King Arthur in Legend and History Edited by Richard White. Foreword by Allan Massie, J M Dent, #163;25. "A man who copied out the Morte d'Arthur in Morse code would still be an important literary figure," wrote T H White. "It is the theme which makes it so."
For White, in the dark days of World War Two, "the central theme of Morte d'Arthur is to find an antidote to war." Other readers have read Malory's great version of the Arthurian story differently. Roger Ascham in The Scholemaster (1570) condemned the book for its "open manslaughter and bold bawdrye".
The truth is there is no one theme to the Arthurian legends, just as there is no one author of them. Instead, from its earliest beginnings in Welsh poetry and chronicle to its finest flowering in French romance, Arthur's story has been told by a multitude of conflicting voices, with different aims in mind. For some, Arthur's prime importance was as a warlord; for others, as a representativ e of justice and good government; for others, as the leader of a spiritual quest. For others still, Arthur's court was simply a convenient peg on which to hang tales of adventure and courtly love.
Arthur himself is impossible to substantiate historically, and even in the legends he is often a shadowy figure, as Rosemary Morris showed in her The Character of King Arthur in Medieval Literature (D S Brewer, 1982). It is his knights - in particular Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, and Sir Perceval - who take the leading role. Yet Arthur, "the once and future king", remains a vital figure for writers today, whether in the political fire of John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy's play The Island of the Mighty (Eyre Methuen, 1974), the mystical historicism of John Heath-Stubbs's epic poem Artorius (Enitharmon, 1973), or the scabrous eroticism of Robert Nye's novel Merlin (Hamish Hamilton, 1978).
It is useful, then, to have in Richard White's new anthology a well chosen selection of texts showing the medieval Arthur through a variety of eyes - predominantly Welsh, French, German, and English. White has only 500 pages at his disposal, and some of his source texts are much longer than this, so he cannot hope to do more than weave an enticing patchwork. This he does, and his choice of extracts will sit happily on the bookshelf next to R S Loomis' classic survey of the material, Arthurian literature in the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 1959).
King Arthur in Legend and History has, of course, an extract from the famous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but this is usefully juxtaposed with selections from less well-known related works, such as The Anturs of Arthur, Syre Gawene and the Carle of Care Lyle, and The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Rag Nell. As these spellings suggest, the Middle English texts are given in the original, but with excellent side glosses that make reading them a pleasure not a trial.
Twenty-three pages of Malory is perhaps not enough to give any real idea of his range, especially when one of the two passages chosen is a minor incident (Arthur's fight with Accolon) rather than a central episode such as the discovery of Lancelot's adultery with Guinevere. For it is at these crucial moments of the story that Malory writes at the height of his powers. No one could fail to be moved, for instance, when Lancelot, besieged naked in Guinevere's bed chamber, takes the queen in his arms:
Moste nobelest Crysten quene, I besech you, as ye have ben ever my speciall good lady, and I at all tymes your poure knyght and trew unto my power, and as I never fayled you in ryght nor in wronge sytthyn the firste day kynge Arthur made me knyght, that ye woll pray for my soule if that I be slayne.
These moments of intimacy and vulnerability are a special part of Arthurian literature and, for my taste at least, Richard White could have included more of them.
Nevertheless, this is an excellent book, and one may hope that the same editor might now turn his attention to a companion volume of the Celtic analogues and sources that make up the other half of "the Matter of Britain".