Camelotfilter: Best "Arthurian" work.
December 16, 2012 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Which is the "best" version of the Arthurian legend to read?

I have been watching the BBC TV series "Merlin" (I know it divides opinion, but I love it), but short of Disney's Sword in the Stone and some very abbreviated children's books in the dim and distant past, my experience of this many-times-reworked classic tale is scanty to say the least.

Can you recommend the most compelling, most definitive, or most original version of the tale (satisfying any or all of those criteria). The only versions I am aware of are "Le morte d'Arthur" and "The Once and Future King", but have read neither. Happy with any recommendation from mediaeval to modern, as long as it personally captured you.

Thanks all!
posted by inbetweener to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
The Once and Future King is just wonderful, especially the first section, which was the basis for The Sword and the Stone the movie.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:52 PM on December 16, 2012 [15 favorites]

Le Morte d'Arthur is the classic assigned-in-school rendition, though there are many other period sources if you want to read the stories from the source.

I really loved The Once And Future King, which is a good modern-day retelling in the form of a novel. Not sure how Historical Pedant Approved it is, but it's a fun read of a series of legends that were probably meant to be entertaining yarns told around the fire, themselves.

I think the definitive movie version is supposed to be Excalibur.

I also like The Mists of Avalon, though it's a very specific retelling and probably shouldn't be your first reading of the Arthur legends.

Any of the many, many retellings of Parsifal might be interesting to you, too, though I don't think they tell the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot side so much (if at all?) and are specifically about the grail quest.
posted by Sara C. at 1:53 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

A vote for the T. H. White. It's a very twentieth-century book: gentle, humane, rather sentimental. In broad outlines, it follows Mallory's plot, but the part about Arthur's childhood is rather more whimsical (the Disney takes direct inspiration from it). It's also got a bit of post-WW2 social commentary. Just an all-around good children's book.
posted by Nomyte at 1:54 PM on December 16, 2012

Ugh, when I said "modern-day retelling" I meant the tone, style, and pacing are modern. Not that it takes place in the modern day. Sorry for any confusion.
posted by Sara C. at 1:54 PM on December 16, 2012

I also vote for Once and Future King. You may be confused a bit when you read as the show and the book are different in many ways.
posted by dottiechang at 2:01 PM on December 16, 2012

Here's an abridgment of the Malory that I have found readable - the whole thing is just an enormous sprawling mess, and I wouldn't start with it, but reading a shorter version for the feel isn't a bad idea.

I like the T.H. White as its own thing, but I find the modern social commentary dreadfully distracting from the actual Arthuriana.

You could always just dig in to this extensive and fantastic post. It's probably got just about everything covered.

I am an unapologetic fan of the Stephen R. Lawhead trilogy (shut up it's a trilogy there were only three books alright?) although it has a strong (very, very strong) Christian bias. (Many versions of the legend do - the Malory is basically a reworking of older Celtic history/legend into a modern Christian story with a heavy French influence, and Malory sets the tone for much of it. I tend to prefer the earlier, more Celtic versions, although they are no doubt just as ahistorical, since the actual source material is thin as hell.)
posted by restless_nomad at 2:08 PM on December 16, 2012

TOaFK for things that are The Story of Arthur and Camelot and Whatnot.

For things that are Arthurian to Varying Degrees:

- Jo Walton - The King's Peace and subsequent novels.
- Guy Gavriel Kay - The Fionavar Tapestry
posted by brennen at 2:09 PM on December 16, 2012

Metafilter can help you with that! This is the best FPP on Arthurian legend ever.

I am alternately infuriated and in love with BBC's Merlin and my favorite version is The Once And Future King, but it's a myth as any other, and so there is no definitive or original version of the tale. It is, in fact, a whole huge conglomeration of tales, and if you want to do your own research it might help you to use the search terms "the Matter of Britain" and the "Arthurian Cycle".

But really, don't let anyone convince you about superiority or correctness. Poke around and give a few different versions a try, and you'll find your own favorite.

And oh! On preview, yes, Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry is utterly magnificent, and if you enjoy fantasy literature in any degree you will consider it time well spent.
posted by Mizu at 2:13 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I haven't reread it in years, but I always loved Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy.
posted by worldswalker at 2:18 PM on December 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

as I believe I've said before on this site, Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave is, in my mind, one of the best. Its a great read, but its also very closely drawn from contemporary documents and history. its one of the best depictions of 5th century British life and culture I've come across.
posted by supermedusa at 2:19 PM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you're interested in reading an unabridged Le Morte D'Arthur, try the Norton Critical Edition by Shepherd.
posted by zamboni at 2:30 PM on December 16, 2012

if you can get your hands on the Easton Press Idylls of the King by Tennyson, it has gorgeous illustrations. luckily I got my copy for a lot less than $89!
posted by supermedusa at 2:31 PM on December 16, 2012

Mists of Avalon gets my vote. And I agree that Mary Stewart's Arthurian Saga is another good read (it's now four books) as is Stephen Lawhead's The Pendragon Cycle.
posted by deborah at 2:38 PM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have to say a word in favour of Malory here. He is very readable, even to a reader unfamiliar with Middle English. His brief, well-worded, almost journalistic style makes him much more accessible than his flowery French counterparts.

That said, a new reader should probably skip Book V, and, depending on your tolerance for Christian mysticism, you may want to skim through the Sangreall [Grail] chapters.

What sets Malory apart is that he was a knight. Literally, a going-into-battle-on-a-horse-and-fighting knight, though not a very wealthy or powerful one. Malory's record is tarred with accusations of thievery and at least one accusation of raptus of a woman [which could mean either rape or kidnapping.] He wrote most of the Morte d'Arthur during his various spells in prison.

So Malory was hardly the flower of chivalry, but then he lived and fought during the Wars of the Roses-- when any Englishman could be the enemy. He was liegeman to the Earl of Warwick, who changed sides at least once. His characters are human and flawed; they make mistakes which they either recover from, live with or die of. What knighthood means, and how flawed humans fit into its exacting code, and how they are, in the end, powerless to stop everything from turning to shit: these matters are Malory's study.

Here's a Modern English e-text that I found:
Volume 1
Volume 2
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:48 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should read Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur in the 2-volume edition from Penguin (volume 1, volume 2). For me the idea that it's an "enormous sprawling mess" misses the point – this is the story of the Knights of the Round Table as much as it is of King Arthur and the handful of characters who most modern Arthuriana centers around. The attempts to turn the Arthurian mythos into a single central story are in my opinion a bastardization, missing the point of this tremendous epic set of linked stories that add up to something much bigger and richer. It's like trying to capture a whole tapestry in a small painting, when the whole point of the original is not its well-drawn figures but its scope and scale.
posted by graymouser at 2:49 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can do worse for a general outline than Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur, written in 1953. T.H. White's retelling is fun but it's very much a personal fantasia on the story, not in any sense a reliable version of the Arthurian myth.
posted by zadcat at 3:06 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also historically important, and fun: Chr├ętien de Troyes.
posted by capricorn at 3:14 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Read the TH White for the fantasy, the natural history, the broad sweep of it, the fact that it will get you fascinated in 100s of tangentially related subjects you never thought interesting before, and to get that Disney travesty out of your mind. Then read his revised ending, the Book of Merlyn, for the pathos. Nag your historian friends to read it and watch them recoil and spit. Then read the Mary Stewart for the relatively realistic historical flavour and for a very different take on how myths originate. Finish up with the Legend of Alderley for where Merlyn is now, and this glorious exegesis of it by Alan Garner, tying myth into place and folk conciousness.
Palate cleanser: Camelot because it's based on the TH White and because Richard Harris.
posted by runincircles at 3:35 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Mists of Avalon; it puts the story in the context of Pagan-Christian conflict, and adds political dimensions. The characters have nuance and compelling motivations. Though there is a quite a bit of magic, it's the most "realistic" version of the story I am familiar with.
posted by spaltavian at 4:38 PM on December 16, 2012

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck (wut?) Picked this up from the library a couple of years ago and loved it.
posted by Fimbaz at 4:43 PM on December 16, 2012

My favorite versions of Arthur (aside from The Once and Future King, Idylls of the King, and Mists of Avalon) are Black Horses for the King by Ann McCaffrey and MOST OF ALL Gerald Morris's entire series. They start out with The Squire's Tale and take a different approach, telling Arthurian legends through Sir Gawain and his squire. It covers a lot of different myths and tends to take a kind of feminist approach to the women in the stories. If you want retellings of particular myths, my favorite is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as told by either Tolkien or the new, fantastic translation by Simon Armitage.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:50 PM on December 16, 2012

The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell are IMHO the best modern novelization of the Arthurian legend.
posted by Jakey at 4:53 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you're interested in Camelot-related stuff, Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is quite good. Documentary about the translation.

I have a cousin named Gawain, and I have trouble not audibly grumbling "It's GOW-un, not guh-WAIN, dammit!"
posted by Lexica at 6:33 PM on December 16, 2012

One retelling of the Arthur legend with a strong historical grounding is Jack Whyte's A Dream of Eagles series, which was retitled The Camulod Chronicles in the US. Camelot is founded by a retired Roman army commander to preserve Roman civilization as the Empire collapses. Here is the Wikipedia page with details.

The first four books are great, although I recall the latter ones are a little more meandering.
posted by rasselas81 at 6:38 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliffe is, to me, one of the best versions of the legend. It's written so as to be a plausible version of the events of the life of Artos, a leader in Britain fighting off the Saxons in the years after the Romans abandoned England, in the 6th century.

It doesn't have much in the way of magic and the later additions. Lancelot is not here (and was pretty much an invention of Mallory, a French character to make the legend more accessible to French readers), instead Sutcliffe uses Bedivere (who was, essentially, the character given the boot in favor of Lancelot; there is some historical evidence that he was real, and essentially was who Lancelot was based off of).

It's a fascinating read, and it clearly evokes the final days of a culture fighting for its survival against outside forces, even though the Roman based culture they're fighting to preserve is, in it's own way, just as alien as the culture of the Saxons.

I've read tons, and I mean tons of books on Arthur (I went through a phase). By all means, read Mallory, read Mary Stewart (the books are excellent, really), read Mists of Avalon (it's fantastic), but at the end, when you've got the image in your mind of knights in shining armor (say... Excalibur), read Sword at Sunset. It's the best, in my opinion, and the most honest.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:52 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Haven't seen Parke Godwin's excellent Arthurian cycle trilogy mention yet: Firelord, Beloved Exile and The Last Rainbow.

Another author who did his homework. Less magic, more history, but what is unique in Godwin's take is the focus on the clash of cultures: Celtic, Saxon and Roman. He manages to make each character's point of view flow naturally from their cultural upbringing, with attendant morals and judgements. Godwin in fact manages to make those points of view become utterly normative and convincing while you are reading them. Quite a feat. Arthur is of mixed heritage, so he transitions from world to world in Firelord.

The sequel Beloved Exile takes place after Arthur's death, with Guinevere as the protagonist. Yes to a novel about a woman in a position of power (to begin with), with yet another interesting contrast: Guinevere must see her power and her entire culture decline as Morgana did before her.

And yay! For this question, because I didn't know he'd completed the third in the trilogy. Based on the two earlier books, I recommend it sight unseen. Off to snag a copy of The Last Rainbow.
posted by likeso at 3:25 AM on December 17, 2012

I enjoyed the Camulod Chronicles by Jack Whyte, starting with The Sky Stone.

He takes the concept of a Camelot that could have really existed, and if so, how would it have risen up. Without spoiling the story too much, it basically evolved when a group of Britons who served in the Roman Army established an enclave for mutual protection in the latter stages of decline of the Empire. So they preserved Roman technology and appeared to be advanced, even magical, compared to the people in the countryside.

There is some unexplained mysticism in the story, but it reports the story from the standpoint of people "on the inside" in Camelot.
posted by Doohickie at 7:34 AM on December 17, 2012

Lancelot is not here (and was pretty much an invention of Mallory, a French character to make the legend more accessible to French readers)

Are you perhaps thinking of Chr├ętien?

Bedivere (who was, essentially, the character given the boot in favor of Lancelot; there is some historical evidence that he was real, and essentially was who Lancelot was based off of).

I'm not aware of any sources where Bedivere plays the role of Guinevere's lover. I suspect Bedivere's substitution for Lancelot originates with Sutcliffe, but I'd be interested in hearing otherwise.
posted by zamboni at 10:44 AM on December 17, 2012

I'm not aware of any sources where Bedivere plays the role of Guinevere's lover.

To the best of my knowledge, the whole love triangle thing is due to French influence contemporaneous with the introduction of Lancelot. The position of "Arthur's best knight" was originally held by Bedwyr (Bedivere) in the Welsh sources.

Seconding Jo Walton's work for sure - it's great even if you don't recognize everything she's riffing on. I'm not sure that's true of everything else - if you're really looking for a place to start, start with an abridged or rewritten Malory. Everything else is riffing on that, and if you don't have the grounding, you'll just get confused. T.H. White is actually more or less fine for that - his deviations are much more in the realm of worldbuilding than in character or story, and his treatment of the love triangle (which I loathe, which is why I prefer the more Celtic versions) is sympathetic enough. He also covers the Herod-like baby-killing, which not many other versions seem to - The Fionavar Tapestry would be baffling without knowing that arc.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:53 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Queen Of Camelot.
posted by MeiraV at 7:00 AM on December 18, 2012

Thanks, restless_nomad, the Bedwyr/best knight, trusted ally thing is what I was after. In the Mallory version, he's reduced to the last knight left alive, and asked to throw Excalibur back into the nearest lake. He's referred to as Arthur's butler, and all of his part of the legend is absorbed into Lancelot.

It doesn't help that if you were a figure of legend based in roughly the same time frame, you were automatically tossed into the fictional round table. As far as I recall, Gawain was its own, separate story, and even Cu Cuchlain (sp?) ends up in some Arthur stories, kind of a comic book style meetup.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:34 PM on December 18, 2012

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