Tales of King Arthur by James Riordan

Riodan has taken the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table from several sources and combined them into this book suitable for tweens. I would say this book would be appropriate for boys from 10 and up, but as a young girl, I also loved reading books such as The Once and Future King by T.H. White and The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. Knights, quests, and sword fights are not only entertaining for boys.

At the book’s end, the author gives us “Notes for the Reader” about his efforts to place Arthur’s legends within a historical context and his weaving of the British traditions of Arthur as a “national hero who struggled to unite the nation, repel invaders and right justices. And the second, mainly from French romances, is more concerned with the religous quest for…the Holy Grail, the failing of the flawed Sir Lancelot and the success of his son Sir Galahad” (p. 124). He includes the tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a middle English romance (1375-1400) written by a contemporary of Chaucer’s (required reading in my 9th grade English class along with Canterbury Tales and Beowulf).

Recurring themes in Arthur’s tales include the virtues of loyalty, being brave, assisting damsels in distress, and showing strength against “the ways of the flesh.”

In terms of quest story lines, this book tells of the greatest quest perhaps of all time, where the Knights of the Round Table set forth in search of the Holy Grail, the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and which supposedly caught his blood at the his crucifiction. As the legend goes, Joseph of Arimathea carried it to Britain and hid it. In the legends, King Pellam was a descendant of Joseph, who was also a disciple of Christ. His daughter Elaine bears Lancelot a son, Galahad, because of an enchantment laid on Lancelot by Dame Brisen. Lancelot is sent a message that his love Queen Guenevere is in a nearby castle and to join her. When he arrives, he is given drugged wine which makes him believe he is with Guenevere when it is really Elaine.

Sir Galahad grows up to be a chip off the old block, but more pure (without lustful thoughts of his Queen), and is one of the three knights to finally see the Holy Grail and drink from it. “Galahad then knelt there praying, (holding the Holy Grail and) his soul departed from his body and was carried up to heaven by a host of angels. In awe the two knights looked on as a hand without a body suddenly appeared, took up the Holy Grail and the bleeding spear and took them out of sight. They were never seen on earth again” (p. 101).

The quests of the Knights include the common motif of advice from a wise old man Merlin along with other wise people and predictors of the future. Galahad’s quest includes a battle with a strong male figure Sir Lancelot. Lancelot does not realize he is fighting his own son until after the battle. Compare the scene with Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader in Star Wars. This fight is a common quest motif.

The crossing of water or intersection with water is also a common quest motif. In these legends, Arthur receives the mighty sword Excalibur from The Lady of the Lake and an arm that mysteriously rises from the lake holding the sword aloft. When Arthur is dying, he begs Sir Belvedere to return the sword to the lake. Finally he does heave the sword into the lake and an arm rises from the water to catch it. Arthur’s body is carried by three queens to the mystical isle of Avalon. Various boats and magic barges that seem to move by themselves appear in the stories, bearing Elaine’s dead body to Lancelot, bearing the three knights off to the castle holding the Holy Grail, and taking back the great black horse and the gentlewoman on the black barge that are demonic tempations to Sir Percival.

We see the quest motif of the temptress in Guenevere, Elaine, “the gentlewoman of great beauty” in the black sailed barge, and in Lancelot’s rescue of the damsel in the scalding bath in the tower. “At once the enchantment ended and there stepped from the bath, unharmed and naked as a needle, the fairest damsel he had ever seen; she was even lovelier that Queen Guenevere herself” (p.72). The knights (almost) never yield to temptation (and when they do, it always leads to some kind of disaster). Recall that according to some versions of the legends, Mordred was the result of incest between Arthur and his sister. Lancelot’s finally succumbing physically to his love for Guenevere sets in motion the events that destroy Arthur’s kingdom.

What other lessons do these legends teach us and the young people who read them? They teach loyalty to one’s leader. They teach deference to womanhood and that women may be desired but should be protected. They teach that it is cowardly to avoid a challenge or a fight (so much for modern teaching of “conflict mediation” in the schools). They teach that adventures are a great part of life. Ride into the unknown. If your adventures are great enough, the bards may sing of them, as they did those of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Tales of King Arthur, authored by James Riordan and illustrated by Victor Ambus, twice winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for his illustrations (1965, 1975). He has illustrated over 300 books. The SBN is 528-82383-3 and the call number at El Cerrito Library was J 398.22, 124 pages, color illustrations.


About KLevenson

I am Teacher Librarian at Piedmont High School in the San Francisco East Bay. I am a part time reference Librarian I for the San Francisco Public Library. I have a Masters in Library and Information Sciences from San Jose State and a Teacher Librarian credential in addition to my teaching credential in Science. My first MA was from Harvard in Archaeology. My students teach me something new every time I am with them!
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