Collecting Arthurian Legends

I think many of us in the Western world grew up reading (or watching) one Arthurian legend or another. The great mythic king, with humble roots who together with his mentor (Merlin) and his love (Guinevere) united and saved the Western world from the barbarians. How could you not be charmed by such an heroic story? 

My introduction came, of course, with the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone, but that's all it really took to get me hooked. By the time I was 13 I found myself working my way through The Once and Future King and The Mists of Avalon.

It wasn't until I was in Grad school, working my way through my thesis on personal mythologies (a la Joseph Campbell) that I truly got into the Arthurian legends as told by the likes of John Steinbeck, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Sir Thomas Malory.

I guess the father of all modern Arthurian legends has to be Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur written in 1470 (first printed by William Caxton in 1485). It was 300,000 words divided into 8 stories — all written in Middle English and considered to be the first English-language novel. (Malory's sole surviving manuscript for which can be found at The British Library.)

Probably the most famous modern day edition of Le Morte d'Arthur was published in the late 19th century and illustrated by a young Aubrey Beardsley (who was to have a huge influence on the Art Deco style of the 19th & early 20th century even though he would never live to see the 20th century).

Pre-dating Malory's Le Morte was the chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the late 14th century. Many 19th and 20th century authors, including J.R.R. Tolkien, tried their hands at translations, but the first modern English printing of the story appeared in 1898, 5 years after Malory's Le Morte. (Although a middle English translation was printed in 1839.)

Several earlier works make mention of Arthur or Uther but get a bit ambiguous with the details: The 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) written by Geoffrey of Monmouth is widely considered to be a fictionalized version of history & tells of Uther, Merlin, and Arthur (in books 7-12). Around the same time period, 12th-13th century, The Mabinogion appeared — a collection of stories compiled from oral traditions that dated even earlier. It portrays a more barbaric (and possibly truer) version of Arthur.

Whoever this historic or mythic character is, his story has captivated us for centuries.

Idylls of the King, Lord Alfred Tennyson (Edward Moxon, published between 1859-1885)

"Tennyson had a life-long interest in the legend of King Arthur and after the huge success of his poem 'Morte d'Arthur' he built on the theme with this series of twelve poems, written in two periods of intense creativity over nearly twenty years. Idylls of the King traces the story of Arthur's rule, from his first encounter with Guinevere and the quest for the Holy Grail to the adultery of his Queen with Launcelot and the King's death in a final battle that spells the ruin of his kingdom. Told with lyrical and dreamlike eloquence, Tennyson's depiction of the Round Table reflects a longing for a past age of valour and chivalry. And in his depiction of King Arthur he created a hero imbued with the values of the Victorian age - one who embodies the highest ideals of manhood and kingship."

The most famous version was illustrated by Gustav Dore and lists in the $1,000 to $5,000 range.

Le Morte d'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory (JM Dent, 1893-1894)

This original edition was limited to 1,800 sets — 300 of which were printed on Dutch Handmade paper. Dent published the 2  book sets between 1893 and 1894. Aubrey Beardsley was the illustrator.

There are still a few of these sets around and you can own one if you have an extra $2,000 - $7,000 USD.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J.R.R. Tolkien (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1925)

This is considered a more academic text and a precursor to Tolkien's more famous works (i.e. The Hobbit). This is not the first modern English translation of the the 14th century poem, but it does seem to be the most popular, with later 20th century authors mistakingly crediting Tolkien as the author of the work rather than the translator.

Expect foxing and spine issues with most of the copies that you find out there (along with a lot of student notes penciled into the margins). A dust jacket will be rare. Even so, most first printings / first editions in Good to Very Good condition will garner a $1,000 - $2,500 price tag.

The Once and Future King, T.H. White (Collins, London 1958; G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York 1958)

Inspired by Malory, White wrote what he considered a preface to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. White's 1938 story The Sword in the Stone tells the story of Arthur's boyhood. He went on to write two sequels The Witch in the Wood (re-named The Queen of Air and Darkness) in 1939 and The Ill-Made Knight in 1940. Together these later became The Once and Future King.

The UK editions, published by Collins are the true firsts.

First editions of the individual stories list for upwards of $4,000.
First editions of The Once and Future King list for up to $1,500.

Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff (Coward-McCann, 1963)

I include this book because my step-mother-in-law (we have a complicated family) LOVES this book. A few years ago, while it was still out of print, she had everyone scouring the used bookstores for a copy because she'd lent hers to someone.

It's one of many modern tales depicting Arthur as both the real historical figure and the mythical hero.

First printings (in near fine condition) list up to $100.

Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper (Cape, 1965) - Young Adult

The first of the 5-book children's series that makes up The Dark is Rising, in which 3 siblings along with their Great-Uncle Merry find a map and undertake the quest for the holiest of Arthurian legends, the holy grail.

Unsigned first editions list in the range of $1,000 - $2,000.
First edition sets list for up to $11,000.

The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart (Hodder & Stoughton, 1970)

This was the first in her Merlin Trilogy (later renamed The Arthurian Saga). It was followed by The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment.

"Born the bastard son of a Welsh princess, Myridden Emrys -- or as he would later be known, Merlin -- leads a perilous childhood, haunted by portents and visions. But destiny has great plans for this no-man's-son, taking him from prophesying before the High King Vortigern to the crowning of Uther Pendragon ... and the conception of Arthur -- king for once and always."

Signed sets list up to $3,500
Signed first edition of The Crystal Cave lists up to $1,200
Unsigned: lists up to $100

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976)

"Steinbeck's intention was to render Malory into modern English 'while. trying to re-create a rhythm and tone which to the modern ear will have the same effect as the Middle English did on the fifteenth-century ear.'"

Unsigned Hardcover: up to $250
Unsigned Advanced reading copy: up to $750

Firelord, Parke Godwin (Doubleday, 1980) - Young Adult

"Artorious Pendragon, a young warrior-king destined to unite the shattered land of Britain, reaches unattainable heights, only to lose his heart and his kingdom to the greatest betrayal of all."

This is part of a trilogy which included Beloved Exile (1984) and The Last Rainbow (1985). Godwin also wrote two books that centered around Robin Hood (just fyi).

(out of print)

Unsigned: listing on average for about $50 in Very Good condition.

The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley 
(Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1982)

The legend of King Arthur, vividly retold through the eyes and lives of the women who wielded power from behind the throne.

I know there is controversy regarding MZB and her personal life. I won't make commentary here except to say that I was shocked and disheartened by the news.

Signed: up to $1,150

Unsigned: up to $350

The Winter King, Bernard Cornwell (Michael Joseph, London 1995)

"Cornwell's Arthur is fierce, dedicated and complex, a man with many problems, most of his own making. His impulsive decisions sometimes have tragic ramifications, as when he lustfully takes Guinevere instead of the intended Ceinwyn, alienating his friends and allies and inspiring a bloody battle."

He went on to write a number of series surrounding the Arthurian legend. 

Signed: up to $350
Unsigned: up to $100

I am Mordred, Nancy Springer (Philomel, 1998) - Young Adult

"The young King Arthur, unaware, bedded his half sister Morgause and conceived the child Mordred, who according to the wizard Merlin, was fated to destroy his father and the kingdom. Goaded by Merlin, Arthur attempted to have the baby killed, but was foiled by the intervention of the good sorceress Nyneve and the evil sorceress Morgan le Fay. Years later Mordred arrives at Camelot and becomes a knight of the Round Table. Springer focuses on Mordred at age 15, as he struggles against his destined fate of killing the king and father he both loves and hates."

This title is not a big collectible, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include it as it comes at the the Arthurian legend from an alternate perspective. Springer also wrote a sequel told through Morgan le Fay's eyes, called (you guessed it) I am Morgan le Fay.

Signed: up to $25
Unsigned: up to $20

I know there are hundreds more authors and titles that have delved into the Arthurian legend  (Mark Twain, T.A. Barron, Jack Whyte, Stephen R. Lawhead, Mercedes Lackey....) - admittedly, I can't cover them all here, but if I've missed your favorite, don't hesitate to post a comment with the title and author. 

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