On malleable tales

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Arthur 2I am currently reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s King Arthur Trilogy, which is a beautifully writte book of epic tales we all know so well, and little known stories we might not have encountered before. Arthur, Lancelot, Sir Jay,  Gawain, Gareth and Geraint. Guinevere (or Guenever, in this book), Elaine, Enid, Morgane La Fey, The Lady in the Lake. These characters have appeared in many stories I’ve stumbled across, from the beautiful old children’s edition of King Arthur’s Knights that my Great Grandmother was given in 1915 to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King to a bumbling King Pellinore in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. They are all so different.

That’s one of the reasons I love myths and folklore – the malleable quality of the stories, of the characters – like fairy tales, they can become whatever you want them to be, as long as you leave the bones of the story recognisable.

Something that I have been thinking about since I started Rosemary’ Sutcliff’s version is how selective the writer of folklore can be. When you are recreating a story, one that many people know, you can really choose what you have to say. The first chapter of ‘The Sword and the Circle‘, Sutcliff tells how Arthur’s father tricks Arthur’s mother, his birth, his childhood with Sir Ector and Sir Kay, his pulling the sword from the stone and his being crowned King. This chapter basically outlines everything that happens in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone in a matter of pages. But Sutcliff dedicates substantial time  on the legend of Tristan and Iseult, with Tristan coming to Arthur’ court and telling his sad tale – a story that I had not realised until now was linked to Arthurian legends.

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If you are an author looking to retell the story of King Arthur, I suppose there is so much material, so many quests and knights and genteel ladies, that you would struggle to cover them all. How do you pick what to write about? Some talk just about Arthur, about his upbringing and kingship and, always, his love for Guinevere and her ultimate betrayal. Some concentrate more on the dashing deeds of Arthur’s knights. Some talk of Merlin’s magic, some try to make the whole story more historical, convincing us Arthur’s court really existed. Some talk of the quest for the grail. Some value love, some value chivalry, some bravery, some religion.

I suppose there is so much in the scope of the realm of King Arthur and Camelot, that you can pick and choose what of the many aspects to expose about King Arthur and his court. But do you know what is the most fun? Piecing them all together, absorbing the bits you like best, and making your own version from all the books, films and anecdotes that surround you. I can make my own version of King Arthur, based on the bits I like best.

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All the images in this post are from my Great Grandmother’s beautiful edition that I mentioned above.


One comment

  1. Love your title, with its punning reference to Malory, and of course you are so, so right: authors have been doing rewrites, mash-ups and additions to the Matter of Britain from the 11th century and even before.

    Myself, I prefer those earlier versions because I’m more historically minded, but I do remember reading the Sutcliff stories when they first came out in the 70s as magical and loving retellings, very different from her more gritty historical novels.

    I’ve read a fair few Arthurian novels over the years but fewer in recent years, mainly because too many are lazily told, are derivative rehashes or lack any insight or innovation — at worst, they offend and dismay.

    But we all have memories of our earliest encounters with the legends, usually those gorgeous colour illustrations of yesteryear like those you’ve peppered this post with, and it’s often those that rekindle the magic when we revisit the stories.

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