by Daniel Mersey
The Myths and Legends series from Osprey Adventures endeavors to retell myths and legends as close to the original form as possible while also examining their evolution to what we have today. How do you do that with a legend like King Arthur, which has had so many incarnations over the centuries?
Mersey takes a very logical route. He takes a look at the most common legends of Arthur, especially as codified by Mallory in his Death of Arthur. That’s the source of most of our pop culture perspectives of the legend. He then works backward to the Celtic legends, and beyond that to various theories as to the actual historical Arthur.
The sequence works well, taking the reader from known to unknown. Unfortunately, the legends of Arthur are so varied and vast that he has to pick and choose what to focus on. Merlin is barely mentioned, and many of the Knights make cameos in the book. Then again, the book is about King Arthur and not his Round Table, so it makes sense to drop the portions of the legends that Mersey does.
Unlike other books in the series, Mersey takes a very scholarly approach to his subject matter. The opening chapters on the more familiar aspects of Arthur feel like a refined report on ancient sources. The chapter on the historical Arthur in particular feels a bit like a research paper, with a lot of credits given to when a particular theory was put together, and who did it. The approach made the subject matter feel a bit drier than other books in this series. I had a harder time getting through this one than, say, the Thor volume in the series. It’s not badly written at all; the tone is simply more academic.
I did learn a lot in the book, though. I was continually struck by the Celtic names in particular; I knew that Lloyd Alexander had based much of his Prydain Chronicles on Welsh myth, but I’d never realized how much of it came from Arthur stories! Much of the Celtic chapter was new to me, including an observation that at one point, the legends may have made Arthur a giant instead of a normal man!
One thing this book lacks is a map. Mersey refers to many places in connection to Arthur, particularly in the last chapter. He addresses theories that state Arthur was based in the South, in the Southwest, or in the North of England. He lists various ancient nations within Britain. Well, I’m not British (though I love me some Doctor Who). I would have appreciated a map to know where all these places are.
As with the other books in the series, they’ve found an excellent illustrator. Alan Lathwell puts together some great images from non-standard Arthur stories. For instance, his illustration of Arthur battling the Boar-King is fantastic. I’d pick up a book with that cover!
So, you want to get started with King Arthur? This is a good place to start. The bibliography in the back includes not only non-fiction, but also fiction sources along with recommended movies (Monty Python for the win!) and games. It’s worth your time, even if the scholarly tone might make the subject matter feel a little dry.