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

Adaptations and Retellings

The idea of adapting a story and retelling a story may sound much the same, but I’d suggest they’re slightly different things. Adapting a story is finding a way to tell a story in a new medium. For example, adapting a story to be filmed as a movie or told in an audio. Retelling is more like what happens when I tell a story to someone and then that someone tells the story to someone else, emphasizing the parts they liked and adding new details, and so on.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I recently watched David Lowery’s film The Green Knight. Although I’m a fan of early Arthurian literature, I had never read the original poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The movie certainly reminded me of Arthurian literature of its period. The poem is believed to have been written circa 1380 AD. Arthur’s knights gathered for revels and a quest happened. A hunt formed an integral part of the quest and beheadings happened. All of these elements reminded me of Culhwch and Olwen, which appeared in written form around the same time, but is believed to have originated in the 11th or 12th century.

I enjoyed the film a lot and it encouraged me to seek out the original. After doing some research on the web, I decided to give Simon Armitage’s translation a try. I found his translation very readable and I appreciated it that it’s printed side-by-side with the original Middle English. Some of Armitage’s modern colloquialisms did pull me briefly out of the story, but overall, I thought he did a fine job of conveying both meaning and poetic sensibility. I also learned that the movie The Green Knight was much more a retelling than an adaptation.

Calling The Green Knight a retelling is by no means intended as a criticism. I enjoy retelling stories and have sold several of my retellings over the years. I think a retelling can bring new insights to characters, highlight hidden elements in stories, and make older stories more relevant to new audiences. The poem alludes to quests and trials as Gawain travels to complete his quest at the Green Chapel. The movie visualizes two of those quests, drawing on another story for one of those quests. David Lowery clearly emphasized Gawain’s class and privilege, then used the quest as a way for him to learn the value of courage. In the poem, Gawain doesn’t need to learn courage as much as he needs to learn honesty and perhaps even that it’s acceptable to be afraid.

It took me about the same amount of time to read Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as it did to watch the movie. I’m glad I did both. Also, it’s worth noting, the introductory material to Armitage’s translation was fascinating. I learned, among other things, that because Germanic languages tend to emphasize first syllables, early Germanic poems tended to use alliteration. Because Romance languages tend to emphasize last syllables, their poems tended to rhyme. English takes words from both and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was an early example of poem that used both techniques.

I share a retelling of Arthurian legend as part of my novel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires, which you can learn more about at: http://davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

I also adapted the early story Culhwch and Olwen. Learn more about that at: http://davidleesummers.com/cando.html

The Coming of the King

Last week, I finished reading Nikolai Tolstoy’s novel The Coming of the King. Tolstoy draws from such diverse sources as The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Beowulf, and the Norse Eddas to tell a story of post-Arthurian Britain through the eye of Merlin. This Merlin isn’t the advisor of Arthur we’ve come to expect from works like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, but rather a shaman living nearly a century after Arthur’s defeat at Camlan.

The book runs the gamut from action, to ribald humor, to surreal visions. I especially loved the fact that one of Merlin’s teachers is the Salmon of Lyn Liw. At times this is a dense and challenging read and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn’t read several of the stories of The Mabinogion plus some of the Norse Eddas. Still, I found this a compelling look through the eyes of a Celtic shaman and may have to give this another read in the future.

Tolstoy himself is something of an interesting figure. I gather he’s a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy. He’s also the stepson of Patrick O’Brien, who wrote the outstanding Aubrey & Maturin series of naval epics set during the Napoleonic wars. Having grown up in Britain, Tolstoy developed an interest in Arthurian literature, and I especially enjoyed his non-fiction book, The Quest for Merlin. That book introduced me to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, which in turn inspired my poem “The Passage of Merlin” which was reprinted at Eye to the Telescope earlier this year.

When I first discovered Arthurian literature and started processing it, I had a vision of creating a work similar in scope to Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King. I envisioned telling the ultimate Arthurian tale. Of course, many far-more-noted authors have also done so, ranging from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to the aforementioned T.H. White. Tolstoy sidestepped the trap of writing “yet another Arthurian fantasy” by writing about people who lived a generation or two after Arthur and were influenced by his legacy.

I’m often asked how an author can create fantasy that isn’t derivative of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard. One answer is simply to read the classics. The ones Tolstoy drew from are good choices. Grimm’s fairy tales are also good choices. In that way, a writer can get to the roots of fantasy. From that basis, you can start adapting the themes and types of characters to situations and locations that mean something to you.

My first professional fantasy (and steampunk) sale was a story I was moved to write after reading Moby Dick and then Ray Bradbury’s accounts of writing the novel’s screenplay. I replaced sailing ships with airships and whales with dragons and wrote “The Slayers” which was published in Realms of Fantasy. You can learn about the reprinted edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/slayers.html.

As for Arthurian legends, I had a lot of notes and ideas and wrote some stories. I added vampires and my love of the movie Nosferatu and melded it into Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, a lot of these old stories can be dense and a challenge to follow. One of the ways I dealt with that was by retelling the stories in my own words and finding the parts that were important to me and emphasizing them. I felt brave enough to record one of those retellings and put it up for sale several years ago. It’s my retelling of Culhwch and Olwen from The Maginogion.

I was really fortunate that the story also captured the imagination of a co-worker from Kitt Peak named Kevin Schramm, who also played accordion for an outstanding band called The Mollys. Kevin and Mollys lead singer Nancy McCallion were kind enough to record some music for my reading. You can find out more about the recording at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/cando.html. Just one word of caution if you go to buy the audiobook at Amazon, make sure to go to the Marketplace sellers and buy it from Hadrosaur Productions, and not the person who thinks they can get more than $600 for my recording. It would be nice if they shared some of their profits with me if they actually managed to sell the CD for that price!