The Return of the Once and Future King

The following is a guest post by Mark F. Hall, a research specialist in the Library of Congress’s Digital Reference Section.

King Arthur

King Arthur

The chivalrous tales of King Arthur and his knights have remained popular in various genres and formats from the Middle Ages to the present day. The historical Arthur is believed to have lived in fifth-century Britain (though there is no conclusive evidence of this), but is first widely recognized in the literature in The History of the Kings of Britain written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 1130s.

So far the twenty-first century has seen poet Simon Armitage produce popular alliterative verse translations of the Middle English Alliterative Morte D’Arthur (titled The Death of King Arthur) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both published by W.W. Norton.

Now, the latest in a long line of posthumously published works written by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by his indefatigable son, Christopher Tolkien, an original alliterative poem, The Fall of Arthur, is scheduled for a May 23, 2013, debut. Tolkien, most famous as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but also a renowned Oxford University philologist and Anglo-Saxon and Arthurian scholar, co-edited (with E.V. Gordon) an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the 1920s, while Tolkien’s own alliterative verse translation of the poem was published posthumously in 1975.

John Steinbeck, another author with Arthurian legends in his closet, worked periodically through his latter years on a version of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, published posthumously in 1976 as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.  In correspondence (published in the book) regarding the medieval manuscripts he used, Steinbeck noted “I have not only seen and examined both of these originals but I have microfilm of both … I have the Caxton microfilm courtesy of the Morgan Library and the Winchester mss from the Library of Congress” (letter to Elizabeth Otis, p. 318). Steinbeck further notes, appreciatively, that “When Archie MacLeish was Librarian of Congress he was microfilming lots of things that couldn’t be moved” (letter to Chase Horton, p. 310).

Sir Thomas Malory described his work as a “reduction” of various earlier poems into English prose, resulting in the two manuscripts used by Steinbeck. The anonymous Middle English sources were complemented by late twelfth-century French romances by Chrétien De Troyes and the Lais of Marie de France, and the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian legends in the thirteenth century.

The Round Table of King Arthur

The Round Table of King Arthur

A nineteenth-century revival of interest in Arthuriana featured Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s long poem Idylls of the King. Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court brought the legends to life in a peculiarly American way, while The Boy’s King Arthur by Sidney Lanier helped introduce younger readers to the old stories.

In the twentieth century, T.H. White’s series of Arthurian tales known collectively as The Once and Future King gave new life to the stories, with the specter of war and totalitarianism looming in the background.  Prose adaptations, nominally for children, were composed by Howard Pyle, and Samuel B. Lowe, among others. Marian Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon provided a feminist perspective, and the Arthurian legends had widespread direct and indirect influence in fantasy genre literature. Later twentieth-century updates to the Arthurian canon also included a variety of film adaptations, ranging from the mystical Excalibur (1981), to Walt Disney’s animated The Sword in the Stone (1963, based on White’s stories) and the eccentric Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974).  A 1960 musical production, Camelot, was also very successful.

Coming full circle, the newly published works by Armitage and Tolkien bring the ancient legends and medieval alliterative verse form to another new generation of readers.

One Comment

  1. ET
    May 24, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Idylls of the King has one of my all time favorite lines in a poem – “And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”

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