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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Death of King Arthur

Read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

I went a bit old-school in the folklore department for this next challenge selection.

The Death of King Arthur is a thirteenth century French version of the last days of King Arthur (though the text itself claims it’s written by a Welshman).   It’s the third book of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, and picks up after everyone has returned from the quest to find the Holy Grail.   

Lancelot is really the main character of this story – it’s his affair with the queen (that he had apparently sworn to avoid in the last part of the story) that drives the action, and ultimately leads to the downfall of Arthur.   This was a apparently one of Thomas Malory’s main inspirations for his Le Morte d’Arthur (which I have read, and it really did give this book a certain air of déjà vu).

As older texts go, this is pretty readable – there are certain non-modern conventions that are a little weird, but I found it far easier to read then Chretien de Troyes.   The chivalrous relationships between the knights and the king are also a bit strange from a modern perspective, but if you just go with it, they make sense.   (It helps I took a Medieval European History class in college – a little context makes the reading easier).

The other thing that takes a little getting used to is that Arthur is a pretty passive character – you would think that everyone’s accusations against Lancelot and the Queen would greatly offend him, and he’s want to get to the bottom of things, but his nephews (mainly Agravain), have to drive him to finally do something about Lancelot.    And, once Lancelot is found out, and there’s a whole lot of grief caused by what follows, it’s his nephew Gawain that makes him go out after Lancelot.    Lancelot really comes out the strongest character in this particular version of the story, for better or worse.

To sum up: if you’ve read Le Morte d’Arthur, you could skip this book – it doesn’t really cover new ground.   But, it’s also highly readable for one of the older Arthur works, so it certainly won’t be too much of a burden if you do decide to give it a go.

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