The legend of King Arthur has provided literary inspiration for more than 800 years. One of the earliest was Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, originally published in 1450. I have not read Malory’s compilation, and unless I find myself taking some sort of a medieval lit course, it is fairly unlikely that I will ever read this one.
I am going to largely ignore the more modern retellings to mention three here that I highly recommend as having stood the test of time:
First, we have T.H. White’s 1958 classic The Once and Future King. I first read this book as a child, when I checked it out the library, and again, as an adult when I, yes, checked it out of the library for my daughter. I remembered that I had loved it, and brought it home for her when she was in around the fifth grade. She was completely uninterested in it. I, on the other hand, settled in for a long weekend of rereading the classic tale of Arthur and Merlin. This is the version that the Disney used for it’s adaptation The Sword in the Stone. This is the classic childhood tale of Arthur, Merlin, and Guenever. It tells the story of the education of Arthur, known as Wart, by his mentor and teacher Merlyn, and includes the scene where Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and proves himself worthy of the kingship. This is a child’s book, but it is complex enough to engage and enthrall the adult reader.
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, published in 1970, is the first book of her Arthurian Saga. This was followed by The Hollow Hills in 1973, The Last Enchantment in 1979, The Wicked Day in 1983, and The Prince and the Pilgrim in 1995. This series is told from the perspective of Merlin, or Myrddin Emrys. The first book deals primarily with Merlin’s childhood through young adulthood. Stewart’s saga starts out strong, but really loses steam after the third book. Until I started writing this post, I wasn’t actually aware that she had written a fifth book. For kindle owners, the four book series is available as a bundle for only 6.99. Mary Stewart was primarily a romance novelist, was a darned good writer, and these books are a great read, especially at that price.
Finally, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon is a bit of a feminist classic, being told from the perspective of the women who are the supporting characters in a male-centered mythology, particularly Morgaine. I had to try to read this book a few times before becoming deeply immersed in the world. It is long, clocking in at 876 pages, and is a worthwhile read. Zimmer Bradley did extend this book into a series, but I haven’t read any of them, and they have gotten mixed reviews as near as I can tell.
There are some other, modern retellings that I will just mention in passing:
The Hollick and the Cornwell books are historical fiction, both setting Arthur in medieval England. I have read the first two of Hollick’s books, and they are not for the faint of heart – chock full of unadulterated historically accurate death, destruction and betrayal. The Cornwell book has been recommended to me, I have read other books by Cornwell and thoroughly enjoyed them, but I haven’t read this one. Of all of the retellings mentioned in this post, this is probably the most male-reader-friendly version, as it was recommended to me by a male friend. The Queen of Camelot by McKenzie is thoroughly enjoyable, well-written, and is suitable for older young adults. The Lost Years of Merlin is a middle-grade series by T.A. Barron, and is also quite fun.