them, here.

The French tradition was evolving simultaneously. The character of Lancelot and the whole "Holy Grail" search were added to the story by French author Chrétien de Troyes (Four Arthurian Romances: Erec et Enid, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot). de Troyes is also the first to add another influential element of the Arthur story, in Perceval (French, English, English): the legend of the Fisher King. A BBC podcast of scholars discussing the Fisher King tradition. The Fisher King features predominately in T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.


Classic/Semi-Classic Literature
Spenser's Faerie Queene (original, prose retelling). Also, Illustrations and Ornamentation from The Faerie Queene. Tennyson's Idylls of the King, based mainly on Malory and the Mabinogion, were pretty influential. See also. Mark Twain's A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: original book. Also a musical , several movies, a lego masterpiece*, and a nuclear power plant. John Steinbeck was also a huge fan of the Arthurian mythos, and created several works based on it. Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row are often said to be retellings of the Arthur legend; more overtly, Steinbeck was in the process of writing The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights when he died.

There are plenty of more contemporary retellings as well. T.H. White's The Once and Future King. C.S. Lewis, better known for The Chronicles of Narnia, also wrote the Space Trilogy, the last of which (That Hideous Strength) reads as an amalgamation of King Arthur, 1984, and The Pilgrim's Progress. From a review:
The NICE turns out to be demonic in inspiration, and intends to impose upon England a regime of ruthless social engineering that Joseph Stalin would have admired. The apparent "Head" at the NICE’s mansion at Belbury is the head of a guillotined murderer, kept alive with advanced life support systems, but this gruesome object is merely the conduit for orders from the dark powers. Belbury’s human leaders recruit and flatter Mark, but the human resource they really want is Jane. She is a seer, whose visions involve the return to life of the magician Merlin, long entombed under Bracton Wood. If Belbury can unite its materialist magic with Merlin’s old–fashioned kind, it can achieve its dream of freeing the mind from messy organic life. "In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it...." Belbury’s plot is foiled and Mark’s soul is saved when the risen Merlin joins forces with a small Christian enclave that is in communication with heavenly powers. Although magic and miracles play their part, in the end it is more the bravery of decent people and the self–destructive hatred of the wicked that decides the outcome.
Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave is also pretty popular. Phyllis Ann Karr's The Idylls of the Queen is "a retelling of part of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as a murder mystery, using Kay as the narrator/detective and Mordred as his sidekick."

Another popular tradition is a feminist retelling of the Arthur story, usually from the perspective of Guenevere or Morgan la Fay. The prototypical example is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. But there's also Fay Sampson's Wise Woman's Telling and sequels; Persia Woolley's Child of the Northern Spring and sequels; Gillian Bradshaw's In Winter's Shadow, Sharan Newman's Guinevere and sequels.

Children's Books:
Tales of King Arthur: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (google books preview) Knights of the Round Table by Gwen Gross. The Kitchen Knight by Margaret Hodges. Knights of the Kitchen Table (The Time Warp Trio) by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. Arthur and the Sword by Robert Sabuda

Christmas in Camelot by Mary Pope Osborne (not to be confused with Christmas in Camelot by Brenda K. Jernigan, a romance novel: "Dreading her marriage to a man she feels nothing for, Lady Noelle spies Camelot's newest knight, the notorious Sir Nicholas the Dragon. Nicholas's only loyalty is to King Arthur, who orders him to bring Noelle safely back to Camelot for her Christmas Day wedding. But time with this proud beauty stirs a passion in him, and he must choose to surrender the woman he loves to another man or make her his own.")


Young Adult:
The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland (google books preview) book two (google books preview), and book three (google books preview). This trilogy won several awards, including the Guardian Children's Fiction Award, the Tir na n-Og prize and the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize Bronze Medal, as well as being shortlisted for the Whitbread Awards.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, by Lisa Mullarkey and Howard Pyle (google books preview) The Lost Years of Merlin series, by T.A. Barron. Parzival: The Quest of the Grail Knight by Katherine Paterson. I Am Morgan le Fay by Nancy Springer. The Young Merlin Trilogy by Jane Yolen. The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones. The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady and The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight by Gerald Morris. Half Magic by Edgar Eager. Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell. Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey. Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising is a classic of the genre; the movie, perhaps, not quite so much.

King Arthur: Tales of the Round Table (google books), by Andrew Lang (probably most well-known for his Fairy Tale Books, such as The Blue Fairy Book, The Grey Fairy book, so on and so forth, but Lang was a wide ranging author, who wrote histories, "psychical research" (sometimes called parapsychology), translations of classical literature, and literary criticism, such as Shakespeare, Bacon and the Great Unknown; Letters to Dead Authors; and How to Fail in Literature.)



Animation:
The Sword in the Stone (theatrical trailer, clips). The delightful Quest for Camelot (trailer). Merlin and the Dragons from Long Ago and Far Away! (youtube)

Fate/Stay Night, the anime based on the (originally x-rated) visual novel/game of the same name, in which *spoiler* a bunch of magical teenagers summon dead heroes, including a female "King Arthur," in order to murder each other and gain access to an evil holy grail which grants wishes. Also a manga. There was also a visual novel sequel, Fate/hollow ataraxia (game opening). Spin-offs include Fate/zero (novel and anime); Fate/Extra (dungeon crawling game for psp; Japanese trailer); Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya (yes, that is the real title); and fighting games Fate/unlimited codes (trailer) and Fate/tiger colosseum (Japanese trailer)

Live Action Movies
First Knight. This is not the only Arthurian movie starring Sean Connery: he also featured in Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (trailer), based loosely on the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Excalibur (trailer). Starring Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson. Lancelot du Lac by Robert Bresson (French with Italian subtitles, trailer). The Fisher King (trailer), set in modern Manhattan.

Disney in particular seems to have an obsession with launching awkward versions of the King Arthur mythos. Aside from The Sword and the Stone, they also did Disney Channel original Avalon High (trailer) and the mid-nineties A Kid in King Arthur's Court (trailer), very loosely based on Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

Camelot, a 1967 movie starring Richard Harris (aka Dumbledore) and Vanessa Redgrave (trailer). Richard Harris also starred in a musical entitled Camelot as well.

And there's always Monty Python, of course.

Live Action Television
Merlin (season one, episode 9 via Hulu), Trailer season 1, season 2. Classic show Fantasy Island did an episode with a King Arthur theme, King Arthur in Mr. Roarke's Court/Shadow Games. MacGuyver got in on the action in "Good Knight MacGuyver"; 'Trailer MacGyver" does an amusing "trailer" of the episode. There is also the recent Camelot (trailer).

In the "someone had to think it was a good idea" category: Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Finally, a Preview of National Geographic Special discussing the historical basis of the King Arthur Myth and obligatory tvtropes link.



*He also did a Lego Moby Dick (trailer, movie).

Previously, previouslier.
posted by kittenmarlowe (30 comments total) 122 users marked this as a favorite

 
um...wow. thanks. I look forward to delving into this amazing collection of arthurian goodies :)
posted by supermedusa at 6:29 PM on December 19, 2011


Awesome post. Props for the shout-out to Idylls of the Queen, which is one of my favorite relatively obscure modern Arthurian retellings.
posted by immlass at 6:55 PM on December 19, 2011


Not only is it Christmas, the ideal time for Arthurian adventures, but just today at a bookstore I saw a new Simon Armitage translation of The Death of King Arthur which I didn't know existed. Thanks for this.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 6:57 PM on December 19, 2011


What, The Once & Future King doesn't even get a whole line to itself? At times hilarious, maudlin, epic, depressing, and philosophical, it rebuilds the legend as a tale of 20th century geopolitics. It's one of the few books that I got sadder as the remaining pages dwindled away, knowing that this exquisitely crafted world would soon be torn from me.
posted by scruss at 7:04 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh now we get to talk about Merlin. How do you all like it so far? I am mostly surprised by how really great episodes can be right there next to really terrible ones.
posted by rebent at 7:30 PM on December 19, 2011


I knew as soon as I started reading the post that it was going to be by kittenmarlowe. Excellent, as always, and I can't wait to dive in!
posted by mothershock at 7:47 PM on December 19, 2011


To broaden this out even a tiny bit more internationally, for the Canadian take on the Arthurian legend, see Robertson Davies' The Lyre of Orpheus.

The novel is about the production of an Arthurian opera based on the work of E.T.A Hoffmann by an artistic foundation whose members play out, in their own ways, the key Arthurian myths. And Davies being Davies, he throws in historical references to Welsh Arthur, Broadway Arthur and a great number of the Arthurs in between.
posted by sardonyx at 8:13 PM on December 19, 2011


I'll need to come back to this.

The book series that enthralled me growing up was Jack Whyte's 'A Dream of Eagles' cycle which gives a historical fiction account of Arthur's backstory from the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain.

Thanks for the in-depth post!
posted by tronfunkinblo at 8:55 PM on December 19, 2011


kittenmarlowe, you've assembled some awesomeness, but it seems you left out Sword at Sunset, by Rosemary Sutcliffe. Especially regarding ideas of a historical Arthur, her book is pretty well written, and follows the idea of Arthur (Artos, in her book) as a native Brit, though one heavily influenced by the brief moment of Roman rule. The fight is against the oncoming (and more historically accurate) Saxons invading from what would later become Denmark and Germany. There's no shining plate mail to be had, things are pretty desperate.

It's an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in trying to read the Arthur story through any kind of historical lens.

for whatever reason, I got into a massive Arthurian kick in high school. Our brit lit year long project was a massive essay, which we researched the first semester and wrote our rough draft. Our work would be graded in the second semester. I ended up with a couple dozen books on Arthurian lore, wrote a 30 page essay, then transferred to a different school in another state between semesters.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:36 PM on December 19, 2011


Ooo, woo. Always willing to learn more about Arthurian legend! I read a lot of Chrétien de Troyes for a college class and they are very very good.

I read T.A. Barron's and stories as a kid and enjoyed them a lot, and Half Magic, and The Dark is Rising.

While I love Diana Wynne Jones' work dearly, The Merlin Conspiracy only kind of touches on actual Arthurian stuff. There's a Merlin, but "Merlin" is a job title. It more borrows Arthurian tropes than anything, and isn't really going to satisfy an Arthur enthusiast (though it's very good!)

Also, you missed Here Lies Arthur, a very down-to-earth retelling, and worth reading.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:41 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh oh and Weathermonger which I really loved. A strange apocalypse has hit Britain: people have destroyed all technology, for some reason. And then stuff happens. It's great.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:47 PM on December 19, 2011


Inevitable that you'd miss a few retellings of the Arthurian legend just because there are so, so many, but I was surprised that Stephen Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle got left out.

There's probably a whole section (or perhaps a whole 'nother post) to be done on "Arthur's Return" stories; you've got Lawhead again with Avalon, and I've always had a soft spot for a young adult post-apocalyptic Arthur (well, really, Merlin) story I had when I was a kid, Winter of Magic's Return (which, I discover now, has several sequels) to name just a couple.

I also have to say that Camelot was really starting to grow on me once I got over my initial reaction to eyebrow-less Arthur. I was disappointed it got canceled, though I sort of suspect that in a couple more seasons it would've been less about Arthur and more "The Morgan show" because they made her a lot more compelling.

And lastly - no mention of Prince Valiant? Practically a small media empire unto itself, at least when I was a kid and it was in the Sunday comics and had a TV cartoon version too. I suppose it's only tangentially about Arthur, though.

Still, an amazing compilation of links, kittenmarlowe. Great post!
posted by mstokes650 at 10:56 PM on December 19, 2011


There are older sources, including the oldest record that mentions Arthur: the long British elegaic poem Y Gododdin. Its author Aneirin commemorates the three hundred native Celtic warriors who made a stand against an invading army of 10,000 Anglo-Saxons at Catterick around 600 AD. Aneirin claims to be the only survivor, or one of only three, and he wrote the poem to preserve the memory of this retinue of men he had known, called by the lord Mynyddog Mwynfawr from all over Britain to oppose the conquest.

These lines appear in the stanza eulogizing a warrior called Gwawrddur ("steel dawn"):
Gochorai brain du ar fur caer
Cyn ni bai ef Arthur


He glutted black ravens on the wall of the castle
Although he was no Arthur.
Gwawrddur, before he himself was slain, had killed so many of the enemy that the gore-devouring crows had more than enough to eat, and he had done this although he was not Arthur. The implication is that Aneirin's audience know of some tradition about an Arthur who killed such large numbers in battle that the ravens could not eat them all.

There is an anonymous poem from fifty years later mourning the death of Cynddylan son of Cyndrwyn, a king of the Britons near the Welsh border. It describes the valor of Cynddylan and his brothers when they fought the Saxons at Lichfield, breaking the English shields into splinters and leaving the battlefield drenched in blood; it metaphorically compares them to "the whelps of the mighty Arthur." (Whelps are wolf puppies, and the word was used as a term for young warriors, so this phrase likely refers to Arthur's men.)

A.D. 600-650 was perhaps 100-150 years after the historical Arthur lived, whoever he was. And whether he existed or not, by the time of Aneirin and Cynddylan there were clearly already tales of his power. Celtic songs and stories are great for legends of heroic but overwhelmed figures and Arthur was one of the first!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:52 PM on December 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


You get the (highly cynical) viewpoint of the Saxon foe of a purported historical model for Arthur in Alfred Duggan's marvellous Conscience of the King.
I grew up near one of the many places Arthur's supposed to be sleeping, and had a couple of holidays near Tintagel as a kid, so the stories are some of the earliest I recall - think we had Roger Lancelyn Green's telling.
posted by Abiezer at 1:51 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd really like to read the immense and thoughtful book of which this post appears to be the bibliography.

I wouldn't describe Geoffrey of Monmouth as 'non-Welsh', though.
posted by Segundus at 2:37 AM on December 20, 2011


One Arthurian book that comes somewhat out of left field is Jo Walton's the King's Peace, set in a thinly disguised fantasy world version of Britain; a histoire a clef. Just rereading this at the moment, having first read it a decade ago; recommended.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:47 AM on December 20, 2011


No mention of Bernard Cornwell's superb Warlord Chronicles that began with The Winter King?
posted by Ber at 6:08 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow...What an awesome post. I will make a banquet of it. And, Ber, I was just about to mention Cornwell's Warlord trilogy (of Sharps fame), who does a great job with well researched historical fiction. It's my all time favorite retelling of the story of Arthur, and I've read many of the ones listed (Bradshaw, Whyte, White, Malory, Lawhead, Stewart).
posted by prodigalsun at 6:29 AM on December 20, 2011


No mention of Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" where Arthur gets such a rich, detailed character? I loved that book though it *is* a bit dark at the end.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:11 AM on December 20, 2011


A few of the works mentioned were left out because I couldn't find a source with a preview; I try to stick to those. Plenty of them I just missed, though--someone could (and probably has) done a whole book just listing Arthur retellings.

mstokes650: And lastly - no mention of Prince Valiant? Practically a small media empire unto itself, at least when I was a kid and it was in the Sunday comics and had a TV cartoon version too. I suppose it's only tangentially about Arthur, though.
I totally was planning on putting that in, and then I forgot :(.

Segundus: I wouldn't describe Geoffrey of Monmouth as 'non-Welsh', though.
It wasn't written in Welsh, though. I could have phrased that a lot better. Though Harvey Kilobit pointed out that my researched missed a few earlier sources anyway, so the whole sentence is probably wrong.


wenestvedt: No mention of Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" where Arthur gets such a rich, detailed character? I loved that book though it *is* a bit dark at the end.
It's in there, as are the movie and musical versions. (And a power plant.)
posted by kittenmarlowe at 7:23 AM on December 20, 2011


three or four different Guens

All at once? Whoa, that's hot.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:20 AM on December 20, 2011


Funny, this. I'm in the middle-of-the-beginning of Don Quixote.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:49 AM on December 20, 2011


Camelot, a 1967 movie starring Richard Harris (aka Dumbledore) and Vanessa Redgrave (trailer). Richard Harris also starred in a musical entitled Camelot as well.

The 1967 movie is also the musical. It was originally on Broadway in 1960 starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, and it's popularity was what led the Kennedy presidency years to become known as "Camelot." The 1967 film is based on the musical (they cut some songs).

The second link you have there is from a 1981 Broadway revival at the Winter Garden theater starring Richard Harris, which was filmed and shown on HBO (where I first saw it as a kid).
posted by dnash at 10:03 AM on December 20, 2011


One more note about Cornwell. He wrote that while researching the Warlord Chronicles he discovered that there is no mention of Arthur in the Saxon histories, BUT for a period of two generations the Saxons were stopped dead in their tracks by a Briton warlord who they refused to name. Hmmm.
posted by Ber at 10:36 AM on December 20, 2011


Fantastic post, kittenmarlowe. Thanks.

Live Action Movies

There was also King Arthur, with Clive Owen as Arthur the Roman cavalry officer, and Keira Knightley as Guinevere in a leather bikini.
posted by homunculus at 10:53 AM on December 20, 2011


That Hideous Strength is kind of a trip to read. That whole series was C.S. Lewis trying to cross Christian apologetics with Wells-style science fiction in the same way he crossed it with fantasy in the Chronicles of Narnia and failing in very interesting ways. George Orwell gave it a moderately positive, if puzzled, review.

There was also King Arthur , with Clive Owen as Arthur the Roman cavalry officer, and Keira Knightley as Guinevere in a leather bikini.

LET US NEVER SPEAK OF THIS AGAIN.
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:01 AM on December 20, 2011


AdamCSnider: That Hideous Strength is kind of a trip to read. That whole series was C.S. Lewis trying to cross Christian apologetics with Wells-style science fiction in the same way he crossed it with fantasy in the Chronicles of Narnia and failing in very interesting ways. George Orwell gave it a moderately positive, if puzzled, review.

Yeah. I read the first two and thought, "Eh, pretty standard allegorical fare." (Better than, say, Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but not really up to some of Lewis' best, much less Chesterton or so on.) And then you get to THS and it's sort of like "What the fuck?" I rather like it, but it's certainly trippy.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 11:07 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There was also King Arthur , with Clive Owen as Arthur the Roman cavalry officer, and Keira Knightley as Guinevere in a leather bikini.

LET US NEVER SPEAK OF THIS AGAIN.


I actually rather like that film. Beats the shit out of the über-romantic nonsense that usually passes for Arthur.
posted by Edison Carter at 11:15 AM on December 20, 2011


Seconding Ber's recommendation of Cornwells' Warlord Chronicles. Picked up the Winter King at a thrift shop and by the end of the next week I had finished all of them and had started on his 'Saxon Stories' series.

Fantastically evocative stuff, although I have to say I noticed a certain repeating trend in his storytelling in both series - both protagonists are adopted into the culture of the enemies of their native born tribe which leaves them slightly ambivalent about fighting their adopted or native kin yada yada. Cornwell does battles well, but he also manages to put in a lot of historical and mythological detail as well that on closer inspection seems to stand up pretty well
posted by JustAsItSounds at 7:18 PM on December 20, 2011


No mention of Bernard Cornwell's superb Warlord Chronicles that began with The Winter King?

nthing. It's easily his best series for me, and a very, very good bit of work; his weaving together the decay of the Britons as they fail to maintain the technology of the Romans, the conflict between the Christian and the Druidic Britons... fantastic. Derfl, Arthur, and Guinevere are well-written characters, and it has some magnificent, powerful moments in it.

Fantastically evocative stuff, although I have to say I noticed a certain repeating trend in his storytelling in both series - both protagonists are adopted into the culture of the enemies of their native born tribe which leaves them slightly ambivalent about fighting their adopted or native kin yada yada

He repeats his tropes again and again. All his series have outsider protagonists beset by one or more insiders, for example. Has Sharpe ever spent more than a novel without someone engaging in treason because they're out to get him?
posted by rodgerd at 11:49 PM on December 21, 2011


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