Guest Post: A Tour Guide to Classic Arthurian Literature

For the Arthurian in you, a Tour Guide through that legendary region. This is something I wish I had when I began thinking about Arthurian literature. This guest post is by Suzannah Rowntree, who ends the tour with her own work.

Book Geeks Anonymous

Greetings, booklings! Today, I’m handing the reins over to Suzannah Rowntree, curator of the wonderful blog, Vintage Novels. Suzannah is the author of four books, the latest of which is Pendragon’s Heir, a historical fantasy based on the legends of King Arthur. If you, like me, are a newcomer to the Arthurian realm, Suzannah here will get you acquainted with some of the great works of Arthurian literature. Now without further ado . . . .

A Tour Guide to Classic Arthurian Literature

by Suzannah Rowntree

Hello, folks! Before we start the tour this morning, I had better introduce myself. I’m Suzannah Rowntree, inveterate medievalist, proprietor of the book review blog Vintage Novels, and proud author of a bouncing new book, Pendragon’s Heir, which made its debut to the thunderous applause of my immediate family and friends last Thursday. I wouldn’t exactly call myself an expert…

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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23 Responses to Guest Post: A Tour Guide to Classic Arthurian Literature

  1. jsydcarton says:

    Actually picked up “The History of the Kings of Britain”, The Arthurian Romances of Chretien de Troyes, and the complete Malory at a used book store the other day. (Have to love the occasional score. :D) I haven’t read all of Tennyson’s Idylls, but I do love his poetry.
    Was a bit surprised that Lawhead didn’t get a mention. Still waiting to read Tolkien’s “The Fall of Arthur”.


    • It’s actually Tennyson that I’m stuck on. Malory gets a little ploddish sometimes, but I find Tennyson too… pastel. The wrong colour scheme for me. Once I’m I’ll be okay.
      There are a lot of contemporary Arthurians, Lawhead included.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Jolly to see Suzannah Rowntree reposted here! I don’t know if I would have been so bold as to offer such a tour, and I’m sure I would not have done it so clearly!

    Suzannah has the Mabinogion linked from Project Gutenberg and I’d like to add that a lot of the sorts of translations which members of the Inklings did read, or might have read, are available scanned in the Internet Archive, like Sebastian Evans’s translations of Geoffrey of Monmouth. and also of Perlesvaus as The High History of the Holy Graal, and Jesse Weston’s, of Wolfram’s Parzival, and of selected lais of Marie de France.


    • I have not read any of those yet. In the concentric circle of Arthurian lit, I’m still reading the inner circle. Zelasny’s Amber is an outside circle, and I read that last year. I also think Tolkien’s LOTR is an outside circle. I’d add, oddly, the Letters of Heloise and Abelard. I know that it is nonfiction–a real couple. But they are a real Tristan and Isolde, and I suspect either one even had shaped the other (either fiction –> real life, or real life –> fiction), or they are both formed by the parent culture.
      And I am tempted to put Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry with Roger Lancelyn Green–either in that first circle or the second.
      Charles Williams will take me a few dozen readings I think. That’s fine.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Crazily enough, I’ve read (and enjoyed) Helen Waddell’s Peter Abelard (1933), but have not yet read the letters. And I’d love to know more about the background of Damaris Tighe’s vision or whatever of Abelard in The Place of the Lion. Interesting comparisons spring to mind from Williams’s poetry where, variously, Blanch(e)fleur takes the name ‘Dindrane’ in becoming a nun, and Lancelot celebrates the Mass – though “not sworn of the priesthood”!


        • The letters are a bit weird at times. And it shows post-castration (it would!). It’s been a while for me, but they are good. I have to reread Lion with Abelard in mind. For some reason I divorced them (like Damaris did, I think).
          As far as the Mass–I always thought that scene echoed David, who ate the bread of the covenant, though not a priest.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A more recent translation I enjoyed a lot is Pauline Matarasso, The Quest of the Holy Grail, for Penguin: this translates the French source for Galahad that Malory drew on.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    And, as you’ll probably be posting on soon enough yourself, another ‘tour’ is that found in Charles Williams’s unfinished Figure of Arthur which Lewis published together with the commentary related to a series of lectures he gave on Williams’s own late poetry in Arthurian Torso.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I commented on Williams above, but I think that “The Chapel of the Thorn” belongs in the Williams Arthuriad–with War in Heaven, the poetry, the unfinished Figure, and (I would argue), Lewis’ commentary.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I endorse Sørina Higgins’s caution in her Chapel introduction (having too rashly trusted that my notes on the manuscript were detailed enough to opt for Constantine the Great in my paper on it!), but I am tickled by the idea that Williams may have quietly intended the King Constantine who turns out in the fullness of time to be King Arthur’s grandfather in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. If true, that would make it a sort of prologue to the Arthurian poetry properly so called.

        I have never worked on the Figure as such myself, though Boydell & Brewer’s original idea was to include a simple reprint of the Torso after the example of the Eerdmans volume in the one I edited (I suspect the scope of the previously uncollected and unpublished material I included made them change that plan at the prospect of the final length if they stuck to it).

        Linden Huddlestone made a case for one of Williams’s Arthurian essays complementing part of it almost minutely well. And I know someone who was collating the Figure manuscript(s) with the text as published, with some interesting results, but don’t know that anything has been published about that (yet).

        Did you know that Glen Cavaliero published the notes which Williams prepared for Lewis on Taliessin through Logres, in a journal? Maybe a reprint of Arthurian Torso with those notes and a couple as yet unpublished late Williams prose odds and ends would be a good idea for some publisher (if the rights could be worked out)!


        • On the naming in Chapel of Thorn, I have another approach, which might fail. Give me some time to work it out. I don’t think any of us as readers thought the names were NOT important–the trick is to know how.
          Do you have a running bibliography of potential MS./original work on CW? The names you mention are completely unknown to me. Glen Cavaliero’s “CS: Poet of Theology” is actually at our library! Who knew? But we had important C.S. Lewis collectors donate their collection 20 years ago, so some goodies there. Of the articles, though, nothing seems to point to anything Arthurian. It would be wonderful to see.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Linden Huddlestone wrote (I think) the first thesis on Williams’s Arthurian work – The Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams: Their Development and Background (1952), which he did with kind help from (some) people who knew Williams (while encountering reticence on the part of others). Glen Cavaliero has been studying Williams (among various other authors, often twentieth-century) since the 1950s (see the Tartarus Press bio with biblio linked to his Wikipedia article, though it doesn’t have the publication details of the little notes for Lewis edition), and I would warmly recommend his Williams book as equally good to read right through and look specific things up in!

            I’ll try to dig up my copy of his notes edition article (though something where ‘dig’ is more than metaphorical!). I can’t, off the top of my head, remember the textual history of the notes (as far as I knew it!) – they were type-transcribed at least once, with carbon-paper flimsies distributed to some other friends in addition to Lewis, but I can’t recall how much more complicated it was: note, however, in the Wade at Wheaton, CW/MS-2/X, CW/MS-166/X, CW/MS-415/X, and CW/MS-486. I don’t think Lewis’s questions survive: they have to be inferred from the answers (and his published commentary)!

            Alas, I don’t have a proper, tidy running bibliography, though for works on Williams I have done some expanding and updating annotation in my copy of Lois Glenn’s checklist – sadly, far from systematically! (The late Michael Williams very kindly authorized me to make photocopies of published and unpublished material for my researches, though not, of course, to publish anything without specific permission.) I have little ‘editions’ of various bits and bobs, like the lectures cited in the footnotes of my Arthurian Poets edition, and could prepare transcriptions/editions of (relevant bits of) further letters: one puzzle is, how best to publish such things (being miscellaneous and short).

            I look forward to your thoughts on Chapel character names! For instance, it was not until I was corresponding with Sørina Higgins that I found in the course of Internet searching that ‘Amael’ is the name of someone who appears to be a major character in Eugene Sue’s novel, The Carlovingian Coins or The Daughters of Charlemagne, where the title of chapter one of Part I is “Amael and Vortigern” and Amael is introduced in AD 811 as a vigorous hundred-year-old Breton who 80 years earlier saved the life of Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers! Project Gutenberg transcribes a 1907 English translation by Daniel de Leon published in New York. I cannot immediately find an English/ British edition, nor do I know if C.W.’s French was good enough to have read the original. I have not read on beyond the first page – but it is in its degree interesting that there was already a fictional character of a possible renown named Amael!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Very cool Amael link. I am still in the Hebrew/Arabic/Aramaic weeds on that one. None of the names perfectly fit the implicit timeline, or even one particular theory. Mine doesn’t cover everything, but just sets some names in a possible context.
              I’d love to hear more about the notes, if you are able to discover them (in the middle English sense of “discover”). Someone needs to do the biblio… grad project anyone?


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            The details of Glen Cavaliero’s little edition as given in Lois Glenn’s Checklist (item II-B-18) are “Charles Williams on Taliessin through Logres”, Gnomon 1 (Fall 1965), 37-45. Her annotation does not give a clear indication that this is an edition of Williams’s notes. I cannot readily find anything about this periodical Gnomon online (like a handy archive!) – except a copy of this issue pricely for sale via amazon! It has occurred to me to approach the C.W. Society about the possibility of putting this little edition online at their site, and so I have begun to inquire…


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I’ve heard back from someone in the C.W. Soc. who agrees it’s a good idea, and has a copy, and will look into the matter further!

            Liked by 1 person

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Somewhat tangentially, I just encountered this two-year-old post elaborating on an Alan Jacobs post four months before that:

    Only one explicitly Arthurian work – a Wagner libretto – and one work by an Inkling – one with not a little attention to the Arthurian: The Allegory of Love, though also Ker’s Epic and Romance, to which Lewis and Tolkien variously refer.

    Liked by 1 person

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