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Mike Ashley picks out the most important books, fiction and non-fiction, about the legendary ruler
Maybe the new film King Arthur has whetted your appetite or maybe you’ve always been interested in the truth behind the myth but haven’t known where to start. There are hundreds and hundreds of books about or featuring King Arthur, all part of an industry that began nearly 900 years ago and shows no signs of abating. Here I’d like to run through three types of books: (a) the original legends, including the rarest and most beautifully illustrated editions; (b) more recent novels; and (c) those about the historical Arthur.
The Original Legends
Although the original Arthur lived around the year 500ad, and stories about him were circulating by the ninth century, he did not shoot into prominence until the 1130s when an Oxford cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth, issued his Historia Regum Britanniae. Pertaining to be a translation into Latin of an old Celtic text, this was a legendary history of the kings of Britain from the time of Brutus (in the years after the Fall of Troy) down to the death of Cadwaladr in the seventh century, a span of some 1,600 years. Yet half the book concentrated on the exploits of Arthur, his father Uther Pendragon, and his uncle Aurelianus in fighting the Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries. This wasn’t the Arthur of the medieval romances, though it did include Guinevere, Merlin, Kay and Gawain, but Geoffrey purported to be writing history. He was really writing propaganda to support Henry I’s claims on lands in France, but no matter; thanks to Geoffrey, Arthur became Britain’s most famous pre-Norman king.
Modern translations of Geoffrey’s Historia are easy to find in paperback from Penguin Classics. Earlier editions add little of value and are not especially collectable. You may also want to check out his contemporaries, Wace and Layamon. Wace translated Geoffrey’s work into Norman-French around the year 1155 – it was Wace who created the idea of the Round Table – and Layamon translated it into English in the 1190s. Both their works were called Brut (after Brutus) but are easily available today in the Dent paperback edition as Arthurian Chronicles. From them you’ll discover how the story of Arthur began.
The man who created the Arthurian romance, however, and also created Camelot, Lancelot and the Grail was Chrétien de Troyes, a poet attached to the court of Henri of Champagne. Henri’s wife, Marie (the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine), loved the Arthurian stories and wanted more. Chrétien, who had already experimented with writing a long romantic poem featuring Tristan and Isolde (a story that would later be attached to the Arthurian story but which was originally separate) used the same romantic theme on several tales – Erec et Enide, Yvain and Cligés – but the two that captured the imagination were Lancelot (or The Knight of the Cart) and Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Lancelot tells of how the great knight rescues Guinevere when she is abducted by Meleagaunt and reveals their love for each other. Perceval shows how a young, innocent squire comes to Arthur’s court, is knighted, and becomes involved in the mystery of the Grail and the Fisher King.
It was these two stories that fascinated the public, the first because it seemed to advocate, or at least excuse, adultery, and the second because it revealed a secret history about a lost Christian relic. Tie both of these into the background of questing knights in a Europe engulfed in the Crusades, and you had a recipe for success. In the century after Chrétien, over 150 different stories and romances featuring Arthur or his knights appeared.
Thankfully many of these are easily available in modern translations in Penguin Classics or OUP’s ‘World’s Classics’ or Dent’s ‘Everyman’s Library’. This includes all five of Chrétien’s stories, published as Arthurian Romances, whilst others I would recommend include Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach (the basis of Wagner’s opera), Merlin by Robert de Boron (available in a translation by Nigel Bryant as Merlin and the Grail [Brewer, 2001]) and the anonymous Lancelot of the Lake.
The one work we all remember and associate with Arthur is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, of which more in a moment, but Malory’s opus was the last flowering of the Arthurian romance, appearing three hundred years after Chrétien. There was another work that Malory drew upon, which developed the stories of Lancelot and the Grail Quest, featuring Lancelot’s son Galahad. This phenomenal work was later given the unhelpful name The Vulgate Cycle but tends to be known today as the Lancelot Grail. There were originally three books, Lancelot, Quest del Saint Graal and Mort Artu, written during the 1210s. They run to something like 700,000 words, over half of which is in Lancelot alone. Two more books were added over the next ten years by way of ‘prequels’ to the main story, Estoire del Saint Graal and Estoire de Merlin. Translations are difficult to find in full. The only complete work was undertaken by H. Oskar Sommer and published in eight volumes by Washington Cornell Institution between 1909 and 1916. A good original set can command anywhere up to £1,000.
The first Arthurian book to be printed and illustrated was Tristan by Anton Sorg in Augsburg in 1484, a year ahead of the most famous of them all, William Caxton’s printing of Sir Thomas Malory’s Mort Darthur (as it was first entitled). This was completed on 31 July 1485. Malory had completed his book while held in Newgate Prison in 1470 but he died soon after and never appreciated the popularity or longevity of his work.
Only two copies of the Caxton edition survive plus a variant manuscript copy which is probably closer to Malory’s original design. In 1889/91 David Nutt issued a facsimile edition in three volumes, with notes by H. Oskar Sommer and an essay by Andrew Lang. That edition can fetch around £1,500.
Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde reprinted Morte Darthur in 1498, this time with twenty-two half-page woodcuts of which just one copy survives at the John Rylands Library, Manchester. That was issued in a facsimile edition by Basil Blackwell for The Shakespeare Head Press in Oxford in 1933 in a two-volume boxed edition of 370 numbered copies on handmade vellum. A copy of this went for £5,600 in auction in 1994, though I have seen copies for sale for around £1,000.
The other famous early edition was that edited by Robert Southey and published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown in 1817. This edition kick-started the Victorian revival in interest in the Arthurian world and, because it influenced both Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites, especially William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, it is especially desirable. Copies can fetch upwards of £1,500.
Illustrated editions of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, as we now know it, are also highly collectable. The most favoured was that illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley for the two-volume Dent edition in 1893/94, limited to an ordinary edition of 1500 copies and a ‘superior’ edition on handmade paper of 300 copies. That edition can fetch in excess of £5,000, and even the ordinary edition can fetch £3,000. Also much prized, though considerably less expensive, was the Riccardi Press edition for the Medici Society issued in four volumes in 1910/11, illustrated with 48 coloured plates by W. Russell Flint. This usually fetches between £300 and £400. A set in the original dustjackets, three volumes in slipcases, and slight rubbing/fading/stains to two volumes, sold for £356.50 at Dominic Winter’s 24 June sale.
Other popular adaptations of Malory’s work include Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s King Arthur of which the 1917 edition (Scribner’s) was illustrated by NC Wyeth, Andrew Lang’s Tales of King Arthur and the Round Table (Longman, 1905) and Howard Pyle’s The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Scribner’s, 1903). Pyle wrote and illustrated three other books and all of them in their original editions are now valued at around £40-£50.
Interest in Malory’s version continues through to today and there are many adaptations and editions, sufficient for a specialist collection of their own. One of the more recent versions was John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (Farrar, 1976). It was a life-long passion of Steinbeck’s but he never finished his planned project. The first edition of that volume can now fetch upwards of £100.
Similarly collecting the Arthurian poems of Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites can prove a rewarding, if expensive, hobby. The first edition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King was published by Moxon in 1859 and that can command over £1,500. Tennyson continued to add poems to each new edition, so completists will want the full set. Of special interest is the 1868 new edition of the original Idylls which was illustrated by Gustav Doré. Copies of that may command up to £1,000. The first edition of William Morris’s The Defence of Guenevere (Bell & Daldy, 1858) is of a similar value.
The Modern Novels
If your interest extends to other books based on the Arthurian legend then you need to make a lot more space. The interest was started by Mark Twain with his satirical A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur (Webster, 1889) and copies of that may fetch over £750.
The first novel to set Arthur in his proper historical setting, rather than Malory’s world, was Cian of the Chariots by William H. Babcock (Lothrop, 1898), an uncommon book and not highly collected, although it is valued at £50 or more. A few more novels appeared around this time, including Uther and Igraine by Warwick Deeping (Grant Richards, 1903). There was also a clutch of them in the 1920s, most of which used the Arthurian setting to satirise the eccentricities of the Roaring Twenties. These included Galahad: Enough of his Life to Explain his Reputation by John Erskine (Bobbs-Merrill, 1926), Launcelot by Ernest Hamilton (Methuen, 1926) and Launcelot and the Ladies by Will Bradley (Harper, 1927). Perhaps the best book from this period, and one still relatively easy to find, is The Little Wench by Philip Lindsay (Nicholson, 1935).
The first major book of Arthurian fiction however began with TH White’s The Sword in the Stone (Collins, 1938) the first of a sequence that formed the omnibus The Once and Future King (Collins, 1958). The first edition of The Sword in the Stone is highly desirable and in its dust-jacket can fetch around £500-£600. The second book, The Witch in the Wood, first appeared in America (Putnam’s, 1939) and is scarcer. Copies may command up to £350.
The post-war interest was sparked by the works of Rosemary Sutcliff, especially Sword at Sunset (Hodder, 1963), still one of the best historical novels of Arthur. You may still acquire the first edition, with its map endpapers, for around £50. Mary Stewart’s sequence of books, starting with The Crystal Cave (Hodder, 1970), telling Merlin’s story, was the first to hit the bestseller lists. Copies are easy to find though very good copies in dustjacket are scarcer and may be priced around £30-£40. The other major blockbuster was The Mists of Avalon by Marion Bradley (Knopf, 1982) which in its first edition with the beautiful wraparound dust-jacket can command £75-£100.
There have been nearly 200 other novels based on the Arthurian legend in addition to all the reworkings of Malory, far too many to list. Many are formulaic and uninspired, concentrating on the romantic entanglements of Lancelot and Guinevere and the betrayal of Arthur, but there are a few which show more originality and which, over time, may become more highly collectable. These include The Duke of War by Walter O’Meara (Harcourt, 1966), Pendragon by Douglas Carmichael (Blackwater Press, 1977), Percival and the Presence of God by Jim Hunter (Faber, 1978), Merlin by Robert Nye (Hamish Hamilton, 1978) and Arthur Rex by Thomas Berger (Delacorte, 1978). First editions currently command around £30-£40 and will certainly rise.
Other good novels, all of which are the first books in trilogies, include Hawk of May by Gillian Bradshaw (Simon & Schuster, 1980), Guinevere by Sharan Newman (St. Martin’s, 1981) and Firelord by Parke Godwin (Doubleday, 1980), the last being my own nomination for the best single Arthurian novel.
Amongst the others I would single out the long sequence by Jack Whyte which began with The Sky Stone (Viking Canada, 1992). This is unusual because all the first editions were published in paperback in Canada before their later US release and are thus very uncommon. Obtaining copies in fine condition will soon prove difficult but will be worthwhile.
The Historical Arthur
There is a huge industry seeking to identify the real Arthur, with almost as many theories as books. The first modern work of scholarship to take Arthur seriously was Arthur of Britain by E.K. Chambers (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1927), which is still fairly common in its later reprints. The two best objective studies of Arthur’s world are Arthur’s Britain by Leslie Alcock (Lane, 1971) and The Age of Arthur by John Morris (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973). Other noted overviews in recent years include The Figure of Arthur (Brewer, 1972) and King Arthur, Hero and Legend (Boydell Press, revised 1986) both by Richard Barber, and Exploring the World of King Arthur (Thames & Hudson, 2000) by Christopher Snyder.
The best known British Arthurian scholar is Geoffrey Ashe who has nailed his colours to the mast in a wide variety of Arthurian books, primarily The Quest for Arthur’s Britain (Praegar, 1968) and The Discovery of King Arthur (Debrett’s, 1985), both cornerstone studies for any Arthurian library.
The last twenty years have seen a rush of books with ideas ranging from academic to the fanatic. Leaving aside the extremes, books worth exploring for their varied and often challenging ideas include King Arthur (Franklin Watts, 1986) and related books by Norma Lorre Goodrich, King Arthur, The True Story by Graham Phillips & Martin Keatman (Century, 1992), Journey to Avalon by Chris Barber & David Pykitt (Blorenge, 1993), The Historic King Arthur by Frank D. Reno (McFarland, 1996), The Holy Kingdom by Adrian Gilbert, Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett (Bantam Press, 1998), Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms by Alistair Moffatt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999), King Arthur by Rodney Castleden (Routledge, 2000), The Keys to Avalon (Element, 2000) and Pendragon (Rider, 2002) both by Steve Blake & Scott Lloyd, and King Arthur, Myth-Making and History by N.J. Higham (Routledge, 2002).
All of these books will provide you with a diverse and comprehensive view of the Arthurian world which will in turn open up new vistas on the legends and tales.
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