In this blog post, former school teacher and long-time supporter of Seven Stories, Nick Brown, talks about his love of Arthurian legends and many of his favourite Camelot-based children’s books.
There are few books from my childhood that I treasure but, of these, the one that means the most to me is the Puffin edition of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. This edition will be well known to older reader. It was “newly re-told out of the old romances” by Roger Lancelyn Green and wonderfully illustrated by Lottie Reiniger with a beautiful stained glass window of a cover.
Not only was it the beauty of the book and the captivating tales, it was the wonderful names of the protagonists that were so different from any other stories I’d come across. Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere and Launcelot seemed so mysterious. Also, Green’s introduction invited the young reader to become part of a heritage of storytelling that began with Thomas Malory and continued through to the present day.
Since then, I have ‘progressed’ through reading Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur; I have read various medieval romances such as Simon Armitage’s wonderful translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I have watched numerous TV programmes and films, including John Boorman’s 1981 film, Excalibur, that have either investigated the ‘historical’ Arthur, retold the tales or used the characters for new adventures.
Arthurian romances have long proved to be popular both for adult and child readers. Children’s editions began to appear from the 1860s and continue to appear up to the present day. Seven Stories’ book collection contains a wonderful range of these stories and I want to mention just a few of them.
The first book I came across on my recent research visit to Seven Stories Collections Department was Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Lantern Bearers. Set in the time when the Roman legions began to leave Britain, Sutcliffe introduces us to the ‘historic’ Arthur through the characters of Ambrosius and Artos who lead the resistance to the invading Saxons.
Sutcliffe was to continue her interest in all things Arthur with her Arthurian cycle, which deals with the quest for the Holy Grail. In this series of books, as in many retellings, Merlin is both powerful and mysterious. Sometimes, one feels that he is the more important character who uses the other protagonists as his pawns. I’m sure that I’m not the first to think that!
Conversely, in T H White’s The Sword in the Stone, Merlin is not seen as manipulative, but more as a king trainer. The young Arthur, or should we say ‘Wart’, learns, not only about the world of men but also of nature when he is transformed into various animals or fish. Only then is he ready to pull the sword from the stone and set in motion the tumultuous events of his reign.
But it’s not all deadly seriousness in the world of Arthur. Ladybird produced many Arthurian stories, many unrelated to the world of Malory and full of fanciful illustrations not particularly historically accurate, either to the sixth century or the high Middle Ages. Rosemary Manning goes further with the more light hearted exploration of the world of Camelot with her Dragon Quest sequence. These books feature an ancient dragon who knew Arthur and who tells wonderful tales to a girl from modern times.
For those looking for very much grittier Arthur, Philip Reeve’s 2008 Carnegie Medal winning Here Lies Arthur is the one to read. As with Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels, Reeves’ book is set in the fifth or sixth century. However, Reeves didn’t set out to write an historical novel. Rather, Reeves himself explains that: “in writing it I did not set out to portray ‘the real King Arthur,’ only to add my own little thimbleful to the sea of stories which surrounds him.” And what a thimble! We have a bard called Myrddin who creates an image of Arthur that will help unite the Britons in their resistance to the Saxons. The story is full of violence: Arthur is no pious hero. Reeves’ also explains that his interest in Arthur began when he watched Boorman’s “brilliant, beautiful and barking mad” film, Excalibur, on 5 July 1981.
Susan Cooper’s, The Dark is Rising, sequence is a classic piece of British children’s fantasy. Although not strictly Arthurian, Cooper blends in British myths and legends in the protagonist Will’s quest to find a number of magical objects, one much like the grail. At the centre of these novels is Merriman the wizard who is, of course, our old friend Merlin. If you haven't read these books do give them a go (in this blogger’s opinion, the books are far superior to the film of recent times that does Cooper few favours).
Finally, if you’re a fan of the Arthurian legends and of illustration then Seven Stories Michael Foreman exhibition, Painting with Rainbows, contains two of Foreman’s wonderful original illustrations for Michael Morpurgo’s Arthur, High King of Britain. In Morpurgo’s version, set in modern times, a Cornish boy is rescued from drowning by Arthur Pendragon, who now lives in a cave waiting to be summoned to save Britain in its direst need. Arthur appears to suffer from insomnia and is only too glad to tell the boy of his adventures, although his dog, Bercelet has heard the stories many times before! As many readers will know, Michael Morpurgo has donated his archive to Seven Stories and I’m looking forward to exploring Morpurgo’s original notes and drafts of this particular story.
The appeal of Arthurian legends will long continue to endure in popular culture; no doubt, numerous books, films and TV programmes are yet to be made about him. Who knows when the next Arthurian children’s book comes along but I don’t think we’ll have too long to wait.
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