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Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: Myths and Legends: King Arthur

by Dirty Jon

Daniel Mersey's book Myths and Legends - King Arthur is a very interesting read that takes a look at King Arthur stories from three main angles: the Medieval Arthur, the Celtic arthur, the historical Arthur.  The interesting thing about this book is that it is not just for historians and can be read by an audience with just a passing knowledge of European history.

Medieval Arthur
The section begins with a great analysis of the account of Geoffrey of Monmouth, going into just the right amount of detail about this topic.  The author does a really good job of covering the significant information about Arthur in an easy to read, narrative way.

After that, the poet Wace is covered in a few pages, with the majority of the medieval section dedicated to Malory.  Mersey gives a short account of the creation of the Malory work, but spends the bulk of the chapter summarizing the Malory work.  One of the interesting things about the book is the use of short (half page) call-outs to address side topics.  In this section, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is neatly summarized for the reader.

Celtic Arthur
This section was the most interesting to me, as I had not studied much about Arthurian tales from the Celtic perspective.  There is great detail on the long oral tradition of the myths and history -- often inseparable -- about Arthur.  It was very interesting to see that the Celts had a more varied and sometimes unheroic view of Arthur and his exploits.

Mersey goes into great details about the source materials available for this picture of Arthur and the stories and controversies about the accounts themselves.  Many sources are looked at and analyzed from a content and a historiographical standpoint that I found extremely interesting.

Historical Arthur
After looking at all the fictions and pseudo-histories of Arthur, we delve into the actual evidence that is available.  Mersey does a good job of covering the 'for' evidence for an actual living, breathing Arthur, and covers some of the most popular theories.  At the end of the section, there is a short statement against.

Arthur could have been a hardened warrior of the 5th or 6th centuries, a High King of Britain, a Roman General, a Welsh Warrior or the 'Boar of Cornwall'.  Mersey give a really good overview of many theories and summarizes the evidence for the case.

I found this chapter is very useful for finding out about other works on the topic.  Mersey mentions several books -- and movies -- for the beginning Arthur enthusiast.

The book is a thin paperback, weighing in at 80 pages.  Each page is in color and contains numerous pictures and graphics.  I found the book to be quite sturdy, with a thick card-stock cover.  The pages and type are not over-glossy and are very easy to read and see.

I am also very pleased with the arrangement and call-outs in the book.  This is a very clever way of allowing the author to give additional, interesting information without interfering with the flow of the overall work.

Art & Photos
The artwork and photos are a highlight of the book.  Alan Lathwell's illustrations are very well done and complement the narrative very well.  The pictures were very engaging and feature historical artifacts as well as action-packed fantasy art.  I was quite happy to see some contemporary photos from movies I recognize and also from sites around the UK that are related to the Arthurian legend.

Even games!

If you are interested in Arthur, but just have not been able to tackle Malory or The Once and Future King, I highly recommend this book.  This book will be a joy to read for both the historian and the laymen and no particular deep background is necessary to just pick this up and start reading.  I found the book interesting from a historical perspective and I think there could be a wealth of material useful to the historical wargamer.  I can see about a dozen different ideas for your favorite miniature wargames here....

Book provided by Osprey Publishing.

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