Arthurian matters

‘You must remember, there’s always something cleverer than yourself.’ — Merlin to Arthur in the Excalibur film


I’m sitting in our Pub with my iPad open to our WordPress site, a pint of Autumn Ale at hand, a cold sleety wing blowing on the windows as I half listen to the Neverending Session playing a set of tunes they learned from Paul Brandon, while I’m putting together this edition on all things Arthurian.

King Arthur and his story and those associated with him are written deep into our culture, in everything from books such as The Once and Future King to films such as Excalibur, so I decided to see what we’d reviewed that touched upon him. And discovered not surprisingly that we’d indeed done quite a few reviews, mostly of a bookish nature, but also a look at what I consider the best film on him, Excalibur, and a lovely song cycle about him by Maddy Prior.


A work called simply Arthur the King is favoured by Grey: ‘Who was the real Arthur? Many authors today dig into history and piece together the fragments they find there. They offer us Arthur as Celtic chieftain or as Roman warlord. They find traces of him in the Mabinogion, and speculate on the possibility of his having used Libyan warhorses to give him the advantage over the Saxons. They give his name and the names of his knights the proper Welsh or Latin spellings. They try to show us an authentic Arthur, an Arthur we can believe actually existed. Graeme Fife is not one of these authors.’

Though this author is best known for her Pern series, Grey gives us a review of her sole Arthurian novel: ‘”No hoof, no horse,” say the Worshipful Company of Farriers. “Farriery,” the craft of shoeing horses, was even more vital in the days when every mobile enterprise was dependent on horses, especially the enterprise of war. And what more famous warrior-king has there ever been than Arthur? What might it have been like to have been Arthur’s farrier? Anne McCaffrey gives an answer to this question in Black Horses for the King.’

Joel looks at the work I mentioned above: ‘T.H. White’s four-volume take on the Arthurian cycle draws heavily on the late-fifteenth century romance, Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory. This in turn brought together in one place the myriad legends, songs, and poems, both French and English, about the mythical king and his knights. But in the half century and change since its publication, White’s tetralogy has almost certainly been the more widely read, if not amongst scholars of medieval literature.’

Michelle has a book she recommends highly: ‘Christopher Snyder, a professor of history and politics at Virginia’s Marymount University, is not one who believes in a historical Arthur, nor that such a man would be important even if proven to have existed. His book The World of King Arthur is devoted entirely to the impact of the idea of King Arthur — the social and artistic legacy of the legends.’

Rebecca looks at Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain: ‘The good news is, Arthur did exist. The bad news, to devotees of Arthurian legend, is that he was a battle commander, not a king; he didn’t control all of what we now think of as Great Britain; and some sources called him lustful and perverted. But this excellent book says he existed. Woo-hoo!’

Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Seeing Stone: Book One of the Arthur Trilogy also finds favour with her as she notes here: ‘I found this novel for children aged 9-12 delightful and informative. It is the story of Arthur de Caldicot, a curious, ambitious young boy growing up in medieval England, near the Welsh border. Arthur has a mean older brother, a Welsh mother and grandmother, a stern but loving father who has some plan for him that Arthur can’t quite figure out, and a handful of other siblings.’

Robert wraps up our Arthurian book reviews with a nice, scholarly foundation: ‘Originally published in 1999, The Arthur of the English is the second volume in a series of scholarly anthologies centered on the Arthurian literature of the Middle Ages. As the series editor, W. R. J. Barron, points out in the Preface, the new series takes full advantage of the more expansive scholarship in the field and is thus able to focus on the cultural and historical as well as linguistic aspects of Arthurian literature in Europe.’


A rather  brutal take on the Arthurian mythos draws this comment by reviewer Asher: ‘Here is a tale of human folly — “Whatever the cost, do it”. Of a noble dream – “One land, one king!” Of magic – “Can’t you see all around you the Dragon’s breath?” Of its passing – “There are other worlds. This one is done with me.” And of memory – “For it is the doom of men that they forget.” Excalibur is arguably the most exciting film version of the myth of Arthur to date.’

Asher states forthrightly that Mists of Avalon which is based on the Marion Zimmer Bradley novel ‘is a revisionist Arthurian tale. The film opens much like Braveheart‘s “Historians in England will say I am a liar…” with an agonized and weary, almost crucified Morgaine narrating — “No one knows the real story. Most of what you know… is nothing but lies” — as her boat glides into the mists, a device that welded this viewer to his seat, not wanting to miss any of the necessary adjustments to the legend.’

Kimberly has a choice bit of popcorn viewing for us: ‘As a made-for-television flick, Merlin is watchable fantasy fun. But if you want any fidelity to the original Arthurian legends, f’get-about-it! It ain’t gonna happen in this movie. Still, there aren’t tons of fantasy pieces on television that don’t require a barf-bag, so enjoy what you can from this one — particularly the special effects. The fairies in the magic woods are delightful, and so is the early scene where young Merlin is asleep in a hollow tree, where he meets Nimue for the first time and discovers his powers. Of course, Evil Queen Mab snatches Nimue from Merlin for revenge and scars her for life, but she is restored by Merlin’s love and last act of magic, to her youth. Merlin lives happily ever after with her. Awwwww.’


Maddy Prior’s Arthur The King which I was listening to earlier draws this note from No’am: ‘This disk tries primarily to separate the fact from the fiction. “The historical Arthur is a highly controversial figure. Theories abound as to his region of activity and his ancestry.” are the first two sentences in the well written sleeve notes. Arthur also tries to provide in music a feeling of what it was like to have been alive in time of Arthur. Thus we have songs written from the point of view of Arthur himself: “The poet and the troubadour have stolen my name” are the opening words from “The Name Of Arthur,” from what constituted the aristocracy of the time — people who were more Roman than British, from the warriors, and also from more artistic and legendary viewpoints. “The Hallows” begins with the words “From my name has come a dream, a fable, a myth.”‘


Arthur and the various tellings of his myth are writ both deep and wide upon the British folklore. (Robert Holdstock makes good use of that folklore in his Ryhope Wood cycle) so let me offer you up A Gazetteer of Arthurian Onomastic and Topographic Folklore. Caitlin R. Green in her dense nineteen page article in Arthurian Notes & Queries lays out an argument for where Arthur fits in British folklore. It’s usually dense academic prose but still worth reading if you got a keen interest in this subject.


Let’s finish off with Robin Williamson performing ‘Five Denials on Merlins Grave’‘ which he wrote. It’s from his performance at The Brillig Arts Centre, Bath, England on the first of December 1978.

About Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I’m the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library.

I’m a violinist too, so you’ll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.

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