Once more unto the breech, my friends. Welcome back to part two of the books inspired by myths and legends series. This is focused on stories based on Arthurian legend – although Arthur himself pops up surprisingly little in this selection. The story of the once and future king and smart, ambitious women has captured audiences for almost a millennium. With the wizard Merlin it also features arguably one of the first Grimdark characters in written literature – twisting and manipulating the world through prophecy and magic, making his vision come to life, but always considered the sage advisor. As with many legends, the corpus of Arthuriana has been in flux ever since the story was elevated to somewhat of a national mythology for Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the early 12th century. Transmitted predominately orally before that, the stories became central to medieval literature in both England and France after that, constantly evolving and changing. And so, the authors writing about Camelot, Avalon and their inhabitants today are proud successors of this tradition. They take the legends and make them into new tales of their own.
This is the second in a series of articles on myths and legends, the first of which, Classical Mythology can be found here. Look out for fairy tales coming next.
Sword Stone Table
Not quite sure what flavour of Arthuriana you’re looking for? How about trying all of them and seeing what sticks? Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington’s anthology Sword Stone Table covers short fiction inspired by the corpus of legends split into three sections: past, present and future. These diverse stories are a refreshing take on the myths, and there are some truly excellent pieces of short fiction contenting for your attention here. Ever read Arthuriana set in a Native American environment, for example? An excellently curated and edited anthology to whet your appetite for more. Read our full review here.
About the book
Here you’ll find the Lady of the Lake reimagined as an albino Ugandan sorceress and the Lady of Shalott as a wealthy, isolated woman in futuristic Mexico City; you’ll see Excalibur rediscovered as a baseball bat that grants a washed-up minor leaguer a fresh shot at glory and as a lost ceremonial drum that returns to a young First Nations boy the power and the dignity of his people. There are stories set in Gilded Age Chicago, ’80s New York, twenty-first century Singapore, and space; there are lesbian lady knights, Arthur and Merlin reborn in the modern era for a second chance at saving the world and falling in love–even a coffee shop AU.
Brave, bold, and groundbreaking, the stories in Sword Stone Table will bring fresh life to beloved myths and give long-time fans a chance to finally see themselves in their favorite legends.
Read Sword Stone Table, edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington
Once and Future
If you’re more into graphic novels and comics, we suggest you check out Once and Future created by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora. Using a contemporary setting to kick off from, this is a gritty story where legend is used for nefarious purposes, high-octane races for artifacts happen on a regular basis and survival is not guaranteed. This is solid graphic story-telling and a lot of fun, from a team of stellar comic creators.
About the book
When a group of Nationalists use an ancient artifact to bring a villain from Arthurian myth back from the dead to gain power, ex-monster hunter Bridgette McGuire escapes her retirement home and pulls her unsuspecting grandson Duncan, a museum curator, into a world of magic and mysticism to defeat a legendary threat.
Bestselling writer Kieron Gillen (The Wicked + The Divine, Star Wars) and Russ Manning Award-winning artist Dan Mora (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Klaus) explore the mysteries of the past, the complicated truths of our history and the power of family to save the day – especially if that family has secret bunkers of ancient weapons and decades of experience hunting the greatest monsters in Britain ‘s history!
Read Once and Future by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora
Another unusual take on the lore is Laure Eve’s Blackheart Knights and its sequel, Blackheart Ghosts. This is set in a world in which motorbikes take the role of horses, and leather-clad bikers are the closer visual than traditional knights. Blackheart Knights takes these familiar stories and turns them into a gritty, grimdark take on a futuristic London, in which magic is forbidden and legal disputes are often fought out through melee battles. Enter Red. A girl with magic and a desire for revenge, enmeshed in a world of knights and fights bigger than herself. And perhaps something of a destiny.
Read our full review here
About the book
Power always wins.
Imagine Camelot but in Gotham: a city where Arthurian knights are the celebrities of the day, riding on motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money.
Imagine a city where a young, magic-touched bastard astonishes everyone by becoming king – albeit with extreme reluctance – and a girl with a secret past trains to become a knight for the sole purpose of vengeance.
Imagine a city where magic is illegal but everywhere, in its underground bars, its back-alley soothsayers – and in the people who have to hide what they are for fear of being tattooed and persecuted.
Imagine a city where electricity is money, power the only game worth playing, and violence the most fervently worshipped religion.
In this dark, chaotic, alluring place, any dream can come true if you want it hard enough – and if you are prepared to do some very, very bad things to get it . . .
Read Blackheart Knights by Laure Eve
Perilous Times is a wickedly funny Arthurian inspired satirical fantasy novel, set in a contemporary world. Its premise has the knights of the road table rise up from a magical sleep whenever England is in peril. This means they have been called upon to help in almost every battle in English history, from Agincourt to the Somme. (To which, there is historical precedent – Arthur is not only considered the Once and Future King, but there is a hilari0us treatise in the 12th century text Draco Normannicus, where the Bretons ask Arthur to come and help them in their fight against the Anglo-Norman King. And yes, I’m a massive nerd and love spotting these things.) In this novel though, the current peril resurrecting the knights is a doomsday level of climate change – mass extinction of birds and bugs, rising sea levels – oh, and the price of a pint has risen to £25 in the north of England. And a dragon is on the loose. Perilous times indeed. Read our full review here.
About the book
Sir Kay and his fellow knights awake from their mythical slumber whenever Britain has need of them; they fought at Agincourt and at the Somme. But in these perilous modern times, the realm is more divided than ever, a dragon has been seen for the first time in centuries, and Kay is not the only ancient and terrible thing to come crawling up out of the ground . . .
Perilous Times is a fiercely entertaining contemporary take on the myths of Camelot, which asks: what happens when the Knights of the Round Table return to fix the problems of the modern world?
Read Perilous Times by Thomas D. Lee
Going back to the more traditional setting of Arthurian legend, Juliet E. McKenna’s The Cleaving is a fresh take on the smart, ambitious women that form the driving force behind the men that dominate the stories. It doesn’t exactly tell new stories, but it does give new perspectives to what we know, and is a wonderful addition to the corpus. The Cleaving is probably the most classically Arthurian entry on this list. You’ll meet Guinevere, Morgana, Nimue and Ygraine, women you’ll recognise, but who perhaps have a lot more meat and grit to them than you previously thought. Strong women, betrayal and dubious morality – yes please.
About the Book
The Cleaving is an Arthurian retelling that follows the tangled stories of four women: Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere, as they fight to control their own destinies amid the wars and rivalries that will determine the destiny of Britain.
The legendary epics of King Arthur and Camelot don’t tell the whole story. Chroniclers say Arthur’s mother Ygraine married the man that killed her husband. They say that Arthur’s half-sister Morgana turned to dark magic to defy him and Merlin. They say that the enchantress Nimue challenged Merlin and used her magic to outwit him. And that Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere ended in adultery, rebellion and bloodshed. So why did these women chose such dangerous paths?
As warfare and rivalries constantly challenge the king, Arthur and Merlin believe these women are destined to serve Camelot by doing as they are told. But men forget that women talk. Ygraine, Nimue, Morgana and Guinevere become friends and allies while the decisions that shape their lives are taken out of their hands. This is their untold story. Now these women have a voice.
Read The Cleaving by Juliet E. McKenna
Last on this list, but far from least – yes I admit to personal bias – is Spear by Nicola Griffith. This slim volume packs a punch and manages to tell an epic story fully within the limitations of a novella. The prose is outstanding, the setting is early medieval, well-researched and comes to life vividly. Griffith manages to create a diverse, colourful canvas on which to tell her Arthurian story. Peretur, the main character, is based on the many legends and versions of Parcival, one of the more well-known figures of the Arthurian corpus. Except, this Peretur is a woman. Because her role in the story, she is often perceived as a man, which opens up an interesting dialogue about gender roles, perceptions – and whether heroes and heroines are really the same thing. Griffith makes it clear that to her, the two are entirely different, not least in the tropes that are employed to write about them – and Peretur, while female, is a hero. Read the full review here.
About the Book
She left all she knew to find who she could be . . .
She grows up in the wild wood, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake drift to her on the spring breeze, scented with promise. And when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she decides her future lies at his court. So, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and sets out on her bony gelding for Caer Leon.
With her stolen hunting spear and mended armour, she is an unlikely hero, not a chosen one, but one who forges her own bright path. Aflame with determination, she begins a journey of magic and mystery, love, lust and fights to death. On her adventures, she will steal the hearts of beautiful women, fight warriors and sorcerers, and make a place to call home.