THIS article has two purposes. One is to act as a general introduction to Arthurian literature, and the second is to introduce new Arthurians to the Society Library. The Society owns very few books itself, but through the Library List members can find out what other Oxford Arthurians have in their collections and, provided they are not deterred by the comments they find there from previous readers, seek to borrow the book in question. The List, and the books that the Society has, are looked after by the Society Librarian, who is at present (October 1995) Matthew Kilburn - that is to say, me!
The Library List itself at present fills three A4 ring-binders, grouped under loose subject categories. I can't guarantee to mention books relating to every sub-heading, but I hope I can give you the flavour of some of what there is to be read.
One author to start with is Leslie Alcock. His Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology AD 367-634, first published in 1971, is still in print. Alcock, a distinguished archaeologist who led the excavations at Cadbury Castle in the late '60s (for which see his By South Cadbury is that Camelot...) cautiously expresses the opinion that there was an Arthur, probably not a King but a military leader active in the late fifth/early sixth century. Twenty-four years on, some of its statements must have been challenged by subsequent scholarship, but it remains "Good, basic information", "One of the few books on the Arthurian period which I feel it's generally safe to believe."
It's to be wished the same could be said of The Age of Arthur by John Morris (1973). It's a very readable book, and would be very plausible, except that Morris, an eminent historian of later antiquity, was somewhat over-imaginative when it came to interpreting his evidence. It can't really be taken as the triumphant historical reconstruction it thinks it is, particularly when it starts basing arguments on documents that may have existed three hundred years ago, but don't seem to any more. Nevertheless, it's still very informative about the period.
The works of Geoffrey Ashe appear in the first volume. He bears a lot of the credit for the continuing interest in Arthurian matters, but he hasn't always been well-reviewed by members of this Court: to take Camelot and the Vision of Albion (1971), "What has Gandhi to do with Camelot? Nothing, but it helps to fill out a book." The Quest for Arthur's Britain (1968) edited by Ashe, remains a standard work, but most of the List's comments allege this is little to do with Ashe's contribution. However, "the archaeology is good", and Ashe's most recent work, The Discovery of King Arthur (1985), with its identification of Arthur as the fifth century British leader Riothamus, "does get one thinking, though..." Also entertaining is Ashe's King Arthur's Avalon, a history of Glastonbury and its Arthurian connections originally published in 1957. The preface to the 1973 paperback edition welcomes the latter-day Glastonbury Festival as the beginning of the revival of Glastonbury's ancient spirituality.
A writer with more academic credibility than Ashe is Richard Barber. He seems almost as prolific - except that on closer examination many of his books seem to be revised editions of earlier ones. King Arthur, Hero and Legend is the most recent version (1986) - "I trow, nay, I wot well, that ye will be mickle apayed with this book."
Beware Norma Lorre Goodrich! Her King Arthur (1986) is described as "Diabolical pseudo- history, this contains at least one factual inaccuracy every two pages. Theory looks plausible but is utter clap- trap! Read it for a laugh."
Two Arthurian encyclopaedias, seemingly both useful, are Norris J. Lacy's Arthurian Encyclopaedia, seemingly fascinating if failing in its bid to be completist, and Ronan Coghlan's Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends, more populist and more likely to be on the bookshop shelves, particularly in the lavish 'Illustrated' version.
The work that probably remains the most consulted reference book for Arthurian literature is Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by R.S. Loomis and published in 1959. It's described in an old Ceridwen's Cauldron as "Dauntingly large, but surprisingly readable (in places). It can be irritatingly vague, due to its very comprehensiveness, but it contains synopses of almost every Arthurian story ever written."
Moving away from specifically Arthurian matters, Janet and Colin Bord's Mysterious Britain is recognised as an informative gazetteer for those on Arthurian pilgrimages. But for Arthurian sites Neil Fairbairn's A Traveller's Guide to the Kingdoms of Arthur is "still the best Arthurian guide around."
Lastly in this section, but by no means least, come John and Caitlin Matthews. Whether separately or together, they have produced copious amounts of books on Arthurian, Celtic or other mythological topics that usually end up on the 'New Age' shelves in the bookshops. Recent titles include Ladies of the Lake and Gawain, Knight of the Goddess. Their anthology, The Arthurian Book of Days, is "beautiful to look at, with some nice pictures of the old manuscript illustrations. The stories are cleverly divided into portions to fit the number of days, with obvious care taken to match the tales with the appropriate times." John Matthews is a regular visitor to the Society.
There is a great deal of modern Arthurian fiction, not all of it of great quality. Some comments on nameless tomes that have passed through Oxford Arthurians' hands: "The blurb says that the author raises turkeys - she's certainly produced one here"; "We have come a long wayfrom Wolfram, who is presumably grateful for the distance"; "The author has simply made a heap of everything he wanted to write about and has the audacity to expect the public to pay for the privilege of reading this disorderly and occasionally twee farrago".
T.H. White's The Once and Future King (1958, combining four earlier books) is probably the most influential twentieth-century Arthurian literary work. Arthur's reign runs parallel to mediaeval English history, from the early thirteenth to the later fifteenth century, Arthur being intent on ending the prevalence of brute force over justice. Among its adaptations are the Disney cartoon The Sword in the Stone and the stage and cinema musical Camelot. "Fantastic" says one. "The end's nearly as sad as chapter ten of 'The House at Pooh Corner'" says another. After White's death in 1964, The Book of Merlyn (1977) originally intended as the fifth segment of the sequence, was retrieved and published. It is "worthwhile (if nothing else) for the hedgehog, whose pithy sayings are amusing and enlightening".
One of the older books in this section is The Misfortunes of Elphin by Thomas Love Peacock. Published in 1829, it uses Dark Age Britain to satirise early nineteenth century political affairs, and is perhaps the first to attempt to meld the Arthurian world of the romances with the 'historical' milieu of a sixth century British prince.
Of modern Arthurian fiction, Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1982) is one of the most remarked upon in the Library List. It tells the Arthurian story from the point of view of Morgaine, here depicted as a priestess of the Mother Goddess. Some views: "Religious stuff (especially about Atlantis) comes from conked-out Californians but the ideas and story are well worth looking at." "Gwenhwyfar - aargh!" and "It was a bit annoying, really. But then, M.Z. Bradley usually is." Gillian Bradshaw's Hawk of May and its sequels are generally praised, albeit "marred by mythical twaddle about Light and Dark, etc."
Mary Stewart is one of the most successful twentieth-century Arthurian novelists. Of her four book sequence of novels, the first three concerning Merlin (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment) are generally approved of, from "quite good" to "highly recommendable!" but reservations are expressed about the last in the series, focusing on Mordred (The Wicked Day).
Other modern authors to look for include Stephen Lawhead. His Pendragon Cycle comes in for a lot of criticism: "Sloppy 'fantasy' writing, clearly turned out by the yard." although by the final instalment of the series, Pendragon, there are signs of improvement. "Lawhead makes his usual pig's ear of the setting, but this seems a better book than its predecessors." Stephen Lawhead visited the Society in Hilary Term 1995 and we were impressed by his lack of pretension and his willingness to respond to his critics and appreciate their viewpoints. Robert Holdstock also writes Arthurian-influenced work, most recently Merlin's Wood, concerning the spirits of Merlin and Vivien, active once again in the Forest of Broceliande.
Rosemary Sutcliff has written both for children and adults. Sword at Sunset seems to have set the mould for depictions of a historical Arthur in fiction, a Roman-like cavalry officer keeping the Saxons at bay through Nennius's nine battles, but in his domestic life betrayed by his best friend - in this case Bedwyr, rather than Lancelot. Her alternative three-part retelling of "(principally)" Malory is directed more at the junior market: The Sword and the Circle, The Light Beyond the Forest and The Road to Camlann.
Children's literature is rich in Arthurian-inspired work. The only entry in the Library List to expand beyond a single page is that for Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence. Controversy at first surrounds whether or not adults can really appreciate the books, apparently having lost "that critical sense of disbelief". A lengthy comment extends down the margin of the second side, "to save space and indicate narrow viewpoint". Cooper's "elitist Gnosticism" is discussed, along with the books' level of Arthurian-ness. "If Susan Cooper had wanted to introduce children to Arthurian legend then surely she'd have written about knights and round tables and all that. Instead she wrote adventure stories which happen to involve grails etc." Peter Dickinson wrote The Changes Trilogy in the late 1960s. They are admired, although the Arthurian link (in The Weathermonger) is questioned. The stories concern an England where technology has been cast aside and society regressed to a quasi-mediaeval level, thanks (it transpires) to the whims of a drug-addicted Merlin. In 1988 Dickinson followed the trilogy up with Merlin Dreams, illustrated by Alan Lee. "Definitely worth a look - even if just for the disturbing and amusing short stories."
In his children's books Alan Garner has also drawn on Arthurian legend, as well as a wide range of Celtic mythology. Although never named, Arthur appears to be the sleeping king of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, where he lies under Alderley Edge in Cheshire.
A number of comic strips have contained Arthurian references or sought to add to the mythology. Among those in the Library List is Camelot 3000 by Barr and Bolland - "One of the three good Arthurian fictions published since 1800."
One novel that should also be mentioned is an unpublished one - our own Geoffrey Arthur's After Camlann, held as an authorial typescript photocopy by the Society. "Really more of an extended flourish than an entirely self-contained plot" says one A.S., who should know. "The narrative never comes alive on the page and consequently there is no sense of a world created within the book. There is no strong storyline and no sense of dramatic tension," P.B., literary agent, adds. Borrow it and judge for yourself!
Returning finally to children's literature, Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is an excellent introduction to the Arthurian worlds at any age. It is variously described as "the best retelling of the Arthurian legends for a young audience I've come across" and "My favourite rendition of the Arthurian tragedy".
This bridges comfortably into...
Here we find Aneirin and Y Gododdin, perhaps the earliest text to mention Arthur: the Historia Britonum by Nennius, the best edition apparently being Mommsen's of 1898; and of course Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Historia Regum Britanniae. Lewis Thorpe's Penguin edition of the latter is probably the most accessible, but its "translation (is) dodgy in places" and the Everyman edition of 1958, edited by Evans and revised by Dunn, is better received: "Consciously archaic in style, but much more accurate and closer to its original than Thorpe's translation."
Much Arthurian material emanated from the continent, including Beroul's Tristan, which we are told (ed. A. Ewert, 1938) is "An absolute must for any Arthurian". Chretien de Troyes is also liked, despite doubts over the relevance of Arthur to Chretien's Arthurian tales. The D.D.R. Owen translation (1987) seems the most read. The Germans, meanwhile, brought the mediaeval world Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach - A. Hatto's 1980 translation being recommended. "Spiritual, adventurous, magical and really funny - better than 'Monty Python'" There are also a number of editions and translations of fragments of the French Vulgate cycle.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has survived mountains of undergraduate essays remarkably unscathed. "Don't be fobbed off with Stone's Penguin 'translation'" we are told, but we should read Tolkien and Gordon's edition (1930, revised in 1967 by Norman Davis) instead.
For English readers Sir Thomas Malory is generally regarded as definitive. There are several editions, derived either from the text of Caxton's edition of Le Morte D'Arthur, or from the Works edited in this century by Eugene Vinaver, based on the manuscript discovered in Winchester College in the 1920s. Of Vinaver's edition: "The Other Book. Read it, but skip all the guff about Sir Tristan in the middle. The last two books are absolutely brilliant." Another edition worth mentioning is the edition illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, reprinted as a large format hardback in the 1980s and consequently "too heavy for weak damosels to read in bed."
The Arthurian poet with greatest public recognition has been Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "Untrammelled transcendent splendour" is one comment on what Tennyson's contemporary and fellow Arthurian poet A.C. Swinburne referred to as 'Le Morte D'Albert'. Tennyson's identification of the virtues of King Arthur with the Prince Consort may seem tiresome in the latter part of the twentieth century, but the Idylls of the King and his other Arthurian poems made Tennyson one of the high priests of the Victorian cult. It is unsurprising, then, that his work is "not for adulteresses".
Charles Williams published Taliesin through Logres in 1938. It was followed by The Region of the Summer Stars in 1944. Williams wrote other Arthurian poems which did not reach print in his lifetime, many of which saw print in the volume edited by former Oxford Arthurian Society member David Llywelyn Dodds in 1991. Society opinion on Williams appears polarised. "Good - indeed, super- excellent", writes one, but another denounces it as "Bad. Pretentious allegory grafted onto Arthurian material."
This article only glances at a few of the vast number of Arthurian books there are, but all of them can be borrowed through the Society Library. I will be bringing the Library List to the majority of meetings this term, so don't hesitate to have a look through it and ask me (or Geoff, who owns the vast majority of the books in the List) about borrowing.