“After wicked King Vortigern had first invited the Saxons to settle in Britain and help him to fight the Picts and Scots, the land was never long at peace.”
So begins King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green. Green, who has written into narrative many famous myths and legends (including Robin Hood, which I reviewed earlier), took the many tales and versions of the King Arthur legend and, in his own words, “endeavored to make each adventure a part of one fixed pattern – Arthur’s Kingdom, the Realm of Logres, the model of chivalry and right striving against the barbarism and evil which surrounded and at length engulfed it.” I came across it as another “classic” (says so on the cover) for the Literature 5 class I teach.
I’m not going to dwell on the plot summary here as much of it is common knowledge at this point: the boy Arthur pulls sword from stone, grows up to establish his kingdom (highlighted by a very round table), sends out knights to perform chivalric and heroic deeds (some of which focus on the Quest of the Holy Grail). One of said knights, Launcelot, betrays his King via a love affair with Queen Guinevere. Kingdom splits. Kingdom falls.
Confession: I have come to dislike the King Arthur stories.
There are two primary reasons for this. First, as this book well demonstrates, much of the legends are individual stories about knights going out and doing “knightly” things: saving damsels, killing dragons, jousing, etc. The problem, however, is that all of these stories, though tied together with a general storyline, seem to float without real context. The “world” of Logres feels detached from reality and its stories random and inexplicable.
“Well,” you might say, “it is fantasy. Of course it doesn’t seem like reality.”
It’s not, however, the magic and monsters that bother me. It’s the lack of a believable world for those fantastical elements to work themselves out in. The Realm of Logres seems to be entirely populated by beautiful young women and handsome young knights, all galavanting around without responsibilities or anything to do but fight and fall in love and feast. Where are the peasants? The nobility? The real relationships and life events that cause me to care about Gawain and Gaheris and Percival? And Arthur!? Where is the rhyme and reason that form a fabric to make the magical events (and there are plenty) a part of Logres’ reality and not just random, unexplained events that move the plot along?
This is, admittedly, a personal preference, but for a reader who enjoys immersing himself in the worlds of Dune and Narnia and Middlearth, the surface-level Realm of Logres does not draw me in. It only makes me increasingly annoyed as every new character resembles the ones before and must face such-and-such a sorceress (who appears equally without background or context) and joust some more guys. Hooray.
I admit that the second issue I have with Arthur is one of poisoned expectations. When I read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King several years ago, I expected an Arthur and Launcelot who were noble and brave; heroic. Instead, I found a weak King (who allowed his right hand man to have an affair with his wife and then failed to deal with it), a despicable queen (Guinevere comes across as jealous, cruel, and faithless), a knight unable to overcome his lust for his king’s wife, and a bunch of other knights whose conduct seems to fail in chivalry more often than not. To be fair, Green’s book redeems much of this. The adulterers end repentantly (after they’ve destroyed all Arthur worked for) and Arthur himself doesn’t come across as the weakling he did in The Once and Future King. The knights, though sometimes idiotic, come across somewhat chivilraic. For me, though, the damage was already done by White’s book, and I have a hard time feeling the power of Arthur as a King longed for and revered. (There is, of course, an obvious talking point here: King Jesus’ return will bear no such weaknesses!)
As a book, Green’s version of the epic is well-written, if not entirely enjoyable to those looking for a fuller fictional experience (see my comments on world building above). Despite my distaste for the legends, I confess that the tensions between Launcelot, Guinevere, and Arthur come through powerfully and make the final chapters by far the best and most engaging. If only the rest of the book had likewise drawn me in.
|Violence||4||There’s lots of violence and some of it is described in some detail (beheadings, heads cleaved in two, etc.)|
|Sex/Romantic Themes||3||Green does a good job keeping sex entirely behind the scenes here and, if you wanted to, you could imagine that the love affairs present are made up entirely of sitting “alone together by a clear stream.” Seduction is a key element in one of the stories, however, and as the book goes along, the affair between Launcelot and Guinevere (not the only one in the book) becomes prominent. There is also lots of kissing between the various knights and the endless parade of beautiful women that populate the Realm of Logres.|
NOTE: As always, my content notes are for informational purposes, not judgmental ones. For a full explanation of my Content Notes and the scale, click here.