King Arthur is another in Osprey Publishing’s MYTHS AND LEGENDS series, this one written by Daniel Mersey and illustrated by Alan Lathwell. Compared to the subjects of the prior two I’ve reviewed (Jason and the Argonauts, Thor), King Arthur is a much more complex and difficult figure to try and explain in concise fashion, seeing as how his stories span multiple centuries, cultures, styles, and how each leap from one to the other brings with it an accordant change in content and even characters. That being the case, I have to say Mersey does an admirable job in streamlining Arthur’s legend, walking us through it via both time and region/culture, as well as explaining some of the prevalent arguments for and against his historicity.
The pattern is the same as the other Osprey books. We open with a introduction putting Arthur in quick historical and popular context. From there we run through the legends as told by Geoffry of Monmouth (12th Century), Chrétien de Troyes who added French Romance to the mix (latter 12th), The Vulgate Cycle (early 13th Century), and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (15th Century). Mersey retells the stories from the big names, but he doesn’t skip over other important sources. From the Big Four, he moves into the Celtic tales, including “Culhwch and Olwen” and “The Spoils of the Otherworld” and others. The latter part of the text deals with theories of Arthur’s actual historical existence, ranging from him being a Roman commander, a Welsh chieftain, and a host of other possibilities.
As mentioned, the Arthurian tales are so plentiful and so varied that it is impossible to cover all of it. But Mersey does an excellent job of streamlining and summarizing, leading us clearly and forthrightly through the chronology and the major events of the tales, from the battles to the Round Table to the Holy Grail to Mordred to the Lancelot-Guinevere adultery to Arthur’s “death.” I was also impressed by the number of sources I hadn’t heard of, being relatively well versed in Arthurian literature. If there is a problem, it’s not in the presentation of Arthur’s tales but in what has to, by necessity, be left out, which are nearly all the stories not involving Arthur (though we do get a taste of Gawain and the Green Knight). One can’t fairly fault Mersey for not delving into Merlin or Lancelot etc.; the book would have been twice the length, but it is good to be aware of it. Because there is so much material, it’s presented mostly in summary rather than narrative form, making this text a bit drier than the Thor one, though I was happy at how much poetry Mersey saw fit to include; it would have been easy to think the form wouldn’t appeal to a modern (and possibly young) audience.
The final section on Arthur’s place (or not) in actual history is also a change of pace from earlier Osprey titles, reading as much more academic/scholarly. This is not a complaint — it is all very clear and easy to follow — merely an observation. Content-wise, the only elements I would have liked to see included are 1) a map and 2) a simple timetable of sources. Both of these concepts — when and where things take place — are explained, but a visual aid would have helped in each case I think.
As always with the MYTHS AND LEGENDS series, the illustrations (a mix of reproductions of paintings, manuscript illustrations, film stills, and original artwork) are top-notch, greatly enhancing the textual material. Particular standouts are Lathwell’s plates depicting the Welsh Arthur’s raid on the land of the dead and Arthur and his knights battling the Boar King.
King Arthur, for the amount of information covered in such brief space , is an extremely well done and surprisingly in-depth introduction to the world of King Arthur. Recommended.