We recently went to see the movie King Arthur, by Guy Ritchie. We loved it! It plays around with the legend, no doubt, but mostly in very interesting ways, and it’s fun to watch regardless. I’ve been a fan of the Arthurian legends ever since I can remember; the first version I read was probably a copy of Howard Pyle’s version of the tales, checked out from my grade school library. Next I found an old condensed version of Malory; this was the first antique book I owned, and I had to puzzle out the meaning of some of the archaic words. But my liking grew into an obsession when I encountered the major retellings of the twentieth century.
The first great modern rendition – and possibly the greatest – is The Once and Future King, the masterpiece of T.H. White, originally published in four parts from 1938 to 1958. You may know the first part the best: The Sword in the Stone, adapted into a movie by Walt Disney. Deliberately anachronistic in its settings, the book serves as much more than a retelling of the story of Arthur, expanding it into a truly great tragedy and commentary on history, politics, and the futility of war. The novel was also the basis of the musical Camelot.
Next up was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s epic The Mists of Avalon, which retold the saga from the points of view of its women: primarily Viviane, Igraine, and Morgaine. Though relying on Malory for infrastructure, Bradley revolutionized the tales by refocusing on likely conflicts in the actual fifth-century setting: pagan vs. Christian, old ways vs. new, female power vs. male. Brilliantly imagined characters and innovative adaptations of old plot elements make the story fresh and unexpected.
Not long after Mists, I was given the spectacular trilogy by Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, all narrated by Merlin (Stewart wrote a fourth book too, The Wicked Day, from Mordred’s point of view, but it never felt to me like it was truly part of the series). Merlin is a compelling character from the beginning, and the rise of the clever but humble child to feared advisor of kings is believable and captivating.
I’ve enjoyed other authors’ forays into the Matter of Britain as well: Bernard Cornwell, Jack Whyte, Stephen Lawhead, and Kazuo Ishiguro, whose brilliant novel The Buried Giant is set in Britain not long after Arthur’s death. I admit I still haven’t readThe Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, by John Steinbeck (yes, Steinbeck!) though I did read Twain’s Connecticut Yankee a long time ago. The Arthurian legends are a rich and fertile soil for imagination, with a huge cast of characters, a vast catalog of incidents, and a centuries-long precedent for making up your own contributions, from Nennius to Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory to Layamon to Chrétien to Tennyson.
If you’re really hardcore, I’ll suggest you take on the Alliterative Morte Arthure (in the original Middle English), or possibly the recently published (though sadly fragmentary) Death of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, written in modern English but in alliterative verse, and very much in the spirit of the medieval poets.