The Great Book of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table

Written by John Howe John Matthews
Review by Susan Lowell

This marvelous and remarkably gorgeous book was written by John Matthews and illustrated by John Howe, with a foreword by Neil Gaiman, who are three stars in the vast universe of fantasy. Matthews is a world expert in Arthurian studies, while Howe, best known for his Tolkien illustrations, served as Conceptual Artist for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The contemporary fantasy writer Neil Gaiman introduces The Great Book of King Arthur with engaging recollections of his own childhood love of the King Arthur stories.

The book is catalogued as a novel, but it resembles the novel’s errant ancestor, the epic romance. In beautiful modern English and with wide and meticulous scholarship, Matthews retells all the best-known Arthurian tales with some new twists and adds hundreds of lesser-known but authentic tales. Howe provides many vignettes and full-color illustrations.

But it’s a grownup’s King Arthur. For one thing, it comprises 406 packed double-column pages. For another, Matthews, like his multitudinous medieval sources, does not shy away from death and sex, and there’s lots of both, although discreetly handled.

Like its cousin the Arabian Nights, it’s a vast compilation of short stories, linked here by King Arthur (usually a minor character). Matthews has organized his sprawling material into five loosely chronological Books.

And for the modern readers and writers of medieval fiction or fantasy, here’s a treasury of ideas: snake-lady monsters, women warriors, superheroes, fabulous plot twists. We encounter the Grey-Hammed Lady, the Questing Beast, a mini-knight, the Otherworld, friendly hermits, glowing deer, invisible boats, a battle between men and cats, a golden nipple, and a plethora of other wonders while wandering through what Matthews very aptly calls the Great Forest of stories.