ARTHUR : THE ALWAYS KING

This thrilling new book from Walker Studio was published in November.  The definitive retelling of the Arthurian legends by Kevin Crossley-Holland with glorious illustrations on every page by Chris Riddell.  An absolute must on any Christmas list!

How to tell the stories of King Arthur? What of the stories to tell? Most people will know the story of the sword in the stone, of how Arthur received the sword Excalibur and of his death – but what about the stories in between? There doesn’t seem to be an easy narrative path. Indeed, Arthur is not necessarily a main character for these are the stories about individual knights who made up the Company of the Round Table. They are stories full of tensions, magic, monsters, violence, love and loyalties. They are not children’s stories – though children will always thrill to the excitement of each quest without worrying about the more complicated emotions involved. Indeed, there are excellent retellings that are aimed at a younger audience. Kevin Crossley-Holland, however, takes the medieval originals in all their complicated splendour and retells them with his poet’s ear for language, capturing the character of that chivalric past while being contemporary and immediate. He also organises the stories to follow a consistent path, each quest reflecting the ideals of the Round Table; ideals that have to be proved through trials which may fail for the protagonists are fallible. In this way he is able to include the narrative of the Fisher King – a story that resonates powerfully today. The author makes sure we meet real people with real emotions, passions, hopes and fears. Perhaps, this is the reason the Arthurian cycle has such a powerful hold on the imagination; this is not a world peopled by gods.

The world conjured by Crossley-Holland is then brought to vivid, visual life by the illustrations from Chris Riddell, images which appear on every page, sometimes as marginalia  – pen portraits of the characters, sometimes as coloured borders surrounding the text, frequently vibrant single page or double page spreads. Contemporary in style, full of character capturing without apology both the violence and the tenderness they enhance and extend the narratives for a modern audience. The colour palette ranges from simple line drawings to spreads where a single colour dominates – gold, green, blue , red – picking up and emphasising the emotion or action of the event illustrated  and spreads where the palette is diverse to capture the atmosphere of the scene. The marriage between text and image is a dynamic one and the tales burst off the page.

These are not for the very young; these are (as they would have been in their original telling) for an older audience – adult even. They are stories that have stood the test of time and have inspired many others. It is not the adventures; it is the characters and above all it is Arthur, the flawed ideal, the Always King. Kevin Crossley-Holland and Chris Riddell bring them to life for today.                                                             

Ferelith Hordon, Books for Keeps