arthurian literature, reading

Review: Arthur’s Britain

I picked up Leslie Alcock’s book during the same library trawl that found In the Land of Giants. Again, I got tired of renewing it and bought a copy (my library visits are great for book sales).

It’s rare in my experience to find a book that takes Arthur’s existence as historical without the author of said book coming off as a crank or at least a hopeless romantic. Although one is free to dispute Alcock’s interpretations of the evidence, at least he doesn’t seem to be a crank. The first part of this book consists of an in-depth description of challenges facing any literary historian of this period: the sheer scarcity of written records, changes in language, changes in dating systems between events and their record when there is one, the chance of human error (or deliberate alteration, even with the best of motives) whenever records are copied by hand, etc. He goes on to describe the source texts he considers worthwhile as evidence for a historical Arthur.

Having thus laid out his reasons for believing that there was an actual person by that name, albeit one he places much earlier in history than popular culture does, he dives into the archaeological record–which is just as fragmentary as the literary one–to describe the world such a person would have lived in. What was the situation like during and after the loss of Roman control, what kinds of buildings and material objects do we have evidence for, what movements of peoples took place during the relevant times, how did they actually carry out warfare, etc.

The book is frequently dry but readable for a non-expert. If you’re looking for mythology it will be most unsatisfying. This is a sober examination of actual records and physical evidence, with barely a whiff of romance to be found in its pages, and Alcock’s conclusions regarding Arthur are notably modest. I found it fascinating if slow going, not least because I now have a great appreciation for the challenges faced by anyone studying this field, whether in documentary or archaeological form. While I can’t speak to the quality of the author’s research, he is careful to label speculation as such and to make plain the many areas where we simply don’t know enough to draw firm conclusions. Some of the topics near the end of the book seem a bit rushed, but on the whole I would consider it a solid resource.

4/5 stars, will certainly revisit.

arthurian literature

The Forgotten Round Table: Sir Tristan Part 1

Tristan is another character who I suspect triggers a vague name recognition in most people, but that’s all; maybe they remember that his story is a tragic romance, maybe not.

So, here’s a thing: there are loads of versions of this story, which is a very old one. Malory’s is, unfortunately, not a good version. That said, you want tragedy and a whole lot of tournaments? BUCKLE UP BUTTERCUPS. It’s a long ride, so a two-parter. Let’s meet Tristan, Wet Hen of the Round Table.

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arthurian literature

The Forgotten Round Table: Sir Borre

One of the things that fascinates me about the Arthurian canon is not just the weirdness of what’s in it, but the number of things that are left out of it. We can’t tell from this distance whether these holes in the narrative have always been there–it’s easy to imagine an oral tradition that was at one point common knowledge going out of fashion, or failing to be transmitted to a new population, so that what eventually got written down was missing things that at one point previous, everyone just knew.

Enter – and quickly exit – Sir Borre.

…There came a damosel that was an earl’s daughter: his name was Sanam, and her name was Lionors, a passing fair damosel; and so she came thither for to do homage, as other lords did after the great battle. And King Arthur set his love greatly upon her, and so did she upon him, and the king had ado with her, and gat on her a child: his name was Borre, that was after a good knight, and of the Table Round.

–Malory, Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur (p. 18). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

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The (Kinda) Forgotten Round Table: Sir Lancelot

I can already hear you thinking, He’s not a forgotten character. This is absolutely true, however there’s a lot of hilarious stuff that gets left out of modern adaptations, which tend to foreground the love triangle.

I’m going to stick with Malory for this post, because I’m still grinding my way through Chretien de Troyes. The stories are, of course, inconsistent. Malory tried, but continuity wasn’t actually a thing yet, so even within his one collection, there are points where the passage of time just doesn’t work, and the characterization is wobbly at best.

Which Bits?

If you’re skimming the 500-odd pages of Le Morte D’Arthur for Lancelot stuff to read, you can skip the first four books entirely, because his only appearances are in Merlin’s prophecies. Of the remainder:

  • Book V is the war with Rome, in which he barely appears.
  • Book VI is “his” book, and contains a bunch of short adventures all jammed together in what must have been one very exciting year. None of them are more than a few pages long, and there’s a lot of variety.
  • Book VII is Gareth’s, in which Lancelot has a minor supporting role. Gareth is a cupcake, so you should read this one anyway.
  • Books VIII, IX, and X are Tristram’s story, which will be addressed in a future post. This has some of the best Lancelot background bits; he spends a lot of time rescuing fellow knights, being gracious, and face-palming. Skim it, and don’t try to keep track of the main character.
  • Book XI starts off the nearly 100 pages of the Grail story. A lot of things happen to Lancelot in this. None of them are good. Also, 15 years pass between Galahad’s birth and the quest, during which no one else ages.
  • Book XVIII, XIX, and XX are largely concerned with Lancelot and Guinevir. Includes some funny adventures, some serious ones, more tournaments, and the romantic part of the tragic endgame.
  • Book XXI is the other tragic endgame with Mordred, which is almost an afterthought here, and then more romantic tragic endgame, because even with Arthur dead our lovers aren’t allowed to be happy. Read it if you like to be sad.

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