The King Arthur Novels You Need to Read

The King Arthur Novels You Need to Read

On the hunt for your summer read? Or just looking to get a bit more Arthur Pendragon in your life?

Here is my list of the top five King Arthur books you need to read:

Arthurian books you need to read | Kieran Higgins#5 The Warlord Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell

Did you think Game of Thrones was violent and sex-filled? This trilogy by Bernard Cornwell could give George RR Martin a run for his money with this one. Why it’s never been adapted for TV is a complete mystery to me.

Cornwell introduces Derfel Cadarn, a warrior raised by Merlin who joins Arthur’s campaign to bring peace and order to Britain. Derfel is a wonderfully cynical yet engaging character, and Cornwell’s portrayal of Merlin as a wicked Druid is a break from tradition.

It loses points for me, though, because the main character is not someone from the actual Arthurian legends, but an original character by Cornwell. Also, Cornwell is a bit inconsistent on the whole magic thing. In the first two novels, the magical occurrences are explained away by some of Merlin’s trickery, yet, by the third novel, more and more magical things happen with no explanation.

Arthurian books you need to read | Kieran Higgins#4 The Once & Future King, T.H. White.

Have you ever seen The Sword in the Stone, the Disney film about the early life of King Arthur? It was one of my favourite films as a child, and this is the book that inspired it. It tells the story of the young orphan Wart, mistreated by his foster brother Kay, who eventually becomes King Arthur, touching on his relationship with his half-sister Morgause, his war-like nephews and his wife’s eventual affair.

White creates a world filled with deeply human characters who are caught between duty and desire, and are some of the most human depictions of the Arthurian court in literature. He also portrays the beauty of the natural world so greatly that you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a David Attenborough program.

Arthurian books you need to read | Kieran Higgins#3 The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Mists of Avalon will always place highly on my list because it’s set from the POV of Morgan leFay, a character who is deliciously wicked in the original myths but rarely gets decent development in all but a few novels. A young Morgan leaves her home and her beloved brother to become a Druidic priestess in Avalon. As she grows into a woman, she is subject to some shocking manipulation, and eventually rises to become the manipulator.

It’s a moving examination of a woman’s place in Ancient Britain, the imperialistic desires of early Christianity and a reflection on yearning for the past versus being stuck in it.

However, this isn’t a quick read. This is a long haul battle, a war of attrition. The book is 416,000 words long. If that doesn’t seem long enough to you, it’s just 10,000 words less than the largest Game of Thrones book and is double the size of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows.

But it also has its flaws. It can be a bit of an apologist for Morgan, rather than presenting a balanced view of her. It also has an overly romantic view of the Druidic religion, and an over-vilification of the early Christians. And defining Morgan as a strong character goes a bit far – she just whines a lot about how horrible everyone is and then does some magic, and I just felt it didn’t do the great sorceress any justice.

Arthurian books you need to read | Kieran Higgins#2 The Morgan Trilogy/The Guinevere Trilogy, Lavinia Collins

A fresh perspective, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Morgan is betrayed by her beloved friend (later half-brother Arthur) and pervy shape-changing Merlin. Feeling powerless in spite of her growing magical powers, it is time she made a stand.

Collins is a dedicated medievalist, so the accuracy of this book is quite a thrill. Yay for LGBT characters.As far as retellings go, this one can get quite steamy. But, then again, so were the original myths, and Collins is just filling in the blanks!


Arthurian books you need to read | Kieran Higgins#1 The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave is book one in Mary Stewart’s seminal five-book series about King Arthur. She departs a little from tradition by setting the book from the POV of Merlin, and the first book goes into great detail about his early life, which does a lot of work to explain how he becomes the wizard we are so familiar with.

It is probably the most historically accurate of all the retellings that still adheres well to the storylines. The unforuntate thing about it is how Stewart’s writing makes you bond with the characters, so you will be quite upset when the whole thing goes to pot in the last book.


Have you read any of these? What did you think? Is there a book that’s missing? Leave me a comment and let me know.

photo credit: Glastonbury Tor via photopin (license)

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Comments (3)

  1. Tricia Preston 10th August 2016 at 10:38 AM

    Loved Bernard’s trilogy (Derfel is my new ‘Strider’), T H White’s book and all 5 books by Mary Stewart, have read the ‘Guinevere’ trilogy by Lavinia Collins, not quite so keen, bit racy for me, 4* but I have got her ‘Morgan’ trilogy on my tbr pile.
    Also really loved the trilogy by M K Hume and Stone Lord/Moon Lord by J P Reedman. Have added your book to my tbr pile now, don’t hold your breath, it is rather tall!

  2. Steve Barnes 22nd March 2018 at 2:11 AM

    Derfel is not a character made up by Cornwell but a figure from Welsh legend. The book is not a bad approximation of his tale:

    Not a criticism, just a comment from a fellow Arthurian fan.

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