Not academic but accessible

Original artwork by Simon Rouse for the Journal of the Pendragon Society
Original artwork by Simon Rouse for the Journal of the Pendragon Society

Ronan Coghlan The Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
Element Books 1992

Often plundered and even plagiarised – frequently online and most notably in print by Mike Dixon-Kennedy in his Arthurian Myth and Legend: an A-Z of People and Places (1996) – this was the first really accessible dictionary of Arthurian personages, locales and other miscellanea. While not an academic publication the Encyclopaedia at least references most of its entries (unlike its main rival, mentioned above) while still striving to be user-friendly. This original edition includes full-page line drawings by Courtney Davis in a neo-Celtic style, but soon gave way to a fully-illustrated full-colour coffee-table edition which must have sold in even more numbers.

Entries are sometimes terse but rarely uninteresting, and relatively easy to cross-reference. There are family trees, some in variant versions from differing narrative traditions (for example Welsh, German or French); and a few maps, though these are rather basic. Coghlan, though an idiosyncratic author (his books range from Robin Hood to cryptozoology, from Sherlock Holmes to an excellent dictionary of Irish Christian names) is an enthusiastic Arthurian, no doubt aided by his stint as a dealer in secondhand and antiquarian books, trading as Excalibur Books.

This is most useful as a ready-reference book for those more obscure Arthurian sites and personages, and its list of consulted books is still useful if now a little dated. As this is primarily a sourcebook of legends there is relatively little on literary works of more recent centuries, but Coghlan is strong on Arthuriana up to and including Malory, though he does include a few notices of later folklore and popular tales. Even for seasoned Arthurians there is much of interest here, and it’s consistently reliable (which is more than can be said for the Dixon-Kennedy rip-off).

4 thoughts on “Not academic but accessible

    1. You might prefer the illustrated edition of the encyclopaedia, Kate — loads of atmospheric, mostly Victorian, paintings in full colour and scarcely a Celtic interlace pattern in sight!


  1. You do realize by now, you are adding to my growing list of “must own books”. This is one of them.
    I have to laugh at myself; about 6 years ago I became enamored with Celtic lore. It occurred to me that Celtic and Arthurian legends shared common traits. I thought I was on to something new, and was determined to share my find with the world. When I told my lit professor about this, he just chuckled and said “yes, we know”. Turns out the more you learn, the more you learn you don’t know.


    1. I’ve had loads of embarrassing moments like that too, Sari! It’s less embarrassing, of course, if you come to that eureka moment on your own, do further research and then find great minds think alike! No red faces at all!


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