I have a confession: I’m not a fan of Arthurian fiction.
There, I’ve said it. Why so? It comes from a half century of involvement in Arthurian matters, from archaeological research to editing a society journal, during which I came into forced contact with innumerable theories about ‘rex quondam’ in fiction, in non-fiction and creative non-fiction. Some were plausible, most were speculative, and whole libraries of them were, frankly, preposterous. So in a way I’m the last person to be enthusiastic about this particular literary genre.
And yet, there are aspects I delight in. In amongst the many servings of clichéd tropes (many even falling far short of Steinbeck’s 1976 Malory-inspired The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights) there are gems that catch the eye. Three overlapping areas I’ve noticed concern the King himself, Merlin and the Grail, so I shall divide this discussion into these three sections. Also, along the spectrum shading from history to legend is another axis taking us from an imagined past to a future via a notional ‘present’. To keep things a little focused I shall confine myself to the 20th century; needless to say this is neither a comprehensive survey nor an impersonal one.
First come novels about a historical Arthur. There has been no end of bad retellings of Dark Age Britain, full of anachronisms and false premises, but I have great respect for early exponents of this subgenre, such as Rosemary Sutcliff in her Sword at Sunset (1963) and Henry Treece in The Great Captains (1956). I also liked the latter’s The Green Man (1966), an interesting attempt to meld the barbaric lives of Arthur and the Danish hero Amleth (better known to us as Hamlet). Meanwhile, the legend of the sleeping king is a particularly fecund source for fantasy, for example Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Bringamen (1960), William Mayne’s Earthfasts (1966) and Jane Louise Curry’s The Sleepers (1969). Lest you think I’m stuck in the sixties I should mention a notable freestyle rex futurus in Mike W Barr and Brian Bolland’s graphic novel Camelot 3000 (1982-4) which transposed Arthur and his revived medieval warriors into an SF future.
Merlin frequently gets a wake-up call too. C S Lewis’ science fantasy novel That Hideous Strength (1945, revised 1955) has the redivivus wizard fighting evil forces, while Peter Dickinson’s The Changes Trilogy (1969-70) ascribes disturbances in modern Britain to Merlin himself. Álvaro Cunqueiro’s gentle 1955 novel, translated as Merlin and Company in 1996, sets Merlin in rural Galicia, in a part of Spain with historical links to insular Celtic lands. Like the king, Merlin often gets the speculative fiction treatment, though my memory of Andre Norton’s Merlin’s Mirror (1975) is that the fantasy and the SF didn’t gel too well.
When we come to the Grail treatments of the object become even more imaginative. Arthur Machen’s novella The Great Return (1915) put the relic in an authentically Welsh setting, contrasting with Chuck Dixon’s so-so graphic novel Batman: The Chalice (1999) where the cup is sent to Bruce Wayne’s Gotham City mansion because the playboy is descended from Sir Gawain. Religious associations remained in Charles Williams’ War in Heaven (1930), but by the sixties native paganism had asserted itself, as in Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965) and Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone (also 1965).
I have to say though that my favourites among all this re-envisioning are what I call freestyle treatments. Where to start? I’ll begin with Antal Szerb’s genre-crossing The Pendragon Legend (1934) with its nods to horror, spies, mysteries and the supernatural. Children’s authors are brilliant at riffing with Arthurian elements: take John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk (1927) with its youngster Kay Harker encountering Arthurian characters (or does he?), Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake (1981) set in an alternate history South America, or Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood (1993) and The Merlin Conspiracy (2003), both of which pluck their motifs out of context to create new and original plotlines.
As a general rule I look askance at pretentious novels that include key words like Excalibur and Camelot in their titles; I’m even more sceptical of supposedly factual publications that include the words “the real” or “the truth about” in combination with “Arthur”, king or otherwise. Not only do these “histories” contradict each other, their arguments are usually badly presented; they even fail to invite my willing suspension of disbelief, that defining characteristic of a good piece of fiction. Quite frankly I’d class these all as Bad Fiction.
I’m guessing I’ve omitted your favourite authors and titles in this short survey: apologies to lovers of, for example, T H White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, Bernard Cornwell or Gillian Bradshaw, for example. But if Arthur is to have a future I feel it is one where his triumphs and tragedies aren’t just going to be re-hashed in old familiar forms; in a changing world we need to consider what relevance Arthurian themes have for our planet, our lives and our relationships. And that will inevitably take us out of our comfort zones.
I’m pleased to say that this post first appeared as Witch Week Day One: Rex Futurus (Guest Post), on Lory Hess’ excellent blog Emerald City Book Review for October 31st 2017 (here with slight emendations).
Witch Week was inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy of the same name, set between Halloween and Bonfire Night on November 5th. The theme for 2017 was ‘Dreams of Arthur’, and all the fascinating posts on ECBR relating to this can be seen under the tag #WitchWeekECBR at https://emeraldcitybookreview.com/tag/witchweekecbr