I have probably forgotten more Arthurian novels than I can count, so while I know there are dozens if not hundreds out there, and I’ve read a fair number of them, I’ve tried to pick the novels that have remained in my head for years, and those I see as extremely significant in shaping the legend in new ways even if I didn’t particularly enjoy them. Placing them in an appropriate order was also difficult. I’d be interested in hearing from readers whether they feel I left any significant books off the list or if they feel I should have placed them in a different order since I spent many hours debating this list and most I think could be considered classics of modern Arthurian fiction today, or at least of significant influence.
10. The Coming of the King (1988) by Nikolai Tolstoy. This book was supposed to be the first in a trilogy of books about Merlin, but Tolstoy never published the rest of the series, or wrote it perhaps. And admittedly, it was not a well-written or engaging novel, but Tolstoy did a superb job at trying to recreate the Welsh world that Merlin and Arthur would have lived within. He was obviously influenced by The Mabinogion, and is one of the few novelists who has used those most ancient of Arthurian legends as his primary source. It is worth a read for that reason alone and hopefully future novelists will come along to give us authentic feeling Welsh Arthurian worlds in the future.
9. The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. I’ve always felt this novel was highly overrated and its writing style less than engaging, but it’s influence on the great musical Camelot which in turn inspired John F. Kennedy and is my all-time favorite film and musical makes it worth mentioning. Its merits lie in its humor, its fantasy, and its presentation of Arthur as a child, which also inspired Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. White is also the first novelist to suggest homosexual attraction as having a role in the legend, particularly in the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle.
8. King Arthur’s Daughter (1978) by Vera Chapman. I believe this was the first novel where a child of Arthur, and a girl at that, plays a significant role in the storyline. Many other novels of Arthur’s children, and especially daughters, would follow and other novels suggesting that Arthur’s descendants live to the present day. This young adult novel is engaging and fun for all ages.
7. The Road to Avalon (1989) by Joan Wolf. Contains a love story between Arthur and Morgan, but also, it contains an interesting twist on the Fall of Camelot. Overall, this was one I couldn’t put down and thoroughly enjoyed. It’s historical and fast-paced and has an interesting take on Mordred and Constantine.
6. Merlin Novels (1970-1983) by Mary Stewart. More than any other novelist, Mary Stewart brought Arthurian fiction into fashion. Her three Merlin novels (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment) and The Wicked Day about Camelot’s Fall were a wonderful historical rendering of Arthurian times told from Merlin’s point of view. I read these books as a teenager twenty-five years ago, and there are scenes from them that are still vivid in my head. I reread very few books, but these would definitely be books to read time and again. (But avoid Stewart’s later pseudo-Arthurian novel The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995)—boring.)
5. The Pendragon Cycle (1987-1989) by Stephen Lawhead. The first three novels of this series Taliesin, Merlin, and Arthur are phenomenal books—I read all three in a week. Lawhead’s other three novels are a bit disappointing but don’t miss the beginning of the series. They begin in Atlantis and then follow characters to Britain and build toward the reign of King Arthur. The story is engaging and captivating throughout. Other novelists have also linked the Arthurian legend to Avalon, but none in such an entertaining and complete way.
4. The Camulod Chronicles (1992-2000) by Jack Whyte. Whyte went farther than any other novelist in trying to recreate the Roman world in the decades before King Arthur. He depicts how Camelot was founded by Arthur’s ancestors in the time when the Romans were departing and brings the story up to Arthur’s birth. I could not put these books down and read each one—they’re all around 500 or more pages, within a few days. There are six novels altogether, but Whyte also wrote Uther, and the two Golden Eagle novels about Lancelot, which were disappointing by comparison.
3. Sword at Sunset (1963) by Rosemary Sutcliff. This book is the grandmother of modern Arthurian fiction. It is the first historical treatment of the Arthurian legend depicting King Arthur not as a fantasy figure but trying to place him in his historical context as a war leader. I found the book rather boring, actually, but many people have enjoyed it and its importance cannot be denied. Sutcliff was also the first novelist to create a child other than Mordred for Arthur (a daughter actually, even predating King Arthur’s Daughter, although the daughter dies as an infant).
2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) by Mark Twain. I’m not a huge Mark Twain fan, but this book is brilliantly written. In my opinion it leaves Huckleberry Finn in the dust. It is one of the first “time travel” novels in literature while also serving as a social commentary on nineteenth century America. More than any other Arthurian work, it has been retold in plays and films and spinoffs. But while many of the versions of it, ranging from Spacemen to baseball playing boys in King Arthur’s court are silly, the book itself is fascinating. Hank Morgan is truly one of the great characters of literature.
1. The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley. No doubt, The Mists of Avalon is the best known modern Arthurian novel but it is fully deserving of that designation. Bradley took the legend to new lengths by retelling the story from the woman’s point of view and introducing the Celtic religion and its aspects into the novel to an extent not previously done in Arthurian fiction. As a novelist myself, this book had a huge impact on me, both in my writing and my spiritual beliefs. It’s one of those books that stays with you for life, and it may well be my all-time favorite novel.
Remember, I would love to hear about your favorite Arthurian novels!
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com