Where to start on Arthur?

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Where to start on Arthur?

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Jan 18, 2014, 12:18am

Anyone like to offer suggestions on where to start on building up a reasonable knowledge of Arthur legend?

I have only a couple of resources: The chapter on Arthur in the Holinshed's Chronicles which I read today. Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur. Tennyson's Morte d' Arthur. Armitage's version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Kevin Crossley Holland's Arthur Trilogy.

I think that's about it.

I suppose Monmouth is must, and Sir Thomas Malory.


Edited: Jan 18, 2014, 7:31am

>1 LesMiserables: You could try the "Age of Chivalry" section of Bulfinch's Mythology, as well as Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain. I think a few of the resources you cited above were based in part upon Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Edited to add that I see you mention Monmouth, sorry. Yes, and Malory, certainly. There is also T. H. White's The Once and Future King and John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, though these are both retellings of Malory.

Jan 18, 2014, 7:51am

Steinbeck? I had no idea!

Jan 18, 2014, 9:17am

I'm assuming here that you want the legend and not just the sparse historical sources.

Steinbeck is considered a rather slavish version of Malory, so, if you're going to read Mallory, you can lower Steinbeck to a lower priority.

Here are some of the good books I've read and would recommend:


Richard Barber's The figure of Arthur and The Arthurian Legends: An Illustrated Anthology. Lot's of good excerpts from very old sources.

The Mabinogion (there's a summary in Bullfinch's Mythology)

Chretien de Troyes's Perceval, Erec and Enide, Cliges, and Lancelot. There are a bunch of translations.

Continental European

Wolfram von Eschenbach Parzifal. I read the Mustard and Passage translation, which I don't necessarily recommend, but I don't know what else is out there

Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan I read the A.T. Hatto translation, which is the Penguin Classics edition and easy to get.

Later English

The Alliterative Morte Arthure. I don't know anything about the modern versions.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- I'd use Tolkien's version

Roger Lancelyn Green's modernized collection King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table is my all time favorite.

Important modern versions other than Tennyson and T. H. White

Rosemary Sutcliffe's Sword at Sunset

Mary Stewart's quadrology starting with The Crystal Cave

Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon - I can't stand her writing style but a lot of people really like this one.

Have fun. Tracking down Arthurian things has become a lifelong hobby for me.

Edited: Jan 18, 2014, 6:00pm


Thanks for your detailed response. I think I might try and get hold of your recommended...Roger Lancelyn Green's modernized collection King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table... to begin with.

Ed. Just checked and they have a 1950s Puffin version in my local library. I will check it out.

Jan 18, 2014, 5:54pm

>3 LesMiserables: Never read Steinbeck's "Arthur" myself, but I believe he developed a serious interest in all things Arthurian late in life.

Jan 18, 2014, 7:32pm

6: I think he was interested long-term. Cannery Row is supposed to be a sort of working-class American King Arthur, from what I understand.

5: If you love it as much as I did, there is a recent reprint with a lovely binding and bigger illustrations.

Jan 18, 2014, 7:58pm


There is a surprising amount of freely downloadable material available online I have discovered.

Mallory's two volume work is available I see on amazon for free.
Monmouth is available online.
I have not found Greene yet though perhaps he is not outside of copyright yet?

Jan 18, 2014, 9:13pm

8: It's Green, but I doubt he's out of copyright. He's British where I think the copyright is author's life plus 100 years, and he only died in 1987.

Jan 21, 2014, 4:43pm

I'd agree with others that the best one-volume gateway to the Arthurian texts themselves is Malory. Aside from its intrinsic literary merit, the Morte is one of the last medieval texts in English that attempts to synthesize many of the major themes of Arthurian narrative, including (i) the myth of King Arthur himself (sword-in-the-stone and all that), (ii) the Tristan saga, (iii) the Grail saga and (iv) the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur love tragedy. Though obviously Malory reads like a fifteenth-century book--i.e., it doesn't conform to the narrative conventions of modern novels--one feels like the book presents the full spectrum of the Arthurian mythos.

But digging further is also very rewarding. One short monograph that I'd recommend regarding other Arthurian texts is The Development of Arthurian Romance by Roger Sherman Loomis. While no doubt scholarship in this field has advanced somewhat since Loomis was active, the book is short and also illuminating as to how messy the Arthurian corpus is. Each of the major strands of Arthurian romance identified above had its own complicated history, often (as with the Grail saga) with deep roots in European folklore, and each was the subject of numerous continuations, interpolations and variations (even prequels!) in multiple languages. There's a vast wealth of awesome stuff out there to read and learn. Many of the major tales are extant in multiple differing manuscripts, and new editions based on these manuscripts are being published all the time.

By the way, it was through Arthurian romance that I came to realize that with a working reading knowledge of modern French, it's not a huge leap for one to try reading Old French. Prose is easier, admittedly, than verse. Many of the great French Arthurian romances are available only in Old French, though some are available in bilingual editions with Modern French. If you can read French, you should consider the attempt. I don't know if the same holds true for the High German, Old Dutch and Italian texts.

Jan 21, 2014, 4:46pm

I managed to pick up Green's book from the University library on Monday and I intend to use it as my gateway to the legends. If my interest remains high I will move onto Mallory perhaps next.

May 28, 2014, 3:40pm

I'm a huge fan of the Penguin edition of Malory in two volumes, edited by Janet Cowan, Introduction by John Lawlor. The spelling has been regularized, but after that your are face to face with the very Early Modern English. But I never been able to get large hunks of it out of my mind, and I read it aloud to and with my children, perhaps the best way to do it, the read aloud way. It's the best version of the matter of Britain, ever.

Jul 12, 2014, 3:28pm

... where to start on building up a reasonable knowledge of Arthur legend ...
Oh, what a can of worms you've opened up! Depends what you mean by 'Arthur legend' of course. Let me suggest a few compendiums based on some crude categories:

Myth and folklore
Concepts of Arthur by Thomas Green is a worthy, academic and hard-going study of mythical and folkloric aspects of the Arthurian mythos and how some of these at least may well have predated the 'historical Arthur'. Worth ploughing through to see how Arthur was probably conceived in a preliterate age as a superhuman almost giant figure of Blakean stature.

Legend literally means something read (Latin legere 'to read'). Legends I take to be literate renderings of myth and folklore, often deliberately managed to present the bias of the writer, whether political or ecclesiastical, sometimes also deliberately whimsical and with an eye on a literary audience. Geoffrey of Monmouth is the classic example of this, writing in the early 12th century. As well as Lewis Thorpe's translation try The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth and edited by Michael A. Faletra, a more recent rendering into English.
One of the sources Geoffrey (always Geoffrey, never just 'Monmouth', by the way) used was the 9th-century Nennius in his History Of The Britons (Historia Brittonum). This is really where the legend of Arthur as a British warrior fighting the Saxons was kickstarted. "Nennius" (if that was the author's name) had a political axe to grind and, as Nicholas Higham argues, was probably concocting a scenario where Arthur and his near contemporary St Patrick were Dark Age equivalents of the Old Testament Joshua and Moses. Such is the way that clerical writers think.

I've already mentioned N. J. Higham and his King Arthur Myth Making and History. This is a good analysis of not only the context out of which Nennius' history came but also of that transitional period in which the legend was supposedly set. Whatever you do, however, don't, don't, don't take the misguided The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 by John Morris as a guide to the period: well read as he was, Morris overstated the lengths to which the evidence could be taken. This is a classic case of 'pseudohistory', but unfortunately there are whole libraries of pseudohistory in existence, all contradicting each other and claiming to identify the 'real' King Arthur or to tell the 'truth' about the guy. I haven't read Guy Halsall's Worlds of Arthur yet, but a quick perusal of this has told me this is one of the most detailed arguments against romantic views of a historic king called Arthur.

Lots of good recent-ish stuff around introducing the medieval literature before Malory, but for the origins we need to be aware of Welsh texts. Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature (University of Wales Press Writers of Wales) by O. J. Padel is authoritative and relatively short.

The World of King Arthur by Christopher Snyder discusses all aspects of the mythos, from the historical context, through the myth, medieval legends, folklore, literature and popular culture, well illustrated and a good replacement for the aged The Quest for Arthur's Britain by Geoffrey Ashe.

You can see I've barely scratched the surface. I've been looking at the subject for nearly half a century so know there's so much out there. My advice is be voracious in your reading but to never suspend your critical faculties. Also be aware that tropes and memes, tale-types and folktale motifs all predispose us to accept legends because they 'feel right' -- but history doesn't always conform to the narratives that feel right to us. An interesting, but not necessarily foolproof, discussion of some of these narratives is in Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots and, yes, Arthurian tales feature here, as well as Tolkien's books.