A Romance. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003, 292 p.
A novel about King Arthur? What new is there to be said?
Well, Massie’s approach is different. This is the second part of his Dark Ages trilogy as told by Michael Scott (known as the wizard) to his pupil, the Hohenstaufen Prince who would become The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
In Arthur the King the focus is not so much on the legend we all think we know as on Arthur the man, a very human creature, from his humble upbringing, through his kingship to his gritty death. The effect is to demystify, to demythologise, to render Arthur into history. Michael Scott has his own reasons for this, to educate the prince, to remind him of a monarch’s duty to maintain peace and justice, to underline the burden of kingship but it also serves to emphasise the Hohenstaufen line’s links back to the Roman Empire. It’s a nice piece of ventriloquism by Massie and allows the use of wonderful Scottish words like howdumdeid.
In addition he has Scott locate Camelot in Scott’s boyhood environment – the Scottish border country – and mentions, among others, the legend of Arthur still residing in a hollow under the Eildon Hills. There are of course many parts of Great Britain which claim Arthur as their own. Indeed a cave by the Clyde shore at the Havoc in Dumbarton was/is known as Merlin’s Cave (though others have it as Bruce’s cave, such is legend.)
In the narrative the point is made that most of the tales of Arthur are actually those of the Knights of the Round Table. Here, there are some digressions of that sort but they are short and we are never away from Arthur for long.
Characters who might have seemed important, like Merlin and Lancelot, are bit parts; even Morgan Le Fay isn’t Arthur’s main antagonist. Merlin, though an instigator of the sequence of events which lead to the complications inherent in the tale, is disappeared offstage about halfway through.
The main problem with all this is the narrative style. Massie, as Scott, digresses frequently and irritatingly, leading to a certain turgidity in the delivery. I remember this trait as being worse, though, in the first book of The Dark Ages, The Evening of the World, which I read before I started blogging. So much so in fact that I left off reading this one for years.
It probably won’t be so long, I suspect, till I undertake the last in this series, Charlemagne and Roland.