King Arthur in historical fiction

Richard Lee

Feasting – 15th Century ‘The Launcelot Romance’

I once spoke with the senior fiction editor at a New York publishing house. She held the opinion that every decade there is a new dominant interpretation of the Arthurian cycle.

In the 1970s, she said, it was Mary Stewart’s trilogy, narrated by Merlin: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment (other titles followed later).

For the 1980s, it was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist reinterpretation, The Mists of Avalon (other co-authored titles followed later).

For the 1990s, it was Bernard Cornwell’s gritty Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, The Enemy of God, Excalibur).

We spoke at the end of the 90s, and I don’t know which book or series she felt was ‘dominant’ in the noughties.


What is inescapably true is that Arthur is ALWAYS being reinvented. Since the early romances of Chretien de Troyes to the latest film or television outings (Merlin; Camelot), the ‘matter of Britain’ seems endlessly reworkable.

From the point of view of historical fiction, the Arthur mythos has always pin-pointed the fault-line between history and story. The historians pull in the direction of a realistic, celtic post-Roman world. Their Arthur is without magic, without high-Catholic symbolism, and without chivalry.

The fantasy authors pull the other way, setting the stories in a time outside time, often depicting a battle between Christian ‘magic’ and pagan ‘magic’, plundering the myths for narrative and atmosphere.

Literary authors tend to stand one foot in both camps, enchanted by the magic realism and epic poetry at the heart of the stories, but wanting to give emotional consistency and humanity (usually historical humanity) to the protagonists.

All approaches can be successful – though not always to the taste of all.

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