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Historical significance, rather than veracity
on 15 September 2013
This is an odd book. As history it's no good, because it's mostly false. As a work of fiction it's often too brisk to be engaging. King after King is born, fights, looses, dies. The headline star is Arthur, of course. Whereas some kings have their lives summarised in a paragraph, Arthur has 49 pages, over a fifth of the book devoted to him.
The account of Arthur given here differs from the later, romantic tales in ways that are good and bad. One the plus side, the focus stays on Arthur and doesn't drift to the knights of his court. Best of all, this is a version without that dreadful prig Lancelot (the most irritating character in English literature). On the minus side, Arthur's story is reduced to little more than a series of battles, and Geoffrey's account of his death, or retirement to Avalon, is even more cursory than Malory's.
Some of the other Kings whose lives are recounted here, such as Lear, Vortigern, Aurelius Ambrosius and Cadwallo, are actually more interesting. Sometimes this is because of their characters, sometimes it's because of the events through which they live, sometimes it's because their stories appear to lie closer to true history than those of Merlin and Brutus, for example. This is the main attraction of this book: not the fact that it inspired later writers like Shakespeare, etc., but the teasing prospect that somewhere in here, beneath all the distortion and elaboration, lie nuggets of truth.