King Arthur

King Arthur

A few years ago I decided I should be more intentional with my reading. Among some specific genre choices, I now take the time to read a classic each year. Since making this decision I have read "Don Quixote," "Catch-22," "The Divine Comedy," "The Canterbury Tales," "Black Elk Speaks," "The Three Musketeers," and a 1903 book called "The Story of King Arthur and his Knights."

Listening to older books makes them easier for me to understand. The language of the 1400s is much easier to listen to than it is to read the old fashioned way. I could never have read Chaucer, Dante, or Cervantes in book form. Many classics are available as audiobooks on the Libby app which you can access with your library card. They've been out long enough that I have rarely encountered waiting lists for them.

This spring, "The Story of King Arthur and his Knights" left me wanting. When I looked to see if the author Howard Pyle had written a sequel, I discovered "The Story of Sir Launcelot and his Companions." My search also turned up a trio of books by Mary Stewart, an author I remember from my childhood, so I started on her trilogy. Stewart's first book covered Merlin's childhood and her second book covered Arthur's childhood. Someday I'll read her third book, but first I wanted to see what might have been written before the 1970s on King Arthur.

What caught my eye in this search was Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur," first published in the late 1400s. Arthur was said to have lived in the 400s, so Malory was only 1000 years removed from the events themselves. There are older works about King Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes both wrote about Arthur in the 1200s. Legends of King Arthur were a staple in the Middle Ages.

What have I learned about King Arthur so far? Apparently women of that day sat on rocks and waited for men to take them on year-long adventures. A surprising number of men accidentally killed women by beheading them. There are a lot of fights, and they quickly become repetitive. I also noticed a lot of white animals, horses, harts, hinds, and hounds, many of which I was unfamiliar with and had to Google. Because this is a legend and very old, each author puts their own spin on the story. For example, some writers cast Merlin as wise and good, while others cast him as a scoundrel who causes problems so he can enjoy the resulting chaos.

Some reviews have pointed out Biblical allegories; Arthur is Jesus, Modred is Judas, Gawain is Peter etc. Others pointed out the author's utter lack of characterization-and I agree. It is difficult to keep everyone straight. Personally, I can't help but wonder why Jesus' relics, like the Holy Grail, ended up in Great Britain. It seems very Anglo-centric. Malory's book is 37 hours long, and I still have over 31 hours left. I may need an Arthurian break when I finish it. Maybe I will rewatch Monty Python and the Holy Grail to cleanse my palate.

I can't deny it, King Arthur has intrigued me. After I complete Mary Stewart's trilogy, I may try to spread things out and read a King Arthur book each year. I have added Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," "The Once and Future King" by T.H. White, "The Mists of Avalon" by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and "The Guinevere Deception" by Kiersten White (as well as some others) to my ever-growing list of books to read.

An important thing to note about reading classics as an adult: there is no test afterwards about themes, or foreshadowing or, worst of all, symbolism. I am reading (mostly listening to) these books simply out of curiosity. Why do people think of these books as classics? Why has "Don Quixote" been in print since 1605? I miss Mr. Demaranville and Mrs. Kortum. I wish I could discuss classic books with them.

If you glance back at the beginning of this column, you will notice that all of those classics were written by old white guys. "Black Elk Speaks" seems like it should have been written by a Lakota, but the author was John G. Neihardt. Next year, I will start reading classics that were written by people who are not old white guys. I am happy to take suggestions- leave a note on my desk and I'll put it on my list.