Review: The Mystery of King Arthur by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Mystery of King ArthurThe Mystery of King Arthur by Elizabeth Jenkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a Christmas present this year from my brother Michael who remembers well my long obsession with King Arthur as a child and adolescent. By the title, you might think that this a ‘historical King Arthur’ book, but it’s not. This book is an overview of the Matter of Britain — or, as Jenkins calls it, the Matter of Arthur. It is an overview of the entire body of legend and literature surrounding Merlin, Arthur, the Round Table, the Grail, Tristan, etc, et al.

The volume begins with a brief description of pre-Arthurian Britain, expressing beliefs in great psychic powers of the people who built Stonehenge. This chapter is to be read with great caution, and not because of Jenkins’ dancing a little too closely romanticised Celticism for my increasingly cynical tastes but because of a few slips concerning Roman history (e.g. Constantine the Great was the first emperor of that name, not the third!) and the departure of the Romans from Britain.

Nevertheless, the book moves along swiftly into a second chapter, ‘Fact and Legend’, where we meet what Jenkins considers the only two historically verifiable facts about King Arthur, taken from a Paschal Chronicle of the 1100s (but believed to date from the 800s — I am still not sure why we should believe something from the 800s for the history of the 500s) — he defeated the Saxons and Mt Badon, and he and Mordred both died in battle at Camlann.

However, throughout the rest of the book, various other tidbits of the Matter of Britain are assumed to be based on some sort of fact because of their verisimilitude. I have become a cautious historian at the ripe old age of 32, and would probably have included far more, ‘maybe’s, ‘perhaps’es, ‘might be’s, and ‘could have been somebody else but got attached to Arthur maybe at some point’ and similar statements to that.

Anyway, the book is very good, nonetheless. Jenkins gives a chronological run-through of the legends and literature of King Arthur, from some of the weird and wonderful tales from Welsh lore (remember that time King Arthur had to capture a hairbrush from between the ears of a magical boar? Neither did I!) to the now-standard versions from the French Vulgate Cycle immortalised by Malory and Tennyson. Most of the expected authors/works are there — Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Layamon, Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gottfried von Strassburg, and so forth.* The literature is dealt with very well, sometimes giving synopses of the most important and/or famous stories, pieces of literature, including helpful quotations, and sometimes simply stating their place in the overall journey from post-Roman Britain to the Pre-Raphaelites.

An interesting facet of this book that I did have expected was Jenkins’ setting the political and social stage for each era of the legends’ growth and transformation. These chapters and asides were generally helpful, although sometimes hard to connect with the literature. They were also overly focussed on England, when you consider how much Arthurian literature is French (and from elsewhere on the Continent) — my Latin prof from undergrad (an expert on Old French) says, ‘All the best Arthurian literature is French.’

One odd facet was Jenkins’ psychologising of things. She writes on occasion that some images look like a dreamscape, and that aspects of the legendary bits of Arthur undoubtedly have their origins in the human psyche. She also refers to the psychic powers of the Celts.

One final criticism that is not of this book in particular but of a lot of similar volumes is that no mediaeval writer seems capable of imagination in Jenkins’ estimation. Almost every development of the story, even in the absence of evidence, is assumed to derive from oral tradition, or to be borrowed from elsewhere, or from real history, or Celtic legend, or whatever. I, on the other hand, am a firm believer in the fecundity of the mediaeval imagination.

One final commendation: The book is profusely illustrated with manuscript images, photographs of sites associated with Arthur, a few Early Modern items, and the glories of the Pre-Raphaelites and Aubrey Beardsley.

In sum: This is a good book with some errors and oddities, but I would heartily recommend it as an introduction to Arthurian literature and themes, as almost every major work is treated in this volume and usually receives a fair amount of justice.

*Notably missing: Beroul and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

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