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Arturus Rex: The Once and Future King

"And when they came to the sword that the hand held, King Arthur took it up."If Shakespeare is Britain's most enduring voice, surely this man is the heart of its most enduring story: Arthur, the legendary King of the Britons.  Arthur and his knights have inspired the pens of such literary giants as Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, C. S. Lewis, and Marion Zimmer Bradley... but they've also found their way into the adventures of Indiana Jones, Monty Python, and Sonic the Hedgehog.  (I find it intriguing that Shakespeare, who regularly borrowed from England's history and other stories far and wide, never once touched upon what became known as "the matter of Britain"-- the Arthurian mythos.  Perhaps he was leery of poaching in Edmund Spenser's territory.) 

The earliest written reference to Arthur appeared around 828 A.D.  As I write this, there are four brand-new Arthurian-inspired titles on our library's shelves (two adult fantasies, a YA novel, and a history).  This means Arthur's legend has been alive and kicking for nearly twelve centuries-- pretty good for someone we're not even sure was real. 

Though his name is associated with nearly as many British places as George Washington's is with American sleeping quarters, debate still rages hotly over the "historical Arthur"-- whether or not the man existed as a king (unlikely) or warlord (possibly) or soldier (most likely) sometime around the end of Rome's occupation of Britain.  Even J. N. L. Myres, one of the foremost authorities on Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain, felt compelled to weigh in on the Arthur issue, mostly to complain that there was an "Arthur issue" at all: "No figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian's time."  Myres admits there's just enough evidence to suggest a man by the name of "Artorius" existed, "but if we add anything to the bare statement that Arthur may have lived and fought the Saxons, we pass at once from history to romance." 

The question may be an intriguing one, but Myres has a point.  Short of a major archaeological find, there's just not enough reliable information in the historical record to prove or disprove Arthur's existence.  And Myres' gripe is legitimate, too, because Arthur doesn't rightfully belong to history at all (sorry, historical fiction buffs!)-- he belongs to legend.  The real Arthur would likely never have received more than a footnote in the history books.  But the myth that is Arthur, and all that he represents-- a kingly ideal, a pattern of chivalry and honor, a tragic story of love, friendship, and betrayal-- the myth is what has kept his story in our hearts for more than a millenium.

Arthur is known as the "once and future king" because of a legend that claims he did not truly die after his final battle.  Instead, he was hidden away and cast into an enchanted sleep against future need.  The story goes that in Britain's darkest hour, he who once was king will awaken and return to lead his people once more.

Arthur may be sleeping, but his legend is not.  It has continued to grow and inspire us throughout the centuries.  And if the titles below are any indication, the Once and Future King will still be alive and speaking to readers for another twelve centuries to come.

The Early Tales:

The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend by Peter Ackroyd, trans. (Fiction Ackroyd)
The Mabinogion by Anonymous with Gwyn Jones, trans. (891.6631 Mab)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous with Simon Armitage, trans. (821.1 Gawai)
Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, with A. T. Hatto, trans. (831.2 Wol)
The Complete Romances of Chretien de Troyes by Chretien de Troyes, with David Staines, trans. (841.1 Chr)
Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (398.2 Mal)
An Arthurian Reader by John Matthews, ed. (398.353 Art)
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser (821.3 Spens)
The Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (821.8 Tenny)
Tristan and Isolde by Gottfried von Strassburg with Francis G. Gentry, trans. (831.2 Got)

Arthurian-Inspired Modern Fiction:

Stranger by Zoe Archer (PbkRomance Archer)
The Pendragon Chronicles by Mike Ashley, ed. (Fantasy SS Pendragon)
The Lost Years of Merlin by T. A. Barron (Reading List Barron)
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (Fantasy Bradley)
Kingdom of Summer by Gillian Bradshaw (Fiction Bradshaw)
King Maker by Maurice Broaddus (PbkFantasy Broaddus)
Avalon High by Meg Cabot (YA Cabot)
Goddess of Legend by P. C. Cast (PbkRomance Cast)
Mordred, Bastard Son by Douglas Clegg (Fiction Clegg)
Poison by Molly Cochran (Express YA Cochran)
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (YA Cooper)
Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell (Fiction Cornwell)
Knight Life by Peter David (Fantasy David)
Twilight of Avalon by Anna Elliott (Fiction Elliott)
The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay by Alex Epstein (YA Epstein)
More than Mortal by Mick Farren (Horror Farren)
Ghost King by David Gemmell (PbkFantasy Gemmel)
Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon by Lisa Goldstein (Fantasy Goldstein)
The Killing Way by Tony Hays (Mystery Hays)
Pendragon's Banner by Helen Hollick (Fiction Hollick)
Battle of Kings by M. K. Hume (Express Fantasy Hume)
Code of the West by Aaron Latham (Fiction Latham)
Avalon: The Return of King Arthur by Stephen R. Lawhead (Fantasy Lawhead)
That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis (SF Lewis)
Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur by Tony Lee (YA GN Lee)
The Secret of Excalibur by Andy McDermott (Fantasy McDermott)
Queen of Camelot by Nancy McKenzie (Fantasy McKenzie)
Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles (Fantasy Miles)
The Hallowed Isle by Diana L. Paxson (Fantasy Paxson)
Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon (Express Fiction Pidgeon)
Last Call by Tim Powers (Fantasy Powers)
Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve (YA Reeve)
Guinevere's Truth and Other Tales by Jennifer Roberson (Fantasy Roberson) (stories "A Lesser Working" and "Guinevere's Truth")
Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell (YA Sandell)
The Alchemyst by Michael Scott (YA Scott)
The Dragon Lord's Daughters by Bertrice Small (Fiction Small)
I Am Morgan le Fay: A Tale from Camelot by Nancy Springer (YA Springer)
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck (Fiction Steinbeck)
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (Fiction Stewart)
The Sword of the Lady by S. M. Stirling (SF Stirling)
The Coming of the King by Nikolai Tolstoy (Fantasy Tolstoy)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain (YA Twain)
Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted by Matt Wagner (741.5973 Wag)
The Prince of Annwn by Evangeline Walton (Fantasy Walton)
The Excalibur Alternative by David Weber (SF Weber)
The Lion Hunter by Elizabeth Wein (YA Wein)
The Secret History of Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer by Lucy Weston (Fantasy Weston)
The Once and Future King by T. H. White (Reading List White)
The Skystone by Jack Whyte (Fiction Whyte)
Passager by Jane Yolen (J Yolen)

Further Reading:

The Discovery of King Arthur by Geoffrey Ashe (B Arthur)
King Arthur: Hero and Legend by Richard W. Barber (809.93351 Bar)
Major Literary Characters: King Arthur by Harold Bloom (YA 820.9351 King)
King Arthur by Norma Lorre Goodrich (B Arthur)
The Holy Grail: The Legend, the History, the Evidence by Justin Griffin (398.35 Gri)
Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages by Guy Halsall (Express 942.014 Halsa)
The Arthurian Companion by Phyllis Ann Karr (823.2 Kar)
The Arthurian Encyclopedia by Norris J. Lacy, ed. (R 809.93351 Art)
King of the Celts: Arthurian Legends and the Celtic Tradition by Jean Markale (942.014 Mar)
King Arthur: Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero by John Matthews (YA 809.9335 Matth)

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