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An excellent and readable introduction to Arthurian legends!
on October 5, 2001
Who hasn't heard of King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table? In this book you meet them all - including the magician Merlin, and the brave knights Sir Launcelot, Sir Gareth, Sir Tristam, Sir Bors, Sir Kay, and Sir Galahad. All the old favorites are included - Arthur drawing the sword out of the stone, Arthur receiving the sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, and Arthur's marriage to Guinevere. But this is just the beginning of excitement - followed by numerous quests and adventures of the knights, including the Quest for the Holy Grail. This book is chock-full of entertaining adventures involving knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, fierce jousting and sword fights to the death, battles against hoards of enemies and giants, tournaments and miracles.
The medieval setting is painted in a rather idealized fashion, limited to the nobility and figures of the court, who embrace all that is beautiful, brave and noble. These virtues are sometimes portrayed rather simplistically, as unknown knights engage in mortal combat, and only after they have virtually killed each other do the introductions begin: "What is your name?" Behind this medieval mayhem is a heightened sense of chivalry more reflective of legend than fact, where knights battle to the death for the sake of a woman - even one they have only just met. But isn't that what the Arthurian legends are all about? Nobody is under the illusion that they are to be taken too seriously. Journeying to Arthur's Camelot is a form of escapism - suspend your sense of disbelief, watch the flashing swords and fearful battles, and enjoy.
That's not to say that the Arthurian tales do not reflect any reality. Arthur's world is in many respects a real medieval world. Medieval beliefs in paganism and Christianity are evident throughout. Witchcraft and enchantment is presented as alive and deadly, and conversely the true religion - in this case the beliefs of the medieval Catholic church - is evident throughout as knights commend themselves to God in prayer, thank him for his help, and even repent from their sins. The whole notion of the Holy Grail is of course a very Christian tradition - although a tradition that represents more fiction than fact. And the moral virtues of justice, truth and right for which the honorable knights fight are still noble ideals of virtue today. Arthur's kingdom is presented as a kingdom blessed by the grace of God, a beacon of light symbolizing all that is good and true and right, and a worthy model for kingdoms in today's world because it revolves around timeless virtues. Tales that promote dignity, courtesy, courage, respect for right, respect for female dignity and purity are as ennobling as they are entertaining.
How much truth there is behind the Arthurian tales will always be the subject of debate. The fact remains that there is an extensive and confusing body of legend to wade through. In this work, Green has essentially followed Malory's fifteenth century classic "Morte d'Arthur." But unlike most other writers, such as Sir James Knowles, Green has made some significant improvements:
1. Firstly, the traditional Arthurian tales are a confusing mass of legends. But Green consciously weaves all the tales together as part of a single pattern. He needs to take some liberties with legend in order to achieve this, but these alterations are minor, and the end result is a plausible reconstruction with a clear development, revolving around the establishment of Arthur's kingdom, its climax with the successful quest for the Holy Grail, and subsequent downfall.
2. Secondly, most other collections slavishly follow the body of legend inherited by Thomas Malory. Green follows Malory in the main, but has researched the legends carefully for himself, and also incorporates some Arthurian legends not found in Malory.
These innovations of Green result in a very readable and successful version of the Arthurian tales, and yet one that does not significantly sacrifice faithfulness to legend. Those looking for a more historical reflection of the Arthurian tales would do well to turn to a version of Malory, such as that by Sir James Knowles. And those looking for a more developed and extensive modern version where the author has taken liberties beyond the original legends, would enjoy the classic work by Howard Pyle. But as a faithful, plausible and enjoyable introduction to the tales, you can't go wrong with this superb effort by Green.
Most readers looking to be introduced to the Arthurian legends need look no further than this collection by Green. It's not as grand as Malory, but it's a better read. There is no end to the accomplishments of sword and sorcery, adventures and quests. To our sorrow, Arthur's kingdom ends in darkness and disgrace, but not before it has shone with a wonderful and memorable light. Along with the tales of Robin Hood, the tales of King Arthur are the most exciting tales that British history has produced. This is the stuff of legend, and it's worth a read.