Sunday, November 04, 2007

Editorial Ass's Top 3 King Arthur Novels

I had an Arthur obsession for while (erm, still might) so please comment with ANY books you've read on the topic, good, bad, fiction, nonfiction, etc.

1) MISTS OF AVALON, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The epic retelling of the women in Arthur's life--his mother, Ygraine; his sister Morgaine; his wife, Gwenhwyfar. The appeal is admittedly a little more female, but the retelling is so smart, nuanced, unsympathetic, and somehow simultaneously speculative and historical that it is worth a read. Marion Zimmer Bradley infuses the backbones of the Romantic tradition with Celtic mysticism, goddess worship, religious and racial tensions, and as much history as we can know. If you've seen the mini-series but haven't gotten around to reading the book yet, you're doing yourself a disservice.

This is possibly the best book ever written, but it's not the best book on King Arthur, which is why it only gets #2. It is a retelling of the legend in the French Romantic tradition--that is, out of history (it takes place, inexplicably, in the 800s) and with all the story elements created by medieval courtiers, as opposed to revisionist/fantasy approaches that try to instill the Celtic and history themes. But just a fantastic book. TH White changed my approach to life with Guinevere's 7 senses. Anyway. Please read this, boys and girls.

3) THE WINTER KING, by Bernard Cornwell
Cornwell gets slot 3 because he recreates Arthur magic-free. This novel reduces Arthur to what we know is "true" (or what of the tradition that has been passed down most likely would be true if anything is true at all) and then fleshes out the rest of the story with a thoroughly realistic account of a warrior king, the people who support his rise to power, and the challenges he faces along the way. People looking for heart-thumping romance and maybe a little spell-casting will be disappointed, but armchair historians will like it and I admire Cornwell for the project.

Runner-Up: CHILD QUEEN, by Nancy McKenzie (and the follow-up, HIGH QUEEN)
Guinevere's story, classically, sympathetically, and pleasingly told in accordance with the French Romantic tradition. Back when this was in print, it was sometimes shelved in Fantasy, sometimes in Romance, but either way, if you're going in with genre expectations you'll be at least slightly pleasantly surprised (although don't expect anything gritty or ground-breaking). A fast and extremely entertaining read.

Second Runner-Up: THE CRYSTAL CAVE, by Mary Stewart (and three follow-up books)
A real classic of the genre, first published in 1970 (the author is now 91 and still editing/publishing formidably). The legend told from Merlin's point of view. Mary Stewart really laid the tracks for other writers who would smarten up the myth and look beyond the purely Dark Age traditions, and the only reason this didn't fit in the Top 3 is because the number of pages of the whole thing is a little exhausting, and I eventually found the female perspective of MISTS OF AVALON a bit more compelling (in part, at least, because MISTS is not an apology in any way--many of the main characters are utterly unsympathetic and even unlikable, while CRYSTAL CAVE is a smoother, less challenging read).

Books that pointedly didn't make the list:
THE FOREVER KING, by Molly Cochran and Warren Murphy


Maprilynne said...

Hehe. The book my agent is shopping involves a modern retelling as well as new new interpretation of the old King Arthur legends. I think you would eat it up . . . and with luck, you'll be able to in about two years.:)

Jill Myles said...

Loved Mary Stewart's books, but they are terribly dense. The last book was my favorite - the Mordred one? The Final Day or something.

Didn't care for Mists of Avalon. I have no idea why. I suppose because the incest felt glorified in that and the seekrit romance reader in me knew there was no happy ending involved.

Never read T.H. White. Adding it to my library list. :)

Bernita said...

Stewart's Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills set the standard for me for Arthurian stories - satisfied me completly to the point I have no interest in reading other writers' takes.
The Last Enchantment ( the third of the series) I found a bit fin de seicle.

Froog said...

I haven't read The Once And Future King since I was kid - but I might well try to find a copy and give it a re-read now. I think I'm ready for it now.

It's a book that's so marvellous for its wit and invention that the fact that it is fashioned around the Arthur legend is an (almost irksome) irrelevance. I think he wanted a 'Merlin' character in it, and wasn't too bothered about the rest of it.

writtenwyrdd said...

My favorite use of the Arthurian myth is Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar triology.

moonrat said...

oo, i loved tigana. i should read his other stuff.

Jill Myles said...

The Fionavar tapestry does mess with the Arthurian myth.

I'm torn on that one. I loved (LOVED) it as a teenager. Read it 3 or 4 times.

Picked it up again a year or so ago and found it boring and unreadable. Of course, I couldn't get into TIGANA either. So I dunno.

I hate it when books you used to love don't hold up to a re-read, though. But I think you'll like them, moonie. They're a mix of high fantasy and Arthur. What's not to like?

Bernita said...

Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry plays with a lot of myths, not just the Arthurian cycle.
I still love it.
Song for Arbonne is my favourite though.

Robin S. said...

I absolutely agree with The Mists of Avalon as number one here.

I still remember sitting on the back porch of my (then, long ago) apartment and reading this - when you remember "where you were" when you've read something, I think that speaks to the way the book spoke to you.

lefty55 said...

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve might be technically a 'children's' book, but it nails the gritty-historical angle every bit as well as Cornwell.

Also, check out Reeve's Mortal Engines quartet. Tops both Tolkein and Pullman at their own games in one hit -- no mean feat.

Anonymous said...

Love Guy Gavriel Kay books, but personally I think that Jack Whyte's Camulod-Eagles series is the best King Arthur story.

Scott said...

Check out the newly published "The Acts of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table" by Steinbeck, what a fantastic retelling of Mallory! I very disappointed that he didn't finish it. It ends with the beginning of the tryst between Lancelot and Guinevere.

Kosmos said...

There must be something wrong with me then... I have tried to read "The once and future King" several times, and I just can't get into the writing style. I am a very fast reader and would normally read a third of a book at a time... with that one I get through about a cm of pages and have to put it down through lack of interest.

I suppose I will give it another go, since several of you recommend it... though I had placed it once on a list of unreadable books.

Deborah Rey said...

Yoho yoho, I just promoted you to 'Nice Ass', because you mention all my favourite books about Arthur. Can't be all bad, or a real Ass if you love those books and that legend.
Sunny regards from France,


*V said...

I'm wondering if when you list "THE FOREVER KING, by Bernard Cornwell" you actually mean THE WINTER KING? Which is the first in Bernard Cornwell's trilogy about Arthur. This is probably one of my all time favorite Arthur books. You have some great choices there!

moonrat said...

Woops. Yup. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This is a year late, but I love the Arthurian Legend! My favorite Arthurian series, as well as my favorite books, are the ones written by Persia Woolley.

Child of the Northern Spring

Queen of the Summer Stars

Guinevere: The Legend in Autumn.

They are out of print, but she writes it in such a way that it could have happened. THe magic is muted, but she works in most of the legend well. (I loved her version of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady.)

Pen said...

I love the Arthurian legends. Heck! I named my daughter Guinevere!!!

Soph K said...

I adore Arthurian legend so I tried TH White on this list's recommendation and was completely blown away! I think I read the whole 5 books in 2 days, couldn't put it down. Probably my best read of 2009 so thanks Moonie! Going to look into Mary Stewart but I failed to be hooked by Mists of Avalon, think I prefer a masculine perspective!

moonrat said...

hey, that's great to hear!! i'm so happy!! yeah, the TH White is a really special book, i believe.

Mary Stewart is definitely male perspective! let me know how it goes for you :)

Jack Straw said...

Jack Whyte's four generation epic (nine books starting with The Skystone and ending with The Eagle)is fascinating, visceral, philosophical and all together one of the most compelling series of books I've ever read.

A brilliant reinventing of the Arthurian legend steeped in history.

Alena said...

3 years late, but I'll give it a go...

One of my fave's is Elizabeth Wein's The Winter Prince - told from the perspective of Medraut/Mordred, it's more of a psychological novel as Medraut struggles with love and loyalty to his brother or Morgause. This book is very different from many Arthurian books out there. There are also three more books after, but with no Arthurian characters. Medraut becomes a minor character.

Another good one is Rosemary Sutcliff's novels on Arthur. The way she writes is incredible.

Annie said...

I'm very late to the party, but I love The Once and Future King. In fact, when I applied to university, one of the colleges asked applicants to write about a book that had deeply affected them, and I picked TOFK. I loved the Mary Stewart books, too, but couldn't get into The Mists of Avalon.

An offbeat take on Arthur of which I'm very fond is Tim Powers's The Drawing of the Dark.

Vicky said...

Another real late comer to the party -- but delighted to find an editor who loves King Arthur.

Yes, yes, yes, Once and Future King. But I love the other two, as well. I've been researching the "historical Arthur" and a comment archaeologist Francis Pryor made about the legend (and all legends, for that matter) has stuck with me. Books tell us more about the time in which they were written than they do about the historical (or quasi-historical) figures they're about. THOFT was written in the 1920's and 30's and is a brilliant satire of the period between the 2 World Wars. MoA is a product of the feminist revolution in the 1960's and '70s'.