The World of King Arthur, by Christopher Snyder. Thames & Hudson (London, 2000, 2011). 192 pp., $24.95 PB.
It’s been a long time since Richard Harris played King Arthur in Camelot, the 1967 film based on the Broadway musical of the same name by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. But the tellings and the retellings of the stories about the famous king of England and his Knights of the Round Table continue to abound.
And, lest it be forgotten, the Arthurian tales are intertwined with Joseph of Arimathea, who, according to legend, collected some of Jesus’ blood from the cross in the chalice He had used at the Last Supper and brought it and the lance that pierced Jesus’ side (only in John’s Gospel) to England, where it became known as the Holy Grail, the object of the quest by the Knights of the Round Table. Joseph also founded the famous abbey that used to exist in Glastonbury, where one can visit its ruins, Chalice Hill, Chalice Well, and the famous Tor.
The World of King Arthur is divided into eight chapters that are further subdivided into subsections with photographs of the topics presented and sidebars of material mentioned in the text.
The first chapter investigates the reality of Arthur. Snyder writes: “[T]here was no one Arthur, but many. There was an historical Arthur, or if, you prefer, a folkloric or mythological Arthur who came to be mistaken for a living person. There was a literary Arthur, indeed several, and an Arthur portrayed in almost every other artistic medium.
Subsequent chapters present historical background on the Britons and the Romans, the Age of Arthur (A.D. 400-600); the chronicles and legends of the Britons; the influence that the Arthur stories had on monarchy; chivalry; the supposed return of Arthur; Camelot, and the continued use of Arthuriana to the present day in film, on the Internet, in video games, and in describing the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
After finding a context for Arthuriana, the next step is to read The Death of King Arthur as retold by Peter Ackroyd. Viking (New York, 2010. 336 pp., $26.95). Ackroyd bases his retelling on Sir Thomas Malory’s famous Le Morte d’Arthur. Ackroyd writes, “I have tried my best to convert Malory’s sonorous and exhilarating prose into a more contemporary idiom; this is a loose, rather than punctilious, translation.”
In the introduction to his 316-page book, Ackroyd provides a context for Sir Thomas Malory, who “was born in the first decade of the 15th century.”
Malory, who “came from a family steeped in the values and traditions of the chivalric code,” was “also trained in all the feudal arts of chivalry – arts that included hunting, riding, hawking and archery.” Sometime in 1433 or 1434, when he was in his early twenties, Malory inherited his familial estate, and eight years later he became a knight. He also became Justice of the Peace, Member of Parliament, and Sheriff of Warwickshire, writes Ackroyd.
After being accused of rape, ambush, intent to kill, theft, extortion and gang violence, Malory was imprisoned for about eight years in the 1450s. While he was incarcerated, he wrote part of Le Morte d’Arthur. He was released in 1462 and died in 1471. Le Morte d’Arthur was first published in 1485 by Caxton’s press and has been in print ever since.
Malory’s stories were gleaned from sundry old books. Ackroyd writes: “These ‘old books’ were made up of the ‘roman courtois’ and the ‘roman d’adventures’ that were so popular among the French nobility. In fact he had thoroughly digested the French prose romances concerning the adventures of Arthur, and had reworked them as a series of self-contained stories following the path of one knight or group of knights.”
Ackroyd’s retelling is in clear prose. The stories possess a swiftness that carries the reader from one to the next.