Sword at Sunset: Question Seven


What other takes on Arthurian myth have you come across? How did Sword at Sunset compare? Do you have any particular favourites?


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    I've read many Non-fiction takes. I rather enjoyed Alastair Moffat's take in Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms which was an impassioned piece that puts Arthur in Kelso, Scotland. It's not the most convincing word, but was a fun read. For convincing, I like Rodney Castleden's take in King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend. Arthur The Dragon King by Howard Reid has him as a Dalmatian mercenary who struck out on his own after the Romans left. This, I think, is the idea behind the 2004 film, King Arthur, starring the ill-cast Clive Owen.

    In fiction, I've read The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (which I did not particularly like, and hated especially Guinivere) and the series by Jack Whyte, which puts Merlin as a central character, and brother of Uther, in post roman Britain. It has some pretty interesting ideas - Ex Calibur is so named because it's a cast sword, rather than a forged sword (Ex-Calibur, in a roundabout sort of way, meaning 'from the mould'). An merlin's sorcerous powers come from a box of drugs and poisons he inherits from a moor. This remains my favourite of the three I've now read. Jack Whyte writes the foreword to my copy of Sword at Sunset.

    I haven't read Cornwell's books as of yet. My copy of Sword at Sunset advertises two more in the back of the book - The Road to Avalon by Joan Wolf, and The Eagle and the Raven by Pauline Gedge. I've also never read Mallory or White.

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    I'll answer myself. In terms of post-Roman and early Dark Ages history, I've read a fair bit, and there's little to no evidence that Arthur is anything but pure fiction. There are plenty of authors who say otherwise, but no two agree, and they tend to be a bit wacky and declare that Camelot was hidden in their back garden all along.

    In terms of novels I've read, Sword at Sunset wasn't the strongest (though I liked it), but it has a particular merit of being self-contained, not a doorstop, and not part of a trilogy. Those which stand out for me are:

    The Crystal Cave (Mary Stewart)
    Another largely, though not entirely, historical rather than mythical take, from the point of view of Merlin. I enjoyed the takes on Uther and Ambrosius. It's the first of a trilogy (the Crystal Cave itself ends with Arthur's conception), with a fourth part which actually gives a sympathetic portrayal of Mordred, alongside emphasising the foulness of some of the Scottish knights. It's a long time since I've read these, but they made a big impression at the time.

    The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
    This one also made an impression, but sadly a bad one. I won't dwell on it too much.

    The Winter King (Bernard Cornwell)
    Another first part of a trilogy, which is the best thing (of what I've read) that Bernard Cornwell has written. The battle scenes are intense, there is subtle but pervasive magic- or is it just superstition? The story is twisted so it doesn't exacly follow the standard legends, and there are plenty of invented characters or characters from Arthurian myth with a different nature. Arthur himself is very appealing, and Lancelot appalling (in an interesting way). Aelle and Cerdic are pretty great. Then there are invented characters, or minor characters given greater prominence.

    The Once and Future King (T.H. White)
    This is hard to summarise. Firstly it's deliberately high fantasy and ahistorical (it posits that King Uther invaded England in 1066, and is very High Medieval). Secondly, the first book, The Sword in the Stone is a light-hearted half comic children's story, but the other books shift tone to become mounting tragedies. The take on Lancelot in particular, in The Ill-Made Knight is wonderfully tragic, and may be the source for Bedwyr's ugliness in Sword at Sunset. The style is very much English and of the time it was written (for example, Lancelot's ability at the joust is compared to Bradman's skill at cricket). In terms of plot, it's very close to Mallory.

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    I've been meaning to read the Jack Whyte series since @Apocryphal first told me of them.
    Of Mists of Avalon, I vividly remember with great pleasure a passage where Morgaine is rediscovering her sense of connection with nature after years of being shut away from it, particularly how the position of moonrise changed with the passage of time. But I don't remember much else about the book so cannot really comment.
    The 2004 film worked for me as a story (regardless of casting issues) especially as it took seriously the northern theory of locating Arthur's base, as opposed to Somerset / London / wherever in the south, which has always seemed to me a retrospective "surely they must have been here" notion. Though Rosemary Sutcliffe does make a good case for the prominence of the Ridgeway.
    There are, I gather, a fair number of Arthurian-inspired stories which are deliberately set in a very different world (see for example https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/sci-fi-fantasy/6-brilliant-sci-fi-takes-on-arthurian-legend/), and this idea of reworking the Matter of Britain yet again to suit a future world appeals to me.
    Personally I like Arthurian stuff which retains elements of authentic mystery / magic / fantasy, rather than the trend many authors follow (including RS) of converting it into a solid historical fiction story. Since we all agree there is real doubt as to Arthur's existence and identity, then why not just go for fantasy?

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    Yes, I do need to read the Jack Whyte series. There are others too I didn't mention but have read...David Gemmell comes to mind.

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    edited December 2018

    One of the side effects of the 'set Arthur in history' thing is making everything smaller and more petty. Why was this little nothing so damned famous?

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    > @clash_bowley said:
    > One of the side effects of the 'set Arthur in history' thing is making everything smaller and more petty. Why was this little nothing so damned famous?

    I agree - why would he be remembered more than any other failed resistance leader? Who remembers the leader of the resistance against the Normans up in Northumberland?
    I suspect part of the problem is the purely literary one of publishers and genre... going for straight HF or straight fantasy might be ok, but a crossover world rarely appeals to such! I wonder what RS might have written if she had published indie rather than trad (probably not an option back when Sword at Sunset was written) - maybe the same, but maybe not.
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    I quite like things being small scale. But maybe when it comes down to it, I really like the post-Roman period of history while not necessarily being so fussed by another retelling of the Arthur myth, the main notes of which are very familiar indeed.
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