Depending on how you first encountered him, you probably think of King Arthur either as a wild warpainted barbarian stealing horses, or as a refined knight in armor espousing chivalry and courtly love. If we're going strictly historical, it's likely the real man (if he existed) was closer to the first image, though he may have been more enlightened than his fellow clansmen.
He definitely wasn't the half-wild, half-Romanized dual-sword-wielding postmodern Pelagian disciple represented by Clive Owen in the 2004 film King Arthur. Pelagius and King Arthur would never have met, and the timeline's all wrong. Neither Arthur nor his knights (whether Celtic brigands or armored Normans) would have used Far Eastern or modern fighting techniques.
Geoffrey of Monmouth is generally accepted (or accused) as the codifier of the Arthur legends and the author of the first written account. It's hard to make a historical case for Arthur from his History of the Kings of Britain, however, because he includes weird stuff like two dragons asleep beneath England, a prophet named Merlin who sees the future, and Arthur's conquest of all Europe.
Old Geoff inspired the Arthurian romance writers like Sir Thomas Malory, Chretien de Troyes, and Wolfram von Eschenbach. They fit the wild, fierce Arthur of Geoffrey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into the courtly love context, emphasizing the relationship of Guinevere and Lancelot, the Round Table, and Arthur's purity.
Modern writers took the myth in a different direction. Indirectly prompted by deconstructionism, authors explored the "historical" Arthur, the crazy bearded axe-bearing petty Western chieftain who swooped out of Wales to wreak havoc on his neighbors and unite Britain temporarily. Some of them made it a funny story—notably T.H. White in his brilliant The Once and Future King.
There's also the King-Arthur-as-modern-social-commentary version made famous by Mark Twain. He combines the knights in shining armor, untutored Celt, and bust-your-gut-hilarious versions to point out the hypocrisy and sometimes outright idiocy of Medieval society. If he deliberately misinterprets Arthurian British culture for the sake of his narrative, he's forgiven: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is one of the funniest and most poignant books ever written.
In a sense, all these are correct visions of Arthur. He exists as myth, and that is his legacy to literature and history. Medieval writers Christianized the story, making Arthur a Christ-type destined to deliver his people in their hour of darkest need. This is his ultimate place, the legendary folk hero representing everything to be admired in his culture of origin.
Whichever King Arthur you prefer, whether the knight in shining armor, the Monty Python doofus, or the pagan warlord in skins, we offer the books you want. We also carry texts interpreting Arthur, looking for the historical figure, and claiming no such historical figure exists. The legend of King Arthur remains one of the greatest stories of all time, and we hope you'll spend at least as much time reading them for the sheer joy of it as you will delving into their historical background.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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