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Arthur the King    by Allan Massie order for
Arthur the King
by Allan Massie
Order:  USA  Can
Carroll & Graf, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Dark years follow the fall of the Roman Empire, bringing forth power struggles between kings. In Arthur the King, Allan Massie writes of the youth of the legendary magus Merlin, looked upon as awkward and unsociable. He has one blue eye and one brown - tears only flow from the brown. Some believe 'He has rare qualities.' Merlin is ostracized by the Pendragon king. He travels afar and awaits his 'time of glory'.

Educated as an astrologer and scientist, Merlin retrieves servant boy Arthur (aka Wart, Wat, and Brat). For three years, Merlin educates Arthur in Latin, Greek, and philosophy. Then he sends Arthur out into the world to learn its ways and experience the 'Valley of Humiliation', along with the tribulations of the poor. Arthur lies with a woman, later to discover that she is Princess Morgan le Fay, wife of King Lot of Orkney. Still later, Arthur's indiscretion will 'prove grievous'. During his travels, he is captured by 'Stoneface' and his son, Sir Cade. Arthur is placed as a lackey, and befriended by servant Cal (Calgacus). There is debauchery of the vilest order. Both escape with the help of a performing troupe, and are taught by mummers the joy of belonging.

On the death of King Uther Pendragon, the rightful heir must prove himself by withdrawing the sword Excalibur from a stone. Many knights make the attempt in vain. When Merlin brings forth Arthur, 'a quiet voice was heard to ask if one not yet dubbed a knight might nevertheless attempt to draw the sword ... the youth stepped forward, amidst mocking laughter from the crowd ... he placed his hand on the hilt, and without straining, drew the sword smoothly from the stone ... A loud roar broke the silence of the gathering dusk.' The ascendancy of Arthur to the throne is fraught with trials. Many doubt him, especially after a battle in which the King fails to perform as a leader.

Allan Massie's interpretation of the Arthurian legend is a poetical narration, from a philosophical perspective. The author tells us he based it on what 'purports to be a translation of a narrative written by the medieval scholar and astrologer Michael Scott for his pupil, the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250).' In his Envoi, Massie writes, 'in Arthur we see the promise renewed, broken, but never utterly destroyed. Hence he is known as the once and future King, for in him the hopes of the world congregate.' I admit that I struggled with my understanding of this book, because of its depth and difference from other versions I have read. However, I recommend Arthur the King to those who favor mentally challenging and eloquently written historical novels.

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