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The Prince Valiant strip’s subtitle is “In the Days of King Arthur,” but I have to admit the scenes that take place at Camelot are often less inspired than those that take place elsewhere in Foster’s strip, and I felt that was the case with this volume, though there are still notable moments.

This volume opens with Val, Aleta, and their family on their way back to Camelot, and other than a little subplot in which Arn gets kidnapped and is rescued, they arrive there safely.

Prince Valiant, Vol. 14 includes King Arthur’s famous Battle of Mount Badon.

In the two years of work presented in this volume, Foster seems to be wanting to push his storyline closer to the catastrophe that brings about the end of Arthur’s reign, but at the same time, he holds back, making it happen very gradually. Once Valiant is back in Camelot, there are two key Arthurian moments in the book. The first concerns Modred (Foster’s spelling). Modred is complaining about how he and the other knights do all the work but Arthur gets all the glory and money. He has enlisted his four brothers of the Orkney clan, along with several younger knights, in his cause. When Gawain brings Valiant to one of Modred’s meetings, Valiant quickly makes the other knights see the treachery and lack of validity in Modred’s words so that soon all of the knights abandon him other than the Orkney clan. Valiant notes also that none of the established Knights of the Round Table are at the meeting other than those of Orkney.

The Orkney clan still wishes to plot with Modred. Modred wants to catch Lancelot and Guinevere in a trap and include Aleta in it. At this point, Gawain is torn between his friendship for Valiant and Aleta and his loyalty to his brothers. He warns Aleta to be careful, but she doesn’t understand the warning. The plot Modred ends up hatching is to distract and lead Valiant’s twin daughters away from the court just long enough so everyone will go looking for them. Both Aleta and Lancelot go looking in Guinevere’s private garden. The Orkneys lock them in the private garden for the night, thinking in the morning they will be found and it will look like they’ve committed adultery. (This plot doesn’t hurt Guinevere directly, but, of course, she’ll be heartbroken if Lancelot has to leave Camelot, and it will hurt Valiant also. If two of Arthur’s chief knights leave Camelot, Modred will have better opportunity for overthrowing the king.)

Of course, Modred’s plans come to naught. Valiant and Arn realize where Aleta is and climb over the garden wall. When the garden is later unlocked, Modred sees Lancelot and Aleta together and starts to accuse them, only to have Valiant and Arn then step out to show there is no dishonor because the four of them have all been together. Valiant then tells Modred he does not appreciate his insinuations. Modred, fearing Valiant will challenge him to a duel, flees Camelot, planning to continue to plot against King Arthur from a distance.

The other major Arthurian moment in this volume is the Battle of Mount Badon. I admit I found the battle a bit dull, but what is wonderful is the lead-up to it, involving Valiant’s son Arn. We have watched Arn grow up throughout the strip, and now he is old enough to go out as a scout, only to be captured by the Saxons. He gives them information about Arthur’s plans, then fakes his death when he escapes from them so they cannot know that he lives and has returned to Camelot to warn Arthur. The result is that Arthur knows exactly what to expect from the Saxons, so he takes them by surprise and soundly defeats them.

I’m not a fan of battle scenes, though Foster draws them well. What I love is the cleverness that Valiant and Aleta always display in getting out of sticky situations, and now it’s clear they’ve passed that cleverness on to their son.

It’s important to note that, according to most versions of the legend, Mount Badon was Arthur’s last great victory against the Saxons, followed by twenty or so years of peace before Camelot’s fall. One wonders whether Foster was starting to consider moving toward the fall of Camelot in the strip. By this point, Foster was in his early seventies, so he must have realized he could not draw the strip many more years, although it wouldn’t be until 1970 that he started looking for a successor and 1975 before he retired completely from the strip. In the end, I assume he couldn’t bear to see the strip end with his retirement, and so the fall of Camelot was put off indefinitely.

Valiant and Aleta’s twin girls are also growing up in this volume—they end up having their first crush on the same boy, and they employ a bit of trickery themselves to try to get him interested in them; however, they’re still too young to succeed, as is their victim, a twelve-year-old king. Nevertheless, I imagine they will be quite able to manipulate men with their feminine wiles just like their mother before too many more volumes have passed.

Two other passages worth noting in this volume are examples of Foster’s postmodern intrusion into the strip. I believe these are the first times he breaks the spell, reminding readers they are reading a story. The first is when he mentions that two characters ride out of the story. The second is when he claims the manuscripts he is basing the story on were damaged at one point, and so he can’t complete a specific episode and has to guess what happened. He then picks up the story with Valiant and Aleta traveling to Thule. The volume ends here with Valiant’s arrival in Thule where he has to trick some raiders to protect his father’s kingdom.

I wouldn’t say this is one of the stronger volumes in the series, but it still has its moments. Of added interest is the introduction by Roger Stern about other cartoon artists who engaged in “swiping” Foster’s work. “Swiping” is a term meaning copying or even plagiarizing. Numerous frames are presented as examples of Foster’s Tarzan and Prince Valiant strips beside frames of other cartoonists who have figures in similar poses—most notably a comparison between Tarzan and Batman’s poses—and also backgrounds that are so similar the artists obviously copied from Foster—one of an interior banquet hall in the Valiant strip is compared to one by Don Rosa for a Clan McDuck strip. Also interesting is the essay at the end of the book about Foster’s desire to be a fine art painter before he became a famous cartoonist. Several of Foster’s landscape paintings are presented—some are not overly impressive but some are quite exquisite. While he never saw his dream realized of being a famous painter, I’m sure Foster delighted far more people with his Tarzan and Prince Valiant strips than he ever would have with landscape paintings.

Volume 15 of the Prince Valiant reprints by Fantagraphics will be released in June. In it, there will be a return to the New World. Watch for the review later this year.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and the upcoming Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

 

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This latest Fantagraphics reprint of Hal Foster’s wonderful strip begins with an insightful article by Mark Schultz, which says about everything I’ve thought that makes this strip so worthwhile. I have to admit the plots tend to become repetitive, and as wonderful as the illustrations are, the soap opera feel of the storyline becomes a bit tedious, but Foster shined for two things in particular—the breathtaking landscape scenes he did and the way he could draw a face and convey expression in it.

PrinceValiant9I’ve always liked to draw since I was a kid, but I have never been able to pull off realistic-looking faces. Foster was a master at this and someone we could all learn from. In this opening essay, Schultz talks about how Foster depicts Valiant and Aleta’s relationship through his ability to show their feelings for each other, as well as how they mask those feelings. Schultz says Foster was unique in this ability to reveal the characters’ internal lives through their expressions and body language, and I very much agree.

This particular volume picks up with the end of Valiant’s efforts to bring Christianity to Thule—and with rather alarming results. Valiant is shown destroying Pagan idols, something that in the twenty-first century I found upsetting and disgusting because we tend to be more open to diversity in these days, and while I was raised a Christian, I couldn’t help but feel the unfairness of this behavior, and when the destruction of these idols infers that they are false because they do nothing to avenge themselves, I can’t help noticing that Foster has the Pagans burn the Christian church down next, and the Christian God doesn’t intercede either, which leaves the reader wondering whether either God is real or exists, at least from Foster’s viewpoint. Of course, the Christian church is rebuilt, and then Valiant and Aleta go off on adventures, leaving the religious theme behind for now until later in the volume when Valiant ends up in Ireland and meets St. Patrick.

Valiant and Aleta part ways early in the volume because Aleta wants to go visit the Misty Isles, but Val ends up being called to help King Arthur in fighting against the Saxons who have allied with the five kings of Cornwall. By the time these battles are done, Val has introduced the idea of using stirrups for the knights, which is often introduced as a reason why King Arthur was successful and able to hold back the Saxons in several Arthurian novels that have been published since then, though I’m unsure who first introduced this idea into Arthurian literature—perhaps it was Foster.

But the real highlight of the volume, as Schultz remarks, is how Aleta manages as a woman to gain control in the Misty Isles, putting down a possible rebellion in her kingdom through her female presence and her cleverness. One of the things I really love about Foster’s storytelling is that while there are battles and swordplay and violence, many of the conflicts are resolved through Aleta or Val’s trickery and cleverness. It’s always more fun to trick or outsmart an enemy than to have to kill him. Bullies and cowards then end up showing their true colors and getting what they deserve.

A trip to the Holy Land, although not overly dramatic, but again with a little trickery to save the day, rounds out the volume along with the introduction of a girl character, Diane, who becomes friends with Valiant and Aleta’s son, Arn. Arn seems to have really grown up in this volume and transition from being a toddler to now a young boy; the strips from his viewpoint are refreshing, plus Diane appears to be a clever young version of Aleta.

The volume concludes with an essay about the 1954 film version of Prince Valiant starring Robert Wagner. The essay puts the film in context with what was happening in Hollywood at the time and changes in the movie industry, as well as discussing the film’s reception. It was rather a flop of the film, but it’s still a film I find entertaining (see my previous review of it at https://childrenofarthur.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/prince-valiant-in-glorious-technicolor-a-review-of-the-1954-film/), though it takes a lot of liberties with the strip. Apparently, Foster wasn’t too crazy about the film either, according to the article.

Volume 10 has just been released this month, so watch for my next review soon. In the meantime, Volume 9 has plenty to entertain.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and the new Children of Arthur series, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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In the past, I’ve written an individual blog for each volume of the Prince Valiant series, but I decided to group these two together because I couldn’t get myself too excited about Volume 7; furthermore, the adventure in it continues into Volume 8 because the books are printed by the years the strip was published and not by breaks in the storyline. Volume 7 contains the strips from 1949-1950 and Volume 8 covers 1951-1952.

Prince Valiant, Vol. 7: 1949-1950, published by Fantagraphics Books

Prince Valiant, Vol. 7: 1949-1950, published by Fantagraphics Books

Volume 7 begins by concluding Valiant’s trip to North America that was covered in Volume 6. Valiant, Aleta, newborn Prince Arn, and his other companions return to England and Camelot. They don’t have much time to rest, however, before new adventures begin for them. First there is an adventure with a haunted castle, and then a journey to Hadrian’s wall where the Picts are invading. Aleta is the great negotiator and trickster here as she wins over the Picts and stops the war. However, Valiant is wounded during the skirmishes, so he cannot travel by land back to Camelot because it would be too painful for him. Consequently, they take a sea voyage to visit his family in Thule. During the time in Thule, an enemy tries to overthrow Valiant’s father, King Aguar, and once again, Aleta steps in and saves the day through trickery; Foster, I believe, uses this method frequently to resolve conflict to provide a humorous tone to many of the adventures, while avoiding a lot of bloodshed in a Sunday comic strip—a couple of times when he did create frames that were too violent, they were censored and he had to change them.

To me, the most interesting part of this volume was that King Aguar listens to Christian evangelists who try to explain Christianity to him, but he finds they are poorly informed and they argue among themselves about the key points of their religion. Consequently, Valiant, who has been exposed to Christianity in Camelot (although he’s never been depicted as being baptized as a Christian) decides to travel to Rome to find teachers who can return with him to Thule to convert his father’s people.

The adventures in Volume 7 end there, but there is also an interesting article included about Hal Foster’s work painting illustrations for the Union Pacific Railroad. Many of these paintings show mountain scenes with railroad trestles, and this work may have informed his creation of scenes of the Alps and others in the Prince Valiant strip. While Foster’s storylines read like a soap opera and tend to wander about, no one can fault his ability to create great landscape drawings, so it’s interesting to see how his early career influenced the Prince Valiant strip in this way.

Volume 8 was much more to my taste. Valiant has several adventures on his journey to Rome to find Christian missionaries to return to Thule. He has even more adventures on the way back to Thule. However, we are informed briefly that the people of Thule do not warm to the missionaries easily, and it will still be centuries before the country converts to Christianity. The illustrations of Valiant crossing the Alps in this volume are incredible and reflect the influence of Foster’s Union Pacific Railroad artwork.

Prince Valiant, Vol. 8: 1951-1952

Prince Valiant, Vol. 8: 1951-1952

Other highlights of this volume include Valiant’s squire, Arf, who ends up losing a leg to frostbite during the journey and getting what must be one of the first prosthetic legs in history. On the way home, Valiant travels back to Camelot and then to the Orkneys to take a ship over to Thule. Gawain is his companion on this trip, and they stop to visit Gawain’s family, his mother Morgause, as well as brothers Gaheris, Agrivaine, and Mordred. We are only given the first hints here of the sinister role of Mordred in the strips that are yet to come.

Foster isn’t above some cutesy moments. Besides Val returning to Thule to discover Aleta has given him twin daughters, Valeta and Karen, we have Prince Arn, now a toddler, being jealous of his sisters, including several frames from his viewpoint. Arn even gets his own adventure when he is kidnapped and rescued by Tillicum, the Indian woman who returned with Val and Aleta from North America. Tillicum has her own subplot romance in this volume as well with a surprising twist.

At the end of this volume, another great adventure is in the works. Val travels around Thule to discover how receptive the people are to Christianity. He meets a druid (I didn’t know the Norse had druids) who gives him nectar to drink, resulting in Val having a vision of the Rainbow Bridge, the Norse Gods, and Valhalla. This vision is supposed to be proof, according to the druid, that Christianity is not the only true religion. Val will apparently explore this idea in more detail in Volume 9.

While I find moments of the story lag in places, the illustrations throughout these volumes are beautiful and breathtaking, whether it’s of Val and his men fighting the rapids in North America or Val seeing a rainbow bridge, or just splendid landscapes showing mountains and castles. I am looking forward to seeing what Val learns about the Norse Gods, as well as seeing his children grow up, and how Mordred plays a larger part in successive volumes. Stay tuned for more.

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The following excerpt is from my book King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition upon a little discussed aspect of Arthur’s perhaps forgotten brother in early Arthurian legends:

Sir Mordred at the Battle of Camlann

Before we leave Mordred, we should notice that there may be some confusion between him as either Arthur’s son or brother, and between Mordred and a brother of Arthur’s named Modron. The confusion is further increased since Modron usually appears as Arthur’s sister rather than brother.

R.S. Loomis tells us that the ravens of The Mabinogion who battle with Arthur’s knights are Arthur’s nephew Owain’s mother, Modron, and her sisters, the daughters of Avallach (Wales 96-7). Loomis also states that Morgan le Fay and Modron have a connection because both are daughters of Avallach (Celtic Myth 192). If Morgan le Fay and Modron are sisters, we must first wonder whether they are Arthur’s sisters, making them the daughters of one of Arthur’s parents, or are they the children of Avallach? If Modron is Owain’s mother, it seems strange that Morgan is also frequently credited with having a child named Owain. Perhaps the two are not sisters, but merely the same person with a confused identity. This situation may be a similar case to Arthur’s Welsh sons becoming confused or integrated into Mordred.

Celtic scholars are in agreement that Modron, who seems to be Morgan le Fay’s sister, is the old Gallo-Roman goddess Matrona, who gave her name to the river Marne, and therefore, seems to be connected with water (Loomis, Celtic Myth, 193). If this connection to a river is true, it should not surprise us that Modron is sister to Morgan, who is often the Lady of the Lake.

When the Welsh wrote of Modron in their legends, they made her the mother of both Owain and Mabon (Loomis, Celtic Myth, 193). This son, Mabon, can be traced back to Apollo Maponos, who was worshiped in both Gaul and Britain (Loomis, Celtic Myth, 4).

What is strange is that if Modron were a female, she should later appear as Arthur’s brother in a modern novel such as in Edward Franklin’s The Bear of Britain (1944), where he is treacherous, along with Mordred, who is here Arthur’s nephew (Thompson 41).

In other works, Mordred has been depicted as Arthur’s brother, which may be another confusion with Modron, but more likely authors just taking license with the story. In Edison Marshall’s novel The Pagan King (1959), Mordred is Arthur’s half-brother. Why would Arthur have both a treacherous brother and nephew? In Marshall’s opinion, it must have seemed easier to combine the two into one character. We may then wonder whether Mordred and Modron have an older mythological connection or at least these writers are drawing upon what they want to believe is a lost connection.

In the Prince Valiant comic strip, begun by Hal Foster in 1937 and still running in more than 300 newspapers each Sunday, Mordred is also Arthur’s half-brother. In this case Mordred has a daughter, but she is not King Arthur’s direct descendant as a result. Mordred’s daughter Maeve marries Arn, the son of Prince Valiant. Arn and Maeve’s daughter Ingrid (born in the 1987 comic strip) has been designated as Arthur’s heir. Mordred has been removed from the line of succession. My guess is that Foster chose to depict Mordred as Arthur’s half-brother to avoid the issue of incest in a comic strip; I doubt Foster was interested in the relationship between Mordred and Modron.

Modron cannot be readily accepted as an early brother of Arthur. Nowhere in early traditions does he appear as such. However, in Welsh tradition is a tale where Arthur speaks to an eagle, which reveals itself to be his deceased nephew, Elewlod, the son of Madawg, son of Uthr (Bromwich, Arthur Welsh, 58). That Madawg’s son should become an eagle, may remind us of Modron as a raven, and also the legends which tell of Arthur being turned into a raven rather than dying. Perhaps then we can accept Madawg as being Modron.

Modron’s reasons for becoming confused with Mordred may also have explanations. We have seen Modron’s possibility as a sister to Morgan le Fay, Lady of the Lake. Modron herself is connected to river goddesses. Mordred definitely has a connection to water through his mythological ancestor, Dylan. Suggested connections have also been made betwen Pryderi and Rhiannon and Modron and Mabon, who was also taken away when three nights old from his mother (MacCana 83). In “Culhwch and Olwen,” Cei and Gwrhyr search for Mabon and must ask all the oldest animals where he may be. In her chapter “Chrétien de Troyes,” Jean Frappier points out that in Yvain are blended in traditions of Modron as a water nymph (Loomis, Arthurian Literature,163), and in an Irish tale, a character named Fraech is wounded by a water-monster and is then carried away by his fairy kinswomen to be healed. In her chapter “The Vulgate Cycle,” Jean Frappier makes notice of another Irish tale that tells of Fergus mac Leite being wounded by a water-monster, and as he lays by the lake dying, he charges his people that his sword Caladcolg (the original of Excalibur) should be preserved till it can be given to a fitting lord (Loomis, Arthurian Literature, 310). Could Mordred then have an origin as a water monster or as a female goddess of the sea? Or could there be a lost tradition that Mordred is the son of Modron? Why not, since we already have Morgan le Fay and Morgause as possible mothers for him.

Accurate connections between Mordred and Modron have not yet been made, but the similarities may point to a need for further investigation into this matter.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can also visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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This month, Hal Foster’s masterful comic strip Prince Valiant: In the Days of King Arthur celebrates its seventy-fifth birthday. Foster’s strip first debuted on February 13, 1937, and it has continued to be a hit with comic strip fans, Arthurian enthusiasts, and students of art and illustration ever since.

For many years, I’ve wanted to read the entire Prince Valiant strip. When I lived in Kalamazoo, the local paper used to carry it on Sunday so I got to read it for a short time, but never consecutively enough to follow the story. I had seen books printed of parts of the strip, but it wasn’t until Christmas that I was able to set out on my quest to read the entire Prince Valiant series. For Christmas I received Volume I of the Prince Valiant strip, covering 1937-1938, and published by Fantagraphics Books. I have every intention of reading the rest of the volumes which are coming out every few months and available at bookstores. I’ll write more about Volume I in a future post. Since it’s Prince Valiant’s 75th anniversary, I’ll blog about it throughout the month.

Prince Valiant by Hal Foster

After 75 years, Prince Valiant still rides!

I first became interested in Prince Valiant when writing King Arthur’s Children back in the 1990s, especially because I came across the statement that Mordred had a daughter in the strip, and I’ve always been fascinated by depictions of Arthur’s descendants. It turns out, however, that Mordred is not Arthur’s son but his half-brother in the strip. Mordred’s daughter Maeve ends up marrying Arn, Prince Valiant’s son, and their daughter Ingrid (born in the 1987 comic strip) has been designated as Arthur’s heir while Mordred has been removed from the line of succession. My guess is that Foster chose to depict Mordred as Arthur’s half-brother to avoid the issue of incest in a comic strip.

Despite this disappointment for me, what little I had read and researched of Prince Valiant kept me fascinated. The first volume of Prince Valiant has an interesting introduction that talks about Hal Foster’s artistic style and his background. I was thrilled to discover that before writing Prince Valiant, Foster had worked on the Tarzan comic strip—Tarzan being one of the few characters in my opinion that ranks up there with King Arthur—so I hope to read Foster’s Tarzan strips as well some day.

Foster’s work is very impressive. You wouldn’t think a comic strip that only came out once a week was an arduous task, but Foster would spend about sixty hours a week working on it. Actually, you realize it had to be a big job to create the strip once you look at the art work. Foster’s drawing is superb, and he adds great detail to every panel of the strip. He also had to take the time to plot out the story, and he was usually 9-12 weeks ahead in creating the strip. He also spent considerable time researching the historical Britain of King Arthur and visiting all the places that he would include in the strip. Then he had to take the plot and break it down into week by week separate “chapters” and then each chapter into a panel or “scene.” Foster was a master at offsetting the visual and written aspects of the strip, and it is well-known that he was revolutionary in removing the balloons for speech. The result is something that is closer to book illustration than comic strip, but it is this superior style that has made Prince Valiant endure all these years.

Foster is also great at creating diverse characters and keeping the story moving in multiple directions as well as reintroducing characters as needed. For example, Valiant travels to Camelot, goes off on adventures, and then returns to Camelot repeatedly which provides relief from the strict King Arthur story.

But after seventy-five years, does the strip still stand up? Yes, it does. I have to admit that I don’t think I could read it weekly and stay interested in it, but that is partly the result of our time period today. Back in the late 1930s, in the years before television was common, and far from the days of the Internet, when movies and radio were the primary forms of entertainment, people may have had a greater attention span and been willing to wait for the fulfillment of the cliffhanger each week. Today, cliffhangers still work with half hour television programs, but a strip that only takes a couple of minutes to read each week is a bit different. However, reading the strip in book form works well. I found myself reading about a year’s worth of strips, fifty-two per year obviously, in about an hour, although I paused to admire the art work numerous times. Furthermore, this new edition is beautifully reproduced, along with essays that describe the reproductions to create brilliant colors, and the price of the books at $29.95 (and selling online for about $10 less) can’t be beat for such large full color pages. Prince Valiant is still a remarkable adventure, and if it has a tendency to wander about like a soap opera rather than have a tight plot, that’s the result of the medium, and given its restraints, Foster knew how to keep it interesting for decades, and his successors continue to do so years after his passing.

Not long after the strip debuted, the Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII) actually went so far as to say that Prince Valiant was the “greatest contribution to English literature in the past one hundred years.” I don’t know how much of a reader the Duke of Windsor was, but if that were true, it would make Prince Valiant more significant than anything written by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, the Bronte Sisters, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, William Butler Yeats, Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennsyon, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, J.M. Barrie, and countless other great English authors. High praise indeed!

In any case, Happy Birthday, Prince Valiant! May you continue to ride through Arthur’s England for many years to come!

For more Prince Valiant in all his manifestations from toys and figurines to books, visit www.PrinceValiant.org

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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