Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Martin J. Dougherty

The Arthurian mythos is a familiar one to just about everyone in some form or another.  But unless you’re a scholar of the subject, you might not know where all the pieces came from and how they got put together.  This “coffee table” book gives an overview of basic information about King Arthur and his knights.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

This generously illustrated tome begins with a look at what we know of early British history, and historical figures that might have inspired the tales of Arthur, even if no actual King Arthur ever existed.

Then it moves on to the major sources of the Arthurian stories.  The first written account we still have is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Arthur is just one in  a line of probably fictional rulers.  The book also covers the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (who was big on graphic violence and courtly love), the Grail Quest (heavy on the preachiness and religious allegory), and of course Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which pulled material together from multiple sources and added some of his own touches.

A final chapter touches on modern retellings of the Arthur cycle, from Mark Twain’s satirical proto-science fiction work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, through the musical Camelot to the recent television series Merlin.  The author also talks a bit about what might be called tertiary Arthuriana, where a character could say, “this bell was enchanted by Merlin” with no other references to King Arthur, yet the audience will immediately know what’s being talked about.

This book is for the layman, and should be suitable for tweens on up.  (Parents of younger readers might want to discuss the theme of marital infidelity that comes up in the relationship of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, as well as other places in the Arthurian cycle, not least Arthur’s own birth.)  There is an index, but no bibliography, so serious scholars will want something more advanced to work with.

The author also talks a bit about the enduring appeal of King Arthur and his stories.  Heroic knights and chivalry, a struggle of good against evil, a kingdom where right is more important than might, even if it is doomed to fall and be followed by a darker age.  “A moment so bright it will be seen on the far side of that darkness.”

This book would make a good gift for the casual fan of things King Arthur, especially bright teenagers.  Did they like the recent movie?

Book Review: The Greatest Knight

Book Review: The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there will be changes to the final edition.  Specifically, there will be maps, genealogical charts, and an index.

The Greatest Knight

William Marshal started life as the younger son of a minor noble, so little regarded that when he was taken hostage, his father pretty much said, “go ahead, I can make more.”  But a combination of superior battle prowess, a gift for political maneuvering, and a certain amount of luck caused William to rise through the ranks of knighthood, until he ended his career as regent of all England, acting for the boy king Henry III.  In some ways, he came to define what people expected a knight to be.

We know more about William Marshal than many other figures of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries because his family commissioned a flattering  biography of him, the sole remaining copy of which turned up in the 1860s, and was finally read and translated in the 1880s.   Now, I say “flattering”, but as the author points out, what people in the 1220s considered admirable traits do not necessarily conform with what Twenty-First Century folks consider to be the ideal of chivalry.   William often acted out of naked self-interest to gain rewards of land and titles.  It’s also pointed out when The History of William Marshal skips over or obfuscates events we know from other sources that William was involved with, but don’t reflect well on him.

William Marshal’s life was strongly tied to the fortunes of the Angevin dynasty, and this book covers the political situation of the time, as well as a general discussion of  knighthood as it then existed.  It puts the treachery of John Lackland against his brother Richard the Lionheart into perspective when we see that their entire family was like that (Richard was actively trying to overthrow his father when the old man suddenly took ill and died.)  It’s just that King John was much less competent at it than most of his relatives, so he got saddled with the worst reputation.

While the writer has to speculate in places, it doesn’t feel forced.  He has the advantage of writing about an interesting subject who lived through many historic events.  But William Marshal soon fell into obscurity; all his sons died without heirs, and his biography was written in the days before printing presses, so only a few copies were ever made.  By Shakespeare’s time, he was reduced to a cameo in the King John play as “Pembroke.”  Thus you may be hearing about him for the first time.

While this book is written for adults, it should be suitable for junior high students and up.  I’d especially recommend it to readers who love tales of knights and kings, and Game of Thrones fans who want deep background.

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