What are your favorite Arthurian books? (with readalong poll)

Posted September 17, 2017 by Lory in discussions / 36 Comments

As Witch Week 2017 approaches, with this year’s theme of Dreams of Arthur, I want to ask for recommendations of your favorite Arthurian literature. Whether ballad or epic poem, fantasy or historical fiction, humorous or tragic, what version of the legend of Arthur and his knights has caught your imagination? Which authors have you found most successful at transforming it into something new and original?

In my own reading life The Dark Is Rising series made a strong impression on me as a child, though the Arthurian legend is not really in the foreground. The character of Merriman Lyon (Merlin) definitely stood out for me, as a figure of mystery and magic, along with the highly atmospheric, historically rich settings in England and Wales.

A very different version of Merlin is found in The Once and Future King. I loved it as a child as well, but recently I tried to reread it and couldn’t get much past The Sword in the Stone (which was still wonderful). Anyone else have this experience?

Historical novelists continue to ring changes on the legend, bringing it into a more realistic mode. Stewart’s Merlin series, starting with The Crystal Cave gives a rational explanation for much of the magic in the tales; and Elizabeth Wein’s alternative view of Arthur’s family, particularly Mordred (no Merlin in this version) goes into a very unusual direction in The Winter Prince and its sequels.

Glimpses of Arthur can be found even in more contemporary settings, as in The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies, which centers around the rediscovery of an Arthurian opera by Henry Purcell, and the intrusion of its age-old themes into a modern Canadian university. In his 1930 “supernatural thriller” War in Heaven, Charles Williams places a search for the Grail in a small English parish and surrounds it with a bizarre mixture of good and evil characters.

From the acerbic satire of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which skewers both the romanticized past and the prosaic present, to the mind-bending fantasy of Diana Wynne Jones’s Hexwood, in which other worlds collide with our own — truly, this is a legend that can fit seemingly any number of interpretations.

What else should be on our reading list this year? From October 31 to November 6, all are welcome to post about the theme and link up here at ECBR, or just visit to see what others are reading and writing about. As in previous years, November 5 is readalong day — please vote in the poll below to determine what book we should read together. I’m listing several titles I personally have not read and would like to, but feel free to add others using the write-in option.

Thanks for your suggestions!

 

 

Tags: , ,

Divider

36 responses to “What are your favorite Arthurian books? (with readalong poll)

  1. A great introductory post, Lory, with a lovely mix of titles. I’m not sure I could bear to read the T H White again, but I do have a copy of The Book of Merlyn, that posthumous piece in which bits of The Sword in the Stone were originally embedded, which I hope to read again. For the readalong I fancy The Buried Giant though the Poul Anderson looks tempting too.

    You mention the Robertson Davies novel, but one I must read is Arthur Phillips’ The Tragedy of Arthur (2011) which seems to cover similar ground except this time it’s not a lost Purcell opera but the text of a Shakespearean play. It’s been recommended to me a couple of times, and though I’ve now actually got a copy I haven’t got round to reading it yet.

  2. Your post is reminding me that I need to read some Arthurian books.

    Though I like Poul Anderson I have not read Three Hearts and Three Lions. Perhaps I will start with that one.

    • “Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels” describes it as “an entertaining tale of a type which has become exceedingly familiar but has rarely been done so well” — which sounds good to me.

  3. I haven’t read many Arthurian novels, but I loved the Mary Stewart books and am planning to read The Wicked Day soon – hopefully in time for Witch Week.

  4. I didn’t realize The Buried Giant is Arthurian. Interesting! Actually, I haven’t read any of the ones on your poll except for (I think) Sword at Sunset. I vote for either Sword at Sunset, The Buried Giant, or Three Hearts and Three Lions.

    I was a huge fan of the King Arthur legends in high school and college, beginning with reading The Crystal Cave in 9th grade. I devoured not only what versions I could find of the legends themselves, but nonfiction about the search for the historical Arthur, and whatever I could find of related material, from The Mabinogion to the relevant sections of Bede. (Oddly, I never read the entirety of T.H. White, though.) Mary Stewart’s trilogy remains my favorite version, though I loved the bits of the legend that appear in Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series. One of these days, I really want to read Gillian Bradshaw’s trilogy, and Persia Woolley’s as well.

    • From the description it seems The Buried Giant is kind of obliquely Arthurian, set in a world reminiscent of the tales, but not a retelling. The reviews are mixed but it still sounds interesting to me.

    • To the Chapel Perilous is perhaps the most obscure, but I think Naomi Mitchison is such an interesting author I wanted to put her on the list. Too bad more of her books are not in print.

  5. I listened to The Sword and the Stone a few years ago and really loved revisiting it. But I don’t think I read the entire Once and Future King book as a child and I may have read an abridged version of The Sword and the Stone at that.

    I did read the Mary Stewart books as a teenager and loved them. I keep meaning to go back and re-read them!

    I also have The Mists of Avalon to read. I wonder, however, if I missed the window to read that book. I think it might have been the kind of chunkster to have read in my 20s.

    • I liked The Mists of Avalon when I read it in college, but then later I started to reread it and it struck me as being mostly about having sex in fields, which grew dull quickly.

      • Yeah, that is what I was afraid of. There are some authors (Anne Rice is one) I have grown out of. Maybe I should pull The Mists of Avalon down off my shelves this weekend and just try the first 50 – 100 pages…either read it or just get rid of it! : D

  6. BJ

    I plan on participating in Witch Week for the first time this year. I haven’t read any of these books, but I’m leaning towards reading The Crystal Cave. I enjoyed your post because it showed me just how many options there are!

  7. I love Arthurian literature so much that I did my entire dissertation on it in university! I recently read and loved The Winter King (I voted that one on the poll because I just think everyone should read it!), and I also read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon ages ago and really liked her take on it. It focuses more on the female characters in the legend, and the magical side of it, which Ioved, so I’d recommend that too if you haven’t already read it.
    I’ve never read Mary Stewarts Arthurian books though, so they’re definitely going on my TBR list. Great post! 🙂

  8. I just realized you said in other comments you read The Mists of Avalon and didn’t like it that much when you reread it, so that’s a rubbish recommendation! I guess that one is a bit of an acquired taste, but I enjoyed it (although I haven’t got round to reading any of the sequels yet) 🙂

  9. Kat

    I loved The Once and Future King but confess I read it in my teens and have never gone back to it. I do love Stewart, however, and have long meant to return to that trilogy: I have the books!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.