The World of King Arthur, by Christopher Snyder, Published by Thames & Hudson. 192 pages. $29.95 hardcover.
Books dedicated to King Arthur, Britain’s legendary warrior-king, are not hard to find, and on strictly utilitarian grounds, it might be argued that another is hardly necessary. But the Arthur legends are nothing if not fun, and when it comes to opportunities to relive the glory of Camelot, the more the merrier.
The World of King Arthur is aptly titled. In his volume, Christopher Snyder gives his divided attention at best to the intriguing question of the historical basis for the Arthur myths, lavishing much more attention on the literary figure’s role in the early Middle Ages, when the first mentions of the enigmatic warrior were penned, and then in each succeeding generation, when story-weavers developed themes that reflected the attitudes and priorities of their own times. Because of this ongoing evolution in which each new age re-invented Arthur in its own image, the literary Arthur has had at least as much of an impact on Britain as did his real-world counterpart–if such a person ever did exist.
Early chapters deal with the historical cradle of the tales, familiarizing readers with Pre-Roman, Roman, and early Dark Age Britain, the period out of which the Arthur saga grew. From the earliest, tantalizingly brief mentions of Arthur in the Welsh annals and contemporary documents, the legends matured in the hands of later chroniclers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Malory, and others. Along the way some of the most familiar characters entered the Arthurian romances–Merlin, Lancelot, Perceval, Galahad–and Snyder introduces each of them in turn and highlights their respective contributions to the expanding themes of chivalry and romance that characterized the later medieval tales. Paramount among these themes was the quest for the Holy Grail, and Snyder also devotes suitable attention to the development of this well-known story in its many variations.
Perhaps no age had been as fascinated by the lure of Camelot as the Victorian. From the poetry of Tennyson to the works of the Pre-Raphaelite artists and even the décor of the Royal couple’s quarters in the Palace of Westminster, Arthur and Arthurian themes permeated the 19th-century mindset. But the fascination with the Once and Future King still has not passed, and Snyder concludes by recounting the current state of Arthurian lore. Indeed, while Victoria is often said to have reigned for longer than any other British monarch, her mere 64 years comes nowhere close to the 15 centuries Arthur has ruled in our imaginations, and he seems as sprightly as ever.