Few characters are as beloved as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Well, in my house at least. There’s an expression common in the corporate world that says “Where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit”. This is also true in literature, as demonstrated by the various tellings of the Arthur tales. Who is telling the story is critical to who is the hero and who is the villian.
Listed below are my favorite versions of this ageless tale. Once again, the descriptions come from amazon.com, who summarize so much better than I:
10-9. Peter David – Knight Life; One Knight Only
Knight Life: After 10 long centuries spent trapped in a magical cave, King Arthur is finally rescued by a pint-sized, wisecracking Merlin, who has aged backwards enough to slip through the bars of his own prison. The “once and future king” arrives, in armor, no less, on the streets of the Big Apple. Soon, with the help of Master Merlin, the charmingly anachronistic and good-hearted “Arthur Penn” is running for mayor of New York. Meanwhile, much to Arthur’s dismay, the reincarnated but unemployed Guinevere, aka Gwen DeVere Queen, is already living with Lance, an unpublished and also unemployed “misunderstood” writer. Morgan, aka Morgana le Fey, Arthur’s half-sister sorceress, bored and gone to seed in a dumpy New Jersey apartment, becomes angry enough to get back into fighting form when she discovers her spell has been broken. With the help of Moe Dreskin (aka her bastard son, Modred, PR whiz and erstwhile murderer of his royal father), Morgan schemes to put Arthur and Merlin back where they belong. But she has no idea just how determined Arthur’s eclectic election team is to fight back and reinvent Camelot in the “kingdom” of Manhattan.
One Knight Only – Arthur Pendragon, aka Arthur Penn, continues his illustrious modern political career, moving from mayor of New York to president of the U.S. A man of the people and wildly popular, he takes to the presidency like a duck to water, though it is far more challenging than kingship was in days of old. For one thing, Arthur’s friend and mentor Merlin has been turned into a stone statue gracing the White House gardens but leaving Arthur to bear the weight of leadership alone. He is still reasonably happy, but then an assassin’s bullet puts his beloved wife, Gwen, in a hospital bed, near death. One night as Arthur keeps vigil at her bedside, an old, deadly enemy comes to him with an offer and a choice. Either way he chooses, he will lose something dear to him.
6-8. Bernard Cornwell – The Winter King; Enemy of God; Excalibur. Narrated by Derfel, an ordinary, likable man who rises through the ranks to become Arthur’s friend and advisor in peace and war.
The Winter King: Mordred is Uther’s infant grandson, the legitimate king; Arthur is one of Mordred’s guardians, sworn to hold the kingdom against the Saxon warlords until Mordred comes of age. Warfare is incessant. Arthur’s dream of peace and unity seems unattainable. Derfel’s own story–his strange origin, his love for Nimue, his worries and his triumphs–parallels Arthur’s as he fights for and beside him. Bernard Cornwell downplays the magic that enlivens the traditional stories, depicting it more as a combination of superstition and shrewd wits.
Enemy of God: During the Dark Ages, even the lords of the land lived in thatched huts. Arthur, still defending Britain for his younger half-brother Mordred, faces religious uprisings, Saxon invasions, and disloyalty at the heart of the kingdom. His uncompromising belief in oaths and his optimistic blindness to human betrayal isolate him from even his closest friends. At the same time, Merlin’s quest for the Cauldron (read Holy Grail) also becomes entangled in treachery. Enemy of God combines intriguing descriptions of Druidical magic with the war-ravaged landscape of Dark Ages Britain, without holding back on the brutality of vengeance and war. The Matter of Britain always commands interest, and Cornwell invests the usual splendor and tragedy with the human squalor of the times.
Excalibur: A Novel of Arthur – the final book in the trilogy immerses the reader in the Britain of the Dark Ages. Merlin, the greatest of the Druids, believes that the ancient gods are deserting Britain, and that the invading Saxons can’t be defeated without the gods’ help. Mordred reigns with a brutal hand, and Arthur sees his dreams of peace evaporate. The author provides exciting descriptions of swordplay and battles, interspersed with somewhat gruesome depictions of ordinary life in those days–greasy, waist-length beards serving as napkins, lambs bloodily sacrificed before festivals, and rampant lice. But at the heart of Excalibur–what makes the Arthurian legends eternally fascinating–is the larger-than-life company of heroes, from Sagramor the warrior to Taliesin the bard, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Arturus Rex himself. Cornwell treats them all with warmth and dignity, revealing their human qualities without unnecessarily reinventing them.
2-5. Mary Stewart – The Crystal Cave; The Hollow Hills; The Last Enchantment; The Wicked Day. Originally published as a trilogy, Mary Stewart needed one more volume to complete the tale of Merlin, who narrates this fascinating version of the well-known legend. However, I would say that it is the first volume that contains the “bonus” information, rather than the last. How else would we ever get to know Merlin as a child?
The Crystal Cave – this novel focuses on the early life of Merlin the magician, and the political developments of fifth-century Britain. Merlin’s childhood is formed by the absence of his reticent, convent-bound mother and his unnamed and unknown father. As the bastard grandson of a local king, Merlin is the object of both envy and ridicule. His strange powers and predictions earn him greater status as a pariah, and he leaves home as a preadolescent. Returning years later as a young man–empowered by self-knowledge and magic–Merlin finds himself caught in the currents of the shifting kingdoms.
The Hollow Hills – Book Two of the series focuses on how Myrddin Emrys, the young but already legendary enchanter, better known as Merlin, arranged the childhood of the future High King, Arthur. Merlin becomes a holy man in the area near the foster home of Arthur, befriends Arthur, and teaches him many things, while subtly preparing him for his future. The goings-on in other parts of Britain are also chronicled, with emphasis on King Uther’s physical decline, repeated skirmishes with the Saxons, and the emergence of Morgause, the illegitimate daughter of Uther, as a scheming enchantress who is greedy for every form of power.
The Last Enchantment – Book Three focuses on how Merlin meets, trains, and falls in love with Nimue, while helping Arthur solidify his kingdom and deal with the follies of Guinevere and other members of Court. Merlin and Arthur have to decide what to do about Arthur’s sister, Morgan, and half-sister, Morgause, who separately plot against Arthur, and as well deciding upon the disposition of Morgause’s five sons, one of whom is Mordred, illegitimate son of Arthur.
The Wicked Day – Merlin is dead. Or, is he? It matters not, as this fourth volume actually contains very little Merlin. It focuses on Mordred, the illegitimate but eldest son of Arthur, the Dragon of Greater Britain. Mordred is raised in secrecy, as a pawn in the power games of his mother, the High King’s half-sister, Queen Morgause. As he grows, he has to relearn the world repeatedly: he is the son of peasants; no, he is the illegitimate son of Arthur’s dead enemy, King Lot; no, he is Arthur’s son; he is Arthur’s bane, as foretold by Merlin; no, he is Mordred, trying to make a place in history to be proud of.
1. Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon: The tale is told from the points of view of the much maligned Morgaine, (Morgana Le Fey), Priestess of Avalon and Gwenhwyfar, (Gwynivere), Christian princess and future queen of Camelot. Although most of the events of the traditional Arthurian legend are presented here, it is extremely interesting how the tale, told by men, changes when viewed through the eyes and experiences of a woman. This is also the important story of the political and religious conflict between the new Christianity and the “old ways” of goddess worship. Believers of each religion seek to control the throne, but ultimately Christianity ascends to be the organized religion of the land. Since Morgaine is a Druid High Priestess, it would explain why she received such a bad rap in Christian civilization. The reader also views other famous female characters from a different vantage point, including Igraine, Morgaine’s and Arthur’s mother,
The book follows Morgaine from childhood to Priestess in her home on the Isle of Avalon, the center of Druidism and goddess worship since the Roman occupation forced the religion underground, where it remained long after the Roman departure. Mists surround this mystical isle, protecting it and its inhabitants from all who do not have the psychic powers to penetrate the barrier. Morgaine has dedicated her life to preserving her ancient religion and tries to defend it against the growing numbers of her countrymen and the Camelot royalty who exchange the old ways for Christianity. She is also a very powerful person and struggles against the stereotypes which expect her to adhere to more traditional “feminine,” (dependent), behavior and roles.
The reader also follows the lovely Gwenhwyfar from the innocence of her girlhood to her rise as King Arthur’s Christian Queen. She deeply fears Druid magic and her terror causes her to miscarry a long awaited baby. King Arthur’s acquiescence to his wife’s pleas to turn his back on the old ways and adopt Christianity is the beginning of the cataclysmic fall of his reign.