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Book Review: Legends of Arthur
Why do we still find so meaningful and moving these tall tales of knights and ladies, of kings and magicians from the almost-forgotten mists of time?
This is a solid collection of multiple historical manuscripts offering a look at the Arthurian legends — his rise and fall and the epic adventures, and doomed romances, of his Knights. The stories include the origins of Arthur, his success as a military strategist and his ultimate downfall at the hands of Mordred (and wounded return to mythical Avalon); the romance (and betrayal) of Lancelot and Guinevere; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, along with another elaborate Gawain adventure featuring a flying chessboard, a talking fox and a sword that kills those who lack perfect virtue; and, the doomed romance of Tristan and Iseult.
So many of the elements from these stories have lodged — like a poisoned shard from a shattered sword — in our collective psyches that reading them feels like a constant rediscovery of precious things once thought lost forever: the sword in the stone, mysterious Merlin, the sorrowful Lady of the Lake. So why do we still find so meaningful and moving these tall tales of knights and ladies, of kings and magicians from the almost-forgotten mists of time? My completely unprovable theory is that the longevity of Arthurian legends is due to the tension, the dissonance between so many pairs of opposite ideals and concepts — between destiny and self-determination, between magic and muscle, between chivalry and savagery, between fidelity and lust and between history and myth. That power to make sense of and navigate extremes makes these stories a reliable map to the human experience in a world of competing extremes, even if the trappings — tournaments and armor and jousting and fainting well-born ladies — are wildly out of date.
Some of my favorite lines:
“In our blindness we have reared a viper for a nightingale, and ground corn for the raven that was mean for the dove.”
“…in an instant that arch-disturber of tranquility was there: Love…”
“Now a woman’s wrath is a fearful thing, and all men fear it, for according to her love, so will her vengeance be.”