Book Review: “King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition” by Tyler Tichelaar

[N.B. A review copy of this book was sent to me by its author. In no way has this influenced the opinions I express here. You can find Tyler Tichelaar’s blog at CHILDREN OF ARTHUR.]

Title: King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition
Author: Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D.
Pages: 179
Publisher: Modern History Press
Genre: Scholarly study
Blurb: “…The first full-length analysis of every known treatment of King Arthur’s children, from Welsh legends and French romances, to Scottish genealogies and modern novels by such authors as Parke Godwin, Stephen Lawhead, Debra Kemp, and Elizabeth Wein. King Arthur’s Children explores and often overlooked theme in Arthurian literature and reveals King Arthur’s bloodlines may still exist today.” (Back Cover)
Recommendation: For anyone with a more-than-casual interest in the Arthurian legend, especially regarding different versions and the more obscure tales, this is a very handy resource. The end significance of many of the discussions may not mean much except to serious scholars, but Dr. Tichelaar’s book will open even the eyes of an amateur hobbyist of Arthuriana to the extraordinary diversity of the legends and the ways in which they have been continually adapted and retold over the centuries.

Key Thoughts

“It may be Geoffrey of Monmouth’s responsibility that Arthur’s sons disappeared from later versions of the legends; The History of the Kings of Britain was so popular that it firmly placed a structure on the way the tale would be told from then on, and since Geoffrey did not give Arthur any sons, his successors avoided creating sons for Arthur. And if writers had added sons to the legend, they would have had to come up with explanations for why these sons did not succeed their father.” (23)

Though a slender volume, Dr. Tichelaar’s book examines an impressively large amount of texts in its pursuit of all information that could potentially shed light on its subject of study, which is in some ways a bit obscure. Loads of scholarship exists on King Arthur himself and the main body of legends, but surprisingly little is known about his progeny except for Mordred, the bastard son of Arthur’s incest with his half-sister Morgan (whose name has numerous spellings). There are actually quite a few others just in the medieval and Old Welsh sources. The great virtue of King Arthur’s Children is how methodically Tichelaar goes through every mention of a character being a direct descendent of Arthur and examines all possible ways in which that mention interacts with other versions of the story.

The first section of the book concerns the Welsh traditions, which give Arthur three sons: Gwydre, Amr, and Llacheu. They have brief mentions—and in the case of Gwydre, only one undeniable mention—and thus little is known about their stories; nonetheless, they are the oldest mentions of Arthur’s progeny.

The most substantial section of the book discusses Mordred and the myriad portrayals he has had. Popularly he is Arthur’s bastard son, but in some tales he is legitimate, in others he is a nephew, in still others he is a brother, and sometimes he is not said to be related to Arthur at all. Scottish traditions even regarded Mordred as the good and legitimate king of England, with Arthur the evil imperialist usurper! This section really shows the diversity of the legends.

The third section is more interesting from a historical perspective, as Tichelaar looks at Arthur’s descendents and heirs. The English monarchy has often claimed descent from Arthur, but I was surprised to hear that those of Belgium and the Netherlands also make the claim. There is virtually no possibility of these claims being true even if there was one man who was the real King Arthur, but it’s still fascinating to explore all the possibilities.

The final section of the book deals with modern literature. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset is identified as the first twentieth-century novel to give Arthur a child—a daughter—although the role is minor, since the infant dies soon after birth and serves mostly to provide a source of tension between Artos and Guenhamara. Discussions of other authors follow: Barbara Ferry Johnson, Catherine Christian, Parke Godwin, Vera Chapman, Susan Cooper, Patricia Kennealy-Morrison, Bernard Cornwell…even Stephen King’s Dark Tower series gets some attention! Not all sources seem legitimately relevant (such as the 1995 movie A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), but no one can deny Tichelaar’s thoroughness. This discussion of modern treatments is a great way to trace the legend’s influence, although Tichelaar does mix in a lot of these analyses in the earlier sections of the book, to distracting effect. I’d have preferred that he keep all the modern novels that deal with Arthur’s children in this final section, rather than sprinkling a lot of his discussion of them in the earlier sections as well.

As the subtitle indicates, Tichelaar is interested in the way Arthur’s children have been used by various authors. He believes in the possibility of a historical Arthur and goes to great lengths to see if any of the sons and daughters mentioned stand a chance of also being historical, or if not, then at least part of the earliest stories. Mostly this is done by checking what is said of them against the more venerable facts of older traditions. Tichelaar’s detailed examinations of the conflicting theories of various authors and later scholars is welcome, though often confusing for someone like me. I feel that many of the theories Tichelaar brings up rely too heavily on literary or mythical analogues, such as similarities in names and story events—many of which sound unlikely to a non-specialist. However, Tichelaar knows that the flexibility of Arthurian legend is such that it is extremely difficult to be dogmatic on almost anything. When discussing the more far-fetched theories of other scholars (such as the death of Llacheu coming from the tale of a Welsh solar god, or Norma Goodriche’s theory that Lancelot and Mordred were brothers because the Irish gods Lugh and Dylan might be interpreted to be brothers), he often comments on their unlikelihood. All the same, with subject matter as nebulous as this, it’s good to treat all legitimate possibilities seriously.

I cannot claim to know how exhaustive Tichelaar’s work really is, but it appears very thorough. I found King Arthur’s Children to be very interesting, and I’m glad to have it in my Arthurian collection.

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