Book Review: King Arthur by Norma Lorre Goodrich (1986)
Type: Scholarly Research
Good: seeing a new face of King Arthur, Guinevere, and Company
Bad: labored, unorganized writing
Overall: recommend reading only if you have deep interest in the subject
Legendary King Arthur has been a favorite in stories of the western world for over a thousand years. In our era, he is beloved by filmmakers and novelists and researchers. Because the facts surrounding him are so debatable, none can really be accused of not following those facts. In a way, Arthur is a canvas on which storytellers can paint their message in gloriously epic hues.
On one end of the spectrum, we have the Romantic King Arthur, told through the lenses of the Medieval French Court writers and therefore surrounded by the items and scenery of their world. On the other end, we have a Roman-British King Arthur, a dark ages warrior in Roman battle gear. This Arthur is the one presented by Norma Lorre Goodrich in her compilation of research, King Arthur (1986).
When I recommend this book to you, it is for Goodrich’s conclusions alone. If you have no interest in King Arthur or British history, the labor of reading this book will not be worth it.
Writing Style Goodrich’s writing leaves much to be desired. She assumes the reader has a great understanding of all the documents and research concerning King Arthur as well as a deep understanding of British geography. Her paragraphs often express several points of information which she then fails to connect to each other or to the other paragraphs. Goodrich’s descriptions of how she arrived at her conclusions are consistently labored. She provides lengthy information with bulky details within awkwardly written sentences. This is compounded by the fact that she offers no structure (other than chapter heads) to organize this information.
In short, the reading itself is not a joy. If you read this, read it for the information, because the writing has nothing to offer you.
Defense of the Source Goodrich’s main source of information about King Arthur is “The History of the Kings of Britain” by the scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth, who lived in the early 1100s and claimed to have a wonderful and unnamed source of his own. Apparently he and his work are a bit of a controversy in the Anglophile scholastic community. Some have written entire works discrediting him and his work as complete touristy garbage. Others defend him vehemently, and Goodrich is among them. All her theories depend on Geoffrey’s legitimacy as a historical source – and having one source as the foundation is shaky at best.
However, I’m willing to play along with her theories and marvel at their fascinating conclusions until convinced otherwise. In the meantime, I’ve already purchased Geoffrey’s History so I can see this controversial evidence for myself.
The Good Part: Fascinating Conclusions
Most of our modern tellings of King Arthur are told through the many layers of cultures that retold his tale before us, namely the French court romantic writers, with their castles, patriarchy, finery, knights, and courtly love. When those layers are peeled away, we see the Romantic King Arthur World turned almost completely on its head, leaving a world of Picts, British War Queens, Romans, and Druids. It’s “face” of King Arthur that’s even more mystical and wild than the other “faces” we encounter in modern retellings.
The face of King Arthur and his world that rises from Goodrich’s research is a wild and tumultuous one. Instead of stone castles, there are hill forts. The Roman roads are still intact and in constant use. Arthur is the son of a British queen and a Roman noble, and he was raised training as a Roman soldier. His armor is that of a legionnaire, rather than the steel plate armor we see in romantic versions of his story. His first major victory as a commander is when he leads in battle at age sixteen.
Guinevere is a British warrior queen from a long matriarchal line. She carries the severed heads of her defeated foes on her belt, pausing occasionally to gaze at their faces in grim victory.
Lancelot is not a dreamy French nobleman, but rather a Pictish berserker and king of a large portion of what is today Scotland.
The idea of Guin and Lance running off together is not even a thought (the French court romantic writers came up with that to fit “courtly love” and the scandal that was so desired by their culture).
The Round Table is not necessarily a table, and is in fact a possession of Guinevere, part of her estate shared with Arthur upon their marriage. Arthur and Lancelot are both required to marry well within the British Matriarchy in order to secure lands and titles for themselves, as British Matriarchy does not allow men to possess property.
The fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages is in process during this time, and Arthur-Guin-Lance & Company are key to maintaining some semblance of sanity in the power vacuum after Rome abandons Britain.
Encountering this world is what makes me recommend Goodrich’s King Arthur in spite of its unstructured, deeply flawed writing style. If you can survive the method of the telling, the story itself manages to unfold like mist unveiling a distant world, piece by treasured piece.