Saturday, 28 May 2011

King Arthur: Stories of the Knights of the Round Table (by Vladimir Hulpach)


When I was little, I had a couple of big compendium books I really loved. One was A Treasury of Literature for Children, which was a collection of excerpts from longer novels and poems (the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi from The Jungle Book, an extract from What Katy Did, 'A Smuggler's Song' and so on). King Arthur: Stories of the Knights of the Round Table, a collection of various stories relating to Arthur and his knights, was the other.

When I read it, though, I always skipped the first chapter. The second chapter told the story of Merlin's childhood and the third finally got to the birth of Arthur (and therefore, to me, the interesting bit) but the first explained how the kingdom of Britain was, in fact, founded by Trojans. This chapter, I'm afraid to say, did not interest me at all!

The story given in the book (which I presume became attached to Arthurian legend somewhere in the medieval or early modern period, though I don't know when) is that Ascanius' grandson Brutus was exiled after accidentally killing his father and was led to Britain by Artemis through a dream. However it got attached to Arthurian legend, the intention is clear - to make Arthur a great Classical hero as well as a British one and to tie the Britons, like the Romans before them, to Homeric legend. Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain is reimagined as a meeting of ancient kinfolk and Arthurian legend is made part of a larger Classical story.

This only means anything, though, if you are already familiar with Classical mythology and can enjoy drawing links between the two systems. I didn't know anything about Classical mythology as a child, so, being an obstinate child, I wasn't interested in it. This problem is compounded by the fact that the story is taken right from the Trojan War to the founding of Britain, through Aeneas, Ascanias, Silvus and Brutus, and the story whizzes through the whole of the Aeneid and more in a few hundred words, leaving no time to get to care about any of the story. Plus, the only thing I did know about Classics at the time was that Brutus killed Julius Caesar, so I was also really confused.

Going back to it as an adult, the chapter still feels a bit rushed, but works much better. Artemis, orders given in dreams, people accidentally shooting relatives and going off to found new kingdoms all seems much more familiar to me now and the tying together of the two mythologies is quite fun. I've no idea if this book is still in print, but I'm glad I still have it - it's beautifully illustrated by Jan Cerny and I always enjoyed its retellings of the Arthurian legends as a child. I'm glad it includes the Classical sections as well, as I can really appreciate them now - no more skipping Chapter One!

6 comments:

  1. Ah, the Brutus legend. It was made popular by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was the major source for Arthur prior to Malory. He seems to have gotten it from Nennius, who actually had several Bruti founding various northern European peoples. It was a nice bit of nationalistic folk etymology trying to explain the name of the island and giving Britain a respectable pedigree.

    Arthurian legend has a couple of classical tie-ins. Malory has him go off and become Roman Emperor, most likely conflating him with Magnus Maximus or maybe one of the minor breakaway emperors. Maximus himself managed to get firmly established in Welsh legend.

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  2. Oh yes, this is the old idea of associating oneself with Ancient Rome to seem more awesome. I wish I could get away with that too!

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  3. I always liked the version from an old BBC series about Merlin, which I think was based on Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and sequels, where Aurelius Ambrosius was Merlin's father and was an initiate of Mithras, that was rather fun.

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  4. That radio series probably was based on Mary Stewart. I think she may have been the first to connect Merlin and Ambrosius like that. Since then, it's become sort of a staple. She was also pretty much the first to have tried to put Arthur in anything like a 5th/6th century post-Roman setting. Up to then it was all Malory or T.H. White (who was just Malory one step removed).

    I did a little looking around about the Brutus legend. It looks like it was fairly popular in medieval Europe. There were a couple of lais and Brut appears to have come to mean a chronicle of the kings of Britain for awhile. Then they all jumped on the Arthur/grail bandwagon.

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  5. It wasn't a radio series, it was a TV series, a series for children shown at Christmas, I think in the same slot as Narnia and The Borrowers. But I'm pretty certain it was based on the Mary Stewart books.

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  6. no more like part of a country that's old enough to have had to deal with them laddie

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