Arthurian Cycle with a New Twist

Guinevere art


The story of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table is one of the longest shared world stories in Western history.

From what I can tell, there were various mentions of Arthur in poems, especially Welsh ones, before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote up his history of the British Kings in the 1130s—which included tales of Arthur.

However, from anything I can tell Arthur was anything but a good guy in those early traces. It took Geoffrey to start the ‘noble king’ ball rolling, maybe to boost an English king over the continental Charlemagne, maybe because he was just a really good storyteller, but his history is fascinating for its combination of fact and fiction. He maintained he got his info on Arthur from an ancient tome, as you did in those days. Because originality was not a marketing feature.

Whatever his motivation, the Arthurian portion of his history was a huge hit. It spread to the continent, where Chretien de Troyes got into the act, and across Europe and down in Germany, where Wolfram von Eschenbach delighted audiences with tales of the Round Table. (Reading Erec furnishes fascinating snippets of medieval German life, kind of like medieval saints’ paintings.)

geoffrey king arthur

Back in England, Arthur was still hot two centuries later. By Edward II’s time in the 1300s, Arthurian merchandizing was extremely hot. If you wanted to make a splash at court, you wore Arthurian stuff, you redid your castle on Arthurian themes.

Arthur zoomed back into literary fashion in the time of Edward IV, when Sir Thomas Malory wrote up his version of the Arthurian tales. These, too, showed glimpses of late medieval life, including styles of fighting from real experience as apparently Malory, when he wasn’t writing, was a brawler and troublemaker.

His Knights of the Round Table are basically young guys in the highest tech of the time roaming around England’s gigantic forests (for this was before the Age of Sail pretty much denuded the island) looking for other brawlers to fight. Pretty much like the gangs of today.

fairie queen

After that there were Arthurian tales that reflected politics and cultural trends of the time, especially in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which—later—Spenser’s Fairie Queene is partly an answer to, and partly a publicity boost for Elizabeth Tudor.

Tennyson’s elegiac Idylls of the King reads a paean to Victorian society, with Camelot’s downfall tied to Guinevere’s lack of purity. Arthur seems to be a tip of the hat to Prince Albert, and the knights are all manly men, but the women seem to be there to be pale, frail, and pure, their identity bound to a man.

The twentieth century saw an explosion of Arthurian tales. Gritty, bitter Camelot, magical Camelot, modern, unmagical Camelot, Camelot on stage, and in the seventies, Marion Zimmer Bradley electrified a whole generation with her (arguably) feminist eco-friendly pagan versus the nasty, smelly, evil male Christian Camelot.

Lots of different Camelots saying lots of different things about the society of the writer.

But after a lifetime of sampling all these various versions, I’ve never really taken to this storyline. It’s a doom and disaster tale that turns on adultery. Not my cuppa.

I did have to teach Malory back in my teaching days, getting puzzled kids through fifteenth century English mainly by teasing out stories that could relate to their lives now, and then painting a picture of life then. We read it in spite of the story, kind of, because personality was pretty sparse: the characters are all pretty much one thing, especially the women.

Lance cover

But there’s one Arthurian story I really like a whole lot, and that’s this one, by Carol Anne Douglas, the first half of which is entitled Lancelot: Her Story. I’ve been reading drafts over a number of years, as she slowly reworked and layered the story into what it is now.

She’s studied those earlier versions, and it shows in the episodic nature of the narrative, the easily accessible prose, and of course the famous people and incidents. But she added a twist: Lancelot is a woman. And Arthur and his Knights don’t know it.

This is the female gaze view of the Camelot story that I’d hoped to see in Mists of Avalon, but didn’t get. I don’t mean to crab on Bradley’s book, for she wrote the version of the story that she wanted to write, and it delighted (and continues to delight) its audience, but I was not part of that audience because it was too heavy-handed in its message, the characters too cartoony. The world unconvincingly black-and-white.

Douglas gets into sex, gender, and identity in ways that I found fascinating, especially in this storyline, where I know the general flow of what is to happen to who, but with twists that add new insight or meaning into the old incidents. And Douglas chooses a simple narrative style that is not post-modern, using language and worldview from an early medieval-feeling time when the Roman hold on Britain is mostly gone, but not quite, and when pagan practice is being replaced by Christianity.


At first it seems that this is another Arthurian with no magic, and indeed most of the characters pretty much don’t think magic exists, or it is fading with the old ways, but Douglas has some nice surprises. Merlin is a mysterious figure who walks in and out of the tales.

One of the most interesting characters is Ninian, who heads a nunnery. Elderly, experienced Ninian remembers the old ways in the old days—and respects and celebrates them still— but there are times when she feels she must pray as a Christian. Arthur’s Christianity is a state religion, his own theology more difficult to define (in that, and in a few other ways, he reminded me rather of Charles I); Guinevere’s is surface; like her queenship she does what is expected of her, but hers is not a religious nature. Lancelot’s is, and a significant part of her personality is her deep, sincere religious struggle.

Gawaine’s take is a cheerful blend of practicality and an acceptance that the world is far weirder than he can compass: he was baptized because Arthur wanted him to be, and he goes to Mass without a problem, but his mother Morgause’s pagan ways are also deeply rooted in him. Gawaine is another of my favorite characters, complex, puzzled, passionate and opinionated, loyal, smart.

As for Lancelot’s identity and how it’s handled. I’ll never forget the Regency novel published in the late seventies or early eighties, in which, on the first page, the heroine when told she was to be presented at Almack’s, which had pretty much become the Heyerian standby trope for intoducing heroines, replied that she didn’t want to–she wanted to, and I quote, “actualize her personhood.” I put the book back down on the library shelf. The thing is, Jane Austen, in being the first to write about what women thought, and making it matter, was doing just that, but in the language and spirit of her time.

We don’t know what Arthur’s time was, since over the centuries the myth has hovered somewhere between the height of the middle ages in certain aspects, and earlier history in others. Douglas, in dealing with the matters of gender, identity, and the expectations of either sex, avoids postmodern language, keeping the myth in its timeless place.

To sum up, I never cared for the gloom and doom of the Arthurian cycle, with its slow, foreordained slide into shipwreck and misery, but this version I am following with fascination. The doom is there, in Morgan’s complicated ambitions, and in glimpses of a very, very angry young Mordred—but given what I’ve read here, I believe that in Lancelot and Guinevere, book two, there will be found beacons of light, which makes me look forward to the second half of the tale.





Arthurian Cycle with a New Twist — 46 Comments

  1. I am so looking forward to reading Carol Anne’s book, hopefully over the holidays. (She was in the same VP class I attended.)

    I was once into everything Arthurian, but as I aged, the darkness and tragedy of so many interpretations became uninteresting to me.

    Here, though, Carol Anne has such a fresh take that I want to dive in again and see if it intrigues me as much as it sounds like it will.

  2. Edward IV, not XIV? And possibly Prince Albert, rather than Prince Alfred, his second son?

    Will definitely read this book!

  3. And not “Welch”, but Welsh. No grape juice involved. Yes, I know, picky picky picky.

  4. I am convinced that Arthur was a real, historical personage. One theory as to his absence in early records, except for two brief and disputed references, is that he requisitioned church property for his fight against the Saxons or otherwise ticked off the Church–hence his bad reputation when he does start showing up in stories. He is portrayed as trying to trick monks out of goodies, but the monks always succeed in tricking him!

  5. Bought the ebook.

    Talking of fresh takes on Arthur, have you seen what Steinbeck did with it?

  6. Thank you for this intelligent review. I have always been uninterested in the Arthurian legends for some of the reasons you’ve outlined and appreciate your overview of the literature. I’d like to read this book. Will look for it.

  7. Scholars tend to agree that Geoffrey of Monmouth made up King Arthur as a form of combating the anti-Welsh, racist attitudes and expressions of the Brits back in the early 12th century (they’d been kicking the Normans’ butts, after all . . . .)

    • I accept the historical existence of Arthur–not the legendary accretions, of course, and I concede that the early evidence for his life is shaky, but I am interested in why you think he was completely made up. For example if he was not the victor at Badon Hill then who was? If it was Ambrosius wouldn’t they say?

      • I should probably have been clearer, but I wanted to get to the book. There probably was a historical Arthur, but all the accretions that we recognize–the love triangle, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin and Excalibur, etc, are the mythological additions that have stuck. The Arthur of the Welsh poems pre-Geoffrey, for example, seems to have been anything but noble.

        • I agree. I was wondering why Foxessa discounted his existence and who the scholars are that she references.

          • Reference lists and citations listed in literary, cultural and historical studies of Monmouth, as well as historians of his own era writing in irritation to Monmouth’s passing off imagination as history, is why I don’t believe he was an actual person. There are many good accounts of this, even online, complete with references and cites.

            Personally, it feels likely that there were war band leader figures who got composited into the figure that Monmouth created — in the same way that a variety of Danish leaders of the eddas’ era got composited by the authors of the Ragnar cycle.

            What is rather delightful, from an historical viewpoint is that this figure, who was created as a political and social counter to the general Brit sense that the Welsh were in every area inferior — very like the later racial constructs around the inferiority of Africans — was so immediately popular with the English, who insisted on making him one of their own despite his being Welsh.

            Which ultimately led to at least two kings — Henry II and Edward I — being instrumental in the construct of the skeletons and graves of Arthur and Guenivere at Glastonbury — literally claiming them once and for all for the Brits. Those monumental graves were created by King Edward I while he was fighting the Welsh. They became England’s most popular site for pilgrimage. By the way Edward and and the previous Norman kings after Monmouth did believe that Arthur was a real personage. (These graves were destroyed in the 17th century, during the Cromwell era, as pagan lies.)

            • There are earlier references to an “Arthur dux bellorum” than the Geoffrey, in Nennius for one. Yes, that reference has been challenged, but I wouldn’t call it “refuted”. That is, there existed an Artorius who was a warleader, not a king in the later sense of “king”. Geoffrey may have embroidered a bunch of legends that he brought together under one figure’s name, but he certainly didn’t “invent” the person.

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  9. That sounds fascinating. I’ll look for a copy. (Buy? With what? Besides, I hate doing business with Amazon.)

    The Arthurian stories never did it for me, either. Doomed golden ages … well, I think we are children of one, after all. But the culture of Arthurian chivalry never clicked for me. Hah. But there might be something … something … “Oh who would walk the stony roads of Merlin’s time? / Or keep the watch upon the borderline? / And who would hear the legends passed in song and rhyme / Upon the shepherds pipes of Merlin’s time?”

  10. When I was in college, I took a course in medieval lit by a favorite professor, and one of the pieces we went through was the Tale of Kilwch and Olwen, current around a thousand years ago. If I remember correctly, Arthur was just the motivating force inasmuch as he just sat at home and sent others on adventures, but he was there in stories that early on. I think Chretian de Troyes added Lancelot later on in a nationalistic attempt to show that Frenchmen were irresistable, but the love triangle was there early on also, though it was Bedwyr originally (who devolved into Bedivere when his place was usurped). Rosemary Sutcliff used this in a book called Sword at Sunset, an old favorite. But the thing that convinces me that there is some truth to the characters is that I heard that, while we would call some girl a regular Jezebel, there are parts of Wales where they would call that same girl a regular Guenivere. And I’m right up there with Schliemann hearings rumors of Troy, that there is something there, if not what you expect.

  11. I devoured every version of the Arthurian legend I could get my hands on through high school and college and at one point thought I’d go to grad school and tease out the tangle of old Celtic legend, French romance, and all the other layers (which explains why I took a semester of Middle Welsh Gaelic for my linguistics degree). I liked Bradley’s version both because I read heavily in SF/fantasy and knew her other work and because someone at last made women actors rather than solely the acted-on.

    I’ve moved far away from that interest but this sounds like a work that would revive it for me.

    To recommend another work set in that post-Roman not-yet-England time: Hild by Nicola Griffith draws on a huge body of research, created an unforgettable central female character, gives you insight into the complex politics involved in drawing together warring interests under one king, and shows the Welsh/English class conflict (which was still alive when my born-in-Iowa grandfather of Welsh descent was described by his born-in-England mother-in-law as “Not bad, for a Welshman.”)

  12. I have to recommend a book — THE ARTHUR OF THE WELSH by Rachel Bromwich, University of Wales press. She discusses the oldest strands of the legendary Arthur that survive in a thoroughly scholarly way. If you can find her edition of the TRIOEDD YNYS PRYDAIN, that is “The Triads of the Island of the Britain”, which is in English, never fear, she has some solid information on the development of the various legends that made their way into later works of literature.

  13. A curious coincidence – I’ve just recently finished listening to this podcast :
    about the retellings of the Arthur legends since Mallory, and then I read your article.

    The talk is a bit of a rush, but I found it interesting as – like your article – it highlights how the legend is retold in ‘contemporary’ concerns – so, eg Caxton altered Mallory to emphasise bold and bloody manliness, or how TH White uses the stories to work through the horrors of WW1 (not in his 1st book, but his later ones).

    I always find it interesting when writers choose to set their Arthurian tales, because they are essentially medieval romances. Caughey suggests here that the idea of setting the tales in 5th-6th centuries is a post WW11 thing – the Brits fighting off invading Saxon/ German hordes.

    I mostly agree with you about the overall arc of the Arthurian legends, as it’s now told. But stories within it I find appealing, esp that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’ve heard this described as the perfect quest story – hero embarks on quest, which challenges him in ways he’s not anticipated, and changes him – strengthens and humbles – and sends him home again, wiser, to a place that is changed also. Think Bilbo Baggins.

  14. And your article made me think again about Diana Wynne Jones’ “Hexwood”.

    I knew that her mingling and repeating of story lines in “Hexwood” is a reflection of computer gaming – that re-entering games at different points and getting different outcomes etc. It’s only just occurred to me – slow that I am – after reading your summary of the Arthurian legends sources – that of course she was also reflecting the mingling and retellings and contradictions of the medieval tales.

    She also has the character of The Wood, aka Great Forest 🙂

  15. One of my favorite books that I read as a displaced Californian in Alaska was set during in the late middle ages with girl passing herself off as a boy. I was 14, lonely as all get out, and had never come across the concept in a book that a girl could actually be interpreted as a boy (even though I was brought up to believe I could do and be anything I wanted without gender labels).
    I loved that book. I checked it out from Spenard library several times that first summer. This was before I kept lists of the books I read and I have often wondered who the author was.

    The Spenard Library was actually in Anchorage, but Spenard had been a separate town for a number of years, and so had its own library. It was a much more interesting library that my home library in California and I found other books there that were quirky and interesting.

    (There was another book I read at the same time, set probably in the 1930s, called Winter Wheat, which was a love story which I also wish I knew the author’s name.)

    I avoided the many Arthur stories until Stephen Lawhead came out with his. I loved his Taliesin and Merlin books, although the I didn’t like the Arthur one nearly as much. A few years later I spent a month and a half in Wales and soaked up the atmospheric history. I bought some of the history books from the University of Wales press and spent many hours reading and thinking about the historical aspects the Celtic life in Wales.

    The idea of Lancelot as a woman sounds thoroughly intriguing.

    • I wonder if that children’s Arthurian might have been written by Geoffrey Trease?

      That trip to Wales sounds terrific!