Dr. Alan Lupack, Curator of the Robbins Library,
University of Rochester, presents
Library Resources on Medieval Topics
Pamela M. Yee
University of Rochester
King Arthur’s life has been long. Although legend tells us that he is currently recuperating on the island of Avalon and will one day return, Arthur is alive and well in both academia and pop culture. Countless writers over the ages have appropriated and adapted his story, expanding the body of so-called “Arthuriana” into one of the Western canon’s most extensive collections. The grand sweep of Arthurian narratives, their chivalric ideals, romantic passion, magical elements, and bitter irony continue to capture the imagination of readers of all ages.
The first question that students inevitably raise is: Was King Arthur real? If what one means is whether there ever was a king who ruled Camelot, hosted a Round Table of knights, was cuckolded by Lancelot and his queen, and lost his entire kingdom to his bastard son Mordred, the answer is a definite negative. But if what one means is whether there once existed a man from whose deeds the literary legend developed, the issue becomes much more complex. The quick answer is that we simply don’t know. What historical and literary records we have suggest that if there was a historical Arthur, he lived in Britain sometime during the late 5th or 6th century during the collapse of the Roman Empire and probably played a role in turning back the tides of Saxon invasion. The oldest literary reference to Arthur appears in a 6th century Welsh poem. But it is not until the 12th century that the Arthurian literary tradition came to fruition, beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicle, The History of the Kings of Britain, the earliest known text recounting Arthur’s entire life. Simultaneously, a new genre of Arthurian romance arose on the Continent, spearheaded by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes. In the 15th century the story solidified into the most well-known English version when an obscure knight named Thomas Malory compiled a number of Arthurian stories into his “hoole book,” the English Le Morte D’Arthur. Since the composition of these seminal medieval texts, Arthur’s legend has continued to flourish.
Once students begin exploring the scope of the Arthurian corpus in any depth, a second question often arises: Which story is the true one? Such a question is unanswerable because it assumes that there is a historically “true” or at least orthodox form of the legend. Certainly, Malory’s work has constituted a crucial standard for English-speaking audiences, but many pre-Malorian texts present remarkably different stories. The boundless mutability of the legend is one of the reasons it has remained beloved for so long, but this very quality makes it nearly impossible to pin down one definitive version, or even authentic elements, of the narrative. To some extent, it is up to the individual reader to construct his or her paradigmatic version.
This bibliography seeks to provide instructors with a wide range of materials to help their students explore the wealth of the tradition. Because there is such an enormous amount of Arthurian material, any K-12 teacher could easily be overwhelmed. Therefore, I have selected what I see as the most noteworthy, useful, and current resources. But this bibliography is not, by any stretch of the imagination, comprehensive. Unless otherwise noted, I list the entries in order of relevance – that is, by usefulness and importance in the Arthurian canon. In addition to canonical texts, both medieval and modern, I have chosen to include a healthy dose of more popular material such as children’s fiction, graphic novels, films, popular music, and websites in hopes of making Arthuriana as accessible, enjoyable, and relevant to the modern student as possible.
Arthurian literature flowered in 12th-century Britain and France before spreading across Europe. Because the Middle Ages produced so many Arthurian texts, I have chosen to represent only the most influential traditions here – the English, Celtic, and French. For this section, I have listed the texts in chronological order to give readers a rough idea of how the Arthurian tradition developed in its formative years. Most of these resources are appropriate only for older junior high or (more likely) high school students, although two texts (The Lais of Marie de France and the Mabinogion) are collections of short narratives which can easily be excerpted for younger students. I have selected these particular editions and translations for their linguistic accessibility, scholarly apparatus, and affordability.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books, 1966.
Known in its original Latin as Historia Regum Britanniae and written in 1136, this chronicle is the earliest known source in which the full story of Arthur appears. Although it is rife with fantastical elements, the Historia purports to be a factual history tracing the genealogy and deeds of Britain’s kings from its founding by the Trojan Brutus to its eventual conquest by Saxon invaders. Arthur’s section (Parts 4-7 in this edition) comprises roughly half the book and includes such familiar figures as Uther Pendragon, Igraine, Merlin, and Mordred. Geoffrey puts emphasis on Arthur’s prowess as a military leader, conqueror, and model of good kingship. Students may be surprised by how greatly this early version differs from their knowledge of Arthur’s story, and these differences can make for fruitful discussion topics. Advanced high school students will find this volume useful, though they might need some historical context. This edition also features an introduction with a brief biography of Geoffrey, an overview of the debate concerning his sources, a reconstructed timeline, and an exhaustive index of people and places.
Chrétien de Troyes. Yvain, or the Knight with the Lion. Translated by Ruth Harwood Cline. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1975.
Originally written in 12th-century Old French, this romance follows the adventures of Yvain, an Arthurian knight, through his quest for glory, love, and self-consciousness. Eager to prove himself, the young Yvain rushes out to fight the fearsome Storm Knight and falls in love with the lady Laudine. But when he unwittingly breaks a vow to his beloved, a humbled Yvain must assume a new identity and suffer through a series of trials to regain his honor and Laudine’s love. Arthur himself appears in the text although his role is relatively minor in comparison to the eponymous hero’s. Teachers could use this text as a window into the medieval practices of chivalry and courtly love. Cline’s verse translation, which keeps the rhyming couplets of the original Old French, should make Yvain a memorable and entertaining read for students. The text also includes a brief introduction, endnotes, and a bibliography. I would recommend this volume for high school and junior high students.
Chrétien de Troyes. Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart. Translated by Ruth Harwood Cline. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Chrétien’s romance, written contemporaneously with Yvain (roughly 1177-1181) introduces the character of Lancelot into Arthurian legend for the first time. The central plotline illustrates Lancelot’s quest to rescue his beloved Queen Guinevere from her abductor Meleagaunt and shows the great sacrifices he makes to prove his love for her. A major subplot involves the liberation of the English people (Arthur’s subjects) whom Meleagaunt has imprisoned. The last thousand lines of the poem, which present Lancelot’s imprisonment and the climactic battle between Lancelot and Meleagaunt, were added by a different poet, Godfrey of Lagny; Chrétien stopped writing the work, for reasons unknown. Due to the prominent theme of adultery, I would suggest this book be used only with mature students, probably no younger than high school age. Lancelot can provide a starting point for discussions about medieval conceptions of courtly love, marriage, and sex. Cline’s excellent introduction includes short sections on Chrétien’s life and works, the historical Arthur, Celtic influences, courtly love, a brief summary of the text, several short interpretations, and information on continuations. For students interested in further study, Cline includes a wealth of endnotes and a bibliography.
Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval, or the Story of the Grail. Translated by Ruth Harwood Cline. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983.
The last of Chrétien’s five extant Arthurian romances, Perceval continues to spark interest among scholars as one of the earliest known Grail stories and, moreover, an incomplete one. The plot details the childhood, education, and adventures of young Perceval, a Welsh youth whose mother raised him in isolation from the chivalric world. Perceval eventually meets a crippled fisherman and stumbles upon a castle in which he unknowingly views the Holy Grail and Lance of Longinus (the spear that pierced Christ’s body when he was crucified). Despite his wonder, Perceval remembers the lessons taught by his mentor and remains silent – with disastrous results. His silence constitutes a failure to heal the Fisher King and avert disaster from the land. In a parallel subplot, Gawain ends up questing for the same bleeding lance that Perceval witnessed at the Grail castle. Because Chrétien died before he could complete this romance, we don’t know how the story ends – whether Gawain achieves his quest or Perceval heals the Fisher King. Medieval readers, too, were fascinated; in fact, several authors wrote “continuations” in which they completed the story. Students can read Cline’s introduction for information about these continuations, among other useful information. Also included are footnotes and a select bibliography.
Bédier, Joseph. The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Translated by Hilaire Belloc and Paul Rosenfeld. Illustrated by Joep Nicolas. New York: Pantheon Books, 1945.
While Tristan and Iseult are widely known as tragic lovers on the scale of Romeo and Juliet, there exists no single source text that is considered the complete and definitive version. Scholars speculate that what sources we have, however, descended from a lost original. The Romance of Tristan and Iseult represents French scholar Joseph Bédier’s attempt to reconstruct this so-called “Ur-Tristan” and it is through this book that many readers first encounter Tristan and Iseult. Bédier’s romance follows the hero Tristan in his struggle to remain loyal to his uncle and king, Mark of Cornwall, and to express his passionate love for Iseult the Fair, Mark’s wife. Highlights include Tristan’s battle against the Irish giant, Morholt; Tristan’s and Iseult’s drinking of the love potion, Iseult’s ordeal by burning iron, and Tristan’s unexpected marriage to Iseult of the White Hands. This edition includes cartoonish ink drawings that add visual verve to the prose. Although this text is written for a popular, rather than a scholarly, audience, Bédier does briefly discuss his four main sources (Eilhart von Oberg, Béroul, Thomas d’Angleterre, and Gottfried von Strassberg) in his afterward. What this volume lacks in scholarship, it makes up for in its narrative unity, organization, and linguistic accessibility. Discussions could revolve around concepts like courtly love, marriage, and adultery especially in comparison with the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot affair. Because the story features carnal love, adultery, and sometimes gruesome violence, I would recommend this text only for mature high school students.
Marie de France. The Lais of Marie de France. Translated by Joan Ferrante and Robert Hanning. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978.
A series of twelve short narratives in verse, the Lais were written by a French woman named Marie in late 12th century Brittany. Two of Marie’s twelve Breton lays are explicitly Arthurian: Lanval and Chevrefoil (“The Honeysuckle”). The former tale recounts the adventures of Lanval, an Arthurian knight originated by Marie, who falls in love with a fairy lady. The latter tale gives a unique glimpse into a Tristan and Isolde story, narrating in a lyrical manner the lovers’ tryst in the woods. The lays’ brevity and straightforward plots make them easily accessible to modern readers. And the generic themes, which emphasize romantic love and supernatural elements of Celtic mythology, should appeal to students. I would highly recommend these pieces for junior high students and older, and particularly for students encountering medieval texts for the first time. Ferrante and Hanning’s edition includes an informative introduction, short analytical essays following each lay, and a selective bibliography. Fruitful discussion topics could include women, courtly love, and Marie’s unprecedented female authorship.
Davies, Sioned, trans. The Mabinogion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
A set of eleven anonymous Welsh tales compiled in the 13th century, the Mabinogi were originally thought to be tales for children (based on the Welsh word, mab, meaning “boy” or “son”). However, grade school children might find the bardic conventions of the tales difficult to understand while teachers may find the violence objectionable. Advanced junior high and high school students, however, should find much to enjoy. Five of the eleven tales feature Arthur or his knights – namely Peredur son of Efrog; The Lady of the Well; Geraint son of Erbin; How Culhwch Won Olwen; and Rhonabwy’s Dream. These tales arguably show some of the oldest known representations of Arthur. Students may be drawn to the pervasive fairy tale and mythological elements. Teachers may find it interesting to read the first three tales mentioned above in conjunction with their French analogues – Perceval, or the Story of the Grail; Yvain, or the Knight with the Lion; and Erec and Enide, respectively – all by Chrétien de Troyes. The folkloric Welsh tales could provide a fascinating contrast to their courtly French counterparts. This edition includes a useful introduction, a guide to pronouncing Welsh names, a select bibliography, a map of medieval Wales, explanatory endnotes, and an index.
Matarasso, P. M., trans. The Quest of the Holy Grail. New York: Penguin Books, 1969.
The fourth of five sections of the early 13th-century Old French Vulgate cycle, the Queste del Saint Graal recounts the adventures of several Arthurian knights who hope to achieve the Holy Grail. It is notable as the first text to introduce the character of Galahad. In this work, he (rather than Perceval) succeeds in winning the Grail. Although his plotline is central, the story arcs of several other knights – namely Perceval, Bors, Lancelot, and Gawain – are also woven into text. The first two join Galahad as successful Grail knights, but Lancelot’s and Gawain’s worldly desires prevent them from fulfilling their quest. Lancelot’s failure is particularly controversial, especially since he has, up to this point, been the hero of the Vulgate Cycle. His inadequacy and the fact that the most successful Grail knight, Galahad, is his son would both make productive discussion points in the classroom. Students may find the structure of the text challenging; its exegetical tendency can seem narrowly didactic and grow tedious. Also, its interlacing of many storylines, which are somewhat haphazardly introduced, abandoned, and later returned to can make for a schizophrenic reading experience. I would therefore recommend this text, either in whole or excerpts, for advanced high school students. Matarasso’s edition includes an introduction detailing the Queste‘s Scriptural and secular sources, and a series of helpful endnotes.
Armitage, Simon, trans. The Death of King Arthur. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
The Alliterative Morte Arthure is a virtuosic 14th century Middle English poem which narrates the life of a very English Arthur, a great warrior-king and conqueror. His knightly prowess leads him first to free his kingdom from the tyrannous hold of Roman Emperor Lucius, and then to conquer Rome itself. But Mordred’s treachery puts an end to Arthur’s imperialist dreams and sets him up for a dramatic death scene. In this edition, acclaimed poet Simon Armitage renders this important Arthurian text into eminently readable modern English and provides the original Middle English on facing pages, which is useful for the advanced student who wants to analyze the original Middle English. Armitage’s translation keeps the alliterative verse and lively rhythm of the original language. His edition also includes an introduction outlining the history of Arthurian romance up to the composition of the AMA and an explanatory note on Middle English alliterative verse. Although this is not the most scholarly edition of the AMA available, it is the most recent and accessible. I would recommend this text only to advanced high school students, but they will find much to enjoy in this unique poem – from its rousing action and lyrical dream sequences to the emotional heart of the tragedy.
Boroff, Marie, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Authoritative Translation, Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Originally written in 14th-century Middle English, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most recognizable medieval romances, one that is still commonly taught in high school classrooms. It follows the adventures of Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, which include a beheading contest with the Green Knight, a journey into an Otherworldly kingdom, and a seduction by a beautiful lady. The text could spark discussion on medieval notions of morality, especially around the strange beheading game, Gawain’s pentangle, and the green girdle. Boroff beautifully renders this translation into modern English by retaining some sense of the original alliteration and meter. However, this highly literary style could prove difficult to younger readers, so I would recommend this text for advanced high school students. They should thrive on the additional materials provided in this edition, including the original Middle English text, three medieval Gawain romances, and a wealth of critical essays.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur: A New Modern English Translation Based on the Winchester Manuscript. Translated by Dorsey Armstrong. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2009.
Probably the canonical Arthurian story for most modern English-speaking readers, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthurcombines tales from both the English and French tradition into the “whole book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table.” Although scholars once debated whether or not Malory meant his book to be a unified text or simply a series of Arthurian tales juxtaposed together, the unity of Malory’s work is now generally accepted. Still, the discerning student could point out sections that resemble Geoffrey’s Historia or the Alliterative Morte Arthure, both of which Malory incorporated into his text. While the original was written in late Middle English (roughly 1450-70), Armstrong presents it in accessible modern English. I recommend this text for high school students and, when excerpted, for junior high students. Armstrong’s introduction, in which she discusses Malory’s life and the Morte’s manuscript history, may be more useful for teachers as background reading than for students. In addition to a brief index, this modernization also retains the table of contents and marginal notations from both versions of Malory – the print (Caxton) and Winchester manuscript (Vinaver).
Since its medieval inception, the Arthurian tradition has only increased in popularity and the number of extant Arthurian texts is truly mind-boggling. Here, I have chosen only the most canonical and representative texts from the Romantic period onwards, focusing on British and American adaptations. Again, I list these texts in chronological order. Unlike the medieval romances in the previous section, many of these texts are either poem cycles or chapter books so they can easily be taught in whole or part, depending on the needs of the individual teacher. I would encourage, of course, teaching these texts with their medieval sources.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Lady of Shalott.” Poems. 2nd ed. London: Moxon, 1842. Also available online through the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/shalott.htm
Perhaps the most famous modern treatment of an Arthurian figure, Tennyson’s lyric ballad offers a romanticized interpretation of the Fair Maid of Astolat. The poem is told from the lady’s perspective, relating her curse (which traps her in a tower), her sighting of Lancelot, her futile love for him, and her eventual death. Tennyson’s work, including “The Lady of Shalott,” inspired an Arthurian revival in the Victorian era; subsequently, she is portrayed in numerous pre-Raphaelite paintings and became the subject of countless poems, short stories, and even songs. Teachers can make their “Lady of Shalott” lesson media-rich with various supplemental pieces. (The Camelot Project website [cited below] is a good resource for these supplemental materials, especially images.) I would recommend the poem for junior high students and older.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Idylls of the King and a Selection of Poems. New York: New American Library, 1961. (Originally published: London: Macmillan and Co., 1859-1885.)
Tennyson’s Romantic vision of the Arthurian legend draws upon Malory and the Mabinogion for inspiration and transforms them into vivid verse vignettes. He focuses on major elements of the Arthurian story, especially Arthur’s rise to kingship, the love between Lancelot and Guinevere, the various romance plots of Arthurian knights, and the final tragedy. Tennyson’s nuanced verse and elevated tone make this work most appropriate for older high school students. As always, it is rewarding to read Tennyson in light of Malory. Interesting discussions topics could include Tennyson’s take on love, gender, loyalty, and kingship.
Lowell, James Russell. “The Vision of Sir Launfal.” Modern Arthurian Literature: An Anthology of English and American Arthuriana from the Renaissance to the Present. Ed. Alan Lupack. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1992. 307-18. (Originally published: Cambridge, MA: George Nichols, 1848.) Also available online through the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/launfal.htm
In this unique take on the Grail quest, American poet Lowell deliberately distances his text from the Arthurian tradition. Rather than Galahad, he presents Launfal (who bears no relation to Marie de France’s Lanval) as the successful Grail knight; instead of healing the Fisher King, this Grail knight recognizes his own unhealing wound (a lack of charity) and works to compensate for it. The Vision of Sir Launfal also offers a novel interpretation of Nature through the lens of American transcendentalism. Fruitful discussion might center around the text’s American quality, emphasizing such aspects as democratization, optimism, and transcendentalism. I recommend this poem for junior high audiences and older, especially in conjunction with medieval Grail material.
Morris, William. “The Defence of Guenevere.” Modern Arthurian Literature: An Anthology of English and American Arthuriana from the Renaissance to the Present. Ed. Alan Lupack. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1992. 159-68. (Originally published: London: Bell and Daldy, 1858.) Also available online through the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/defguin.htm
One of the most important proto-feminist depictions of Guinevere, Morris’s poem features an impassioned monologue from the eponymous character. This Guinevere stands in stark contrast to Tennyson’s queen, who grovels at Arthur’s feet and begs forgiveness for her adultery. Morris’s Guinevere rages, alternating between appealing to the audience’s sympathy and denouncing her detractors. Students will recognize events from Malory in her reminiscences, but they will also be introduced to a curious new dream vision which is not canonical. One interesting discussion question could center around the issue of the queen’s sincerity, because it is unclear whether her words reflect her true conviction or if she utters them for dramatic effect. Teachers might also ask their students to role-play and read the text aloud to plumb the various interpretations offered by performance. The poem’s relative length and modified terza rima make it appropriate for a high school audience.
Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. 3rd ed. Original illustrations by Daniel Carter Beard. Edited by Bernard L. Stein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. (Originally published: New York: Charles L. Webster and Company, 1889.)
Twain’s satirical take on the Arthurian legend describes the arrival of 19th-century Yankee Hank Morgan in 6th-century Britain. There, Morgan proceeds to use his workmanlike rationality and knowledge of the future to become the self-titled “Boss,” Arthur’s trusted advisor. In the process, he exposes the bumbling Merlin as a fraud and replaces his magic with science and technology. Morgan mocks medieval customs and speeds up the process of modernization, but finds himself growing emotionally attached to his new society. Though suffused with parody and moments of high comedy, the novel’s tone grows progressively more pessimistic and violent, ending on a note of tragedy. This edition includes Dan Beard’s wonderful ink illustrations, which greatly enliven and supplement the text. I would recommend teaching this book to a high school audience alongside Malory, who Twain occasionally quotes verbatim.
White, T. H. The Once and Future King: The Complete Edition. London: Voyager, 1996. (Original four-volume version published: London, Collins, 1958.)
White’s charming retelling of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur is probably the best known modern version of the Arthurian legend. In the novel’s first book, The Sword in the Stone, White paints a quaint portrait of Arthur’s (or the Wart’s, as he is affectionately known) childhood – a topic altogether neglected by medieval sources. With its old-fashioned sense of humor, talking animals, and whimsical anachronisms, this first book is appropriate for grade school children – although teachers should be warned that there is little “authentic” Arthurian material until the end. As the novel progresses, it grows increasingly dark, dealing with more adult themes of war and violence, governance, and adultery. Thus, the last three books are more appropriate for older students, preferably junior high onwards. The second book, The Witch in the Wood (renamed The Queen of Air and Darkness) introduces us to the “Orkney faction” of the sorceress Morgause and her four sons, who will eventually become Arthurian knights. The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, is the story of a troubled Lancelot – drawn somewhat from White’s own personality – and details his adventures, including his affair with Guenevere and the quest for the Holy Grail. The fourth and last book in the 1958 version, The Candle in the Wind, brings Mordred to Camelot and leaves Arthur’s demise unresolved, suspending the plot on the eve of his final battle. The fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, which was published posthumously (though White envisioned it as the final part of his novel), narrates Arthur’s return to his animal friends, where they debate the nature of mankind and war. This edition is unique in that it includes the final book as well as an afterward which surveys the life of T.H. White and gives some insight into his Arthurian interests. Teachers may find, however, that the four-book 1958 edition is more readily available and affordable than this recommended version.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Knopf, 1982.
The most famous feminist revision of the legend, The Mists of Avalon retells the Arthurian tale from the perspective of its women, most notably Morgaine. As a child gifted with second sight, she is taken from her family by Vivienne, the Lady of the Lake, to train as a priestess of Avalon. During the fertility rituals of Beltane, she couples unknowingly with Arthur to conceive Mordred. This sets the stage for one of the novel’s recurring themes: the rivalry between the old pagan religion and the new belief system of Christianity. While the majority of the female protagonists struggle to keep the Celtic rituals alive, Gwenhwyfar notably develops into a Christian fanatic due to her inability to give Arthur an heir and her guilt over her affair with Lancelet. Unlike most Arthurian adaptations, the king and his knights in this novel play supporting roles to the oft-neglected female characters. Teachers should be warned that the novel is extremely long and is unlikely to fit into any given unit. Instead, I would suggest excerpting key passages to encourage discussion, especially in comparison with more traditional male-oriented narratives. TNT adapted the novel into a decent miniseries, which is available on DVD, but its content is racy even for a high school audience. Because there is a substantial amount of sexual content in both the book and miniseries, I would recommend teaching them only to mature high school students.
Young Adult Fiction
The annals of young adult fiction have been a particularly productive place for Arthurian literature of late. The texts I have chosen fit one of two categories: they have either survived the test of time or are currently popular. Since it is the nature of young adult texts to appeal to teenage boys and girls by including romance or violence, I provide cautionary grade level suggestions based on either the publisher’s recommendations or published reviews.
Barr, Mike W. and Brian Bolland. Camelot 3000. New York: DC Comics, Inc., 1988.
This fun and original graphic novel sets the Arthurian legend in the year 3000. When Earth is seized by hostile aliens, a frightened young man named Thomas Prentice stumbles across the tomb of King Arthur, who is awakened to defend not only Britain but the entire world from invasion. With the help of Tom and Merlin, Arthur seeks out the (sometimes hilarious) reincarnations of Guinevere and his Round Table knights. They proceed to do battle against the alien invaders who, we eventually learn, are allied with a very scantily-clad Morgan le Fay. I would recommend this text for junior high students and older, but teachers should be warned that it includes a number of potentially scary images, sexual content (including hints at a lesbian love), and graphic violence. Such aspects could, however, lead into a productive discussion of comparative gender representations and acceptable depictions of violence between medieval sources and the modern graphic novel.
Springer, Nancy. I Am Mordred: A Tale from Camelot. New York: Firebird, 1998.
One of the first sympathetic portrayals of Mordred for young adults, I Am Mordred presents a first-person narrative of (arguably) Arthur’s worst enemy and traditional killer. Drawing on Malory’s genealogy, Mordred is here the unwanted bastard child of an incestuous love between Arthur and his domestically abused sister, Morgause. The novel places readers in Mordred’s shoes from his happy childhood with a peasant family and formative years at court to the tragic outcome of the legend. Suffused throughout with a foreboding sense of doom and a quiet lyricism, Springer’s book humanizes Mordred. We are shown a boy whose life is never in his control, who is used as a pawn in a high stakes political game, and who fights desperately against his fate, wanting only to win his father’s love. Though younger students may find the book’s unrelentingly dark tone disturbing, I highly recommend this novel for junior high school students and older, especially if taught with the Mordred sections of Malory.
Cooper, Susan. The Grey King. New York: Atheneum, 1975.
A Newberry Medal winner, this is the fourth book in Cooper’s popular fantasy series called “The Dark is Rising.” In the series, five children and their Merlin-like mentor, Merriman, are caught in the crossfire of a war between the forces of the Light and the Dark. To defeat the agents of Darkness, the children must acquire and use the mysterious Things of Power. While the series incorporates Arthurian and Celtic motifs throughout, The Grey King is the most explicitly Arthurian of these books and can be read (relatively well) independently of the series. The plot follows the developing friendship between Will Stanton, the series’ protagonist, and Bran Davies, a new character. Will, amnesiac and recuperating from a recent battle, is sent to Wales where he meets the albino Bran, a shepherd boy, and his dog Cafall. Will eventually discovers that Bran is an Old One, the son of King Arthur himself, and the two must face the Grey King, a lord of the Dark. To defeat him, they must achieve a golden harp, a Thing of Power, which will awaken the mythic Six Sleepers who can defeat their Dark enemy. Unlike the previous entries in the series, this one introduces shades of grey into the strict good and evil dichotomy and deals with the darker aspects of human nature – often through subtle characterizations and implied knowledge of the Arthurian canon. The rich, atmospheric, and modern fantasy feel of this novel may well motivate students to read the remainder of the series – Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, and Silver on the Tree. The book should appeal to junior high school students.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. Tristan and Iseult. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971.
One of the few adaptations of the Tristan and Iseult legend for children, Sutcliff’s novel handles the potentially problematic themes of sex, adultery, and jealousy with sensitivity. In the novel’s forward, Sutcliff asserts that she tries to “get back to the Celtic original” as much as possible, though her story roughly follows the plotline of the medieval Tristan poems, most notably Thomas d’Angleterre’s and Gottfried von Strassburg’s. Sutcliff’s major change is to omit the infamous love potion because she feels it turns the lovers’ very real love into “something artificial.” After narrating the story of Tristan’s love for Iseult, her marriage to Mark, their adulterous affair, Tristan’s subsequent marriage to Iseult of the White Hands, and the lovers’ death, Sutcliff ends the book with the iconic image of the hazel tree interlaced with honeysuckle vines – a depiction immortalized in Marie de France’s Chevrefoil (cited above).
Paterson, Katherine. Park’s Quest. New York: The Trumpet Club, 1988.
Written by the author of Bridge to Terabithia, this coming-of-age novel reinterprets the Perceval tale for a contemporary audience. Paterson presents a moving story about a young man’s quest to find out the truth about his deceased father. Parkington Waddell Broughton V, an eleven-year-old who daydreams about being an Arthurian knight, wants to learn about his father – a Vietnam War veteran – more than anything in the world. But his overprotective mother refuses to tell him anything. During a two-week visit to his paternal grandfather’s ranch, Park slowly discovers his father’s secrets. Arthurian allegory abounds: Park imagines himself as the long-lost heir to the Broughton estate, he struggles to learn patience and ask the right questions, his wheelchair-bound grandfather makes a modern Fisher King, a Vietnamese girl plays an unlikely Grail maiden, and the Holy Grail itself is reconceived in humbler guise. One of the finer Holy Grail retellings, Park’s Quest makes the Grail quest relevant for a younger secular audience. Teachers should find this book appropriate for a junior high audience, though I would suggest foregrounding it with some Perceval or Grail material.
Morris, Gerald. The Squire’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
A coming-of-age tale for both squire and knight, Morris’s first Arthurian novel follows fourteen-year-old Terence, who becomes Gawain’s squire. Their adventures center around Gawain’s winning of a loathly lady, a reference to the Middle English romance, the Wedding of Sir Gawaine and Dame Ragnell. Morris manages to seamlessly combine this plot with Gawain episodes from Malory. Suffused with both humor and emotional sensitivity, this novel is a good introduction to the medieval times for young adult readers. The novel was so popular that Morris continued writing similar stories for various, and often neglected, Arthurian characters. Collectively, his series is known as the “Squire’s’ Tales.” In 2008, Morris also began writing a collection of Arthurian tales – called the “Knights’ Tales” for slightly younger audiences, beginning with The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great. I would endorse at least the Squire’s Tale for audiences of grades 4 and older.
Cabot, Meg. Avalon High. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
A self-conscious modern treatment, Avalon High is narrated by sarcastic teenager Elaine Harrison, who was named by her medievalist scholar parents after Elaine of Astolat. Ellie grows up well-educated in but resentful of the Arthurian mythos, especially of the Tennyson poem which provides her namesake. After moving to Annapolis for her parents’ sabbatical, Ellie begins her freshman year at Avalon High, where the three most popular kids – senior class president Will, football star Lance, and cheerleader Jennifer – are embroiled in a love triangle. Unfortunately, Ellie herself falls for Will. When the situation begins to parallel events at Camelot, Ellie must decide whether or not to believe that everyone at the school are reincarnations of Arthurian characters and, if so, whether she will follow her “script” as the Lily Maid who dies of heartbreak from Lancelot’s rejection. Students should find much to enjoy in the book – from Ellie’s humor to the romance elements to the mystery of the Arthurian overtones. Since each chapter begins with a Tennysonian verse, I would recommend teaching this book to grades 7-10 in conjunction with The Lady of Shalott (cited above).
Lupack, Barbara Tepa. The Girl’s King Arthur: Tales of the Women of Camelot. Illustrated by Ian Brown. Dallas: Scriptorium Press, 2010.
In a series of vignettes, Lupack retells the Arthurian legend from the perspective of its most influential women. Camelot’s forgotten voices find new power in the Lady of the Lake, a witness of Arthur’s rise and fall, who survives on Avalon, ostensibly preserving and retelling the stories of Camelot’s women. The unifying theme between almost all the tales is love: romantic, passionate, consummated, but also loves forbidden, denied, and lost. Teachers can, if they wish, draw morals like integrity, ambition, sacrifice, loyalty, and compassion from these tales. Punctuated with evocative ink illustrations, The Girl’s King Arthur discusses mature themes like desire, adultery and betrayal, but it handles these topics with class. I would recommend this book for junior high students of both genders.
Yolen, Jane, ed. Camelot: A Collection of Original Arthurian Stories. Illustrated by Winslow Pels. New York: Philomel Books, 1995.
Yolen, an acclaimed young adult novelist, admits a lifelong love for Arthurian legend in her introduction, a passion which is reflected in this entertaining anthology of modern Arthurian fiction. This collection features ten original short stories from well-respected authors, a few which later grew into full-fledged novels. The range of treatments here is impressive. Anne McCaffrey presents a dramatic treatment of Arthur’s search for good warhorses (which later evolved into Black Horses for the King); Terry Pratchett humorously recasts Merlin as an incompetent time traveler; Lynne Pledger offers a somewhat feminist coming-of-age story for Guinevere; Yolen herself and Adam Stemple contribute a song about Guinevere’s journey, complete with a musical score. Each entry is preceded by an epigraph taken from a canonical Arthurian text and Winslow Pels’ engaging illustrations pepper the text. This book is ideal for teachers who are looking for a way to introduce Arthurian literature or make it relevant to young modern readers. I suggest using this book for junior high students and older.
Arthurian literature’s armored knights, damsels in distress, fabulous beasts, and magical elements have obvious appeal for elementary school-aged students. Most of the works I have chosen here capitalize on that charm with their winning combinations of text and image. As in the previous categories, there is an overwhelming body of work to choose from; therefore, I have selected texts based on their entertainment factor, faithfulness to their source tales, and (at times) their didactic value. A caveat: some of these texts do discuss the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, albeit in a family-friendly manner. I therefore offer suggestions on grade level appropriateness, based on publisher or reviewer’s recommendations.
Pyle, Howard. The Story of King Arthur and His Knights. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1965. (Originally published: New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1903.)
The first book of a four-volume set recounting the Arthurian legends, The Story of King Arthur tells of Arthur’s birth, his winning of Excalibur, his marriage to Guinevere, Merlin’s enchantment by Vivien, Pellias and Ettard, and Gawaine’s adventures. Pyle adapts Malory’s version of the story for children and provides helpful rubrics for each chapter in a manner similar to Caxton’s editing of Malory. Designed to resemble a medieval manuscript and interspersed with dozens of stunning pen drawings, the book is appropriate for advanced elementary and junior high students. For those interested in continuing Pyle’s series, each additional book begins and ends with a forward (summarizing the last volume’s contents) and a conclusion. The sequels in the series are The Story of the Champions of the Round Table, The Story of Sir Launcelot and his Companions, and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur.
Lanier, Sidney. The Boy’s King Arthur. Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917. (Originally published: New York: Scribner’s, 1880 with illustrations by Alfred Kappes.)
Lanier’s retelling of Malory for boys is a classic piece of children’s literature. It greatly condenses the plot of Le Morte d’Arthur while retaining the shape of the overarching story. For this younger audience, Lanier censors many of the more objectionable elements (like incest and sex), although he retains a somewhat archaic writing style full of “ye’s” and “thou’s.” Less experienced readers may find his style difficult, though students in general will either love or hate Lanier’s antiquated English. Inset throughout are Wyeth’s lovely watercolor illustrations. I would recommend it for elementary and junior high students.
Morpurgo, Michael. Arthur: High King of Britain. Illustrated by Michael Foreman. London: Pavilion Books Limited, 1994.
Shortlisted for the 1995 Carnegie Medal, this book cobbles together the Arthurian story from a number of different sources in strikingly fresh ways. The story begins in the modern-day Scilly Isles, a place rumored to be near the lost land of Lyonesse which, in Tennyson’s Idylls, is the site of Arthur’s final battle against Mordred. Here, an unnamed boy ambitiously tries to accomplish an unheard-of feat, to walk from one island to another at low tide. But after nearly drowning, he awakens in an ancient hall, nursed by an old man, King Arthur. As he dries the boy’s clothes by the fire, Arthur – who is waiting for the right time to return to Britain – recounts his life story. While Arthur’s narrative primarily follows Malory’s Morte, one can also see traces of Geoffrey, Chrétien, the Alliterative Morte, the Gawain-poet, and Tennyson as well as allusions to Classical tales. Morpurgo also introduces his own unique touches, most notably intensifying the relationship between Arthur and Merlin through his original character, Bercelet the dog. Bercelet becomes Merlin’s eyes and ears, always remaining by Arthur’s side, even after Merlin abandons the king for Nemue. By putting Arthur’s story in the first person, Morpurgo gives an emotional immediacy to his character that is often lacking in other retellings. Arthur’s feelings of childhood humiliation by Kay, his tender love for Guinevere, his shame over Mordred’s conception, his souring friendship with Lancelot, and the heavy burden of kingship are movingly portrayed. Michael Foreman’s luminous watercolor illustrations will reward careful viewers with delightful details. While Morpurgo does narrate Arthur’s incest with Margawse, he does it in a way appropriate for children. I would recommend this text for grades 4 and older.
Morpurgo, Michael. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Illustrated by Michael Foreman. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2004.
Michael Morpurgo, the acclaimed writer of Warhorse, renders this 14th-century Middle English romance into a children’s tale with remarkable accuracy. Unlike many other children’s versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morpurgo’s keeps almost every detail of the original romance’s content, from the temptation scenes to the fit breaks to the occasional alliterative line! Because it is so faithful to the original, teachers will be able to find a great range of pedagogical uses, from teaching about chivalric and Christian values to simply enjoying a well-told story. Students will find Foreman’s colorful watercolor-and-pastel illustrations by turns exciting and beautiful, sweeping them up into the adventure and romance of the story. The book is fairly text-heavy, so younger readers may find the prose challenging. I would recommend this book for advanced elementary and junior high students.
Talbott, Hudson. King Arthur: The Sword in the Stone. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1991.
This book features an unusually detailed retelling of the sword in the stone tale in Le Morte d’Arthur. Talbott changes certain aspects of Malory’s tale so that Kay, in particular, comes across badly. Young students should enjoy Arthur’s journey and maturation, his animal friends, and the cinematic illustrations. The book can also be a useful learning tool to teach students vocabulary about chivalry, weapons, locations, and even Christian holidays. I also recommend Talbott’s other Arthurian books in the “Books of Wonder” series, continuing in sequential order with King Arthur and the Round Table (cited below), Excalibur, and Lancelot. These books should appeal to students in grades 3-5, although the text may be challenging for early readers.
Talbott, Hudson. King Arthur and the Round Table. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1995.
In his retelling of Arthur’s early kingship, Talbott infuses his book with equal parts action and romance. After warring against the upstart King Lot, young Arthur meets the love of his life while wandering the corpse-strewn fields of Bedegraine. Here, Guinevere is introduced as a compassionate maiden, nursing the wounded on the battlefield. Later, Arthur is able to win both Guinevere and a wonderfully visualized Round Table from Leodegrance by defending his kingdom from Ryence. The book ends with the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere and a rousing Round Table vow. Talbott supplements the text with stunning illustrations of magnificent battle tableaus and gorgeous romance scenes. This text should appeal to students from grades 2-4.
Yolen, Jane. Merlin and the Dragons. Illustrated by Li Ming. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1995.
This retelling of the Merlin episode from Geoffrey of Monmouth is set in a frame tale. The boy-king Arthur cannot sleep because he has doubts about his ability to be king (based solely on his pulling of the sword from the stone), and seeks out his advisor, Merlin. The wizard, in turn, tells young Arthur the tale of Emrys (a Welsh name for Merlin) – another fatherless boy troubled by anxious dreams. Merlin’s tale takes readers through his childhood, his meeting with Vortigern, and his prophecy of the red and white dragons. Through the tale, Arthur learns of his parentage and legitimate kingship. Children should find much to enjoy in Ming’s vivid illustrations, especially the dramatic images of the fighting dragons. I would recommend this book for elementary school children.
San Souci, Robert D. Young Merlin. Illustrated by Daniel Horne. New York: Dell Picture Yearling, 1990.
Another retelling of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin material, this book renders young Merlin sympathetically as a fatherless child who is abused by villagers fearful of his prophetic powers. Unlike Yolen’s character, this Merlin has a sense of humor, which he demonstrates by playing up his magical powers. He is fond of shape-shifting to fool his friends, a characterization taken from Robert de Boron’s 13th-century fragmentary poem Merlin. He, too, comes of age as he helps first Vortigern, Aurelius, and finally Uther claim the crown. Punctuated by colorful illustrations, this book should be enjoyable reading for elementary school students.
Hodges, Margaret. The Kitchen Knight: A Tale of King Arthur. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. New York: Holiday House, 1990.
This gem of a book is one of the very rare children’s retellings of Sir Gareth’s story. A simplified account of Malory’s tale, the text nevertheless keeps many of the original’s essential elements, including Gareth’s status as Arthur’s kitchen-boy, his abuse by Kay, his knighting by Lancelot, his mistreatment by Linette, the knights who wear armor of different colors, and Gareth’s final marriage to Linesse. Perhaps the biggest omission is the lack of Gareth’s nickname, Beaumains (“Fair Hands”). Hyman’s exquisite anime-like watercolors lend the tale an air of whimsy and romance which should delight young readers. I would recommend it for grades 3 and older.
McDermott, Gerald. The Knight of the Lion. New York: Four Winds Press, 1979.
An accurate and detailed retelling of Chrétien’s Yvain, this book is a wonderful and surprisingly dark reimagining for children. The story is told in the first person, giving Yvain a remarkable level of sympathy and rendering the conclusion very moving. Although the plot remains largely faithful to Chrétien’s original, key changes include the omission of Gawain and Kay, as well as the concluding Blackthorn sisters episode. The evocative prose and stylized black-and-white illustrations originate, McDermott asserts, from “the dark power of the story itself.” And indeed his writing does not shy away from the weightier aspects of the story; very young readers may find his unflinching descriptions of violence troubling. McDermott’s rendition is a bit long, but proves rewarding for readers willing to go on the journey with him. I highly recommend this text for students in grades 4 and over.
Hastings, Selina. Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady. Illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. New York: Mulberry Books, 1985.
Based on the popular 15th-century Middle English romance, The Wedding of Sir Gawaine and Dame Ragnelle, this book achieves a difficult task – adapting the sexual content of the original to make it appropriate for children. The central question of the story asks the men of the court “What do women most desire?” In order to help Arthur answer this question, Gawain agrees to marry the ugliest woman in the world, the Loathly Lady (who is illustrated truly hideously). The book teaches a lesson about not judging people based on their appearances. Young readers should enjoy the sumptuously illustrated pages, which are cunningly painted to resemble the illuminated pages of medieval manuscripts, complete with ornate borders, gilded letters, and elaborate inset miniatures. Although the text is appropriate for grades 4 and up, the vocabulary may prove challenging for younger readers. Teachers should also be warned that the words “hell” and “damn” show up a few times, although not in an offensive manner.
Rosen, Winifred. Three Romances: Love Stories from Camelot Retold. Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
With a light touch and witty style, Winifred rewrites three Arthurian love stories for a younger audience. In a humorous retelling of the Marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, Arthur and the hapless Gawain team up to discover what women most desire. In Enid and Geraint, the exploration of love takes a darker turn when Geraint, driven to paranoia by the rumor of the queen’s adultery, begins to suspect his own wife of the same infidelity. Finally, Merlin and Niniane features a passionate but melancholy affair, which shows the imprisoning nature of love. Interspersed with black and white illustrations, this book is appropriate for elementary and junior high students; it may be particularly evocative for girls.
Heyer, Carol. Excalibur. Nashville: Ideals Children’s Books, 1991.
This is a retelling of Malory’s episode in which Pellinore breaks Arthur’s sword (from the stone), forcing Merlin and the young king on a quest for a new sword, Excalibur. Although Heyer alters a few details, like changing Pellinore into the “Black Knight,” she keeps the central message that “there is more to a knight than his sword,” emphasizing the medieval concept of chivalric honor. Students should enjoy her highly stylized, vibrant illustrations, especially in her unique depiction the Lady of the Lake’s underwater kingdom. Heyer’s simple retelling should appeal to younger students, perhaps grades 2-4.
Shannon, Mark. Gawain and the Green Knight. Illustrated by David Shannon. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994.
Under the able hands of brothers Mark and David Shannon, Gawain’s story comes to vivid. The medieval romance is simplified to become a primarily a test of loyalty for Gawain, the youngest knight at court. He must keep his word to meet the deadly Green Knight and prove his devotion to his sweetheart, Caryn. Accompanied by stunning watercolor illustrations, this book should appeal to students from grades 2-4.
Yeames, Revd. James. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Play in Five Acts. (Originally published: Detroit: Knights of King Arthur, 1911.) Available online through the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester: <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/yeames.htm>
A children’s play based on Jessie Weston’s prose translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Yeames’s work is both a relatively accurate representation of the 14th-century source text and a potentially fun play for students to perform. Yeames stays fairly faithful to the original plot; his only major change is to transform Gawain’s three-day temptation by the Lady Bertilak into three different tests, which are foreshadowed in an added scene where Merlin casts a spell over Gawain, causing him to dream about these upcoming tests. Otherwise, Yeames’s alterations to the plot appeal to his young audience mostly by enhancing the play’s spectacle and humor. The added characters of Dagonet and a kitchen-knave provide comic relief; songs (performed by a chorus) and dances often narrate the passing of time, and passages with clever punning add a sense of playfulness to the text. Stylistically, Yeames’s language reproduces some aspects of the original Middle English, like its virtuosic alliterative effects and poetic diction. Some students may find the language difficult, but the play rewards both close reading and dramatic performance. Careful readers will find allusions to other Arthurian texts and teachers can lead discussions on such themes as chivalry, Gawain’s morality, or the Anglo-Saxon-influenced language. Performers will find much to discuss in Yeames’s carefully described set, stage directions, and costumes. I would recommend this play for late elementary and junior high students.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The King Who Was and Will Be: The World of King Arthur and His Knights. Illustrated by Peter Malone. London: Orion Children’s Books, 1998.
This text is a bit different from works listed above. While the previous entries are purely narrative, this book is an encyclopedia-like guide rendered specifically for children; it contains not only Arthurian entries but also sections on related aspects of the medieval world. Each item includes a synopsis and brief historical information, sometimes punctuated by illustrations or quotations. The Arthurian material is drawn from a wide variety of sources (giving particular emphasis to Celtic material) and features relatively obscure content like Culhwch and Olwen, Sir Bedivere, Marie de France, and the Questing Beast. More general medieval topics include the Crusades, troubadours, courtly love, food, clothing, and even heraldry. The punchy combination of fact, anecdote, and image makes this text an appealing guide for beginners in Arthurian lore. I suggest teachers use this book for elementary school students.
Film & Television
Although film offers an accessible and exciting medium for students to approach the Arthurian legends, Arthurian film varies greatly in quality. One should be cautious about using such films as accurate representations of medieval history. Rather, students should be reminded that all films (and texts) are adaptations of Arthurian stories which are themselves subjective interpretations. But the sheer range of places and time periods in which these films take place is a testament to Arthur’s adaptability. Here, I have selected films and television shows, both well-known and more obscure, that appeal to a wide range of audiences. Some adapt specific texts in intelligent and thought-provoking ways; others, especially those geared for younger audiences, should serve as supplements to more substantial material.
Excalibur. Dir. John Boorman. Orion Pictures Corporation, 1981.
A classic cinematic adaptation of Le Morte D’Arthur, this film uses the eponymous sword to condense and unify many disparate elements of Malory’s plot. Key changes include Arthur’s breaking of Excalibur through misuse, his discovery of the adultery, the motivation for the Grail quest, Lancelot’s death, and the conflation of Morgause, Morgan, and Nimue into the villainess Morgana. The film also explores the conflict between pagan beliefs and Christianity. Teachers should be aware that there is some nudity in the love scenes between Uther and Igraine. While the movie was highly acclaimed – even earning an Oscar nomination for best cinematography – it has not aged particularly well. Students may find the language archaic, the costumes clunky, and the musical score overbearing. However, Excalibur’s operatic scope still conveys the drama and tragedy at the heart of the Morte. I would recommend it for junior high and high school students.
Camelot. Dir. Joshua Logan. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, 1967.
A film adaptation of the beloved Lerner & Loewe musical, Camelot is based on T. H. White’s popular novel The Once and Future King. The three protagonists – Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot – are all instantly likeable. Arthur is winningly uncertain, idealistic, and empathetic throughout – a king who escapes to the greenwood to work out his pre-wedding jitters, who thinks up the novel concept of Might for Right, and who is capable of dignified sacrifice. Guenevere, who starts out as a frivolous girl concerned only with “the simple joys of maidenhood” matures into her husband’s peer and partner in developing the Round Table and his sense of justice. Lancelot, an arrogant French knight, first earns Guenevere’s hostility before his miraculous healing of Sir Dinadan (borrowed from Malory’s Healing of Sir Urré) changes her mind and plunges the two into a passionate love affair. The second act comes alive when the ill-intentioned Mordred arrives at court, determined to destroy Arthur. The ending, in which the unraveling secret of the adultery shatters Arthur’s dream, poignantly mixes tragedy and hope. Students may find both the songs and cinematography dated, but the musical’s humor and tragedy still translate well. Teachers should be warned that the film is three hours long, and could possibly be broken up into multiple viewings or taught in excerpts. I would recommend teaching this film with either Malory or White to junior high students and older.
The Sword in the Stone. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. Walt Disney Productions, 1963.
An animated Disney classic, this film gives a charming depiction of Arthur’s childhood based on T. H. White’s novel of the same name. Younger students should enjoy the characterization of the bumbling Merlin, the Wart’s transformations into various animals, and the nefarious Madam Mim. Despite its whimsy, the film does portray several Arthurian characters – young Arthur, Merlin, Ector, Kay, and Pellinore – with some accuracy. The film is appropriate for all ages, although very young students may find certain scenes frightening. Productive discussion could center around the film’s didacticism, particularly the lessons young Wart learns from Merlin through his amusing animal transformations.
The Fisher King. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1991.
An effective and moving rendition of Perceval’s tale, The Fisher King is a story of guilt, despair, and redemption, giving the Grail quest relevance for a modern, secular audience. Jack Lucas, a jaded radio “shock jock” (channeling Howard Stern), becomes suicidally depressed after he learns that his insensitive advice to a caller led him to commit multiple homicides. Jack’s suicide attempt is interrupted by Parry, a delusional homeless man who fancies himself a knight on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Jack eventually learns that Parry’s psychosis began when his wife was murdered by the very man whom Jack advised. Guilt-ridden, he tries to help Parry win Lydia, a shy and socially-awkward bookstore accountant with whom Parry is smitten. But whenever Parry begins to show signs of confidence, he is haunted by a terrifying hallucination of a Red Knight, which eventually reduces Parry into a catatonic state. At times, it is difficult to tell who plays Perceval to the other’s Fisher King; the series of exchanges between the remorseful Jack and the charmingly eccentric Parry render both characters vulnerable and generous by turns. While it is rated R for language, violence, and nudity, high school students should not find it particularly offensive or frightening. Teachers should preface the movie with some background material in quests for the Holy Grail or Perceval romances.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Paramount Pictures, 1989.
An action-packed adventure of the highest order, this film is – for many people – the iconic American Grail quest. When archeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones receives his father’s diary from Italy, he realizes that something is wrong. He soon discovers from a private collector that his father was commissioned to go on an expedition to find the Holy Grail, but has suddenly gone missing. Determined to find his father, Indy sets out on a quest of his own, which leads him to discover a Nazi conspiracy to find the Grail and use it for the purposes of world domination. Arthurian Grail themes are embedded throughout: good vs. evil, making the correct choice, deceptive appearances, sexual temptation, the son’s search for the father, unhealing wounds, and leaps of faith. Though it is a highly entertaining film, there is plenty of violence; thus, teachers should follow the PG-13 rating.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dir. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Sony Pictures, 1979.
For younger generations unfamiliar with Twain, Monty Python is the iconic Arthurian parody. This film follows the absurd adventures of King Arthur, Sir Bedivere, Sir Galahad the Pure, Sir Lancelot the Brave, and Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot as they first try to lure knights to the newly established Round Table and later seek the Holy Grail. Careful viewers should be able to pick out threads of canonical tales in such scenes as the battle with the Black Knight and Galahad’s temptation by 150 maidens, but there is much more entertainment to be had viewing the Knights who say Ni, Sir Robin’s unflattering minstrels, and the insults traded between the French and English. Teachers should be warned that the film is in no way faithful to any Arthurian text and is mostly good silly fun; still, instructors could lead productive discussions about the how and why the film deconstructs and parodies Arthurian themes like kingship, chivalry, Christianity, and the quest. I would recommend this film for a high school audience.
The Mighty. Dir. Peter Chelsom. Chaos Productions, 1998.
An affecting story of two unlikely (and unliked) boys who form a friendship by reading Sir James’ Knowles’s The Legend of King Arthur and His Knights, The Mighty captures the spirit of Arthurian romance for modern audiences. The narrator, a shy and overgrown Maxwell Kane who is haunted by memories of his criminal father, is a loner at school and struggles with a learning disability. When his reading tutor turns out to be his new neighbor, Kevin “the Freak” Dillon, a charismatic but crippled boy suffering from a terminal illness, the two gradually bond under the mutual torment of the school bullies. The Freak lives by a chivalric code imbibed from his favorite books and his plucky spirit slowly begins to rub off on Max. But Max’s newfound courage is tested when his father, granted an early parole, returns home and kidnaps him from his family. In addition to frequent allusions to the Arthurian legends, the film weaves in a number of recognizably chivalric themes. Students will find much to identify with in the characters of the Max and the Freak. Despite its PG-13 rating for “elements of violence and peril,” I recommend this wonderful film for junior high students and older.
Tristan + Isolde. Dir. Kevin Reynolds. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2006.
The most recent film adaptation of Tristan’s story changes many of the plot elements from its medieval source texts to historicize the tale (a trend in a number of recent Arthurian films). In Reynolds’ attempt to make the story more realistic, he omits all supernatural components – most noticeably the infamous love potion – and intensifies the story with high political stakes. The plot pits a power-hungry Irish king against the war-weary and divided British clans, led by a chivalric Marke. In a back story original to this film, Marke saves young Tristan in a raid where Tristan’s parents are killed. Later adopted by Marke, Tristan serves his foster-father loyally in his struggle to unite the Britons. But Tristan’s loyalty is compromised when he falls in love with Irish princess Isolde and he must give her in marriage to Marke as a means of negotiating peace between Britain and Ireland. Further complications ensue when Marke favors Tristan over his own son, Melot, causing jealousy between the foster-brothers. While the film does not accurately portray the plot of any single Tristan story, it gives a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of not only the doomed lovers, but also of the traditional villain Marke. Especially convincing is Sophia Myles’s performance as an Isolde who is as vulnerable as she is fiery and intelligent. While the + in the title recalls Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Reynolds’ film has neither the anachronistic stylization nor the histrionics of the former; if anything, Tristan + Isolde is subtle and underplayed. Striking a nice balance between angst-filled romance and fast-paced action, this film should appeal to a teenage audience of both genders. Its PG-13 rating ensures safe viewing in its scenes of sex and violence.
Merlin. TV series. Shine/BBC Wales. 2008 – current.
BBC’s Merlin is notable for envisioning radical (and sometimes thoughtful) changes to the legend. It depicts a pre-Arthurian Camelot, in which the title character, after accidentally frightening his neighbors with his emerging magical powers, is sent to Camelot for apprenticeship under Gaius, the court physician. Young Merlin eventually wins a job as personal servant to the arrogant but good-hearted Prince Arthur. Facilitating the plot is a prescient dragon, who reveals Merlin’s and Arthur’s intertwined destinies. The show is unique in its treatment of magic and magical persons, who are ruthlessly persecuted by a monomaniacal King Uther for personal reasons; thus, Merlin must simultaneously keep his magic a secret while using it to help Arthur. Other crucial changes involve Guinevere, who is a black lady-in-waiting to Lady Morgana, Arthur’s foster-sister; a sympathetic Morgana whose emerging magic eventually turns her against her family; and the slow introduction of key knights, many of whom do not come from noble blood. Only by the end of the third season do we begin to see the beginnings of a recognizable Round Table. The show’s family-friendly tone ensures a healthy dose of (sometimes juvenile) humor and a few throwaway villain-of-the-week episodes. At its best, Merlin engages intelligently with issues important to the medieval period – questions of kingship, chivalry, otherness, social class, and free will. Having just completed its fourth season, the show is taking a darker turn as Arthur assumes kingship and clear lines are drawn between him and an increasingly evil Morgana. BBC has confirmed that the show will run its slated five-season course, so viewers will be able to watch the series in its entirety. I would recommend it for grades 4 and older.
Merlin. TV miniseries. Dir Steve Barron. Hallmark Entertainment/NBC Studios, 1998.
A four-hour miniseries, this Merlin makes an interesting contrast to the current BBC series of the same name: although both are family-friendly, this one casts its characters a bit older and strikes a more somber tone throughout. In this version, Merlin is created by the raspy-voiced Queen Mab for the purpose of maintaining the old pagan religion in the face of insurgent Christianity. Young Merlin is victimized and manipulated by Mab from the very beginning, and he eventually rebels against her, swearing off magic. For the remainder of the series, Merlin (in a fascinating conflation of several Arthurian stories) reluctantly aids the lustful Uther, creates the sword in the stone, educates young Arthur, and disastrously handles Camelot’s love triangle. Among the stronger points of the show is Merlin’s vexed relationship with the three key women in his life – maleficent Mab, his human lover Nimue, and the mysterious Lady of the Lake. Narrated throughout by the now-old Merlin, the series features an unexpected ending. Because it deals openly with the theme of lust and adultery, I would suggest teachers show it only to mature students, preferably junior high and older.
Bugs Bunny in King Arthur’s Court. Dir. Chuck Jones. Enterprises/Warner Bros. Television, 1979.
In a 25-minute special “stolen from Mark Twain,” various Warner Brothers cartoon characters assume the roles of Connecticut Yankee’s characters in a very loose and sanitized adaptation. Bugs Bunny stars as the Hank Morgan character, who is mistaken for a “dwagon” by the incompetent knight Sir Elmer of Fudde and is taken to the court of King Arthur (Daffy Duck). Here, he meets the Varlet (Porky Pig), who becomes a Clarence figure. When Merlin (Yosemite Sam) condemns him to be burnt at the stake, Bugs escapes using the eclipse trick from Twain. Humorous episodes follow, in which Bugs manufactures armor for endangered species, duels with Sir Elmer, and eventually pulls a sword from a stone to assume the throne. Director Chuck Jones expertly plumbs the more absurd elements of Twain’s tale to create a highly entertaining short. It is appropriate for all ages and would make a nice introduction to Twain.
First Knight. Dir. Jerry Zucker. Columbia Pictures Corp., 1995.
A modern exploration of Camelot’s infamous love triangle, this film is notable for its portrayal of a strong but conflicted Guinevere. She is rewritten as the lady of Lyonesse, a realm which suffers multiple raids by Round Table renegade Malagant. To protect her people, Guinevere accepts the marriage proposal of a much older, avuncular Arthur and keeps her word despite a budding romance with Lancelot. Here, Lancelot is reimagined as a cocky wandering warrior, disillusioned by his tragic past, who eventually finds a reason to rejoin society first through his love for Guinevere, then his belief in Arthur’s ideals. Although the film only loosely follows an Arthurian framework, it includes cleverly reimagined Abduction of Guinevere and Death of Arthur scenes. The boldly suggestive romance scenes warrant the PG-13 rating, and teachers should show the film accordingly.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Dir. Zoran Janjic. Air Programs International, 1970.
Originally released as a CBS special, this animated film is a relatively more faithful rendition of Twain’s novel than many of the goofier children’s adaptations. Like all Connecticut Yankee adaptations, it updates Hank Morgan’s gadgetry to more contemporary technology. This becomes most obvious in the climactic Battle of the Sand Belt, in which Hank uses junkyard style magnets and water cannons to defeat Arthur’s remaining chivalry. While the film feels dated, partially because of its simplistic animation and humor, it is still fairly accessible to younger audiences.
Unidentified Flying Oddball. Dir. Russ Mayberry. Walt Disney Productions, 1979.
A very loose adaptation of Twain’s novel, Unidentified Flying Oddball reimagines the Connecticut Yankee as ingenious but loveable Tom Trimble, a NASA engineer who is transported back into 6th-century Britain by a spacecraft launch gone wrong. Accompanying him is Hermes, a lookalike android built for the mission. Arthur’s world features a dignified king, melodramatic villains in Merlin and Mordred, and a sweetly naïve Alisande who has an odd but endearing attachment to her pet goose. Hilarious hijinks ensue, including a love triangle between Tom, Alisande, and Hermes. Despite its release date, the film has a surprisingly modern appearance and a wonderful sense of humor that should appeal to younger audiences. I would suggest this film for elementary and middle school students.
Camelot: The Legend. Dir. William R. Kowalchuk, Jr. GoodTimes Home Video, 1998.
One of the better recent films, Camelot: The Legend offers an entertaining, animated, musical version of the Arthurian legend based on White’s The Once and Future King. The plot follows three main storylines: Arthur and Guinevere’s desire to create a united kingdom, Lancelot’s quest to become a Round Table knight, and the evil machinations of Morgan and Mordred to topple Camelot. To condense White’s sprawling text, the writers often conflate story arcs and characters (for example, Morgan channels important aspects of Morgause and Vivian), but this rewriting ultimately benefits the film by coherently streamlining the story for children. Nor are controversial topics like Mordred’s incestuous conception or Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot ignored; rather, they are handled in intelligent and family-friendly ways. The careful viewer can see (often tongue-in-cheek) references to various Arthurian texts. Yet there is plenty of humor to appeal to younger viewers, from the French-accented Lancelot to the kooky Disney-ish songs. I recommend this film for all audiences.
Prince Valiant. Dir. Anthony Hickox. Constantin Film Production, 1997.
In the tradition of Xena: Warrior Princess, Prince Valiant (not to be confused with the 1954 James Mason film of the same name) is a campy film version of Hal Foster’s popular comic strip, targeted towards a young adult crowd. Valiant, an orphan and squire of Sir Gawain, has fallen in love with Princess Ilene. When Gawain is injured during a joust, Valiant impersonates his master to impress Ilene. Meanwhile, the evil Thule (Viking) Sligon, steals Excalibur from Arthur’s court. During the knights’ quest to recover the sword, Valiant discovers the secret of his birth: he is prince and heir apparent to the Viking kingdom, which he eventually leads into a final battle against Sligon. While the movie only sketchily follows the general plot of the comic strip, it has plenty of action, humor, and romance to appeal to young audiences. I would recommend this film for grades 4 and older.
As the previous section has shown, King Arthur’s stories have the potential to present striking visual images. Indeed, a wide range of artists have been inspired by the Arthurian narratives to create remarkable works of art. Below, I offer a few resources designed to expose students to not only Arthurian art, but a wider range of visual representation. Such resources sometimes accompany a textual overview of Arthurian lore for non-specialists with visual aids of artistic images, places, and artifacts. These works should provide students with introductory surveys and offer avenues for further research. However, this section differs a bit from previous ones: the first two works recommended here are too scholarly for the average K-12 student and should prove most useful as resources for teachers. The last two texts are more appropriate for student use.
Whitaker, Muriel. The Legends of King Arthur in Art. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1990.
Spanning nine centuries of art, this book offers a critical study of Arthurian paintings, sculptures, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, furniture, and clothing. The purpose of the book, as described by its publishers, is “to explain the social, political, religious and aesthetic conditions which influenced the form and content of representations of Arthurian legends in various historical periods.” While too scholarly for grade school students, the study may prove useful as background reading for instructors. One could, for example, survey such specific topics as images in early printed books, American art, or art inspired by Tennyson. The text includes a number of high quality color images, an extensive bibliography, and an index. Whitaker’s seminal work should be considered required reading for anyone with a serious interest in Arthurian art.
Mancoff, Debra N. The Arthurian Revival in Victorian Art. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990.
An extensive study of the Victorian revival in Arthurian art, this book discusses Arthur’s 19th-century emergence as a symbol of chivalry, idealism, and nationalism. Mancoff explores the complex historical conditions that brought about this resurgent medievalism and Arthur’s reinterpreted role as a didactic figure. She captures the nostalgic spirit of the “Victorian imagination” which perceived “Arthur…not [as] an historical man but [as] a metaphor, a means to express the idealism and aspiration of the present in the ennobling raiment of a glorious past” (xvii). While Mancoff targets a scholarly audience, K-12 teachers may still find her book a useful resource for contextualizing Arthur’s function in Victorian medievalism. (Teachers could supplement their use of this book with Mancoff’s later work, The Return of King Arthur: the Legend through Victorian Eyes, which gives a similar, but more accessible, view of the same subject. The Return of King Arthur also includes more illustrations than this book, some of them in color.) Because the final section contains high quality (but mostly black and white) plates, instructors could also use this book as a source for images. The text also includes extensive endnotes, a selected bibliography, and an index.
Brimacombe, Peter. Knights of the Round Table. Andover: Pitkin UniChrome Ltd., 1997.
One of a series of Pitkin’s Guides, this text takes readers through a fairly comprehensive arc of the Arthurian legend. Each page is divided up by theme – either a section of the narrative (like the Quest for the Holy Grail or Arthur’s Final Days) or by individual characters. Every section begins with a short synopsis and then features subsections with both text and image. While the textual information presented here is approachable, students will probably find the wealth of visuals most impressive. The book includes medieval images from illuminated manuscripts, stained glass and tapestries, popular Pre-Raphaelite paintings, stills from Arthurian films, and even photographs of Arthurian sites. Knights of the Round Table is appropriate for all audiences.
Patterson, David. The Quest for Camelot: The Arthurian Legend in Art. Edinburgh: Edinburgh City Libraries, 2001.
This book is a guide to the eponymous exhibition held at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland from Nov. 3, 2001 – Jan. 26, 2002. Although this text was conceived as a guidebook for a specific exhibition, it stands well on its own as an introduction to the Arthurian legend. While it is rather more text-heavy than the aforementioned Pitkin guide, it also provides a wide range of visual representations. The Quest for Camelot begins with contemporary and popular uses of Arthur in mass media, tourism, and merchandise, and works its way backwards in time to sample major Arthurian texts, authors, and characters. Showing its local roots, the last few pages speculate on Arthur’s relationship to Scotland. Overall, it is a good guide to Arthurian lore, particularly for students interested in its development through time. It should also prove useful to teachers interested in exposing their students to Arthurian material in many different media. Because of the text’s more historical bent, I would recommend this book for junior high students and older.
Arthurian Music (sound recordings)
At first glance (listen?), one might expect Arthur’s tragic story to be taken up first and foremost by classical composers and writers of musical drama. But contemporary Arthurian music spans from Celtic folk to New Age, pop to progressive rock, even country to heavy metal. I have included representative samples from a few of these genres to give instructors and students a glimpse of the stunningly wide range of Arthurian-inspired music available. Conspicuously absent are Wagner, Purcell, and other classical composers as well as English folk songs; I have omitted these in favor of highlighting shorter songs and keeping a pop sensibility that would likely appeal to modern students. This list progresses from fully Arthurian concept albums to single songs.
Lerner, Alan Jay and Frederick Loewe. Camelot [Original Broadway Cast]. Perf. Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet. Published 1960 by Columbia Records. Vinyl. (CD release: Original recording remastered 1998 by Sony.)
This is the original sound recording of the smash hit 1960 Broadway musical, which was based on T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. While the songs sound old-fashioned, they still retain enough humor and pathos to convey the timeless Arthurian drama. Students can find plenty of comedy in Guenevere’s flippant “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” Lancelot’s hilariously self-centered “C’est Moi,” Arthur & Guenevere’s “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”, and Mordred’s sardonic “Seven Deadly Virtues.” The romance and tragedy of the story are conveyed in such standout songs as Nimue’s haunting “Follow Me”, Lancelot’s deeply romantic “If Ever I Would Leave You” and, of course, the pulsing musical heart of the play, “Camelot.” Adventurous teachers could have students perform these songs or act out scenes to the music. I would recommend either viewing the 1967 film adaptation or sampling this soundtrack while teaching White.
Dale, Heather. The Trial of Lancelot. 1999 by Amphisbaena Music. Compact disc.
Canadian singer-songwriter Heather Dale is known for making medieval and Renaissance based music. The Trial of Lancelot was her first Arthurian album and is infused with her characteristic folksy and vaguely Celtic sound. She often assumes the voices of Arthurian characters, particularly Lancelot and the women associated with him. Standout tracks include the melancholy opener, “Lily Maid,” the urgently rhythmical “Mordred’s Lullaby,” an upbeat ballad “Culhwch and Olwen,” and the haunting closer “Measure of a Man.” The informative liner notes include not only lyrics, but synopses of the Arthurian episodes which inspired the songs. Dale’s Arthurian oeuvre includes two more albums: May Queen (2003) which is entirely Arthurian and focuses on the legend’s beginnings, and The Green Knight (2010) which includes three Arthurian tracks – “Brother Stand Beside Me,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and “For Guinevere.” Dale has also recorded two additional Arthurian songs – “Holly, Ivy, and Yew” from The Road to Santiago (2005) and the instrumental “Dream of Rhonabwy” from The Gabriel Hounds (2008). Because several of her songs deal with the theme of adultery, I suggest this CD for mature middle and high school students.
Wakeman, Rick. The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. 1975 by A&M Records, Inc. Vinyl. (CD release: 1990 by Fontana A&M.)
A fascinating compilation, this concept album includes seven songs on an Arthurian theme. Rick Wakeman, most famous as the keyboardist for progressive rock band Yes, mixes his classical piano background with his rock sensibilities to create an atmospheric and dramatic score. Highlights include the anthemic “Arthur” which narrates the pulling of the sword from the stone, the theatrical “Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight” with its urgent battle cry, and the epic “Last Battle” complete with virtuosic keyboarding and a narrated conclusion. Teachers should be warned that this British progressive rock is not the most accessible music and that the Arthurian narrative and lyrics often take a back seat to Wakeman’s long sequences of dazzling instrumentals.
The Soil Bleeds Black. May the Blood of Many a Valiant Knight be Avenged (The Tale of Sir Gawain). 1998 by Draenor Productions. Compact Disc.
A neo-medieval band dedicated to “explor[ing] the traditions and customs of medieval Europe with the ambition of drawing the listener into a world of the ancient past,” The Soil Bleeds Black artfully combines medieval instruments with raw sound to create highly original pieces of musical narrative. Like the previous entry, this music is highly stylized, not mainstream, and certainly an acquired taste. This album narrates Sir Gawain the Green Knight, but in a very experimental style. The band strives to bring their listeners into the tale by making music that sounds highly realistic: not only do they convey the speech of various characters, the strains of medieval instruments, and Gregorian chant, but also the ambient sounds of birdsong, streaming water, galloping horses, and battle cries. While the music gives the impression of minstrelsy, it sometimes edges into a Celtic sound, replete with pennywhistles and bagpipes. All the lyrics are taken from Marie Borroff’s verse translation (cited above), but they present only the last four internally rhyming lines of each stanza, making foreknowledge of the plot absolutely essential to understanding this interpretation. The band occasionally inserts sound bites from Arthurian films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (from which they borrowed the title of the album) and Knights of the Round Table, adding an unexpected touch of humor. The combined effect of these disparate elements can be overwhelming, yet at its best the music conveys the realistic feel of a minstrel’s performance, the Green Knight’s chilling menace, and the bittersweet irony of Gawain’s success. Enterprising teachers could discuss how medieval minstrels might have told the story, or how to stage the tale for modern audiences. (This album would provide an interesting contrast with Yeames’s play – cited above.) Since a few tracks, especially those dealing with the Green Knight, sound particularly menacing, I would recommend this album for junior high and high school students.
McKennitt, Loreena. “The Lady of Shalott.” In The Visit. 1992 by Quinlan Road. Compact Disc.
This haunting song sets the majority of Tennyson’s eponymous poem (the 1842 version) to music. McKennitt’s trademark Celtic style, lilting voice, and rhythmic harping lend the song a hypnotic feel. While the song lasts over eleven minutes, it is well worth the listen either in full or in excerpts. The poignant ending with its bittersweet irony is the highlight of the song. Students may find it illuminating to listen to the song with the poem open in front of them. In addition to this song, The Visit’s first track, the “Mystic’s Dream” (while not explicitly Arthurian) was featured as the theme song for TNT’s made-for-TV movie, The Mists of Avalon, an adaptation of Bradley’s novel. It may also be worth a listen.
The Band Perry. “If I Die Young.” In The Band Perry. 2010 by Nashville Republic. Compact Disc.
A hit single in 2010, this song is composed and recorded by the popular new country band formed by the three Perry siblings. The female narrator asserts that she has lived such a full life that she would have no regrets, even were she to die soon. While the lyrics themselves do not make explicit Arthurian references, the chorus evokes “Lady of Shalott” themes and imagery: “If I die young, bury me in satin / Lay me down on a bed of roses / Sink me in the river at dawn / Send me away with the words of a love song.” The official music video (available on youtube.com) makes more blatant reference to the Arthurian material with its visual representation: the woman lies prone in a boat, attired in a white dress and flowers, clasping a copy of Tennyson’s Poems to her chest. The final shot zooms in on the open volume, whose pages show the first few stanzas of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.”
Crosby, David. “Guinnevere.” Crosby, Stills, and Nash. 1969 by Atlantic Records. Vinyl. (CD release: Original recording remastered 1994.)
In this song, legendary American folk rock band CSN compares an ideal woman to the title lady, Guinnevere. In this subdued bluesy number, a lonely Guinnevere occupies a garden and often turns her gaze seaward, yearning for freedom. Her lover, voiced by the singers, dreams of setting her free. Crosby, Stills and Nash’s trademark harmonies, soulful lyrics, and acoustic guitar give a modern American twist to the portrayal of the medieval queen. Students may find this melancholy interpretation of Guinevere an interesting comparison to her depiction in traditional texts like Malory’s Morte.
Morrison, Van. “Avalon of the Heart.” Enlightenment. 1990 by Polydor Records. Compact disc.
A gospel-inspired pop song, “Avalon of the Heart” conflates two mystical aspects of the Arthurian legend – the island of Avalon and the Holy Grail. Here, Morrison relocates the Holy Grail into the “upper room / down by Avalon,” a place he characterizes as an “ancient vale” located in a utopian space “behind the sun.” He implies that this is a place of rebirth, of new beginnings, for “me and my lady.” Morrison’s ardent voice brings verve to a catchy tune. His song is one memorable example of the appeal of mystical Arthurian elements to modern songwriters.
Loggins, Kenny. “Back to Avalon”. Back to Avalon. 1988 by Columbia Records. Compact disc.
In this soft rock song, Loggins characterizes his once-perfect romance to the paradisiacal “gardens of Avalon.” The chorus lays out his message clearly: “Love is a lesson hard to learn / It’s never as easy to return / But if you’re willing to go on / You’ll find the way back to Avalon.” Implicit in his message is the empowering idea that Avalon is a human creation, synonymous with love, and a home for true lovers. His notion of Avalon contrasts interestingly with the more traditional depiction of Camelot as the ultimate human achievement. While the song sounds like typical ‘80s soft rock, it offers students another interpretation of the famous Arthurian isle.
Lauper, Cyndi. “Sisters of Avalon.” Sisters of Avalon. 1998 by Sony. Compact Disc.
A catchy pop song with a feminist theme, “Sisters of Avalon” celebrates the “wild heart” of its title women. Both the song and the music video, which features Cyndi Lauper dancing wildly in the woods, equate Avalon with an emerging feminine Nature, one which has destructive potential. The sisters of Avalon are equated with the “daughters of Eve” who awaken “unbridled nightmares,” captured by the music video in images of stormy seas and raging tempests. (The music video is available on youtube.com.) Released fifteen years after the publication of Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, this song no doubt draws on themes from that tradition. Students may find in Lauper’s upbeat number a fruitful comparison to the pagan rituals in Bradley’s novel.
Baez, Joan. “Sweet Sir Galahad.” First Ten Years. Published 1970 by Robbins. Vinyl. (CD release: 1990 by Vanguard Records.)
Written to commemorate the marriage of Baez’s younger sister, this poignant ballad tells the story of a lonely widow who puts on a happy front before her neighbors, but by night confesses her sorrows to the imagined ghost of her husband – whom she compares to Sir Galahad. Her bittersweet nostalgia is captured beautifully in the soaring chorus, which repeats the touching line, “And here’s to the dawn of their days.” The widow dies in rapture, believing herself reunited with her beloved and the song ends with a lovely image in which “Sweet Sir Galahad went down / with his gay bride of flowers, / the prince of the hours / of her lifetime.” Driven by a folksy acoustic guitar, the song reinterprets Galahad in a number of ways. Not only does the virgin knight of Arthurian fame acquire a secular lover, but is also transformed from a Christ-like winner of the Grail into a private confessor-savior for a lonely woman. Baez’s song is a testament to how Arthurian material can be modernized and personalized to very good effect.
Silver, Elaine M. “The Lady of the Lake.” Lady of the Lake. 2000 by Silver Stream Records. Compact disc.
A Celtic-inspired song driven by evocative pennywhistles and tambourines, “The Lady of the Lake” describes the fantastic nature of the title character. Here, she is associated with fairies, and brings Excalibur (an implied fairy gift) to court to present to the king. The ending stanza presents a nice twist in which Lady of the Lake’s fey magic is relocated into listeners’ minds and can help our dreams become reality. Silver’s song reflects a trend in contemporary music’s attraction to Arthurian women and their magical elements.
So much scholarship has been written on Arthuriana that it would be impossible to give a comprehensive list. Instead, I have very selectively chosen only those resources general enough to be helpful to K-12 students. These reference sources are designed to give students a solid overview on any number of given Arthurian topics as well as to suggest useful resources for further research. A few texts listed here are targeted towards instructors who want to explore how Arthurian material has been taught or adapted for a younger readership. The last two texts are modernized versions of medieval texts which give an overview of two concepts – chivalry and courtly love – which are crucial to understanding Arthuriana in its historical context.
The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. 2nd ed., updated paperback edition. Edited by Norris J. Lacy. Associate editors: Geoffrey Ashe, Sandra Ness Ihle, Marianne E. Kalinke, and Raymond H. Thompson. New York: Garland, 1996.
A standard for Arthurian scholars, this encyclopedia provides entries on all major topics of Arthuriana – including but not limited to characters, texts, authors, places, themes, visual arts, and music. All entries include a substantial introductory essay written by noted Arthurian scholars and a brief bibliography. This book is appropriate for all students interested in researching Arthur (but especially for older students). The text is most useful for providing general information on any given entry, as well as providing an extensive list of further reading. Also included are a useful list of entries arranged by category, a list of illustrations, a selected bibliography, a chronology, and a comprehensive index. For additional information on Arthurian titles, particularly films and comic books published since 1996, see the index of supplements for the New Arthurian Encyclopedia online through the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester: <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/NAEindex.htm>.
Lacy, Norris J. and Geoffrey Ashe with Debra N. Mancoff. 2nd ed. The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland, 1997.
Another standard reference work, the Handbook provides a broad critical survey from the question of a historical Arthur through all the major historical periods and texts. Although the budding Arthurian student will find much valuable information, the book is not directed to a purely scholarly audience and is accessible for a more general audience. Ashe and Lacy, both important Arthurian scholars, give a survey of major works, authors, genres, and themes, in five chapters. Major texts are divided up by nationality and century in an order pragmatic for the scholar. Especially useful is a detailed chapter on “Arthur in the Arts,” by Debra Mancoff which provides a survey of Arthuriana in such diverse media as manuscripts, woodcuts, tapestries, stained glass, book illustrations, musicals, and television for the more visually-inclined student. Also included are an extensive timeline, glossary, and bibliography. I would recommend this book to the high school researcher, especially in conjunction with the New Arthurian Encyclopedia and the Oxford Guide (cited below).
Lupack, Alan. The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Another classic in Arthurian scholarship, Lupack’s book gives a survey of the major works from medieval to modern times. Each chapter discusses in chronological order either the literature of a given genre or a major Arthurian character, and ends with a selected bibliography for further reading. Each entry includes an informative essay. Students, particularly older students interested in research would find this volume invaluable, both as a resource and a starting point for further research. Teachers looking for a solid background in selected Arthurian topics or Arthuriana in general would benefit by reading this book. Also included is an annotated index.
Harty, Kevin, ed. Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays. 2nd ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2002. A slightly different version of the filmography is available through the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/acpbibs/harty.htm
An impressive collection of essays, this book presents scholarship by noted Arthurian scholars on a wide range of Arthurian films. Harty’s opening chapter surveys nearly a century of Arthurian film (from 1904-2001), discussing and evaluating major movies. Cinema Arthuriana ends with the most comprehensive filmography available, listing over one hundred Arthurian films from around the world. Each title includes a bibliographic entry and extensive critical materials – including an exhaustive list of reviews and “additional discussions.” Teachers will find this bibliography an invaluable resource in helping them select appropriate films to show in class. (The version of Harty’s bibliography on the Camelot Project includes brief summaries of each entry, a feature not included in the book.) While some of these essays may prove challenging to students, I would nevertheless recommend them for high school students, some of whom may discover exciting new ways to think critically about film.
Bruce, Christopher W. The Arthurian Name Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.
An extensive guide containing over 5600 entries, this massive volume compiles the names of Arthurian characters, places, symbols, and themes from 6th to 19th-century literature, ending with Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Each entry gives the proper name, variants, a descriptive overview, and the texts in which the name appears. For major characters, places, symbols, and themes, Bruce extends the descriptive overviews into mini comparative essays, documenting their development in the Arthurian canon as well as providing relevant subsections like blood relations. The “Grail” entry, for example, spans four full pages and includes sections on the Grail Castle, Family, Hero, King, Kingdom, Knights, Maiden, Procession, Question, Sword, and Table. The final section of the volume provides a table listing crucial information about each source text cited. Also helpful is Bruce’s list of the most important Arthurian names in his preface, which beginners can use to familiarize themselves with the central figures in the legend.
Approaches to Teaching the Arthurian Tradition. Edited by Maureen Fries and Jeanie Watson. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1992.
Based on a survey conducted by the Modern Language Association (MLA) on the teaching of Arthurian literature, this book reports the findings of more than a hundred respondents from a broad range of instruction, from high school through university and postsecondary institutions. While the main audience for this text is undergraduate instructors, teachers at the high school level should find many of the resources helpful in designing their own Arthurian courses. The first section on “Materials” should be particularly useful to high school instructors because it offers an overview of the most popular primary texts, affordable translations, secondary material, and general reference. The second section, “Approaches”, gives insight into how college-level instructors present Arthurian material. Muriel Whitaker’s short contribution on “Arthur for Children” may be useful in suggesting both resources and classroom activities for younger students. Although the book is somewhat dated, instructors will find it a valuable resource.
Adapting the Arthurian Legends for Children: Essays on Arthurian Juvenilia. Edited by Barbara Tepa Lupack. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Although this volume does not specifically offer teaching strategies, its essays – written by leading Arthurian scholars – offer interesting perspectives on how Arthurian material has been repackaged and interpreted for modern children. Editor Barbara Lupack defines the purpose of the book as “offer[ing] a comprehensive overview of the widely divergent genres in which children’s Arthuriana has been treated and to demonstrate…the scope of Arthurian juvenilia, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in both high and popular culture” (xiii). A few chapters discuss children’s adaptations of such canonical texts as Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The range of topics includes Arthurian picture books, youth groups, music, comics, and film. The ambitious teacher can mine this collection for lesser known Arthurian materials and come up with creative ways of integrating Arthuriana into the classroom.
Lull, Ramon. The Book of Knighthood and Chivalry, and the anonymous Ordene de Chevalrie. Translated by Brian R. Price. Union City, CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2000.
Originally written by Catalan philosopher Ramon Lull, this handbook of chivalry was translated into English by William Caxton in the late 15th century and circulated widely in England. This text is Price’s modernization of Caxton’s version. The work presents the codes by which a knight should behave, detailing a knight’s training process, examination, equipment, and virtues. This edition also includes a second chivalric text, the anonymous poem, the Ordene of Chivalry. While the introduction provides useful biographical information about Lull, this edition is by no means a scholarly text; it includes no notes or bibliography and uses a deliberately calligraphic font. It is, however, the most accessible and affordable version currently available. Students will find this text a valuable guide to the ideals of medieval chivalry, which will in turn provide new insight into the behavior of Arthurian knights. This book is appropriate for advanced elementary school students and older.
Andreas Capellanus. The Art of Courtly Love. Edited by John Jay Parry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.
A fascinating text, The Art of Courtly Love (Latin De Amore) was written by Andreas Capellanus (Andrew the Chaplain) between 1170-1174 in Poitiers, France at the request of his patron, Countess Marie de Champagne. It describes the controversial social system popularized by French troubadours known as “courtly love,” in which a male lover courts his female beloved – usually a married lady – according to a set of rules codified in this book. Courtly love privileges secret, adulterous love over marriage. According to its logic, it is precisely because such love is socially illicit and unconsummated that it inspires lovers to perform great deeds of prowess for their ladies; such deeds are ennobling and elevate the lovers’ relationship to a higher plane than anything that can be experienced in lawful marriage. This book will present students with the fundamentals of courtly love, a concept absolutely crucial to understanding the significance and continuing appeal of two key Arthurian love affairs – those of Lancelot and Guinevere & Tristan and Isolde. Students may find the dialogues in part one and the rules of love both illuminating and amusing. A caveat: from a modern perspective, the third section which features a tirade against women, can seem misogynistic or downright offensive. I would therefore suggest this text for mature high school audiences.
Given students’ increasing tendency to use google as their first stop in the research process, I have included a number of the most reliable Arthurian websites I have found. As with all web-based content, students should exercise caution and be wary of questionable information. The vast majority of Arthurian websites are based on the creator’s personal conception of Arthur and fail to address the wide range of Arthurian source texts or scholarship. The websites I have selected are a mix of academic and personal websites, some of which offer a gateway into scholarly research and others which provide access and meeting points for fans of popular Arthuriana.
The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Gen. eds. Alan Lupack and Barbara Tepa Lupack. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cphome.stm>
The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester is dedicated to making Arthurian texts, images, and general information available in electronic format. The website offers a wide variety of searchable full-text works and images about major Arthurian characters, symbols, and sites, as well as several extensive bibliographies. Each major entry includes a brief introductory essay, followed by representative texts, artwork, and a select bibliography. The author and artist menus present an alphabetical listing by author’s name of linked texts and images. Under “Scholarly Arthurian Resources,” researchers can find such diverse offerings as interviews with contemporary Arthurian authors, comprehensive bibliographies, supplements to the New Arthurian Encyclopedia, and a T. H. White glossary. While the website is a good resource for general Arthuriana, it is particularly useful as a place to find older and more obscure Arthurian materials in full text. The website is regularly updated as new content is added. The Camelot Project should serve as a reliable first stop for students doing online research.
Arthuriana Pedagogy, sponsored by Arthuriana, the scholarly journal for the North American Branch of the International Arthurian Society. Ed. Alan Baragona. <http://www.arthuriana.org/teaching/index.html>
Sponsored by the North American branch of the International Arthurian Society, this website offers teaching materials to instructors at all levels, from pre-kindergarten up through graduate-level studies and beyond. Resources include sample syllabi, lecture notes, classroom activities, and suggested paper topics. For younger students, the contributors offer such varied activities as a vocabulary lesson teaching chivalric terms, an art project in which students create their own coat of arms, and various slideshows on Arthurian texts or themes. While some of the materials available are dated, teachers may find the featured links useful. The discussion board, in which teachers share ideas and the results of their classroom projects, is worth browsing. Because the website is divided up according to students’ grade level, some materials appropriate to multiple grade levels appear repeatedly. This website is an invaluable resource for the instructor interested in creatively incorporating Arthuriana into the classroom.
TEAMS Middle English Texts. Gen. ed. Russell A. Peck. The University of Rochester and Western Michigan University. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/tmsmenu.htm>
Hosted by the University of Rochester, the TEAMS Middle English Text Series has published a number of Arthurian texts, which are also available online. Arthurian texts include Benson and Foster’s King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte and the Alliterative Morte Arthure; Lupack’s Lancelot of the Laik and Sir Tristrem; Conlee’s Prose Merlin; Hahn’s Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales; Braswell’s Sir Perceval of Galles and Ywain and Gawain; and Salisbury and Weldon’s Lybeaus Desconus (forthcoming). Because all of these editions are written in the original Middle English, students may find the texts too difficult to read; they may prove more useful as instructor resources, especially as a way for teachers to familiarize themselves with the language(s) of medieval texts.
Arthuriana: Studies in Early Medieval History and Legend. Ed. Thomas Green. <http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/>
University of Oxford scholar Thomas Green’s personal academic website offers a variety of resources for researchers interested in the history and archeology of the early middle ages, Welsh Arthurian sources, and the historical Arthur. Main pages include “Recent Publications,” “Arthurian Sources and Studies,” and “Historical Research into Early Medieval Britain.” Many of Green’s articles are available for download in pdf format. While the information provided here is very scholarly and may prove too academic for younger students, I would recommend the website for advanced high school students. Portions of the website which offer (relatively more accessible) surveys include the “Arthurian FAQ,” the “Bibliographic Guide to Welsh Arthurian Literature,” and “Pre-Galfridian Arthurian Characters.”
King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table. Ed. Nathan Currin. <http://www.kingarthursknights.com/>
The personal website of Nathan Currin, this website is a good starting point for beginners interested in Arthuriana. The various pages of Arthurian characters offer reliable profiles of various characters with some historical and textual references. Especially useful are the sections about Arthurian landmarks and structures, which give brief accounts of the associated legends and a few illustrative photos. While the site gives reliable information, cites its sources responsibly, and is relatively easy to navigate, teachers should be warned that it has commercial interests and at least one advertisement (usually for Arthurian items) is visible on nearly every page. I would recommend this website for junior high students and older, especially those beginning their research and looking for a solid online source.
The Pendragon. Ed. Alan Campbell. <http://www.thependragon.co.uk/>
The official website of the Pendragon Historical Society, this resource offers a range of information on Arthuriana in contemporary pop culture including 20th and 21st century novels, films, TV series, and fan-based websites. While it does offer some information on more traditional Arthurian history and literature, this content seems secondary and is buried under the deluge of pop culture references. Since the website is updated fairly frequently, it is a good resource for students looking for popular current Arthuriana, although I would not recommend it for scholarly research.
Pamela M. Yee is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at the University of Rochester, a contributor to the Camelot Project, a staff editor for the Middle English Text Series, and an instructor in the College Writing Program.
Original Citation: The Once and Future Classroom, Volume X, Issue 2, Fall 2012 http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/Fall2012/Fall2012ArthurBib.html
NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted. No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.