The Legends of King Arthur: One of the best retellings

fantasy book reviews Rosemary Sutcliff The Legends of King Arthur The Sword and the Circle, The Light of the Forest, The Road to Camlann, The Death of King ArthurTHE LEGENDS OF KING ARTHUR TRILOGY by Rosemary Sutcliff

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThere are countless retellings and adaptations concerning the life and times of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and I’m not even close to having read all of them. Therefore, it’s impossible for me to say that Rosemary Sutcliff’s version is the definitive Arthurian retelling. However, it’s certainly one of the best. Told in Sutcliff’s graceful prose that is both epic and intimate when need-be, and the tricky subjects like incest, adultery and bloodshed are conveyed without being either too prudish or overly graphic.

The first instalment, The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, is thicker than the next two books combined, and Sutcliff draws on a wide range of sources with which to build her own narrative. Going back to the circumstances of Arthur’s birth as outlined in Geoffrey Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, she gives us her account of his birth, fosterage, and eventual crowning when only just fifteen.

From Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur: The Winchester Manuscript, she brings in the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guenever, Arthur’s struggle to establish peace, and the forming of the Knights of the Round Table. From this point, Sutcliff moves into several other stories concerning the Knights of the Round Table, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the most famous translation by Tolkien) the Kitchen Knight, and perhaps the best rendering of the tale of Tristan and Iseult there is (it almost deserves to be its own book).

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMerlin and Morgan le Fey drop out of the story surprisingly quickly, and most of it is concerned with knight’s errands and love stories, most of which can be read out of order, for it is not a novel so much as a compilation of stories.

The Light beyond the Forest: The Quest for the Holy Grail is perhaps the least enjoyable of three, based on the Knights’ Quest for the Grail and heavy with religious symbolism and metaphor. Filled with inexplicable mysteries and miracles, temptation against earthly delights and feminine wiles, this book is based on the uncompleted French poem Perceval: The Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes, but Sutcliff also adds in plenty of her own invention as she recounts the journeys of Bors, Galahad, Lancelot and Percival for the Cup of Christ.

Finally Road to Camlann: The Death of King Arthur ends the story with the destruction of Camelot, the sundering of the knights and the death of King Arthur, brought on by the forbidden love between Guenever and Lancelot, as well as Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred. It’s hardly cheerful stuff, but by this stage Sutcliff has put all the pieces into place, and lets the story unfold with tragic grandeur.

The amount of story that Sutcliff is trying to get across means that characterization beyond broad brushstrokes is minimum, and often motivation is completely lost, but what she still manages to skillfully convey the depth of human emotion that is so prevalent in these legends: the longing for the divine, the pain of love, and the mindlessness of hate. Arthur is perfectly portrayed as a man who rises to status of beloved ruler not through physical prowess, but his strength of leadership and his ability to create peaceful resolutions. Yet I got the sense that Sutcliff was more interested in Lancelot, what with his twisted face and passionate heart. There are probably more pages dedicated to him than any other character in the entire trilogy.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsShe also crafts the unforgettable images of Arthurian legend that seem to be known to everyone: the sword in the anvil in the churchyard, the white hand in the lake clutching Excalibur, the hall of the Round Table, the byre of Elaine floating down the river outside Camelot, Merlin sleeping under the Hawthorn tree…the list goes on, and all of it is encapsulated in her rendering of medieval Britain: the dark forests and cool lakes, standing stones and mysterious wells, castles and hermitages.

Sutcliff has created a very “pure” vision of the Arthurian story, in contrast to the revisionist treatments that many authors use on the legends today (usually by giving them a feminist slant). But here we have a sense of the original story, much like the retellings/compilations by Roger Lancelyn Green and Howard Pyle, in which the knights: “take oaths that always they would defend the right, that they would be the true servants and protectors of all women, and deal justly in all things with all men, that they would strive always for the good of the kingdom of Britain and the glory of the kingdom of Logres, and that they would keep faith with each other and with God.”

The Legends of King Arthur — (1979-1981) Publisher: A retelling of the adventures and exploits of King Arthur and his knights at the court of Camelot and elsewhere in the land of the Britons.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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