Book Review: “The Great Book of King Arthur & His Knights of the Round Table” by John Matthews, Illustrated by John Howe

Fans of the myths and legends surrounding Britain’s most famous king will want to get their hands on this latest offering by Arthurian expert John Matthews. In The Great Book of King Arthur, Matthews has compiled over 30 lesser-known tales about Arthur and his knights, explicitly seeking out stories that were left out of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.

The collection is broken into five sections, each focusing on a different subject (Merlin, Sir Gawain) or theme (“The Book of the Round Table,” “The Book of the Grail,” etc.). Matthews has rewritten the legends in his own words, weaving tales drawn from dozens of different sources into their own story cycle. While the author has kept the stories themselves free from footnotes, which might distract some readers, there is a comprehensive “Notes and Sources” section at the end of the book for curious readers (like me!) who wonder where the stories are drawn from. Indeed, anyone who takes the time to be attentive to this part of the book will finish The Great Book of King Arthur as a near-expert in Arthurian manuscript sources.

One of the things I like about this book is the way it seems to unite in a single volume the desires of many different audiences. For the casual reader, it makes available new material about well-known figures – and these stories are every bit as enchanting as their more famous counterparts. Matthews’s efforts at corralling these tales into some kind of rough narrative order also make this suitable for readers encountering Arthurian legend for the first time (although even he admits that only so much can be done in this regard – the contradiction and chronological confusion come with the King Arthur territory). At the same time, more detailed and specific information about the source of these stories is there for those who want it.

On top of all that, The Great Book of King Arthur boasts an impressive fantasy pedigree. Bestselling author Neil Gaiman pens a brief but complimentary foreword, and John Howe – a legend in his own right for his decades of work illustrating The Lord of the Rings – has provided several full-color and black-and-white illustrations, making the object itself a thing to behold.

The stories of King Arthur may be hundreds of years old, but they are brought to vivid life in this new collection. If you find yourself longing for stories of myth, magic, and might, give The Great Book of King Arthur a go.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Harper Design, for review.

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