The Heroic Age

Issue 7

Spring 2004



The Legends of King Arthur

Rome and the North

Early Christian Ireland

Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays

 King Arthur: Myth-Making and History

 Norse Mythology

 The King Arthur Myth in Modern American Literature

Richard Barber, The Legends of King Arthur. Boydell & Brewer, 2001. ISBN: 0851158374

Reviewed by Jennifer Dean, PHC, University of Washington

For centuries, King Arthur and the tales of his knights and court have fascinated audiences, capturing readers and listeners alike with gaudy pagentry and tales of courage. The 'mystery' of Arthur, of who he might have been, tantalizes scholars and laymen alike, everyone has their own answers. One of the most popular ideas is that Arthur was a Roman Britain, holding out against invading barbarian hordes when the Roman army withdrew in the 6th century. No matter who the 'real' Arthur was, however, his legend lived on. In the early 19th century, Thomas Malory produced the best known modern collection of the tales. This book sought not to provide accurate translations of the older tales but to emend the tales so that they would suit the audiences of the time.

In this newest collection of Arthurian tales, Barber does much the same thing as Malory did. Rather than trying to translate the older Medieval tales, Barber seeks to reconcile various existing tales in such a way as to make them appear coherent. His interest, clearly stated in the introduction to the collection, is to make the tales 'available' to modern audiences. In Barber's own words, he 'plunders a variety of different sources to create the stories, but also deliberately breaks away from the idea that there is a single, authentic voice, by presenting two different tellings of each of the stories that have been chosen." If his readers are then interested in pursing the original materials, he provides a sparse bibliography at the end of the collection from which they might choose.

Mr. Barber has taken on an ambitious task. The material pertaining to Arthur and the tales of his kingdom and knights is extensive and often convoluted. So many centuries of writing and investigation on the topic have created a morass of material, sufficiently large to cause the casual reader to think twice before seeking to untangle it. That Mr. Barber makes an attempt to weed through this material and to present it in a novice friendly format is worth remarking. That said, there are certain dangers in such undertakings. With the fascination that the Arthurian tales command, an author attempting to subsume, emend, anthologize such material must be very careful that he presents, along with the text, his process so that his readers may understand what it is that he is doing.

Mr Barber, perhaps in an attempt to maximize the space devoted to the tales themselves and to minimize distractions for the non-academic reader, does not provide his readers with the specific sources nor with any rationale as to why he chose as he did. This does a disservice to both his readers and to his topic. Further reading of the book raises several questions. The first, and most vexing, is how, if Mr. Barber is 'plundering' a variety of sources to create a coherent tale, he can then offer two different versions of the same tale? As the versions of the tales that he offers up are not footnoted, it is impossible to tell from what sources Mr. Barber is drawing. Moreover, as Mr. Barber acknowledges, there are many MORE than two versions of the tales, so again, what exactly are we reading? And why has he chosen these particular versions (if we can accept them as 'versions' and not composites of versions) to present?

A second problem is that of the bibliography: the list that Mr. Barber provides is quite limited. One might wish for a broader offering. While it might well be argued that a reader can, and perhaps should, do research for himself, if one hopes to encourage readers to pursue a topic, one ought to offer as clear and balanced a guide as possible.
Finally, there is the format of the book itself to consider. The book is large and heavy but when one opens the book, the type face is small, so small as to make reading the tales an exercise for the eyes equivalent to working out in the gym with heavy free weights. If Mr. Barber's authorial decisions were based on his wish to make to book and material friendly to the novice Arthurian reader, the editorial printing decisions have canceled out his best efforts. By presenting the book as a massive tome with miniscule print, the editor s of this book have consigned it to the dusty back shelves of the public library.

All in all, while this book may serve some worthwhile purpose, it must be approached with caution. It is not necessarily the best choice for someone just beginning to explore the wonder and mystery of the Arthurian world.


T.M. Charles-Edwards. Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-521-36395-0. $70.00.

Reviewed by David J. Duncan, Wichita State University, Wichita KS

In light of recent scholarship of late antique and early medieval Europe, scholars and students alike have needed an overarching text that both surveys early Irish history and culture, but also goes into detail on Irish institutions. T. M. Charles-Edwards' Early Christian Ireland provides both levels of coverage.

Edwards' coverage of Irish history goes beyond what one might normally receive on the subject. His analysis looks at the rationale behind the events, the factors leading up to them, and their effect on later society. In this sense, one can look to his coverage of the Easter controversy (Chapter 9), the conflicts between the British and Irish Churches (Chapter 10), and the travels of Columbanus on the continent. (Chapter 8). In each case, he gives an account of the events. However, what distinguishes this analysis is his extraordinarily detailed version of why the events happened. For example, his chapter on the Easter controversy provides the subtext to the debate between the Roman and Irish Churches, the background to the Synod of Whitby (664), each figure's motivations and the fallout from that gathering up to 716 and should spur on questions for the reader to consider.

Edwards' examination of Irish society is very revealing. His analysis of the social class stratification is in-depth and excellent whether one is discussing kings or the lowest groups. He discusses each region in two ways. First, his "seventh century" tour provides an overview for the themes covered later. Then each region receives individualized coverage. He also stirs art and literature into his account, adding more breadth and depth. His blending of several different historiographical methodologies results in an examination worth considering in this context.

In the same way, Edwards' coverage of the Church is good. As with the other parts of Irish society, he traces the evolution of the Irish Church from the beginning of its existence. He talks about the important figures in addition to their motivations and the overall effect on the institution. He gives proper coverage to the usual figures (Columba, Columbanus and Patrick, for example) He analyzes the Irish Church's relations with Anglo-Saxon England, Rome, Gaul, and the rest of the Continent and gives proper credit to Irish missionary efforts. He shows how the tensions between monastic forms fed the bigger issues of the day (such as the Easter controversy). Furthermore, he aptly illustrates how Ireland's ecclesiastical structure differed from its continental neighbors. Finally, he shows how the parties within the hierarchy affected events with their differing agendas.

The sources for this study reveal a wealth of both primary and secondary sources. As noted earlier, Edwards expertly blends different historiographical sources whether chronicle, literary piece, hagiography, or artistic formats into one detailed account that adds depth to our awareness of Irish society at this time. Yet, his notes and bibliography lack scholarship pertaining to the Continent. While the study does focus on Irish society and Irish institutions, the author should cite sources pertaining to the societies where the peregrini founded their monasteries. In this way, the account would have been much more balanced.

However, his lack of attention to monastic women on the continent is distressing, especially since there is a great deal of scholarship in English and other languages on their role in this process. Primary sources are available through a variety of places such as Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, ed. Jo Ann McNamara and John E. Halborg (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992). Even as he discusses the importance of the missionaries, Edwards minimizes the women's role as intermediaries between the Irish monks and the native courts. As the earliest abbesses in many cases, they helped to establish power bases, leading to the rise of later historical figures as well as contemporary debates. I might add that it is not a question of information. Edwards certainly provides that, but rather, one needs perspective. The exchange between Ireland and the continent was a mutual one-one that was not always forced upon the former by the latter.

His account of women in Irish monastic establishments is lacking as well. While he does give some mention to the figures from Bede and the other sources, the coverage is tangential at best. He mentions Hild briefly. However, as with the continental nunneries, the Irish nuns are missing from this account as well. Once again, given the scholarship in this area, the topic should be addressed in greater detail.

Early Christian Ireland will serve its audience well in most regards. In this text, Edwards' account blends survey with in-depth study masterfully. His insight into larger social issues, class structure and history will generate larger questions for scholars upon their next reading of the sources. For Irish history and for the Irish end of the idea exchange, the book gives new clarity. However, the reader should be advised that the coverage is spotty for certain topics (such as women's role in monastic establishment and some important historiographical coverage for the Continental societal landscape). Despite this large oversight, this book belongs in most academic libraries because of the questions that it answers for the historian and scholar.

Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays, Revised Edition. Ed. Kevin J. Harty. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002. ISBN 0-7864-1344-1. 317pp.

Reviewed by Rebecca Umland, University of Nebraska at Kearney

This collection of essays is intended to update an original anthology, Cinema Arthuriana: Essays on Arthurian Film, published in 1991. Its editor states that, among the twenty essays included in the new volume, six are new, while the remainder have either been updated or reprinted from the original collection. The new contributions include Jacqueline de Weever's study of Morgan le Fay, John Christopher Kleis' "Tortilla Flat and the Arthurian View," Barbara Tepa Lupack's essay on Malamud's The Natural and its film adaptation, Donald Hoffman's discussion of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sandra Gorgievski's study of French cinema and Denis Llorca's Les Chevaliers de la table ronde, Michael Torregrossa's treatment of Mordred in American and British cinema, and Meradith T. McMunn's, "Filming the Tristan Myth."

Of the twenty essays, three address John Boorman's Excalibur, testifying to its continued importance and lasting appeal. Four essays focus on American cinema, while another four discuss comic cinematic versions that activate the Arthurian legend, two of which are centered on another strong film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Five essays are devoted to character studies, one each on the figures of Morgan, Mordred, and Gawain in film, while another two examine the portrayal of Tristan. Two essays treat French cinema's use of Arthuriana, while another offers an overview of the Matter of Britain in the German film tradition. Finally, the volume includes a reprint of Helmut Nickel's wide-ranging "Arms and Armor in Arthurian Films."

This survey of the collection's contents identifies its main weaknesses. First, it lacks a certain coherence or rationale. It is difficult to ascertain what is meant by the title "Cinema Arthuriana," other than the general understanding that all of the films employ, in one way or another, some feature of the legend. As such, any of these essays might be exchanged for different studies of equal validity. As it is, the contributions have little in common with one another in terms of their method or approach: there are thematic studies, essays devoted to a single figure, and sweeping treatments of entire genres (e.g., comedy) or nationalities (French, German, British, or American). In addition, much of what is included in this revised edition can be found in the first volume. The reader will need to decide whether the updated filmography and bibliography justify the purchase price.


Rome and the north: the early reception of Gregory the Great in Germanic Europe. Edited by Rolf H. Bremmer Jr., Kees Dekker, David E. Johnson. Paris: Peeters, 2001. (Mediaevalia Groningana new series ; v. 4). xvi, 308 pp. ISBN 90-429-1054-2.

Reviewed by Brad Eden, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries

The influence of Gregory the Great on the literary heritage of the Germanic world between 700 and 1300 A.D. is well known. Gregory's writings had a profound impact on Germanic society, due to the fact that his writings were of a very diverse nature, and encompassed the pastoral, epistolary, exegetic, homiletic, and edifying nature of his works. Within three generations of Gregory's mission to the Anglo-Saxons through Augustine of Canterbury, the Anglo-Saxons themselves were sending missionaries to the Continent to convert the Frisians, Saxons, and Franks, among others. This volume presents a survey of the reception of Gregory's works in Anglo-Saxon England, South and North Germany, Frisia, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and Iceland. Specific works of Gregory's that are examined include the Pastoral Rule, the Dialogues, Moralia in Job, and the homilies on Ezechiel and the Gospels, as well as many others. Contributors to this issue are experts from a variety of countries, including Canada, England, Italy, Belgium, the United States, Scotland, and the Netherlands. As a group, the essays provide up-to-date evidence of Gregory's influence on the pastoral practices of various Germanic clergy as well as the literary culture of the Germanic-speaking peoples. Overall, this area of Gregorian studies has had little scholarly work, and thus this survey provides the needed introductory and specific insight that is needed to encourage and provoke further inquiry and research in this area.


N.J. Higham King Arthur: Myth-Making and History. London/New York: Routledge, 2002.

Reviewed by Craig R. Davis, Smith College, Northampton, MA


N.J. Higham has produced a fresh, searching and ambitious study of two related topics: 1) the historicity of the Arthur in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, and 2) the political agenda behind the construction of the pseudo-historical figure represented in the first two Cambro-Latin texts to name Arthur explicitly. These are the Historia Brittonum "History of the Britons" (c. 829-30), composed for the supporters of Merfyn Frych, king of Gwynedd in north Wales, and the Annales Cambriae "Annals of Wales" (c. 954), associated with the court of Owain ap Hywel, the southern Welsh king of Deheubarth, ie. Dyfed. Higham frames his study with a succinct but comprehensive review of twentieth-century scholarship on the question of the historical Arthur in Chapter 1. He concludes, in Chapter 5, with an overview of the vicissitudes of King Arthur as a cultural icon from the twelfth through nineteenth centuries. The competition between the British King Arthur as a prototype of monarchical authority and the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred as the putative founder of "English liberties" is very effectively illustrated and summarized.

Chapter 2, "The Genesis of Arthur," considers the possible sources of the Arthurian legend in Roman and sub-Roman Britain, including persons from whom this legendary character might have derived his name. Following Malone (1925), Higham prefers a certain Lucius Artorius Castus of the second century AD, in part because this Roman commander's military success is consistent with the characterization of Arthur as a non-royal dux bellorum "leader of battles" in Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum. But Higham also assumes that oral traditions of such a figure may have been conflated with those of fallen pagan deities or characters from folklore, like the Great Huntsman or a hero with ursine associations (cf. Welsh arth "bear").

The heart of Higham's study lies in detailed analyses of the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae in the context of the political circumstances in which they were imagined and the earlier historical narratives which they attempted both to appropriate and answer, especially the sixth-century De Excidio Britanniae "On the Ruin of Britain" by Gildas and Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" (eighth century). The Historia Brittonum, Higham concludes, was primarily intended to undermine the legitimacy of recent Mercian expansion against Wales. In particular, the author wished to contest Bede's implication that God had disinherited the Britons from their patrimony on account of their sins and handed it over to a new chosen people, the English. The "overriding purpose" of the Historia Brittonum "was to construct a salvation history for the Britons" (p. 165). In this task, its author borrowed the belief of Gildas that the Britons were præsens Israel "present-day Israel," but rejected that author's view that it was moral turpitude and martial cowardice which brought upon them deserved punishment for sin. The Historia Brittonum was thus written as much against Gildas as against Bede, in order to confirm the once and future right of the British nation to the Promised Land of Britain. In this Old Testament scheme, St. Patrick was imagined as a British Moses succeeded by an Arthurian Joshua, a role to be continued by the second dynasty of Gwynedd in the author's own time. In a similarly selective way, the author of the Annales Cambriae used the Historia Brittonum positively for his two Arthurian entries of 516 and 537, but rejected its pro-Gwynedd stance. In fact, the later text deliberately obscures the anti-English animus of the Historia because Owain in the mid-950s was a friendly client of the English king to whom he looked for protection against his compatriot cousins threatening him from the north. Geoffrey of Monmouth picks up the story innocent of these regional and dynastic biases in the earlier twelfth century, but remains full of his own Norman-interested agenda. Geoffrey brought the figure of Arthur to an international stage and the rest, as Higham has emphatically made clear, is not history, but part of the persistent reinvention of this potent symbol of national character begun centuries before. King Arthur: Myth-Making and History will be the starting point for all future studies of the early Arthurian legend.

John Lindow. Norse mythology: a guide to the gods, heroes, rituals, and beliefs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xv, 365 pp. ISBN 0-19-515382-0.

Reviewed by Brad Eden, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries


This book explores the myths and legends of Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Viking-age Greenland by examining the prehistoric tales and beliefs that have sparked the imagination of the world. The book begins with an introduction that places a historical significance on Scandinavian mythology, followed by a very interesting chapter on the concept of mythic time. An alphabetical indepth dictionary of terms follows of monsters, heroes, places, rituals, beliefs, and terms. The author uses the Scandinavian spellings for these terms throughout the book. There is an extensive and well-constructed bibliography of primary and secondary, print and nonprint resources provided at the end of the book.

Each entry is translated, its place in Scandinavian and Norse mythology explained, including origins and demise if necessary, and ends with any see also references, and in some cases a short further reading section. The author also links the entry to its appropriate place where it appears in primary sources. This is an excellent overview and explanation of various concepts, themes, and deities in Scandinavian mythology, and the author provides interesting commentary on the current state of research and scholarship in some areas of this topic.

Andrew E. Mathis. The King Arthur Myth in Modern American Literature. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-7864-1171-6.


Reviewed by Kelly A. O'Connor-Salomon, Black Hills State University, Spearfish, SD.

The title of Mathis's book is something of a misnomer. While it indicates that all of Modern American Literature will be discussed, the author's focus is very specific. To cover all the links between Modern American Literature and the Arthurian legend in 158 pages would be impossible. However, some genres, such as science fiction and fantasy literature, appear to be dismissed as not part of "the American literary tradition" (5). Mathis also ignores poetry, drama, and his selection of prose writers is highly selective. What Mathis does focus on in this text is "the use of Arthuriana to critique historical or contemporaneous events and figures" (2) and "debasement of aspects of the myth or of the myth as a whole" (4), which may account for the small field of authors included.

Much of his focus work that alludes to the legend; characters and places may or may not have Arthurian names­most often they do not. One exception is the discussion of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. According to Mathis, "it was Twain who opened the gates and officially ushered Arthurian literature into America" (24). Twain also figures in several of the subsequent chapters as well, as Mathis discusses how various authors adapted or subverted Twain's ideas.

John Steinbeck garners the most space in the book. Mathis states, "[t]here are few writers of any nationality whose work has been more informed by the Arthurian legend than that of John Steinbeck" (25). However, unlike Twain's Connecticut Yankee, the Steinbeck works that Mathis emphasizes are not explicit Arthurian retellings, and he finds an Arthurian connection in just about everything Steinbeck wrote. If an Arthurian link is not clearly evident, there is a medieval one, which seems to be close enough to suit Mathis's purposes. Steinbeck's modern English version of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, is given a rather minor place in the Steinbeck chapters. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the work is unfinished and was not published until after Steinbeck's death.

Although Mathis dismisses fantasy literature as "pulp" (140), he devotes an entire chapter to Raymond Chandler's detective fiction, a genre many would also consider not quite literary. He also devotes substantial space to Hal Foster's comic strip Prince Valiant and the writings of American Socialist William Dudley Perry. While what Mathis has to say about these men and their works is interesting, even Mathis admits that Perry is a "marginal figure in . . . literature" (77), and it is unclear why he would include these works and dismiss others out of hand.

Many of the Arthurian connections made in the text come across as forced. For example, the many references to the color green in Chandler's The Big Sleep prove, for Mathis, that Chandler was alluding to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A bronze figure of St. George appears in Steinbeck's Cannery Row, and because there are references to both St. George and Arthur in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, that is all Mathis needs to make St. George an ad hoc Arthurian character. While intriguing ideas, they are tenuous and easily discredit. The chapter on John Gardner mentions his Arthurian scholarship, but almost apologizes for the fact that Gardner used Beowulf as the basis for his most famous medieval adaptation, Grendel, and not the Arthurian legend.

Donald Barthelme's The King, discussed in the final chapter, is seen as "a unique counterpoint" to Twain's Connecticut Yankee (122). This novel, like Twain's is a direct adaptation of the legend and "is as much a comment on society­particularly literary society­at the end of the twentieth century as Connecticut Yankee was on the nineteenth" (122). As in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which is discussed in the same chapter, the Grail story is debased in The King by turning the cup into a bomb. Mathis closes the chapter with discussions of Walker Percy's Lancelot and John Updike's Brazil. A bibliography and a weakly-referenced index follow the conclusion, which touches on the post-postmodern work of David Foster Wallace.

Although this book makes some interesting observations, it is not for someone seeking general information about Modern American Arthurian Literature. There are other books that are better for that purpose. Someone interested in one of the specific authors that Mathis studies may find something compelling; however, the tenuous claims will be a problem for most readers.


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Copyright © Author(s), 2004. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2004. All rights reserved.