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Friday, May 06, 2016

My Favourite Arthurian Books

Recently I got my old video copy of Merlin Of The Crystal Cave converted to DVD as I can't watch videotape any more and, as far as I know, you can't buy it on DVD, though I will certainly buy a copy if it ever does become available.

This made me think of the novels and other classic Arthurian books I've loved over the years. There was a time when I was bingeing on them, but, you know how they are going to end, how they have to end and ... It's the reason why I don't generally buy Richard III fiction any more. (Mind you, I've recently re-read John M Ford's The Dragon Waiting, set in an alternative universe in which there's a happy ending for Richard...)

Still, here are some of the classics I love.

The Once And Future King by T.H White is based on Malory's fifteenth century version. It's the story of the Arthur we think of when we think of King Arthur - Camelot, knights, tournaments, the Holy Grail, etc. This is the book which inspired the musical Camelot.

But there's a bit more to it than that. This Arthur is quirky and loveable. He was tutored by a Merlin who knows what's going to happen because he is living backwards. Yes, this is the book it came from. Over the years, people have forgotten that it isn't a part of the original legend, just as they've forgotten that the laws of robotics belong to Isaac Asimov...

Merlin teaches him about human society by turning him into animal and birds - and as a bird, he flies and sees that there are no borders; borders are a human construct. As a king, he uses what he has learned from Merlin. The knights are sent out to help Arthur's subjects according to his idea of "Not might is right, but might for right."  The Holy Grail quest is to give his men something to do when they've finished that.

The problem is the fight between Gael and Gall and his nephews from Orkney start the restlessness that eventually leads to the end of Camelot. The novel ends on the eve of the last battle, with a young page called Tom of Warwick serving Arthur in his tent. Of course, it's meant to be Tom Malory.

Because it was originally written as a series of children's books, before being reworked into one novel, it retains the flavour of a children's book. And it works, it really does.

It's exquisite. If you haven't read it yet, you're missing out on the classic Arthurian novel.

Rosemary Sutcliff's The Sword At Sunset is a part of her series that began with Marcus Flavius Aquila in The Eagle Of The Ninth. There is a descendant of Marcus in all these books, going right up till the Middle Ages, connected by a dolphin ring with a flawed emerald. This novel is a sequel to The Lanternbearers, in which a member of the Aquila family refused to return to Rome when the legions left. It begins, in fact, three days after The Lanternbearers ends. The young man Artos, nephew of King Ambrosius, wants to begin a group of warriors who will travel around the country to help where needed. There are Saxons to be fought, fires to be put out. It ends up becoming his life's mission. And there is, of course, an Aquila among his men.

This is the classic "Arthur as a Romano-British general" novel. There have been others since, including some very fine ones which I may mention in another post, but IMO this is the best. The author takes bits of the legend and works them into a believable piece of historical fiction. This Arthur has his horse and his dog, because the legendary Arthur did, and Rosemary Sutcliff felt they were a part of him. He sticks to white horses and the horse he rides into his last battle is called Cygnus. His wonderful dog, Cabal, the second of that name(the first one dies of old age) was won from its dead Saxon master's side after a battle. 

His best friend - not Lancelot, who didn't enter the story till the Middle Ages,  but Bedwyr, one of his first companions in legend -  and his wife only sleep together once, when they're all hitting middle age. Deeply hurt, he sends them both away, but Bedwyr returns for the last battle. The sword goes into the lake because he doesn't want the enemy to know he's dead, not because of any Lady Of The Lake. There's no arm in white samite here. 

Finally, for this post, there's Mary Stewart's Arthurian series beginning with The Crystal Cave. The first three are not about Arthur but about Merlin. The series was inspired by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was, I think, the one who slotted Merlin into the Arthurian legend.

There is just a touch of fantasy in this series. Merlin has the Sight, probably inherited from his mother, a Welsh princess, rather than his Roman father, Ambrosius. But he is more likely to use his brain than any magic. He is a skilled engineer, among other things. That's how he brings the main stone across the sea to Stonehenge. The Crystal Cave begins when he is seven and ends when, as a young man of twenty-two, he helps Uther smuggle himself into Tintagel to sleep with Igraine. It's not rape. They both know what they're doing. She knows who he is. Merlin does it because he knows who will be conceived that night. 

I loved that this Merlin refused to be a cliche; at the end of The Hollow Hills, the second book, Arthur asks him if he'd wear a robe with stars and moons on it for him and Merlin replies,"Not even for you, Arthur!"

It's a gorgeous series, with characters I cared about. Read it if you like just a taste of fantasy in your Arthurian fiction. 

I'll leave it here. My next post on this subject will be on more recent Arthurian fiction I have enjoyed over the years. 


UrbanDragon said...

I think I commented, but I can't see where it went

Sue Bursztynski said...

I checked the moderation page just in case, but it wasn't there. Sorry! I know you well enough to be sure you've read all three of these, though. :-)