King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table
by Roger Lancelyn Green
The lore of King Arthur and his knights has generated a lot of great literature since the Middle Ages: literature in Middle English, Latin, French, Welsh, and even German. Sir Thomas Malory's classic Morte d'Arthur stands at the crossroads between all this original song and legend and the modern poetry and prose inspired by it. Malory selected and organized many of the earlier scraps, stitching them together in a single work. Since then, many writers have tried to improve on this work, either by bringing in threads Malory had left out, or by smoothing out conflicting details, or by weaving separate stories into a more cohesive whole; or they have simply done homage to it in their own creative style.
The result is such a vast, rich body of Arthurian literature that one could make a lifelong study of it. I've been tempted to do this myself, after reading books about Merlin and Arthur from such authors as T. H. White, Mary Stewart, T. A. Barron, and Gerald Morris. But the problem is: where should one begin? Stewart's romances veer in a disctinctly adult direction. Though Barron and Morris both write for younger readers, theirs too are creative novels that merely take the folklore as their starting point. And while White's retelling is quite faithful, only the first part of it (The Sword in the Stone) is aimed at the Disney set. If I were a parent or teacher who wanted to introduce the legends of Camelot to an interested child, where should I turn? If I were a kid thinking about starting that lifelong study of Arthur, where should I begin?
I should begin with Roger Lancelyn Green's bestseller of 1953, King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. Why? Because it's told in clean, crisp, modern prose that, at the same time, piques the senses with moments of beautiful description and the slightly archaic phrasings that make you think, "This is the real thing!" Because it faithfully follows not only Malory but many other ancient sources, as the Author's Note briefly and frankly explains. And because no one is better at pulling together a huge and complex body of literature into a single, sensible story than the author of Tales of the Greek Heroes and The Tale of Troy.
Lancelyn Green must have done a colossal amount of research in writing this book. He must have had either a mastery of many languages or access to excellent translations and summaries. He must have applied a truly massive intellect to selecting, arranging, and adapting all these stories so that we could read them as one story. But in his retelling, he never waves his labors, his linguistic skill, or his super-smarts in our face. He seems rather to step out of the way, and to let the story itself confront us with its own beauty and power.
I don't know how he managed all this, but I know why. Roger Lancelyn Green was a close friend of C. S. Lewis -- so close, indeed, that without his support the Chronicles of Narnia might never have been published. When he saw what Lewis and Tolkien were doing to raise up children's literature, he decided to do the same with the tales of Arthur and his court. Decades of bestseller status bear witness that his attempt succeeded. And though by no means the last word on Arthur, it remains a choice contender for the first word in your lifelong enjoyment of one great story.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 10+
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