The best books on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Cory O'Brien Author Of Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes: A No-Bullshit Guide to World Mythology
By Cory O'Brien

The Books I Picked & Why

Le Morte D'Arthur

By Sir Thomas Malory, William Caxton

Le Morte D'Arthur

Why this book?

If you’re interested in the Arthurian Legend, Thomas Mallory is a great place to start. He’s not the first guy to write about King Arthur and his knights (that honor is widely attributed to French poet Chrétien de Troyes), but he is possibly the first writer to collect all the scattered legends into one cohesive narrative. He’s also the only guy to do it while imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the government/having sex with another guy’s wife, at least as far as I know, and that passion for insurrection and adultery definitely shows through in his work. It’s a very old book, and as such the language can be a bit dense and meandering, but it’s also the basis for every other book on this list, and its age means you can read it for free through Project Gutenberg, so that’s a plus.


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Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel

By Thomas Berger

Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel

Why this book?

Arthur Rex tells the same story as Le Morte D’Arthur, but in a radically different way. Where Mallory idolizes the knights and nobles of Arthur’s court, Thomas Berger paints them in the most unflattering light possible. Everyone is a cretin, a sex maniac, or both, and their backwards morals are used as clever mirrors of our own modern moral failings. Arthur Rex is probably the funniest version of the Arthurian Legend that I’ve read. It’s got its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek. Even so, the ending managed to make me cry, so props to Berger for capturing the full range of emotions with this one.


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The Mists of Avalon

By Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Mists of Avalon

Why this book?

No list of King Arthur books would be complete without this one. It’s a long read, to be sure, but it makes up for it by also being very, very horny. More importantly, The Mists of Avalon is the only account of the Arthurian Legend that centers the female characters in the story, attempting to explain the choices they make instead of painting them as irrational harpies the way many male authors do. The other strength of this book, which isn’t discussed as often, is its attention to historical accuracy. You’ll find yourself learning a lot about medieval food, dress, customs, and politics in between the horny parts.


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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

By J. R. R. Tolkien

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Why this book?

Sir Gawaine is one of the most interesting knights of the Round Table because of how imperfect he is. He’s not the strongest knight in the world -- that’s Lancelot -- and he’s definitely not the most virtuous -- that’s Galahad, who sucks -- he’s a working-class joe who routinely gets in over his head because he loves to swing swords more than he likes thinking about consequences. Sir Gawaine and the Green knight is a story of one of the knight’s most famous capers, and it does not disappoint. The original story was written in Old English, which is barely even English to be honest, so you’re going to need a translation to read it, and who better to translate such a story than J.R.R. Tolkien himself. Yes, that Tolkien. When he wasn’t making elves and humans kiss each other, he was a prolific philologist and translator, and The Green Knight is some of his best work. He even attempts to replicate the alliterative poetic structure common in medieval English poetry. That said, if Tolkein’s not your thing, plenty of others have translated this story. There’s even an extremely raunchy version of it in the aforementioned Arthur Rex, if that’s more your style.


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The Once and Future King

By T. H. White

The Once and Future King

Why this book?

If you’re only going to read one book about King Arthur, make it this one. White’s five-volume epic on the rise and fall of Britain’s gentlest monarch is equal part whimsical, instructive, insightful, and devastating. Based heavily on Thomas Mallory’s version, Once and Future King breathes new life into the original characters by delving into their childhoods and showing us how they became the people Mallory says they are. White was writing this book before, during, and after World War II, and his thoughts on war and politics found their way into the story, making it a sneaky-good treatise on leadership, pacifism, and nation-building too. Also, tons of facts about birds. Seriously, this book has everything.


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