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Once Upon A Bookshelf

Where Fiction and Reality Meet

The Betrayal of Arthur

Author: Sara Douglass
Originally Published: 1999
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Source: Bookmooch

The Story

From the back of the book:

A prophecy of a golden age, a magic sword and a chosen one… This is the legend of King Arthur… or is it?

From the manuscripts of a twelfth-century English cleric to a New York bestseller, tales of King Arthur and his court permeate our world. But where did the stories start and how much is true? Were Guenevere and Lancelot traitors? Was Merlin a wise man or magician? And was King Arthur a great and glorious king or a tragic man doomed from conception?

Sara Douglass, a leading writer of fantasy, pierces the heart of this legend. A scholar and academic in medieval history, she explores the fascination, manipulation and permutations of this captivating myth that has intrigued the western world for centuries.

The Response

I will admit that I was worried about this book. It’s been sitting on the TBR for the past four years, and I was torn about whether I really wanted to read it. See, I have a love for the Arthurian mythos (well, for most of it, there are certain parts of the mythos *cough*Lancelot*cough* that I loath, but for the most part I love the legends)… and I was worried that this would make me loath all things Arthurian. But it was written by Sara Douglass, whose writing I adore, so it couldn’t lead me too astray into something I really hated, right?

So it was with much misgivings that I went into this book, and while it opened my eyes up to the true character of Arthur, it was certainly extremely informative and (surprisingly) enjoyable. HIGHLY enjoyable.

But yes, extremely informative! For example, did you know that while some of the Arthur myth goes back to the Dark Ages, it was the French who (much later) added the round table and Lancelot to the legend? I most certainly didn’t. Neither did I know that Nimue was derived from the character of Morgan Le Fay. Or that Mallory was the first person to marry the English and the French legends in Le Morte Darthur. What I found most interesting about all of this was how the Arthurian legends (and stories surrounding the legends) morphed depending on what the peoples of that time looked for from the legend – a British hero, a romantic story, something to bring pilgrims to churches, etc etc.

Along with taking a look at how the legends changed, Douglass also deconstructs each character in order to take a look at how they effect Arthur and what their personalities would have been like in real life. One of the things I liked best was that Douglass totally seemed to support my own views on Lancelot:

Lancelot is a sweet, loving man and a glorious chivalric knight, but only on the surface. As a knight he is obsessed with his own glory and fame and finds it difficult to cope with the realization that his sins mean he will never attain the Holy Grail.Lancelot is also the supreme lover, but he is a man so fixated by love he will lie, he will betray friendships, he will wreck innocent lives and he will murder to protect that love – and so protect himself. He understands the dangers into which he leads Guenevere, Arthur, and all that Arthur has fought to build, and he gives not a damn while still managing to be unutterably pious about his motives and his relationship with God. … Once Lancelot’s actions are viewed with a dispassionate and unromantic eye, however, his motives and his personality become highly questionable.

So, ha! Romance my arse.

The section on Morgan Le Fay was also interesting. I mentioned above about how Nimue was a derivative of Morgan Le Fay, but it looked more into her character than that. Yes, she is often looked as a pagan witch who often wanted to hurt Arthur, but at the end of Arthur’s life, she is the only one really there to support him – she is one of those who bears him away to Avalon, while Lancelot and Guenevere and all of his other close allies, friends and family are elsewhere. So there is definitely a strong bond between Arthur and Morgan that lasts throughout their whole life, even when they are at odds with each other. In fact, the more that I think about it, the more I realize that the stuff about Morgan was the highlight. Especially for the time when the Arthur legend was originally developed, Morgan was a strong and independent woman – this was definitely NOT the norm back in the day.

The stuff about Arthur, though, was the hardest to read, mainly because I didn’t really want to hear it. Douglass takes a look at how Arthur isn’t the perfect person that a lot of people today believe – he was an indifferent husband, he was cruel to people whose lands he took over, he was proud and turned his back on God (which would’ve been a huge thing when this was first popular). And so, according to Douglass, it is Arthur who ultimately caused his own downfall, with all of his flaws.

Like Douglass’s fiction books, this was extremely easy to read – once getting over my first misgivings, this was actually quite hard to put down. I wish all non-fiction was this easy and enjoyable to read!

The Bottom Line

Highly recommended to people who are interested in learning more about Arthurian legends than just the story itself. Unfortunately, this book is now out of print, but it’s definitely worth the hunt for in second hand sources. I, personally, have drastically marked up my copy of this book and will be keeping it for a very long time to look back at when necessary.

Other Reviews

Have you reviewed this book on your blog? Let me know and I’ll add your link.

Posted by Courtney Wilson @ 7:03 am June 15, 2011.
Category: Mythology
Book Author(s):
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  • Aarti

    So is this a non-fiction book? Interesting! I did know the stuff you mentioned about the legend itself, but I LOVE that she doesn’t like Lancelot. I agree with you both- he sucks.

  • Court

    Yes, it’s a non-fiction book! A really good one! And I am very happy to hear that you think Lancelot sucks too!!

  • Kailana

    Okay, so I have not heard of this book before… I am shocked that I missed this. I thought I had all of Douglass books!