Christopher Snyder’s The World of King Arthur

Michelle Erica Green Penned this review.

For every serious student of ancient Grail lore and Arthurian myth, there are a hundred people who love the cultural artifacts of the story … the woodcuts and paintings, The Faerie Queene and The Once and Future King, the opera Tristan und Isolde and the musical Camelot. On a trip to Glastonbury this spring, I witnessed side by side the proliferation of historical research societies devoted to uncovering the facts about the legendary monarch and meditation centers uninterested in the historical facts of Arthur’s life and reign.

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.

Scholars looking for an in-depth analysis of “the world of King Arthur” might do better with a more in-depth tome on the culture of Roman Britain and the tribal wars among the Britons, Celts, Saxons, Picts, Jutes and others. But for a brief, readable encyclopedia of the various myths and legends of Arthur and the vast creative culture that has sprung up around them, Snyder’s beautifully designed, clearly written book will thrill readers. I have nearly 100 volumes in my personal Arthurian library and I have never seen a book as gorgeous as this one, nor with so many different aspects of the legends explored in a single volume.

Merely flipping through The World of King Arthur can send a fan into paroxysms of bliss. Here are ancient mosaics and pages from books of days depicting the Knights of the Round Table; there are maps of medieval Europe and photos of the Camelot of John F. Kennedy. Here are Ladies of Shalott painted by J.W. Waterhouse, William Holman Hunt and William Morris on consecutive pages. There’s Monty Python’s King Arthur facing the bunny rabbit, and Excalibur’s Guinevere and Lancelot making love in the nude. Looking for connections with Shakespeare or Tolkien? They’re in here, as are the Ogam alphabet and the Alfred Jewel. The illustrations alone are worth the price of this volume.

The book is divided into short chapters on the Britons and Romans, The Age of Arthur (here defined as AD 400-600), the chronicles and legends of the Britons, the rise of monarchy and chivalry, the quest for a historical Camelot and a conclusion on modern Arthurian lore. The legends of Arthur are interspersed on pages identified with a woodcut border — brief summaries of the most popular versions of the birth of the prince, formation of the Round Table, beguiling of Merlin … stories familiar from The Once and Future King and The Mists of Avalon, both of which are described and illustrated herein.

Given the relative brevity of the chapters and the large number of sidebars accompanying the many illustrations, I wasn’t expecting much depth in terms of the content. Yet there is a great deal of information packed inside the book. Chapters on Catholic clergy accounts of ancient Britain, Welsh oral tradition and French romances provide the conflicting versions of the stories that later form the basis for popular entertainments. The dynastic myths of the Tudors, Stuarts and Victoria provide a context for understanding how the Arthurian legends evolved through English history.

A directory of organizations (including Web sites) and a gazetteer of sites in Britain associated with Arthur, as well as an excellent bibliography, make the appendices of The World of King Arthur invaluable as well. Nearly all the major Arthurian works, as well as dozens of lesser-known texts are mentioned here, and the sidebars excerpt everything from Brut to Geoffrey of Monmouth to Von Eschenbach’s Parzifal to Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. Photographs of modern-day Glastonbury, Tintagel and Hadrian’s Wall, along with discussions of contemporary Druid and New Age religious movements incorporating Arthurian imagery and themes, keep the material fresh and relevant.

While reading, I occasionally wished that some of the sidebars were grouped chronologically rather than thematically — it’s hard to get a sense of the speed of the changes sweeping across Britain and Europe via the changing place-names and the shifting of the languages. Yet the layout makes it easy to find areas of particular interest for a reader and the index is quite thorough. The $29.95 (US) list price may look steep for a volume of under 200 pages, but the value as a resource in terms of history, entertainment and particular artwork is much higher.

(Thames and Hudson, 2000)

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