The Once and Future King

Tapestry with King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, 1385.

According to historian Guy Halsall, the entirety of the lore and literature about King Arthur rests on a very small number of sentences written by two authors, one who lived around 830 A.D. and the other 100 years later: 400 years and 500 years after the events they describe. In these texts — some battle lists, some name dropping, a story about a boar hunt — there’s no round table, no quest, no Guinevere, no Lancelot, no Merlin, no Excalibur. So how and why did these sketchy accounts become so important and become the basis for elaborate stories, art, and film?

You could say, riffing on Voltaire, that if King Arthur did not exist, we would have to invent him. And invent we have. You can learn more about the 
 You can learn more about the rise of Arthurian legend in The Development of Arthurian Romance by Roger Sherman Loomis. This volume is a scholarly look at the expansion of the story written in the mid-twelfth century by English cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey claimed access to an older book as a source (OK, sure) which he did not name.

So was King Arthur a real person? Amateur historians say yes but the professionals like Professor Halsall say no. Humans love stories of great kings so in terms of feeding our need for wonders and inspiration, it doesn’t matter. As Sir Winston Churchill said, ““It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides.”

You can bring the world of King Arthur to life with books of all kinds. Paper dolls are fun to create dramatic reenactments of the stories, including warring enchanters Merlin and Morgan le Fay, or the nobility of the king and his most trusted knight, Lancelot. Dover offers a wonderful coloring book as well as many version of the stories for younger readers.

In conjunction with a new movie directed by Guy Ritchie to be released this year, King Arthur and the Legend of the Sword, Dover has published a beautiful new Calla Edition of The Romance of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. This version of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur has been edited for modern readers and is illustrated with the art of Arthur Rackham.

Even though the era of Arthur is considered to be Brittan shortly after the end of Roman occupation, we cloth the characters in gowns an armor of the European Middle Ages and early Renaissance, a reflection of the era in which the stories gained in popularity. More art from the golden age of illustration is included in Visions of Camelot with work by N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle, among others.

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