A New Book on a Classic Tale

King Arthur Asks the Lady of the Lake for the Sword Excalibur
from Henry Gilbert, King Arthur's Knights: The Tales Retold for Boys and Girls, 1911

Several years ago I hosted a radio show where I featured guests, some of them hopeful and educated authors of books. At the time, I was on some sort of mailing list where I was sent very nice books to review on a regular basis. More books, in fact, that I’ll ever likely have time to read. Occasionally, I still receive an invitation to review a book, which is what happened recently.

The subject book review invitation involved a topic I had barely given thought since high school. It was entitled “Romance of the Grail, The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth”, the collected works of scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). As a very published high school poet, it was delightful to briefly slip into that innocent period of time in my youth; the days when I first read of King Arthur.

The old stories I remembered dimly of King Arthur, Merlin, and the various damsels and knights of the round table, were written in that antiquated style of language which is only understood by English teachers. I recall struggling through the passages, and never for a moment thought of devoting my entire life to uncovering the mysteries held therein. Joseph Campbell was a man who did. According to the dust jacket, his early childhood fascination with Native American culture and totem poles formed a foundation of exploration into myth.

Fortunately, aside from the never-before-published masters thesis at the end of the book, we discover that Joseph had an amazing talent for telling those Arthurian legends in plain language, giving insight into the characters and motivations of Knights like Gawain and Percival, the history and places that might have influenced the mythology, and the reason for the names of the characters themselves. The book is a very easy and quick read, for the most part, despite being written by a highly academic scholar.

The master’s thesis, said to be published for the first time in this volume, shows how far Joseph’s narrative style developed from his college days. Here we find excerpts from the legends that look familiar and cryptic; more poetic than narrative, and lip service (if that could be said of a writer) to the volumes of research material available to an aspiring master’s student at that time.

Joseph’s genius is already apparent. Using evidence stated by previous researchers, he strategically comes to a new, definitive and obvious linear conclusion, making the relentlessly morbid and cyclical global arguments espoused by previous authorities such as Frazer obsolete while, at the same time, establishing a foundation for Joseph Campell as the new authority of mythological studies.

Entertaining, interesting, and insightful, Joseph’s later scholarship brings the ancient mythologies to life with comparisons to living mythologies, often comparing the adventures of the Arthurian knights to the trials of the Buddha and supporting his premises with tales from eastern spiritualities. A wonderful addition to any library, “Romance of the Grail, The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth” is a book that, once read, is bound to be brought out from the book shelf some future rainy day, to be read once again.