If you’re in search of a King Arthur retelling for young readers that stretches from his birth to his death and includes everything that happens in between, I would personally recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s Legends of King Arthur trilogy. To me, it is the quintessential compendium of Arthurian lore, taken from a variety of sources, and retold in Sutcliff’s beautiful poetic-prose. Variations of the legend are a dime a dozen these days, but to me, Sutcliff’s version is the best.
However, for those with a particular interest in Arthurian legend, and eager to get their hands on every bit of literature surrounding him, then Roger Lancelyn Green’s classic is just as essential. As a member of one of the famous Inklings of Oxford University (a group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis), Green was keen to organize the myriad Arthur-related stories and combine them into a structured whole, all in a novel that would be accessible to children. As such, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is notable not simply due to the coherency that Green lends to what had previously been a diverse array of legends, but that for the first time they were specifically geared toward children.
Most of the Arthurian novelizations prior to this had used Thomas Malory as their basis, but in his prologue Green outlines his wider collection of sources, including Geoffrey of Monmouth, Godfrey of Strasbourg, Chrestien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and a variety of other British, French and German sources. Even the epilogue is derived from a folktale that was recorded (comparatively) recently in a King Arthur anthology by Sir Edmund Chambers.
Green’s contribution is to make each disparate adventure part of a fixed pattern with a running theme of good versus evil, the rise and fall of the kingdom, and chivalry and holiness set against temptation and treachery. In doing this, the book is divided into four parts: The Coming of Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, the Quest for the Holy Grail, and the Departure of Arthur. This chronological outline has been followed by pretty much every Arthurian novelist since.
Everything you know — and some things you don’t — about the legend is recorded here: Arthur’s secretive birth, his fostered upbringing with Sir Ector, the sword in the stone, the retrieval of Excalibur from the lake, the founding of Camelot, his marriage to Guinevere, and the Round Table. The familiar characters are all present and accounted for: Arthur, Guinevere, Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, Morgana le Fay, Sir Gawaine, Sir Lancelot, and the rest of the Knights of the Round Table. The second book records the assortment of adventures that these knights get up to in the kingdom of Logres, and the third recounts the quest for the Holy Grail. Finally, the tale reaches its tragic conclusion when the evil designs of Mordred and the fatal love affair between Arthur’s queen and his best knight come to light.
Some things have been sanitized a little for younger readers. Here Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair goes no further than a clandestine meeting behind closed doors, and the fact that Mordred is Arthur’s incestuous son by his half-sister has been exorcised completely.
In terms of prose, Green writes clearly and simplistically — it’s certainly easier to read than Malory, but also a bit dry compared to Sutcliffe. What he provides here are the bare bones of the Arthurian material, with characters outlined in broad strokes. There is virtually no insight into characterization, and the plot itself can get immensely complex, even with Green’sunifying structure. Random things happen for no rhyme or reason, and the narrative is full of things such as love at first sight, honour before reason, miracles beyond the understanding of mortals, and other inexplicable occurrences.
The behaviour of its characters can be equally baffling. Knights can go from chivalrous to bloodthirsty at the drop of a hat, and though Morgana le Fay is the main antagonist of the first part of the book, she disappears for the middle segment and then reappears as a benevolent figure to take Arthur to Avalon. There’s no attempt made to explain the abrupt about-turn.
Certain prominent characters disappear completely without any closure on where they went or how they died, while others pop up out of nowhere without any real introduction. Then there are the plot-holes, such as: if the Lady of the Lake is with Arthur on the barge taking him to Avalon, then whose was the hand that caught Excalibur in the lake only minutes before?
However, it’s important to note that I’m not pointing these out as flaws, but merely characteristics of the book. Green follows the obscure reasoning of the legends, and his goal was not to explain these inconsistencies, but to record and organize them. To expound too much on what is really happening is the work of later Arthurian novelists, and — in a way — deprives the oldest incarnations of the story of their mystery. Like all the best Arthur retellings, this one retains the enigmatic nature of the legends, and as stories go, is a rewarding experience.
The Puffin Classic edition includes biographical information on the author, a character guide, a study guide for teachers with suggested activities based on the book, and an introduction by David Almond.