Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The (possibly mythical) figure of King Arthur has inspired the imaginations of countless writers for the last thousand years. But which are the very best books about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table? Here, we’ve gathered ten of the very best books that feature King Arthur, whether fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.
1. Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain.
Among other things, this chronicle, written in Latin in the twelfth century by a Welsh monk, popularised the story of King Arthur. It was a bestseller before such things really existed, and is one of most exciting and influential medieval English books in existence. And like some other popular ‘histories’ of the time, such as the fascinating Vinland sagas, the line between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ was something drawn rather vaguely.
Geoffrey’s account of the legendary king contains the first appearance of many of the iconic features of the Arthurian legend, including the wizard Merlin. (The nineteenth-century French scholar Gaston Paris suggested that Geoffrey changed the Welsh Myrddin to Merlin to avoid resemblance to the Latin merda, ‘faeces’.)
Recommended edition: The History of the Kings of Britain (Classics)
2. Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot.
This twelfth-century French writer really put Lancelot on the Arthurian map; indeed, Geoffrey of Monmouth never mentions Arthur’s most famous knight, and it wasn’t until Chrétien de Troyes wrote Lancelot and introduced the idea of an affair between Guinevere and Arthur’s most noble knight that Arthurian legend really got the ‘romantic’ treatment.
Recommended edition: Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart (Chretien de Troyes (YUP))
3. Anonymous, The Mabinogion.
The source of the Welsh boys’ name Dylan, this collection of eleven medieval legends were probably first written down in around 1060-1120, although even that we cannot be certain about. Although this would make them the earliest book on this list, they were revised over the centuries, with the fourteenth-century Red Book of Hergest being an important document in the evolution of the Mabinogion.
The Arthur we glimpse in the Mabinogion is usually a marginal figure – such as in the tale of Peredur, son of Efrog, the Welsh version of the story of the knight Percival – but in ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’, a decidedly odd tale in which the title character dreams he has travelled back to the time of King Arthur, we get a closer look at the warrior-king, as he sits playing gwyddbwyll (a Welsh board game vaguely resembling chess) with one of his followers shortly before the Battle of Badon. So it’s worth reading if you’re a fan of early legends containing King Arthur.
Recommended edition: The Mabinogion (Oxford World’s Classics)
4. Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur.
One of the first books printed in England, by William Caxton in 1485, Le Morte d’Arthur is a vast prose retelling of the story of King Arthur and the Round Table. Precisely who ‘Sir Thomas Malory’ was is unknown for sure, but the most likely candidate is the Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, Warwickshire, who may have been a knight but didn’t exactly live up to the chivalric ideal espoused in his work: he was a career criminal who ended up in prison several times, notably during the Wars of the Roses; he’s thought to have written his classic and hugely influential work of Arthurian literature while in Newgate Prison.
Although the style is occasionally repetitive and the pacing occasionally leaves something to be desired, Malory’s achievement should be viewed as less a ‘novel’ in the modern sense and more a patchwork anthology of the different Arthurian legends and stories. And his book would go on to have a considerable influence on later writers. The recommended edition below is based on the Winchester Manchester, recovered in the twentieth century.
Recommended edition: Le Morte Darthur The Winchester Manuscript (Oxford World’s Classics)
5. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King.
Although dismissed by T. S. Eliot as ‘Chaucer retold for children’ (a rather odd statement, since Tennyson was following Malory rather than Chaucer), Tennyson’s epic collection of verse tales about the various characters who feature in Arthurian myth is a Victorian classic, albeit of uneven quality. Here we find the stories of Lancelot and Elaine, Geraint and Enid, Merlin and Vivien, and many more, told in Tennyson’s skilful blank verse.
Recommended edition: Idylls of the King (Penguin Classics)
6. Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Time-travel books were all the rage at the close of the nineteenth century, as H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and William Morris’s News from Nowhere, among numerous others, suggest. For this comic novel, Twain transports an American engineer, Hank Morgan, back to the England of King Arthur, after Morgan receives a blow to the head. Huge fun, it shows Twain’s humour at its best, and was supposedly inspired by a dream Twain himself had, in which he was a knight in clunky armour …
Recommended edition: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (English Library)
7. T. H. White, The Once and Future King.
Beginning with The Sword in the Stone in 1938, a year after J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published, this series eventually grew to be a tetralogy (or a pentalogy if we include the posthumously published The Book of Merlyn). Hugely inventive and distinctive in style and treatment, White’s books take place in ‘Gramarye’ (his name for his fantasy version of medieval Britain), and – unlike Stewart’s series below – places Arthur in a version of fourteenth-century England rather than the immediate post-Roman world of the (dubiously) historical Arthur.
One of the other distinctive aspects of White’s series – which might be viewed as one single book like The Lord of the Rings (which it can easily stand alongside as a comparable achievement) – is his characterisation. Here Lancelot is an ugly man rather than handsome, and Galahad is annoying because he is too perfect, and so not liked by his fellow knights. What’s more, Merlyn is actually getting younger over time – the inverse of Arthur’s development from ‘the Wart’ into a great king.
Recommended edition: The Once and Future King
8. Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave.
For this memorable and winning combination of fantasy and history, Stewart restored Arthur to the world of Roman Britain rather some later landscape of knightly chivalry and medieval pomp. The Crystal Cave (made into a now largely forgotten BBC miniseries in 1991) was published in 1970 and spawned several sequels. With wit and humour, Stewart gives us not Merlin the aged enchanter but the boy and youth who will later become a great wizard.
Recommended edition: The Crystal Cave: Arthurian Saga, Book 1
9. Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend.
A reference book rather than a work of fiction or poetry, this fat volume gathers all of the characters, stories, and storytellers under one cover, providing helpful information to assist the King Arthur fan as they embark on a journey of discovery through Arthuriana. There’s also a detailed introduction on the historical basis for ‘Arthur’ and the evolution of Arthurian literature down the ages.
Recommended edition: The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend 1/e (Oxford Quick Reference)
10. David Day, The Search for King Arthur.
To complement the reference work by Lupack, this is perhaps the best non-fiction book detailing the history of King Arthur and his possible life (if he ever lived) as well as his fruitful afterlife as literary inspiration over the centuries. Day really knows his subject, and is an affable guide through Arthuriana with its various twists and turns.
Recommended edition: The Search for King Arthur
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.