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King Arthur in Our Mind's Eye (and on our bookshelves)

Illuminations cover
ISBN: 0-9722091-0-7

by Gillian Polack, PhD

Many of us have quite a clear picture of Arthur in our minds. We know what we would like him to look like, and often how we would like him to think.

One of the reasons for us having such a clear conception of Arthur is how frequently the same concepts about him, his court, and his life story are repeated in modern fiction. Authors write what look like very different books, but under the surface many share strong similarities.

We have come to associate several stereotypes with Arthur and his court. The archetypal quest, for us, is the quest for the Holy Grail. When all is lost, the King who returns to save us is Arthur. The mysterious magician is Merlin, and the trickster can also be Merlin. One of the great love triangles is Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot, and Mordred is one of the great betrayers. The tragic and unwinnable battle is Camlann. These are key aspects of 'our' Arthur.

Some of these associations relate to mythic figures that transcend our society. Some are culture-specific - they are very much Western dreams. But they are not just any dreams. They are so important to us that we flesh out these dreams in any number of ways. You don't get just few works on Arthur, the way you do, for instance, on Don Quixote. There are hundreds of modern fictional works on Arthurian subjects (Trivium Publishing maintains an updatable list): the vast majority of them speculative fiction. So an enormously important aspect of our vision of Arthur is bound up with concepts of speculative fiction.

Why speculative fiction?

What is so important about the link between fantasy and science fiction and Arthur? Let me throw a few ideas at you. None of these are original.

In some ways, fantasy and science fiction are safe ways to experiment with the slightly unknown, to push back boundaries. You can test new ideas more safely in a fictional context. You can also enrich old ones. Speculative fiction is often used to make old stories modern, and to give us richer and more complex links with them.

Arthur and his court are cultural artefacts. They not only reflect our changing culture but they help to shape it.

Many modern authors look no further than Malory for the source of most of their tales. Malory was a very disorderly knight, who wrote his own version of questing knights and tragic endings while he was in prison. He was derivative and repetitive - he is also regarded as one of the "great" authors of the English language, which makes my opinions of him somewhat iconoclastic.

Malory's work was used for a long time as the basis for most of the views of Arthur expressed in fantasy. He has been so influential that authors such as Mary Stewart and her successors become self-congratulatory when they look further back for sources. Some of them, mostly writing historical fiction, recreate sub-Roman or early Saxon Britain, bypassing most of the literary tradition. Other authors go to regional England and use folk tales. Others are wedded to Geoffrey of Montmouth's fabulous history.

The vast majority of modem writers still enjoy Malory. He was, after all, the first person writing enormous Arthurian compilations who wrote in an English we can read. The version most of us know comes from the first printed edition by Caxton and is late fifteenth century. It has been reinvented at various stages since then - in many ways, it is a very new Arthur. I like the thought of the Arthur written about in speculative fiction being a new Arthur, the King Returned to save all our reading lives.

Several years ago, for the Eleutheria Society in Canberra, I created some tentative categories for modern Arthurian fiction. My aim in using that classification here is to give you a sample of those modern writings and a feeling for what is out there. And no, I have not read it all. These headings are based on reading about three hundred books - and will certainly change when I have read another three hundred (so little time, so much Arthuriana!).

1. Arthur as an historical figure

Arthur as an historical figure is an increasingly popular modern interpretation. The historical Arthur and the fantasy Arthur are, however, inextricably intertwined. Even those authors who write a 'pure' historical Arthur, i.e. leave out the magic element entirely, are nevertheless creating the background for those people who write speculative fiction.

Rosemary Sutcliff might well have started the whole thing off - a bunch of authors on Arthurnet (a mail list for Arthur-addicts and specialists) came clean one day and said she was their greatest influence.

I admit this is my least favourite category, since I am too much the historian in things Arthurian and I always end up playing spot the anachronism. Avoid focussing on things like a list of thirteen treasures which reflects no list you have ever seen, or kings who have somehow been misplaced in time, or bits of technology or culture that look very odd indeed. If you can do this, then the best of these works are wonderfully dynamic interpretations of the way people think the past might have looked.

Even in this category, occasional authors slip in bits of magic. Yes, apparently mundane authors who lean heavily on historical reconstruction will sneak in fantasy elements when they think no-one is watching. No, I won't tell you who they are (apart from Mary Stewart, who is obvious). But check for prophecies in particular, and engineering feats that were not quite possible given the technology of the period.

Some authors to lookout for are: Victor Canning, Gillian Bradshaw, Bernard Cornwall, Diana Paxson, Anna Taylor, Henry Treece, Jack Whyte, Persia Woolley and, of course Rosemary Sutcliff. Anne McCaffrey's one Arthurian book fits into this classification, so be warned if you are a McCaffrey fan - here be no dragons.

2. Comedy or off-the-wall interpretations

These books take the idea of Arthur in another context, and carry it to often logical extremes. Those extremes mostly carry them well into the field of speculative fiction. Unfortunately, changing the context and applying logic mean that nothing is quite the way you expect it to be.

Not all of comic versions are good literature, so tread with care. The trouble with off-the-wall is either it is brilliant or you can predict every word once you have the basic parameters sorted out. I like a quite a few books that fit into this general classification. This says something about me. Also about my writing.

What is particularly interesting about this category is how "no go" it is for most intending Arthurian authors. There is almost a canon of thought on King Arthur, and only a very few comic interpretations escape its high seriousness. This shows the status and even the gravitas of Arthurian material in our society. Arthur and his court are very important cultural icons, and most writers using those themes write most seriously.

When you look at the comedy, also, you find that a substantial portion of it is by writers such as Tom Holt and Joan Aiken, who do not specialise in writing on these subjects. That is to say, the books are one-offs for them - they themselves are not 'Arthurian' writers. T.H. White is the enormous exception to this, obviously (although when his book was made into Camelot - which is how most people know it - a lot of the comedy was lost and the high drama retained), and some authors (e.g. Simon Hawke) are more adventure fantasy than comedy.

In fantasy terms, some of these books turn the genre inside out and upside down. Let me introduce you to a couple of favourites.

Joan Aiken The Stolen Lake - she was a superb writer for children. In this book is a rather overweight Latin American insane Guinevere, who is waiting for Arthur to return, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. She keeps alive by eating the ground bones of children, in a fee, fi, fo fum-ish kind of way. The book belongs to her "Wolves of Willoughby Chase" series, and like most of the others, is about a past set in the gaps of the nineteenth century. It is very bleak, dark and quite over the top. Like Roald Dahl, she does not pander to ideas of children's innocence and niceness.

Donald Barthelme The King. - I love this. It is short, sweet, and satirises Britain, the War, and Arthurian ideals. It is about Arthur in World War II and the King is not really enjoying Lord Haw-Haw's comments on Guinevere's infidelities and the scent of her soap. How is it fantasy? Well, the fact that Arthur is in World War II, for one thing. He is not the king returned - he is simply the King.

Tom Holt Grailblazers - Holt makes a living writing clever satire of cultural stereotypes from a very British viewpoint. He takes off the once and future idea by having the grail knights hanging on for ever and ever and ever, just like Aiken's Guinevere, but instead of eating children's bones, they deliver pizza.

Nicholas Seare Rude Tales and Glorious: Being the Only True Account of Diverse Feats of Brawn and Bawd Performed by King Arthur and His Knights of the Table Round. - the title says it all. I particularly like the clamps that hold the sword in the stone until Arthur says urgently "Merlin, it's me!".

Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Screenplay.) - a major work. In fact, it is so major that it does not need commentary.

3. Fantasy for teenagers, with lots of obvious personal development

Lloyd Alexander's Taran books are a classic here, as are Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising books.

Welwyn Wilton Kats. The Third Magic. - popular Canadian writer

Cynthia Voigt The Wings of a Falcon - part of a series. Don't be fooled by the title of Jackaroo also in the series - it is in no way shape or form Australian - Jackaroo is a returning hero. Voigt is very fond of using popular legends and changing them to fit her invented world and the lesson she is trying to draw. Handles it well, though.

T H. White. One of these big books that changed everything. Well, a medium sized book that changed everything. Well, a series of small books that changed everything. He fits into most categories. Isn't it interesting that we mostly regard him as children's literature rather than as speculative fiction? In fact, he is a classic comic fantasy, and pushes a very strong anti-war message. The book/s originally came out round about World War II, so bits of his work were suppressed as being a bit too much on the pacifist side.

Jane Yolen. like all Yolen's work, a heavy fairytale underlay. Yolen is the undisputed modern master of reinterpreting fairy tales (for a non-Arthurian tour de force, try Briar Rose, which is definitely an adult's book), which means her books on the young Merlin are a good read. They do not adhere closely to the Malory idea of Merlin, which can be a bit of a surprise because even people who don't like Malory still seem to use him as a yard-measure.

Peter Dickinson. Heartsease and the series - loosely based on an idea of Merlin dreaming (otherwise speculative fiction). Like a lot of other children's books that are Arthurian or close to it, this is up there in the canons of good literature. It is an interesting phenomenon that the most consistently good fiction about the subject is for children.

Alan Garner Elidor - the four main treasures of Britain, hidden in another world. Garner wrote other works which also have an Arthurian flavour.

William Mayne Earthfasts - classic children's fiction, with the sleeping Arthur playing a small but important role.

Felicity Pulman The Shallott series. An Australian series targeted at teenage girls, this series looks at the interaction of heroic ideals with everyday life.

4. Arthurian bodice rippers

These have to be fantasy, to fit some of the ways these authors have of making Arthurian characters fit historical romance as a genre. You have Merlin's children, for instance, marrying various people at the court of William the Conqueror. The history is bizarre and even the wildlife is wrong, but the romance is there, in big capital letters.

The ones I have not read in this sub-genre may well be much better than the ones I have, in which case I have just done several good writers a terrible disservice with my comments. And I admit, the historian in me came out of the closet in the very first pages, so I was not really judging the writing fairly - it is hard to judge fiction fairly if your mind is screaming like a lunatic over major historical inaccuracies.

In works I have not braved you can apparently find Merlin the modem hunk (Christina Hamlett), Galahad the less-than-chaste (Victoria Alexander) and even an Old West Romance with Arthurian characters (Donna Grove). If you are interested in following this up through less-biassed eyes than mine (since I am not a great reader of romance), check Arthurian Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography. Scarecrow Press, 1999, by Cindy Mediavilla.

5. the retelling of legend and story as. legend and story

What is interesting about this field is the number of reprints. Works by Pyle and Chant have become standards for readers who want their favourite stories without having to read Malory. Some are excellent; some are execrable. It is a very mixed bag. Let me give you a few examples:

Joy Chant The High Kings. - a wonderfully illustrated book, but not a patch upon her children's fantasy.

Antonia Fraser, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Andrew M. Greeley The Magic Cup - an unusual departure for him (writes everything else from SF with a religious component to suspense with a religious component)

Andrew Lang Tales of the Round Table

Barbara Ker Wilson. Legends of the Round Table

Steinbeck, John, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights - the direct, and Tortilla Flat - the indirect. Steinbeck was into deep meaning and harsh realities, and used Arthur as a way to communicate. Very successful, but emotionally trying, like all his work. Believe it or not, he wrote a good comic line when he had to (try The Short reign of Pippin IV), but Tortilla Flat is not it. This is one of the instances, however, when a straight rewrite and reinterpretation can turn into something special.

6. Straightforward speculative fiction - including Future Arthur

You can really divide the straight speculative sub-categories ie hi tech and low tech, or high fantasy and low fantasy. You can divide it according to what motif is used, or what sorts of magic are used. There is urban fantasy with de Lint and there is fantasy based on retelling of regional legends and tales in Susan Cooper and Alan Garner. There is Arthur in space, of course. There is even Arthur in cyberspace. There is the cartoon Arthur in Camelot 3000. The Muppets have Pigs in Space, and Patricia Kennealy has the Celts in space. In a few works, Changer, for instance, or Moonheart, there is a weaving of North American Indian traditions in with Arthurian themes. It is an amazingly rich field.

There is an analysis crying out to be done on the shape of the themes in works, but this brief introduction is not it. Instead, let me walk you through a few of a huge multitude:

C.J. Cherryh, Port Eternity - a classic writer.

Molly Cochran, and Warren Murphy. The Forever King. Some people adore it, but most people find it frustrating.

Charles. DeLint, Moonheart. De Lint is a classic writer of urban fantasy, largely based in Ottawa or (like Robertson Davies, also from Ontario) in an invented city. This tale has Merlin gone corrupt at its heart, with Taliesin the hero.

Alan Garner The Moon of Gomrath. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley.- straight legendary fantasy, about the sleeping king and his knights and kids who just happen to make the acquaintance of the wizard who protects them. What is particularly neat about Garner is that he bases his books on local legends, so you can read the Wierdstone of Brisingamen and get a real sense of the stories told by parents to their children in that little corner of England.

Guy Gavriel Kay, - the Fionavar cycle - plays with archetypes in a larger than life and dramatic way. Canadian again, and in fact, from Ontario like de Lint, which maybe says something about the region and its writers.

Kennealy. - the Keltiad - the great cycle of futuristic Arthurs. Worth reading Patricia's authorial comments at the back of her most recent books because she goes into her life with Jim Morrison of the Doors. She uses all the most-loved Arthurian names, and some of the concepts (quest, 13 treasures) but in a very different way. Very much an SF/fantasy cross, but well done. Most people like the series for the first 4 books they read (whichever four books that be) and then give up in despair. She is short on innovative plot lines and her characters tend to repeat a bit, but the idea of Kelts winging through space and fighting with their dread enemies is a good one. These books reflect Kenneally's own internal life to a great extent, and you have to be prepared to share that with her.

Stephen Lawhead. Lawhead teaches a useful lesson- "Arthur" and the names attached thereunto can be very handy for bringing together all sorts ideas from everywhere. He brings a lot of pseudo-Nordic ideas into his tales, for instance (as does Alan Garner, but Garner admits it and has an excellent justification for it in his regional folk basis). The end result can be entertaining, but confusing.

C.S. Lewis That Hideous Strength - is it science fiction, is it fantasy, or is it religious tract? I still can't make up my mind. Whatever it is, it is unavoidable (a must-read) and equally unavoidably Christian.

Sophie Masson. Masson explores an imaginative world inspired by the writers of Medieval Arthurian romances. She has a light hand and strong narrative.

Roger Zelazny. Cruel and fun and very twisted. Zelazny is very important, not because he writes cruel and twisted fiction, not because it is hard to decide, sometimes, what sort of fiction he is writing, but because he is a very respected genre author, and the liberties he takes with concepts of Merlin and the idea of enchantment have really been important in opening up the Arthurian legends to pure SF readers. I have to admit, I love the Guns of Avalon, but I would not invite Zelazy to dinner.

Jack Vance, Lyonesse: - bizarre, almost rococo. No, very rococo. Recondite, obscure, tantalisingly almost-good. Pity that describes my writing too.

André Norton Merlin's Mirror - well, an SF writer writes an SF book, surprise, surprise. She uses her favorite idea of gates to other worlds, which is picked up by a lot of her followers (eg Gemmell). What I find interesting about Norton is how amazingly influential she has been in the field. Merlin's Mirror is not one of the great works of Arthurian fiction, but it did give a new idea about where Merlin came from, and that idea got picked up by others - a lot of others. I would love to know if the originators of Dr Who read her.

James P. Blaylock, The Paper Grail. - an amazingly bizarre work. Treats the grail as concept as a thing of power to be hunted and avoided. If it were not called "grail": the work would not be Arthurian, to my view. Good reading, but the thought of Arthurian origami is a bit recondite. While I am thinking about paperfolding Arthurian style, there is a book on that. You too can have a paper Mordred absconding with a paper Guinevere and a paper throne, and can have the sheer joy and delight of personally folding a paper Merlin into a paper tree. Getting back to Blaylock: his Arthurianess may be arguable, but he is a good read.

Marion Zimmer Bradley. The Mists of Avalon and its prequels. Very, very controversial. At least one Arthurian folklore expert claims it is not really Arthurian. College students in America either adore or hate it. MZB has an outstanding grasp of narrative, so it can't fail to entertain. The problem is, what is it? Feminists love it and hate it, Arthurian experts love it and hate it, Wiccan practitioners love it and hate it. Historians mostly just hate it.

James Branch Cabell. Jurgen,- Cabell tends to be little-known these days, but has almost a cult following. A very rich writer, very slow going and almost a bit dreamlike.

Robert Holdstock Mythago Wood - in this and in the sequel and in other works on the theme (Mythago Wood is brilliant, the others not so much) the notion of archetypes brings a novel facet of the legends to the fore. They are not archetypes properly speaking, but Holdstock's notion is gripping and clever. The archetypes are produced by the mind of the person, interacting with the wood.

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court - Arthur with a very US bias. A work of absolute importance. That's why it crept in here even though it was written well over 50 years ago. The minute any author makes a hi-tech Arthur, or a time-traveling Arthur you think of this book. It is very, very important (oh, I like those words!) and is the US version of TH White in terms of absolute humour, absolute cleverness, and absolute influence. Possibly a great work of fiction, depending on my mood - some of it is always hamfisted, and some of it is always great comic fiction. A lot of people hate it and something like 17 movies have been made from it.

Robertson Davies books - like George Bernard Shaw, known for his great age, beard and literary stature. Helped put Canada on the map and all that. Very idiosyncratic as a writer. His best is equal to anyone - just avoid the almost-best.

John Cowper Powys. A Glastonbury Romance. A slow read, and very much modern fiction, but utterly charming. Possibly genuine great literature, though it pains me to admit it, especially given its occasionally preachy nature. Don 't read it unless you have time and to spare - it is not small. I am not sure it qualifies as fantasy, except for the idea that everyone is sort of come again, but it is one of the half-dozen books that are regarded as substantial literature and known unto the scholarly fraternity.

That brings me to a sad note for ending. Most modern books on Arthur are great reading but hardly great literature. Books like the Robertson Davies and the Powys are, I hate to say it, atypical. While some of the straight fantasy is truly excellent as straight fantasy - Guy Gavriel Kay, for instance, and Mary Stewart - its literary status is debated hotly. And a large proportion of books on the subject do not even merit hot debates. Their importance, I guess, is that they happily entertain us and that they contribute to our inner vision of who Arthur was and how he lived.

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