If the names Arthur and Merlin conjure up images of knights in shining armour, going forth from Camelot on a quest for the Holy Grail, then prepare for a shock.
Because Arthur: The Legend, published by small Welsh press Dalen Books, is a graphic novel that eschews the medieval trappings of Arthurian lore, popularised by such authors as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes, to return to the roots of the tales.
The iconic story of King Arthur, the warrior hero born to return the Island of Britain to its rightful owners, his band of heroes, and his otherworldly advisor, Merlin, originates in the literature of the Dark Ages some 1,500 years ago.
Those responsible for Arthur: The Legend, originally released in French in 2004, scoured historical, mythological and poetic texts from that period, such as the Historia Brittonium, Annales Cambriae and Mabinogion, to compile the purest version of the legend available in graphic form.
The tales are set in the British Heroic Age when the country was predominantly a Celtic island, ruled by the Brythons, the ancestors of the Welsh. The Roman invasion had ended with the collapse of the empire but the Brythonic kingdoms were facing a new threat from the Saxons, the predecessors of the English.
Envisaged as the first in a series of four volumes, Arthur: The Legend contains the fascinating story of the birth and growth of prophet and wild man of the woods Myrddin (the modern Welsh orthographical rendering of Merlin) and the rise to fame of the fearless Arthur, adopted son of Cynyr, who would achieve renown resisting the Saxon advance as the Brythons’ war-chief.
Along the way the reader encounters other well-known figures such as insidious King Gwrtheyrn (Vortigern), whose treacherous actions gave the Saxons a foothold in Britain, the legendary leader of the Saxons, Hengest, the great bard Taliesin, and Arthur’s sorceress sister Morgen (Morgan le Fay).
Historical accuracy merges seamlessly with magical fantasy in this richly layered novel, which informs as much as it delights. Incredible tales of dragons in combat, animal transformations and enchanted relics, such as the cauldron of plenty, sit alongside ferocious battles, political machinations and bonds of love.
The gripping narrative, by David Chauvel, is told through speech bubbles and box captions, and is brought vividly to life through the artwork of Jérôme Lereculey, whose traditional, detailed style of drawing is complemented by colourist Jean-Luc Simon’s judicious use of a muted palette.
There are some nice flourishes such as Lereculey’s cartoon-style approach to the childhood tale of King Bendigeidfran and the powerful contrasts of red and blue in the colouring of some nighttime scenes, which draw the eye in and give a strong sense of immediacy.
As a whole, Arthur: The Legend successfully integrates a wide range of moods, characters and folktales to deliver an absorbing, fresh approach to a seemingly all-too-familiar field.
Suitable for teenagers and adults, this graphic novel will reignite your interest in Arthurian legend and have you counting down the days until the second volume, focussing on Arthur’s nephew Gawain and the romance of Culhwch and Olwen, is released.
Arthur: The Legend is available in paperback now.