Arthurian Literature

by Eleanor M. Farrell

Obviously, this is a VERY broad topic. Beginning with the Welsh triads and the Continental medieval source materials (the Prose Lancelot, Cretien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, et al) which culminated in Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, on through Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelite poets to the Inklings and T.H. White, the "Matter of Britain" has continued to generate retellings, adaptations and variations to the present day. In fact, Arthurian fiction is now so popular with fantasy and historical fiction writers that a San Francisco bookstore, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on Van Ness Avenue, has a separate "Arthurian" shelf in its science fiction section. Scary stuff. Scarier if you've read much of the new stuff, as I have, being an Arthurian buff.

For anyone interested in a scholarly review of recent Arthurian literature, I recommend The Return from Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction by Raymond H. Thompson (Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut and London, 1985), who was Scholar guest of Honor at Mythcon 20 in Vancouver. Thompson divides the novels into five major categories, distinguished by their attitude toward setting: retellings, realistic fiction, historical fiction, science fiction (and fantasy), and fantasy. Thompson further sub-divides the "fantasy" category into low, heroic, ironic, and mythopoeic. Cited books in this last category include War in Heaven by Charles Williams, That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, and the juvenile fantasies of Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, and Penelope Lively. Another good reference book is The Arthurian Encyclopedia, edited by Norris J. Lacy (Peter Bedrick Books, New York, 1986) -- Thompson is one of four associate editors -- which does a pretty good job of covering the field from the various aspects of historic period (ie, when the books were written) from early sources into the 20th century, theme, author, character, etc.

Fortunately for Thompson -- assuming he wants to continue publishing in this area -- there have been more than enough new books about King Arthur and his dudes, dudettes, and associated paraphernalia to fill another volume of critiques and categories. Most of them (the books, I mean) are bad, though.

For this discussion, I will focus on those pieces of literature addressing the timelessness of the Arthurian legend -- Arthur is "the once and future king" -- by transposing Arthurian elements to a more modern, sometimes even futuristic, setting.

War in Heaven has the best opening sentence of any book I've ever read. [No, I won't tell you -- go read it for yourselves!] Of all the Inklings, Charles Williams was the one most interested in "The Matter of Britain." In addition to his two cycles of Arthurian poetry, Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, Williams wrote a novel about the grail (or Graal, which term he uses), set in what was, in 1930, present-day England. Williams was pretty much the originator of the "contemporary urban" or "indigenous" fantasy genre; his stories are about mythopoeically supernatural happenings, struggles between Good and Evil, that take place alongside the ordinary lives of seemingly ordinary people. In War in Heaven, the Graal is found, among the liturgical vessels of a small church in a village with the ridiculously English name of Fardles. General chaos -- including murder, demnic ritual, the appearance of Prester John, car chases, mysterious ointments, and the like -- ensues. Of all the novelists writing on the grail, Williams alone seems able to capture the spiritual essence of a quest of this type and its requirements of open acceptance by those who mean to achieve it, elements which are central to the grail quest as described in the medieval texts.

A more recent novel that takes Arthurian elements into the present is Sanders Anne laubenthal's Excalibur, published in 1973 in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperback series edited by Lin Carter. A young Welsh archeologist (also the Pendragon successor) travels to Mobile, Alabama, to find Arthur's famed sword, brought to America by Madoc in the twelfth century. His quest is paralleled by an American historian's search for the grail; both quests are hampered by those Arthurian nemeses, Morgan and Morgause. The book is not very good, and it's not very modern: the 20th century characters all seem to live more in the past than in the present, and the questers spend as much time in bizarre alternate landscapes as they do in Alabama. Except for the Madoc connection, the story could have been set anywhere and anywhen.

One of my favorite futuristic Arthurian treatments is C.J. Cherryh's 1982 novel, Port Eternity. Here, the disgustingly rich Dela Kirn travels the galaxies in her sleek ship, "The Maid of Astolat", staffed by a crew of genetically engineered "made" (as opposed to "born") men and women. Knowing each of her staff's "psych sets" and being fond of a poem-tape of Tennyson's The Idylls of the KIng, Dela has named her crew after Arthurian characters: pilots Gawain, Modred, Lynette and Percival; accounts expert Vivian, and personal servants Elaine and Lancelot. During an unexpected crisis while travelling with Dela's newest lover, Griffin, the roles of each character are played out, interwoven with their poetic counterparts. As science fiction, the story is primitive and perhaps trite, but the Arthurian juxtaposition and the question of what determines character and fate are fascinating.

Guy Gavriel Kay's "Fionavar Tapestry" trilogy takes five Canadian students and tosses them into an alternate world (I forget how this happens) filled with a cornucopia of mythic elements, including the Arthurian bits. My main gripe about this story is one that applies to most of this type of fantasy: here are five ordinary young people from Montreal, and they end up in some other world, and -- ta da! -- they all turn out to be IMPORTANT. (Nobody's a dirt farmer in a former life, either.) Anyway, Kay said that one of his main reasons for writing the Fionavar trilogy was to find a happy resolution for the Arthurian love triangle. (In these books, Arthur, Guinevere -- who is reincarnated here as one of the Canadians -- and Lancelot all sail off together into the sunset.) I think that the Arthurian elements are the weakest part of Kay's story; some of his more original mythic constructions are much richer and more interesting.

Mike Barr & Brian Bolland's 1988 graphic novel, Camelot 3000 (originally a DC comic book "maxi-series"), brings Arthur back from his tomb -- buried under Glastonbury tor -- to fight really ugly aliens from the unknown "tenth planet." Arthur frees Merlin from Nyneve's spell, and the wizard helps him reclaim Excalibur and find a handful of the king's companions, who've been reincarnated into the military leader of the U.S. forces (Guinevere), a Samurai warrior (Galahad), a South African black (Gawain), the richest man in the world (Lancelot -- convenient for setting up a new Camelot, complete with futuristic Table Round...), etc. Tristan is reincarnated as a woman, and not at all happy about it. As with most of these stories, Arthur is completely unsurprised about the changes that have taken place while he was sleeping, and dives into the fray with sword swinging and a few old-fashioned oaths. They go on a grail quest, blow up aliens, battle Morgan le Fay, steal a rocket ship... all the usual stuff. The love triangle is still intace; Modred shows up, eventually, wanting to take over the world as usual. Author/artist Barr claims to have been inspired by Malory, but I think he's more familiar with T.H. White, even to having a young archeologist, Tom Prentice, aid King Arthur and his knights. The book is fun to read (and to look at, with a very comic-style look: lots of muscles and skimpy costumes and gore splattered about artistically). They should have called it Superheroes of the Round Table, though....

The Forever King by Molly Cochran and Warren Murphy was inexplicably nominated for the MFA a few years ago, and I commented on it then. This is the one where Arthur is a ten-year-old boy from Chicago and Galahad an alcoholic ex-FBI agent, and Saladin -- after the Grail, of course -- is thrown into the stew. Can anyone out there name one good novel written by two authors (and I don't mean finished by another writer after the first one dies)? (I make an exception for the epistolary novel written by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede, Sorcery and Cecilia, but that book is a) light, fun reading rather than serious mythopoeia, and b) written as letters between two characters, with each author writing one part.)

Dennis Lee Anderson's 1995 novel, Arthur, King, uses the very promising premise of bringing Arthur forward in time to World War II and the Battle of Britain. (After all, Arthur is supposed to come forth in England's "time of need" -- the 1940 air battle between the RAF and the German Luftwaffe certainly qualifies!) Unfortunately, the author blows it. Arthur's time shift is necessitated by Mordred's theft of Excalibur and one of Merlin's books which explains how to time travel, and Mordred has already gone ahead, taken over the body of a German officer, and become indispensible to Goering! (I'm surprised he didn't just take over Hitler's body. The character is evil personified.) Arthur arrives crashing in a Spitfire, calls himself Arthur King (get it?), is mistaken for a pilot from another base, and learns to fly by reading the technical manuals. (Whew! Good thing Merlin taught him to read, and obviously not only Latin!) Of course there's a cocky American -- from Connecticut, no less -- named Yank, and a beautiful doctor named Jenny. And Arthur, with his new girlfriend, gets to return to his own time after saving the 20th century from a fate worse than Hitler. OK, here's where it gets very sloppy. Arthur and Mordred are in a battle when both of them split to the future, so this must be the "morte" part of the legend. Guinevere is nowhere to be seen; since Arthur's bringing back a new chick, she's either dead or in the convent. (Maybe he'll get a divorce.) Mordred gets killed (or something) in 1940, so I guess he doesn't get to go back. So, this changes the entire ending of the Arthurian story. No Mordred, no "morte d'Arthur", no Avalon.... Maybe Anderson intends to write a sequel and let us know how this version turns out. I can't wait.

A version of this article originally appeared in Butterbur's Woodshed #23.

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