Review: Arthurian Literature by Women

Last winter I was in the mood for Arthuriana, so I asked for this book for my birthday. As usual, the Pile ‘o Books kept piling up and guess what I’ve only just finished reading today?

I love the cover.

Arthurian Literature by Women is, as the title suggests, an anthology of Arthurian poems, stories and plays by women, especially stories that innovate on Arthurian tradition. In this volume you will find a disabled Lady of Shalott, Sir Dagonet (King Arthur’s Fool) as one of the knights who obtains the Holy Grail, and peasants who accomplish tasks even the bravest of King Arthur’s knights are loathe to do.

The editors point out that even in courses that focus on women in Arthurian tradition, most or all of the works studied are by men. Rather than publish excerpts from novels like The Mists of Avalon, however, the editors chose to publish lesser known works by women. The vast majority of the texts are from the 1800s, although there are a couple stories from the 12th century and texts from the 1900s up to the early 90s as well.

The most interesting thing for me is the way that these women have taken the Arthurian tradition and done something different with it. In Avillion; Or the Happy Isles by Dinah Maria Craik, for instance, Avalon (or Avillion, in this case) is but one step on the path towards what New Agers might call spiritual evolution. The Feasts of Camelot by T.K. Hervey is a series of stories that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Medieval Arthurian legend. These stories feature unlikely heroes and redemption for characters that are often cast as villains (like King Mark and Morgan le Fay). Some even paint a not so flattering picture of King Arthur himself. There are more than a few scathing critiques of male writers like Tennyson in here. It would be impossible to go through every entry and review them separately, but my favourites were “Lanval” by Marie de France, and the excerpts from The Feasts of Camelot, which seemed to be the closest to Medieval literature on the subject. Some entries have a happy ending, others (such as the one play in the collection) are very melodramatic. Some pieces touch on issues like poverty or loss of a child. Some are contemporary pieces, others are set in the distant past. There’s even a piece that’s a bit of a precursor to modern urban fantasy.

My one issue with this book is the lack of footnotes. The introduction is pretty good at summarizing each individual piece, but I would have liked to see some footnotes as the authors were often fond of referencing events and characters that might be lost on the modern reader. I also would have appreciated it if the entries were in chronological order or separated by theme. It’s not a huge deal, it’s just something I would have liked to see. Even with the lack of notes, however, this is a really interesting collection and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in Arthurian literature that is by women and not just about women. It also includes bibliographies of fiction and poetry and drama by women, so if you wanted one of the better known books that aren’t in this volume, you’ll probably be able to find it there.

This has been a short review but if you’re interested in Arthurian literature by women I’d check this one out. Since it is a bit pricey, I’d check and see if your local library has it.

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