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14 july 2019

That's King Arthur to you. Christopher Fee's engaging new book charts the origins and cultural impact of the once and future legend.

Arthur: God and hero in Avalon was well-timed for me, as I set out to teach a unit on medieval romances (including Marie de France) later this year. Arthur would make a good textbook for an introductory course on Arthurian legend. But though it is based on scholarly research, it is written for a general audience and brightly illustrated to Reaktion Books' usual high standards.

Fee looks at the origins of the Arthur story, in the mists of prehistory and the thematics of myth. He covers very early Welsh stories, and the later medieval literary tradition that stems from Geoffrey of Monmouth, poets including Wace, Layamon, and Chrétien de Troyes, and their later imitators through Malory. Archeology, antiquarianism, and comparative mythology combine to present Arthur an unusually complex, cosmopolitan tradition.

I was particularly struck, reading Fee's account, at the wide home range of the Arthur legend. Arthur takes his cue from a very specific British nationalism that flourished in the unconquered west of Great Britain during and after the Saxon conquest in very late antiquity. But for all his Welsh and Cornish roots, Arthur quickly became a hero to half of Europe – including, perversely, to the Saxons themselves. As Fee notes, there's more than a bit of King Arthur in Alfred the Great, who was nothing if not Anglo. And the greatest literary avatars of Arthur would flourish in French (Chrétien and Marie), German (von Eschenbach) and English (the Gawain poet).

A great deal of Arthur: God and hero in Avalon consists of plot summary. This is to the good, though, because unless you are an Arthurian expert and don't need the book anyway, you won't have read a tenth of the texts that Fee describes. He ranges from the earliest Welsh "triads" to Game of Thrones, combing the whole Western tradition, high and low, for echoes of King Arthur. For a quick grounding in the big-picture aspects of Arthurian legend, and its cultural impact, Arthur would be hard to beat.

Fee, Christopher R. Arthur: God and hero in Avalon. London: Reaktion, 2019.