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: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology edited by Terry A. Garey

Poetry related to the various genres of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror, etc.) is pretty common.  You can see samples by ones or twos in many magazines and spec-fic collections.  But full hardback anthologies of speculative poetry are rare.  So Rune Press in Minnesota brought out one in 1991, and I recently got my hands on a copy.

Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

The slim volume features eleven poets; the only name I recognized immediately was Ruth Berman, who starts the volume and has a couple of nice pieces involving the Oz books.  From her “Wizard’s Road”:

Home in Omaha at last

It was hard to believe

In a probable world.

To be honest, most of these poems are the modern free verse stuff I don’t fully understand, and don’t know good from bad.  There are a few exceptions with more formal rhyme and scansion, and one attempt at a rare Welsh form called a “toddaid.”   It’s not very good, but I appreciate the poet’s effort to stretch.  I did like Roger Dutcher’s “The Smart House” about an AI-run domicile that learns from other houses’ mistakes.

The book ends with John Calvin Rezmerski’s “Challengers”, a memorial to the Challenger disaster of 1986.  I do not know if the poem moved me of itself, or because of my lingering sorrow over the event.

As is often the case with poetry, those who are trained in its ways may enjoy it much more than I.  It is, I understand, quite rare, so you may have trouble tracking down a copy.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Four

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Four by Makoto Yukimura

SPOILER WARNING:  This review contains spoilers for earlier volumes.  If you have not read them, please see my earlier reviews.

This manga’s main protagonist to this point has been Thorfinn, a young Viking serving in the mercenary band of Askeladd.  Years before, Askeladd treacherously slew Thorfinn’s father Thors, and the boy has sworn vengeance in a fair duel.  Recently, they’ve become involved with politics, clashing with the legendary warrior Thorkell the Tall (who turns out to be Thorfinn’s great-uncle) over the fate of Prince Canute, son of King Sweyn Forkbeard.

Vinland Sage Book Four

As of this volume, Canute has manned up, earning the respect and temporary service of both Thorkell and Askeladd.  Thorfinn tags along for his own reasons.  They come into the camp of King Sweyn, where the politics become hot and heavy.

Thorfinn meets a figure from his past, who offers him a last chance to turn away from the path of vengeance.  And then in Chapter 54, “End of the Prologue”, several of the subplots come to a head in a climax that isn’t shocking (It’s a Viking saga, everyone expected a bloodbath) but still manages to be surprising.

The next chapter finds us in Jutland (part of Denmark in modern times), with a new viewpoint character.  Einar has recently been enslaved, and is sold to a landowner who needs some forest land cleared.  Einar is less than happy with the whole slavery thing, but he meets one of the characters from the prologue, who has changed greatly.

Much of the focus in this volume is on Askeladd, whose full background is finally revealed, and whose complex motivations make him a key player in Prince Canute’s plans to take the throne.  We also see a fair bit of Canute himself, as he swiftly grows into the role he must play to stay alive.  Thorfinn, on the other hand, is mostly characterized by his refusal to turn from his destructive path; it seems likely he’ll have more development in the next volume.

In addition to the expected violence, some of which is quite graphic, there’s a bit of female nudity, and some implications about owners of slaves sexually mistreating them.  A fair amount of strong language as well.

The art and writing continue to be excellent.  Highly recommended for fans of Viking stories.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4 edited by Mort Weisenger

Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are two of the most enduring characters in comic books, thanks to being attached to the one and only Superman.  Lois appeared in the first Superman story in Action Comics #1 (1938), a snarky but skilled reporter who initially had little use for Clark Kent but admired the mysterious superhero.  Jimmy appeared first in the radio adaptation in 1940, first as a copy boy and then as a cub reporter/photographer, being brought into the comics proper in 1941.

Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

As popular supporting characters, they appeared often in Superman’s stories.  In the 1950s, they got their own continuing series, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane.  As you can tell by the titles, Superman was the co-star of each of these series, appearing in every story.  Eventually, the series, along with Supergirl and some other Superman-related characters, were merged into an anthology comic titled Superman Family.

Jimmy’s stories often centered around him suddenly gaining a superpower, a special advantage, or undergoing a weird transformation.   He would figure out some way of using this, until he got cocky and needed Superman to bail him out of the resulting trouble.    Other stories revolved around his falling in love with women who almost invariably weren’t going to stick around.  His most frequent love interest was Lucy Lane, Lois’ little sister, who was much less invested in the relationship than he was.

Jimmy had an ultrasonic signal watch which he could use to summon Superman in case of trouble, though the watch itself often caused trouble, or Jimmy would misuse it.

Lois also got temporary superpowers often, but her stories focused much more on her relationship with Superman.  She often tried to trick him into marrying her or discover his secret identity.  She also met quite a few men that were ready to marry her right away, though all of them turned out to be flawed in one way or another.  Often Lois was pitted against Lana Lang, Clark Kent’s childhood friend as fierce rivals and best friends.

Sadly, the period where Lois initially got her own series was also when she reached the nadir of her characterization.  Back in the Golden Age, she’d been independent and often gotten herself out of fixes before Superman could rescue her.  Her personality hadn’t revolved around her love of Superman nearly as much either.  Early Silver Age Lois was too often a “damsel in distress” and came off shrewish.  (She remained a crackerjack reporter, though.  Half of the danger she got in was because of her successful investigative journalism.)

It’s no wonder that Superman often played mean pranks on Jimmy and Lois to teach them a lesson.  Sadly, those lessons never stuck.

It is important to remember that these stories (this volume covers 1960-61) were aimed at children, who were expected to only read comics for a few years.  Thus plotlines were often recycled as the previous readers weren’t going to notice, and the status quo remained as steady as possible so that the experience was consistent no matter how many issues you might have missed.  They were never meant to be read all in a row by adults.

Some standout stories in this volume include “Jimmy’s Gorilla Identity” which has an appearance by Congo Bill and Congorilla (Bill, a “great white hunter” , could swap minds with a golden gorilla); “The Curse of Lena Thorul” the first appearance of Lena, who was Lex Luthor’s long-lost sister (and later became one of Supergirl’s supporting cast); and several “Imaginary Stories” peeking into possible futures where Lois Lane and Superman finally get married.

Supergirl and Krypto also pop up a few times; as this was during the period when Supergirl was Superman’s “secret weapon”, she has to be careful that neither Lois or Jimmy realize what’s going on or who she is.

There is period sexism (a couple of stories mention that married women are discriminated against in the job market), hussy-shaming (“slut” was a word you couldn’t use under the Comics Code), fat-shaming, and a general attitude of lookism even by the good guy characters.

All that said, these are fun stories with inventive ideas, often having more plot packed into eight pages than many modern superhero comics do in eight issues.  Highly recommended for the nostalgic Superman fan, moderately recommended for other fans (check your local library.)

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Two

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Two by Makoto Yukimura

To recap for those of you who haven’t read the review of Book One, Vinland Saga is set in the early 12th Century, the time of the Vikings.  Our protagonist is Thorfinn, son of Thors, who serves in the war band of Askeladd.  Askeladd murdered Thors, and Thorfinn serves the wily warrior for the sole purpose of one day getting revenge in a fair duel.

Vinland Saga, Book Two

In this volume, the action shifts to the British Isles, and the war of King Sweyn Forkbeard against King Ethelred the Unready.  While Ethelred himself has fled, the city of London stands fast, largely due to the presence of Thorkell the Tall on their side.  Thorkell is a mighty man who hopes to perish in battle against a truly worthy foe, so that he might enter Valhalla with honor.  He switched sides to fight against the Northmen, because they were the tougher opponents!

Askeladd sends the relatively tiny lad Thorfinn in to kill Thorkell, and although it doesn’t work, Thorkell is impressed enough to want to fight Thorfinn again.  Sweyn decides to consolidate his rule over the rest of the country, and appoints his sickly son Canute (who’s the blond on the cover) to handle London’s siege.

Things don’t go as planned for just about everyone, and soon Askeladd’s band is in possession of Canute, and being chased by Thorkell’s warriors across the countryside.  Askeladd is forced to resort to one of the aces up his sleeve, a shocking secret from his past.

There’s a bonus story about Thorfinn’s sister Ylva dealing with the loss of her brother and father, and a chapter of “For Our Farewell Is Near”, about a samurai dying of illness .

There’s plenty of action and violence in this volume, and Askeladd’s idea of “mercy” is a cruel one by modern standards.  Some readers may also be turned off by the alcoholic priest who is not very good at explaining theology.  And probably the real Canute wasn’t that pretty.

However, it’s got good art, interesting characters and a setting that appeals to me, so I recommend this to fans of Viking stories, and students of English history.

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