Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Quasihistorical British king or war-leader whose mythical adventures have formed the basis for the largest single subcategory of fantastic literature. Here we treat the Arthurian cycle under four heads: King Arthur, which sets the historical background; Arthurian legend, which considers the Legend and Motifs; Arthurian romance, which surveys the development of the legend through the medieval texts; and Arthurian fiction, which considers the treatment of the legend over the last century. As might be expected, there are crossovers between the various sections.

King Arthur

Almost nothing is known about the real King Arthur. There are no contemporary references, and later annals make only scant record. The most reliable contemporary record, De Excidio Britanniae ["The Ruin of Britain"] (?540) by Gildas (?495-?570) makes no mention of Arthur, but generally sets the historical scene of the British and Romano-British being rallied by a High King and standing firm against the Saxon onslaught, achieving a decisive victory over the enemy at Badon. The earliest reference to Arthur by name is in the poem Y Gododdin (?600) attributed to Aneirin, a British bard of the early 7th century. It unfavourably compares a warrior of the Votadini with the strength and might of Arthur of old. This episode has been recreated in the historical Children's Fantasy The Shining Company (1990) by Rosemary Sutcliff. The only other historical reference to Arthur is in the Annales Cambriae ["Welsh Annals"] (10th century), which date the death of Arthur at the Battle of Camlann in 537. Historians of the period drew upon either older records, now lost, or on oral tradition, and thus give an incomplete and at times misleading account of the period. The real Arthur was in all likelihood an army general, quite probably born and raised in a Roman or Romano-British family, whose skill and prowess as a battle leader (or dux bellorum, as he is described in the Historia Brittonum [830], attributed to Nennius [?  -809]), resulted in a decisive defeat of the Saxons at Badon in about 495. Thereafter Arthur was able to establish a period of relative prosperity and peace in Britain until his death at Camlann 40 years later. The extent of Arthur's kingdom is unclear, but the base of it was almost certainly the area of the Gododdin, a grouping of Celtic tribes between the Hadrian and Antonine Walls in the Scottish borders. He probably had overlordship of other minor British kingdoms, especially in central Britain and the Welsh borders. This may be all we can say with any reasonable accuracy about Arthur. It bears no relationship at all to the legend, which was given impetus by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae ["History of the Kings of Britain"] (1136), which created a totally false history of King Arthur – while at the same time establishing the popularity of the character. [MA]

Arthurian Legend

The accepted legend of King Arthur, generally now drawn from Le Morte Darthur (1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, is a compendium of oral tradition and romantic invention covering a much deeper well of memory and myth that fuses tales from the Matter of Britain, the Mabinogion and the Norman-French and Breton lays and romances, to form a of tales overlaying possible historical events with the motifs of the supernatural. As the legends became established they attracted other tales and legends about, for example, the Grail and lyonesse, which have since become inextricably linked. Although the tales have as their core the character of Arthur, they rely heavily on other major characters who serve as Archetypes for much later Heroic Fantasy, especially the Knights of the Round Table, in particular Lancelot, Gawain and Perceval, the magus Merlin and the enchantresses Morgan Le Fay and the Lady of the Lake. Around the characters and their adventures are deeper beliefs about death and Resurrection as exemplified by the beheading match between Gawain and the Green Knight, the Dolorous Stroke leading to the Waste Land and recovery through the Cauldron of Plenty or the Grail, and the overarching legend that Arthur will come again in national time of need is identified by the phrase the Once and Future King. All of these have their origins deep in Celtic legend and history and only came to be associated with the exploits of Arthur over a period of years.

The historicity of King Arthur is irrelevant to the legend other than in depicting a valiant hero protecting Britain from invasion, decline and ruin. The legends, drawing from their variant sources, offer different perspectives of Arthur, and in the three centuries from Geoffrey to Malory, Arthur moves from the heroic centre stage to become a tragic figure and victim of Fate. As the legends developed, particularly through the French romancers. Arthur's enemies became those within his kingdom, not external. Largely a reflection of 12th-century court intrigue and the civil wars within the Angevin Empire, the Arthurian legends became a catalogue of deceit, betrayal and treachery, against which Arthur increasingly relied on supernatural help: first from Merlin and then from the Lady of the Lake.

The legends themselves, especially as consolidated by Malory, are too complex to detail here: a brief overview must suffice. In one respect all legends agree: Arthur is the son of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine, following the deceit worked upon Ygraine by Merlin. Merlin raises Arthur in secret as the foster son of Sir Ector, so that, when Arthur establishes his right to the throne by extracting the sword from the anvil (not a stone), he emerges as a Hidden Monarch.

The deceit established by Merlin continues to weave its web. Not all of Arthur's vassal kings accept his claim. A rebellion is led by King Lot of Orkney which Arthur is forced to quell. Lot sends his wife Morgause/Morgawse (see Morgan Le Fay), in reality Arthur's half-sister, to spy on the King. Arthur, unaware of his true parentage and relatives, beds Morgause and conceives Mordred (Modred), who will later prove his downfall. This web of deceit is paralleled by a vision Arthur has of the Waste Land. While on a hunt, Arthur sees a strange animal, the offspring of a woman who has slept with the Devil: it has the body of a leopard, the hindquarters of a lion, the feet of a deer and the head of a Serpent, while from its stomach comes the sound of hounds baying – hence its name, the Questing Beast. When Merlin subsequently reveals that Arthur has slept with his half-sister, the parallel disturbs Arthur. Merlin adds to his disquiet by prophesying that a child born this coming Mayday will be Arthur's ruin, and that all children born that day should be killed. Arthur cannot bring himself to do this, but declares that all children of noble birth born in the past two months should be cast adrift in a ship. The ship founders on rocks and many of the infants perish, but among those saved is Mordred.

After many battles in which Arthur not only defeats his rebellious vassals but curbs the Saxons, he establishes a period of peace throughout Britain. Settled, he marries Guinevere, the most beautiful lady in the land. As part of the marriage arrangement, Arthur acquires the Round Table, made by Merlin, at which he commands his noblest knights to sit in his court at Camelot. To earn that right the knights must undertake deeds of considerable valour. One seat at the table remains empty, the Siege Perilous, which can be occupied only by the most holy and perfect of knights. The Round Table itself stands for purity and unity. The need for knights to prove their worth is a significant part of the Arthurian legend and the image of questing knights (see Quests) is often at the heart of people's ideas of the tales, though in truth the knights are usually more bloodthirsty than chivalrous.

After losing his original Sword in a fight with King Pellinore, Arthur is taken by Merlin to a nearby lake where he meets the Lady of the Lake. She reveals to Arthur Excalibur, held in a hand rising from the middle of the lake. Arthur claims the sword for his own. When Merlin asks Arthur which he feels is more precious, the sword or its scabbard, Arthur replies that it is the sword, but Merlin reveals that it is the scabbard that will protect him from harm (see Amulet). Arthur entrusts Excalibur to his half-sister, Morgan Le Fay, unaware that she is plotting against him. Morgan creates a false Excalibur and gives the real sword to her champion, Sir Accolon, who fights and would defeat Arthur were it not for the intervention of the Lady of the Lake. Morgan attempts to steal the sword again, but succeeds in taking only the scabbard – which Arthur never recovers. From that day, Arthur's star begins to fall. Lancelot appears on the scene; he falls in Love with Guinevere and an adulterous affair begins. When Guinevere is abducted, it is Lancelot, not Arthur, who defies the very portals of death to rescue her.

The peace of the kingdom is now under threat. Sir Balin attacks Sir Pellam with the Lance of Longinus and delivers the Dolorous Stroke; famine and pestilence fall over the kingdom. (A historical plague did indeed sweep through Europe in the middle of the 6th century.) As the Land darkens Arthur looks for guidance. At the Feast of Pentecost he and his knights have a vision of the Grail. The result is a series of Quests to attain the Grail and restore the Land.

With the Grail quests underway we find Arthur's kingdom in disarray; his knights are far afield, while at home the rift between Arthur and Guinevere is widening. Eventually Guinevere's adultery is revealed and war breaks out between Arthur and Lancelot. The Order of the Round Table is sundered, as knights take sides. Lancelot, still wishing to remain loyal to Arthur, leaves Britain for France and is pursued by Arthur. In Arthur's absence, Mordred seizes the throne and seduces the Queen. Arthur returns in haste to Britain, and eventually meets Mordred at the battle of Camlann, where Arthur is mortally wounded. Arthur orders Bedivere to return Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. The knight twice refuses, hiding it in the bushes, but Arthur knows he has lied and the third time Bedivere throws the sword far into the lake. A hand rises from the water, catches the sword by the hilt, brandishes it three times and withdraws. Arthur commands Bedivere to carry him down to the lake, and there a boat, carrying Morgan le Fay, bears Arthur's body away to the Isle of Avalon, there to heal. Britain awaits his return in times of peril.

There are many variations and additions to this basic tale, especially in the adventures of the individual knights – many of whom, such as Gawain, Perceval and Lancelot, have Story Cycles of their own. Although it has a natural appeal at a superficial level in the heroic adventures of Arthur and his knights, it has more appeal at its deeper levels. The mystical interpretations of the Cycle of birth and death bring comparisons with the Earth's life cycle (see Green Man); the parallel cycles of love, deceit and betrayal arising from either supernatural intervention or human failing, set against the search for perfection, underscore human nature; and the overriding appeal of the Hero who is not dead but only sleeping awaiting the call to save us (see Sleeper Under the Hill) is a final salve to us all. These core themes have entranced storytellers and their audiences for over 1000 years. [MA]

Arthurian Romance

Although tales were almost certainly told of Arthur's exploits within a generation or two of his death – i.e., in the 6th and 7th centuries – no written accounts of these stories exist until much later, when the flowering of Welsh and Anglo-Norman literature resulted in the first industry of Arthurian fiction. The Welsh Triads, by which the bards recalled heroic events in sequences of three, sustained Arthurian exploits in simple summary form, relying on oral tradition to expand the narrative. These narratives were not written down until the 12th century, most especially in the Mabinogion, the oldest surviving texts of which are The White Book of Rhydderch (?1325) and The Red Book of Hergest (?1400), compiled by unknown hands. The oldest Arthurian story within this is Culhwch and Olwen, which possibly dates from the 11th century. The story is an archetype of a hero having to perform a series of almost impossible tasks in order to earn his reward. In this story Culhwch, a cousin of Arthur's, is cursed (see Curses) with being allowed to marry only Olwen, the daughter of the Giant Ysbaddaden. With Arthur's help, Culhwch finds Ysbaddaden but, before he can marry Olwen, the giant charges him with Seven impossible tasks. It is Arthur and seven of his court who achieve the tasks – which include a journey into the Underworld to gain the Cauldron of Plenty. This last adventure was drawn from an earlier poem, Preiddeu Annwfyn ["The Spoils of Annwn"] (?900). The other major Welsh poem featuring Arthur is Breudwyt Rhonabwy ["The Dream of Rhonabwy"] (?1210); this is really a Satire on power politics in 12th-century Wales; Rhonabwy – one of a band of soldiers seeking an outlaw – dreams of an Arthurian Golden Age full of heroes. Three other Celtic tales of knightly quests are drawn from the same source as romances by Chrétien de Troyes: Owain – known also as The Lady of the Fountain (?1250) – Geraint and Enid (?1250) and, of special interest, Peredur (?1250) (see Perceval), an amalgam of legends tracing the development of a lowly boy who is protected from society but who yearns for adventure. His later exploits, many of which parallel Arthur's in portraying a coming of age and Rite of Passage, also bear the kernel of the Grail legend. This motif forms the basis of much late 20th-century High Fantasy (by, for example, Lloyd Alexander, David Eddings and Tad Williams).

While the many Celtic legends are the sole source of the Arthurian tales, those not perpetuated in Celtic manuscripts almost certainly survived in oral tradition to surface in later stories as the tales grew in popularity and spread across Europe. Many incidents presented unadorned in the Celtic texts reappear grossly embellished in later French and German Romances. It is ironic that Arthur's literary success was as a result of writings by those who conquered the Celts rather than by the Celts themselves.

As the Normans established themselves across England in the century after the Battle of Hastings (1066), their greatest threat came not from the vanquished Saxons but from the Celts, particularly the Welsh. Instead of quashing the Celtic legends, the Normans decided to adopt them, thus making the Welsh heroes their own and stemming the rising tide of Welsh nationalism. Geoffrey of Monmouth was commissioned to adapt an ancient Welsh book (now lost, if it existed at all) into Latin, and this emerged as the Historia Regum Britanniae ["History of the Kings of Britain"] (1136). This volume is predominantly a fanciful embellishment of oral tradition, tracing the Kings of Britain from Brutus, the son of Aeneas (see Fantasies of History; Matter) to Cadwalladr, a 7th-century king of Gwynedd. Much of it is given over to the exploits of Arthur, presaged by the emergence and prophecies of Merlin. Geoffrey's tale was the first extensive story of Arthur's life, and the first to appear in Latin, and the book became the medieval equivalent of a bestseller, firmly establishing King Arthur as a Hero. Apart from the involvement of Merlin, Geoffrey's account is generally devoid of the supernatural. It tells of how, through the use of Merlin's drugs, Uther Pendragon is able to transform himself into the likeness of Ygraine's husband, Gorlois, and thus how Arthur's conception arises from deception. It goes on to recount how Arthur's true background is later revealed, how he is made king, defeats the Saxons in a series of battles culminating in that at Bath (Badon), and enters into a halcyon reign. After the first 12 years, when he has established his court at Caerleon and developed his retinue of knights, Arthur embarks on a conquest of Europe. Challenged by Rome, Arthur marches on the Eternal City, but before he can conquer it learns of a revolt in Britain and returns to face the traitor Mordred. This leads to his final battle, where he is mortally wounded and taken away to Avalon. Geoffrey thus does not record Arthur's death, leaving open the possibility of a return and thereby establishing a basis for the eternal legend.

The interest in Arthur's exploits now led to an industry, encouraged during the expansion of empire in the reign of Henry II (reigned 1154-1189). First came the Roman de Brut (1155) by the Norman monk Wace (?1110-?1175), a translation of Geoffrey's Historia into Norman French but with its own embellishments, in particular the introduction of the Round Table as the Order of Knighthood. This same work was then adapted into English by Layamon (?1140-?1210) as Brut (?1200), a rather bloodthirsty rendition which reintroduced episodes from Celtic tradition, including the role of Morgan Le Fay as Queen of the Elves.

Meanwhile Chrétien de Troyes was converting the Arthurian quasi-history into romantic adventure. It was Chrétien who introduced the character of Lancelot in Lancelot or Le Chevalier de la Charrete ["The Knight of the Cart"] (?1177), which explored Lancelot's love for Guinevere. Chrétien contrasted this relationship in Le Chevalier au Lion (1177; vt Yvain), and it was through this work, and his earlier romances – Érec et Énide (?1170) and Cligés (?1176) – that the knightly world of Arthurian chivalry emerged. Chrétien's unfinished final work, Perceval, ou Le Conte de Graal (begun ?1182), brought the Grail legend into the Arthurian canon. Chrétien does not identify the Grail but he does develop its mysteries, including the link with the Bleeding Lance. It was down to Chrétien's successor, Robert de Boron (?   -1212) to link the Grail with Christ's chalice at the Last Supper, in his Joseph d'Arimathie (?1200; vt Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Graal). It was also Robert, in Merlin (?1200), who introduced the concept of the Sword in the Stone, and it may also have been Boron who wrote the anonymous Mort Artu the second part of a prose rendition of the Arthurian tales which, along with Queste del Saint Graal and Lancelot, forms the basis of what is known as the Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian stories brought together by unknown writers during the period 1215-1235. Between them Chrétien and Robert developed the primary Arthurian Story Cycle from which most other tales developed. Not only did their work feed the Vulgate Cycle, they also inspired the romancers Hartmann von Aue (?1160-?1215), Wolfram von Eschenbach (?1170-?1220) and Gottfried von Strassburg (?   -?1210), who developed the Yvain, Perceval and Tristan tales in German in the early years of the 13th century.

There were scores of other romances written throughout Europe during this period, particularly the stories about Tristan and Isolde that were embellished by the Anglo-Norman poets and romancers Béroul (late 12th century), Thomas d'Angleterre (fl1170-75) and Marie de France (late 12th century). The other major and independent Arthurian medieval romance is the anonymous 14th-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (see Gawain).

The majority of the Arthurian legends had been captured in print, translated, retold, reinvented and consolidated by the end of the 14th century. It was these that were then used by Malory to produce the definitive Le Morte Darthur (1485). Thereafter Le Morte Darthur (often referred to as Le Morte D'Arthur) has been treated as the standard Arthurian text from which, until recently, all Arthurian stories have been derived. [MA]

Arthurian Fiction

Arthurian imagery and motifs have remained strong in literature since the success of Le Mort Darthur, although during the Reformation they were comparatively dormant, kept alive through oral tradition and Folktales like the story of Tom Thumb, which is set in Arthur's court. The regeneration of interest in legend and folktales that followed the rediscovery of Fairytales in the UK in the second half of the 18th century had been presaged to some extent by the modernization of old texts and sagas by Robert Southey, who contributed his own translation of Le Roman de Merlin to an 1817 edition of Le Morte Darthur, Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866), who adapted and reworked Welsh texts as The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829), and Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895), who produced the definitive Victorian edition of the Mabinogion (1849). These inspired and encouraged Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) who, starting with "The Lady of Shalott" (1832; rev in Poems coll 1842), developed a large body of Arthurian poetry, culminating in his sequence Idylls of the King (1859; exp 1870, 1873, 1886). Tennyson's popularity brought an immediate revival of interest in the Arthurian legend, with a new edition of Le Morte D'Arthur (1862) by James Knowles (1831-1908), while the whole Arthurian theme was championed by the Preraphaelites, who took Galahad as their patron. Especially strong in this movement was William Morris, who early in his career produced his poem The Defence of Guinevere (1858) and in turn influenced Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909), whose work included Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) and The Tale of Balen (1896).

Arthurian imagery has continued to inspire poetry to this day; special reference must be made to Lays of the Round Table (1905) by Ernest Rhys, the sequence Merlin (1917), Lancelot (1920) and Tristram (1927) by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), and The Waste Land (1922 Criterion; in Poems: 1909-1925 coll 1925) by T S Eliot (1888-1965).

By the close of the 19th century, however, interest in the Arthurian tales was moving away from poetry toward fiction. This initially took the form of adapting the work for children (see Children's Fantasy), extolling the chivalric and manly virtues of the knights. Works including The Boy's King Arthur (1880) by Sidney Lanier (1842-1881), the beautifully illustrated adaptations by Howard Pyle – in The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903), The Story of the Champions of the Round Table (1905), The Story of Sir Lancelot and His Companions (1907) and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur (1910) – and many illustrated adaptations of Malory including Le Morte D'Arthur (1893) done by Aubrey Beardsley, Tales of King Arthur (1905) retold by Andrew Lang and illustrated by Henry Ford (1860-1940), King Arthur's Knights (1911-1915) retold by Henry Gilbert and illustrated by Walter Crane, and The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1917) retold by Alfred W Pollard and illustrated by Arthur Rackham. All of these contributed towards the 20th-century vision and interpretation of the Arthurian tales. It was in this environment that Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), which contrasted US and Arthurian values and acknowledged that values had not necessarily improved and might even have declined (see A Connecticut Yankee).

This regeneration of interest in Arthurian fiction took a number of shapes. Although the whole basis of Arthurian fiction is fantasy, the purely fantastic was among the latest forms to develop. Initially authors sought either to recreate the Arthurian world with as much historical exactitude as was possible or to use Arthurian imagery in a contemporary setting. These two categories are outside the strict purview of this encyclopedia, but their impact cannot be ignored in the development of the genre, and thus some of the key works are covered below.

Early fictional treatments of the tales remained virtuous and overly sentimental; examples are Cian of the Chariots (1898) by William H Babcock (1849-1922), Uther and Igraine (1903) by Warwick Deeping, A Lady of King Arthur's Court (1907) by Sara Hawks Sterling and The Clutch of Circumstance (1908) by Dorothy Senior. The 1920s brought the inevitable romantic interpretation, with undertones of Satire on contemporary society as portrayed in Galahad (1926) and Tristan and Isolde (1932), both by John Erskine (1879-1951), Launcelot (1926) by Ernest Hamilton (1858-1939), Launcelot and the Ladies (1927) by Will Bradley (1868-1962), Pendragon (1930) by W Barnard Faraday (1874-1953) and The Little Wench (1935) by Philip Lindsay (1906-1958). These stories use the traditional Arthurian setting to explore various romantic entanglements, some lightheartedly, others (specially Lindsay's) with deeper interpretation. Further lighthearted society spoofs appearing at this time used the Arthurian world to satirize the aristocracy; these include "Sir Agravaine" (1912 Colliers Weekly) in The Man Upstairs (coll 1914) by P G Wodehouse, a series of Sir Archibald stories (1922-1925) by A M Burrage and "Sir Borlays and the Dark Knight" (1933) by Anthony Armstrong.

When T H White produced The Sword in the Stone (1938) Arthurian fiction took a giant step forward. White ignored the traditional Arthurian storyline, using stock characters and circumstances only when he needed them, and developed an Arthurian world of his own. The tale still reflects the contemporary mores of the 1920s and 1930s as used by Armstrong and Burrage, and is wonderfully anachronistic in its creation of the Arthurian world, using modern images and inventions when convenient. In so doing White depicts an acceptable Arthurian existence, a world beyond time where Merlin has taken young Wart (Arthur) for his training and preparedness for the world. White's book was the first in a series of novels that became darker, more subtle and less whimsical, partly because of the onset of WWII but also because of the increasing tragedy of the subject matter. The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood (1939) and The Ill-Made Knight (1940) were later revised and enlarged, with the addition of "The Candle in the Wind", as The Once and Future King (1958), to many still the definitive Arthurian volume of the 20th century. The book served as the basis for the stage musical Camelot (1960; movie 1967) and Disney's Animated Movie The Sword in the Stone (1963). The Book of Merlyn (1977), originally written as part of the sequence, is less successful.

The only other pre-WWII work of any note is King of the World's Edge (1939 WT; 1966 dos) by H Warner Munn, which postulates that surviving remnants of Arthur's army, under Merlin and Ventidius Varro, a Roman centurion, sail west and discover the Americas. Munn was fascinated by his post-Arthurian world and returned to it again in The Ship from Atlantis (1967; fixup with "King of the World's Edge" as Merlin's Godson 1976) and Merlin's Ring (1974), though these books are more about other lands contemporary with and after Arthur.

The WWII years brought a new perspective to the Arthurian condition: the Battle of Britain and the Dunkirk spirit made the besieged island fortress a reality, and the Arthurian world took on a greater meaning. The result was a move away from fantasy toward a mixture of historical realism and mystical interpretation. John Cowper Powys, who had used Arthurian themes in two earlier contemporary novels, depicted a harsh Arthurian world in Porius (1951). This harshness and sense of alienation is repeated in other novels of the 1950s, a decade which also brought a more perceptive delineation of the characters. This is especially true of the trilogies by Dorothy James Roberts (1903-1990) – The Enchanted Cup (1953), Launcelot, My Brother (1954) and Kinsmen of the Grail (1963) – which uses a more traditional setting, and by Henry TreeceThe Eagles Have Flown (1954), The Great Captains (1956) and The Green Man (1966) – which depicts a bitterly bleak Celtic world.

The 1950s also saw new attempts to use a fantastic treatment of the Arthurian legend to satirize contemporary society, much in the style of Twain; examples are To the Chapel Perilous (1955) by Naomi Mitchison and The Quest of Excalibur (1959) by Leonard Wibberley (1915-1983), the first bringing a modern perspective to the past and the second bringing Arthurian values to the present. Less successful in their day were The Queen's Knight (1955) by Marvin Borowsky, which treats Arthur as a puppet king, and The Pagan King (1959) by Edison Marshall (1894-1967), which rationalizes legend but depicts Arthur creating his own myth as a Bard. The Fair (1964) by Robert Nathan is a lighthearted fantasy more in keeping with Twain and White than contemporary works.

By the 1960s Arthurian fiction was establishing itself firmly into a number of subdivisions. At one level, more realism was being brought to an interpretation of the historical Arthurian world. The lead in this direction had been taken by Rosemary Sutcliff with Sword at Sunset (1963), which endeavoured to present a rational historical perspective. Other examples of note include: The Duke of War (1966) by Walter O'Meara (1897-1989) and Twilight Province (1967 Australia; vt Watch Fires to the North 1968 US) by George Finkel (1909-1975), both exploring the political chaos of the period; the Crimson Chalice sequence by Victor Canning (1911-1986) – The Crimson Chalice (1976), The Circle of the Gods (1977) and The Immortal Wound (1978), assembled as The Crimson Chalice (omni 1980) – which portrays a realistic Romano-British world with Arthur (Arturo) as an outcast driven by what he believes are the wishes of the gods; Pendragon (1977) by Douglas Carmichael (1923-2012), which considers Arthur's early life before kingship; The Road to Avalon (1988) by Joan Wolf; the Dream of Eagles sequence by Jack Whyte (1940-2021) – The Skystone (1992) and The Singing Sword (1993) – which traces the historical break-up of Roman Britain and the establishment of the Arthurian kingship (this is currently being expanded into the 6-vol Camulod Chronicles), and The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell – comprising The Winter King (1995), The Enemy of God (1996) and Excalibur (1997) – which considers the political and military aspects of the history.

At the next level, the traditional Arthurian world provides a strong background for exploring the romantic conflict. Most of these books use the anachronistic world of Malory to make the Arthurian world a sort of alternate Secondary World. The best example in this category is Lionors (1975) by Barbara Ferry Johnson (1923-    ), about the relationship between Arthur and a young girl that results in the birth of a blind daughter. Also in this category are the Guinevere sequence by Sharan Newman, The Sword and the Flame (1978; vt The Pendragon 1979 US) by Catherine Christian (1901-1985) and The Enchanter (1990) by Christina Hamlett.

Linked to this category are those books which also portray the traditional Arthurian world but largely replace the supernatural elements by rationalized religious or mystical interpretations and present the stories as straight fiction, avoiding romantic or sentimental overtones. These include some of the best of all Arthurian fictions, including the sequence by Mary StewartThe Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973), The Last Enchantment (1979), The Wicked Day (1984) and The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995) – and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1982). Bradley's novel bridges that divide between the traditional Arthurian world and the more realistic historical world. Such Rationalized Fantasies, today forming the biggest category of new fiction about Arthur, emerged in force in the 1970s and 1980s. They sometimes take the historical reality of a post-Roman Britain, although some prefer the timeless quality of an Arthurian alter-world. Both weave fantastic and supernatural elements into the story, usually rationalized but sometimes taken as a natural part of that world. Examples are: Drustan the Wanderer (1971) by Anna Taylor (1944-    ), an authentic recreation of the Tristan legend; The Three Damosels sequence by Vera Chapman; the Parsival series (1977-1980) by Richard Monaco; Percival and the Presence of God (1978) by Jim Hunter (1939-    ), a strongly introspective novel on the nature of the Grail; Arthur Rex (1978) by Thomas Berger, a rather more bawdy treatment of Arthur that acts as a counterpoint to the rising tide of feminist treatment and thus matches well with Robert Nye's erotic Merlin (1978) and Rod Whitaker's (1931-    ) Rude Tales and Glorious (coll 1983) as by Nicholas Seare; The Dragon Lord (1979) by David Drake; the Gwalchmai sequence by Gillian Bradshaw; Firelord (1980) and Beloved Exile (1984) by Parke Godwin, which contrast the lives of Arthur and Guinevere; the Bard sequence by Keith Taylor; The Idylls of the Queen (1982) by Phyllis Ann Karr, an ingenious Arthurian murder mystery; The Lady of the Fountain (1982) by Kathleen Herbert, which retells the story of Linet; The Last Knight of Albion (1987) and The Book of Mordred (1988) by Peter Hanratty; the Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead; the Guinevere trilogy by Persia Woolley; Ghost King (1988) and Last Sword of Power (1988) by David Gemmell, set in the time of Uther Pendragon; The White Raven (1988) by Diana L Paxson, retelling the Tristan and Iseult romance; the Daughter of Tintagel sequence by Fay Sampson; the Dragon's Heirs trilogy by Courtway Jones (real name John Alan Jones; 1923-    ), being In the Shadow of the Oak King (1991), Witch of the North (1993) and A Prince in Camelot (1995); The Dragon and Unicorn (1994) and Arthor (1995) by A A Attanasio, where the author makes a characteristically more mystical and obtuse interpretation of the legend; the Pendragon's Banner trilogy by Helen Hollick, beginning with The Kingmaking (1995); and The Mordred Cycle by Haydn Middleton (1955-    ), beginning with The King's Evil (1995).

All these novels seek to recreate an Arthurian world, and demonstrate the diversity and scope of Arthurian literature. A smaller but rapidly growing body of work considers Arthurian relics or personalities surviving beyond their time. This was a natural extension of the Once and Future King motif, but was as applicable to other Arthurian images (see Excalibur; Grail; Merlin). C S Lewis brought Merlin and the Fisher King into the nuclear age in That Hideous Strength (1945) in order to restore the world after a Holocaust. Leonard Wibberley brought Arthur into a contemporary UK in The Quest of Excalibur (1959) to confront socialist ideals. Roger Zelazny brought Lancelot into the modern day to defend the UK against Merlin in "The Last Defender of Camelot" (1979); Welwyn Wilton Katz tracked the fate of Arthur through the centuries in The Third Magic (1990). The movie Knightriders (1981) dir George A Romero (1940-2017) quite faithfully retells the Arthur saga in terms of modern-day bikers trying to create a better USA. The Lost History of Redwyn (1992) by William Jay is set in the 14th-century ruins of Camelot, where Merlin seeks to combat the Black Death. Simon Hawke reawakens Merlin in The Wizard of Camelot (1993), while Lawrence Watt-Evans tries something similar in The Rebirth of Wonder (1992).

The immediate post-Arthurian world is the setting for: the Dark Ages trilogy – Queen of the Lightning (1983), Ghost in the Sunlight (1986) and Bride of the Spear (1988) – by Kathleen Herbert, which depicts the strife that riddles 6th-century Britain; The Last Rainbow (1985) by Parke Godwin, which extends his Arthurian sequence to explore the life of St Patrick (5th century); The Shining Company (1990) by Rosemary Sutcliff, which recreates the Battle of the Gododdin; and Druid Sacrifice (1993) by Nigel Tranter (1909-2000), which links the life of Arthur with St Mungo (circa 518-603).

The concept of the Arthurian world reawakening has resulted in many excellent Children's Fantasies. These include: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963) by Alan Garner; the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper; Earthfasts (1966) by William Mayne, which resurrects a fearsome Arthur; The Sleepers (1968) by Jane Curry, which follows traditional lines; Excalibur (1973) by Sanders Anne Laubenthal, with children seeking the sword in the USA; On All Hollows' Eve (1984) and Out of the Dark World (1985) by Grace Chetwin, wherein a young girl encounters Morgan Le Fay; The World of Amber (1985) and In the Ice King's Palace (1986) by A(lice) Orr (1950-    ); and The Pendragon Caper (1991) by Richard H R Smithies, where a modern town holds an Arthurian spear of legend.

Tim Powers originally planned a series of novels depicting the incarnation of the Fisher King in different historical periods, but only The Drawing of the Dark (1979), set in the 16th century, appeared in that form. Arthurian worlds created in other times or Alternate Realities may be found in Father of Lies (1962; rev 1968 dos US) by John Brunner, in which a child has such strong psychic powers he recreates an Arthurian world; Fang, the Gnome (1988) and King of the Scepter'd Isle (1989) by Michael G Coney (1932-2005), in which Nyneve, wife of Merlin, creates her own alternate Arthurian world; and three novels by Andre NortonSteel Magic (1965; vt Grey Magic 1967), in which three children find their way into Avalon, Here Abide Monsters (1973), in which an alternate fantasy world includes Arthurian characters, and Merlin's Mirror (1975), which recreates the Arthurian world as sf. Patricia Kennealy-Morrison recreates Arthurian characters in an Alternate World in her Keltiad sequence and its successor, The Hawk's Gray Feather (1990). In The Last of Danu's Children (1981) by Alison Rush (1951-    ) the Celtic world of legend, including Merlin, begins to intrude upon our own.

The above listing almost entirely excludes the many Arthurian short stories written over the past century. A sampling of these, plus new material, can be found in The Pendragon Chronicles (anth 1990), The Camelot Chronicles (anth 1992), The Merlin Chronicles (anth 1995) and The Chronicles of the Holy Grail (anth 1996), all ed Mike Ashley. Only new stories were included in Invitation to Camelot (anth 1988) ed Parke Godwin and Excalibur (anth 1995) ed Richard Gilliam (1950-    ), Martin H Greenberg and Edward Kramer, while Camelot (anth 1995) ed Jane Yolen is aimed at a children's/YA audience.

Many younger readers may have first encountered the Arthurian stories in Comics. In most cases publishers would create a new character and incorporate him in the Arthurian world. The best-known are Prince Valiant, created by Hal Foster (1892-1982), and The Black Knight, created by Stan Lee, which had its own short-lived magazine The Black Knight (5 issues May 1955-April 1956). More recently, in the 12-issue sequence Camelot 3000 (1982-1984), Arthur was resurrected in AD3000 to combat an alien invasion led by Morgan Le Fay, while Camelot Eternal (1990) tracks an alternate world where Arthur was victorious at Camlann.

The Arthurian stories have not lent themselves well to filming. The emphasis has almost always been either on action and adventure or on spoof and comedy (the latter also lending itself to musical adaptation). In the first category are the earliest known Arthurian movies, Lancelot and Elaine (1910) and Adventures of Sir Galahad (1919), but it was not until the 1950s that big budgets were brought to produce Knights of the Round Table (1953), starring Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner, The Black Knight (1954), starring Alan Ladd, and Lancelot and Guinevere (1963), produced, dir and starring Cornel Wilde. The lighthearted strand of Arthurian moviemaking derives from the first version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1920), variously remade (see A Connecticut Yankee). Also in this mould are the Disney The Sword in the Stone (1963) and the screen version of the stage musical Camelot (1967), both adapted from T H White. Humour was at its best in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), where an insightful knowledge of the Arthurian motifs allowed for an intelligent satire.

More serious movie treatment of the tales came initially from French directors who, rather than taking the Arthurian world as a whole, selected specific aspects – such as Tristan et Iseult (1972) dir Yvan Lagrange, Lancelot du Lac (1974) dir Robert Bresson and Perceval (1978) dir Eric Rohmer – and gave them a more studied and intense interpretation. It was not until John Boorman directed Excalibur (1981) that English-speaking audiences had a serious and more mystical adaptation of the main motifs (Knightriders, noted above, was released in the same week as Boorman's movie, and initially flopped, but, like Excalibur, is now much more highly regarded than at first). First Knight (1995), which focused on the love between Lancelot and Guinevere, marked a return to the big budget/minimal interpretation approach of the 1950s.

The legend has also inspired a number of musical adaptations from Lohengrin (1850), Tristan and Isolde (1865) and Parsifal (1882) by Richard Wagner through to The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table (1975) by Rick Wakeman (1949-    ).

There is not a single aspect of the artistic media that the Arthurian legends have not, at some time, inspired. Most recently a series of Games has been developed by Greg Stafford for Chaosium, set in the Arthurian Celtic world of which The Boy King and Pendragon focus on the adventures of Arthur. [MA]

further reading: The Arthurian field is overwhelmed with reference works, most studying the origins of King Arthur or the various interpretations of the legend. The core texts which identify and discuss Arthurian literature, including coverage of fantasy volumes, are King Arthur Today: The Arthurian Legend in English and American Literature 1901-1953 (1954) by Nathan Comfort Starr; Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (1959) ed Roger Sherman Loomis; The Development of Arthurian Romance (1963) by Loomis; The Mystery of King Arthur (1975) by Elizabeth Jenkins; The Arthurian Bibliography (1981-1988 3 vols) by C E Pickford and R W Last; The Return of King Arthur: British and American Arthurian Literature Since 1800 (1983) by Beverly Taylor and Elisabeth Brewer; Arthurian Legend and Literature: An Annotated Bibliography (1984) ed Edmund Reiss, Louise H Reiss and Beverly Taylor; The Return from Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction (1985) by Raymond H Thompson; The Arthurian Encyclopedia (1986) ed Norris J Lacy (rev vt The New Arthurian Encyclopedia 1994); and The Magical Quest: The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance (1988) by Anne Wilson. "Camelot in Four Colors" (Amazing Heroes #55 September 15 1984) by Alan Stewart is a detailed study of the Arthurian legend in comic books. Two selections of early Arthurian literature and scholarship are The Arthurian Legends (anth 1979) ed Richard Barber and An Arthurian Reader (anth 1988) ed John Matthews.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.