Arthur: King of Britain

Earlier this year, I discovered Caliber Publishing’s updates of L. Frank Baum’s Oz and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered Caliber Publishing had also published a comic book adaptation of the King Arthur story in the early 1990s. Unlike Oz and War of the Worlds, which were effectively continuations of their respective tales, Caliber’s Arthur: King of Britain is a straightforward adaptation of the Arthur story as it appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. This adaptation is written and features black and white artwork by Michael Fraley, who started his career as a newspaper sketch artist, but soon moved into graphic design and honed his writing skills to the point of earning a regular newspaper tech column.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is an important work. Written circa 1136 AD, Geoffrey’s work endeavors to combine aspects of Arthurian folklore and the fragmentary bits of history that suggest Arthur was a real figure into a single narrative of Arthur’s life. Later, more famous versions of the King Arthur story, such as Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur are arguably built on Geoffrey’s framework. Geoffrey’s version tells the story of how Merlin helped Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon take the form of Gorlois of Cornwall, to seduce Gorlois’ wife, Igerne. From that union, Arthur is born. He would go on to be trained as a knight and assume the throne upon the death of his father.

According to Geoffrey, Arthur goes on to unite the British people to confront the Saxon invaders who have begun to take over much of Britain. Once the Saxons are defeated, Arthur marries Guinevere and then begins a series of military campaigns in the lands surrounding Britain. When Roman envoys come to Arthur to demand tribute, Arthur decides to use the forces he’s assembled from the British Isles and Western Europe to conquer Rome itself. He leaves Britain in the care of his nephew, Modred. While on the Roman campaign, Arthur learns that Modred has married Guinevere and claimed the throne of Britain for himself, setting up the final tragic battle at Camlan.

Fraley’s comic adaptation includes notes about the story, which I found interesting. He points out that Geoffrey would have been steeped in Biblical tradition and he tells a story that eschews the more magical aspects of Celtic lore in favor of a story that reads like it could have been part of the Bible. The giants in the History of the Kings of Britain resemble Goliath more than Ysbaddaden Chief Giant of the Celtic Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen. Fraley also suggests that Arthur’s conquest of Rome may have been inspired by Geoffrey’s desire to give Arthur a story as epic as Charlemagne’s. Fraley talks about this European quest moving into the background of later stories. I’ve long suspected that later writers, who didn’t see a Roman conquest by Britain in any other history and who wanted to tell a moral tale, transformed much of that quest into the quest for the Holy Grail.

I thought Fraley’s book Arthur: King of Britain was a good adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth. The black and white art supported the story well and his notes gave me new insight into the story. If you’re a fan of comics and Arthurian legend, you can find the five-issue series collected as a graphic novel in both digital and print formats at Amazon.

When I wrote my novel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires, I planned to set part of the story in Arthurian times right from the beginning. I decided to use Geoffrey’s version of the story as my template for my story’s background. You can learn more about Dragon’s Fall at: http://davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Geoffrey’s version of the Arthur story has also influenced my science fiction. His version of Arthur’s final battle with Modred, inspired the final confrontation between Manuel Raton and Mary Hill in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There’s a reason the strategic pass where the novel’s climactic scene happens is called Camlan. You can learn more about The Pirates of Sufiro at: http://davidleesummers.com/pirates_of_sufiro.html

Finally, if you’re interested in those early Welsh Arthurian folktales, I recorded my own retelling of Culhwch and Olwen. You can learn more here: http://davidleesummers.com/cando.html

6 comments on “Arthur: King of Britain

  1. And *History of the Kings of Britain* is a translation of *Historia Regum Britanniae* which itself is supposedly a translation.

    It fascinates me how many different versions of the Arthurian Legend there are. I think of the story featuring Sir Lancelot and the Quest for the Holy Grail even though I don’t think either one of those appeared in the earlier versions. I think the wizard Merlin/Merlyn might have been there from the beginning, but I’m not sure.

    • In my case, I’m just using the translated title. I gather Historia was written in Latin. Geoffrey was a cleric who claimed to be translating an even older work, but my understanding is that most scholars these days consider Historia an original Latin work that originated with Geoffrey himself. His claim was made just to add a sense of veracity to his “history.”

      Yes, Merlin’s connection to Arthur goes back to at least Historia. As I recall, there are older sources for Merlin, but I’m not sure they necessarily connected the character to Arthur in the way Geoffrey did. The Holy Grail seems to have evolved from several early Arthurian quest stories, some of which do include a cauldron or a cup. Some have speculated that Lancelot appears in Historia in the person of Prince Anguselus. I use that connection in my novel Dragon’s Fall.

  2. Like Alden said, there are lots of variations of Arthur’s story. What interests me is how the knights who follow him can change. Usually there’s Kai, Gawain, and a few others, but some of the others appear in only one version of the story.

    • Indeed. Kai, Bedevere, and Gawain all seem to go back to the oldest legends, admittedly sometimes with difficult to recognize spellings. Others seem to have been introduced later in the legend. I’ve read books that suggest that some knights were introduced to pull local heroes into the Arthurian canon to give those heroes more weight by associating them with Arthur.

  3. I know next to nothing about Arthurian legend. I should remedy that!

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