[(essay date 1992) In the following essay, Whitaker offers an assessment of available texts suitable for children studying the Arthurian tradition.]
Ever since the Middle Ages, Arthurian literature has been accessible to children (in my definition, young people up to the age of sixteen). In the sixteenth century the royal schoolmaster Roger Ascham complained that Le Morte d'Arthur was found in Prince Edward's chamber while God's Bible was banished. Chapbooks about Jack the Giant Killer, ballads about Tom Thumb, and a nursery rhyme about the "bag pudding" king kept Arthur's name alive through the eighteenth century. When James Knowles published, in 1862, the first Malory adapted for juveniles, it was the beginning of an industry. In this century, in addition to adaptations, there have appeared numerous works of fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction suitable for younger readers. At the high school and university levels this material can be taught in courses on children's literature, fantasy, science fiction, modern Arthurian literature, and popular culture.
Students should first become familiar with the medieval Matter of Britain. As Malory's Morte d'Arthur is the chief source of Arthurian story in English, a version of that work should be studied along with a Gawain romance, some form of the poetic Tristan, and, possibly, the Mabinogion. Finding suitable texts at a reasonable price is a primary problem. If one wants the whole Malory text, the Penguin Morte is satisfactory. D. S. Brewer's Morte d'Arthur gives parts 7 and 8 of Vinaver's text, along with an excellent critical introduction. Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table supplements Malory with prose versions of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," "Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnall," "Geraint and Enid," and "Sir Percevale of Wales." Green obscures the adultery and the Catholicism of the original. Michael Senior's Sir Thomas Malory's Tales of King Arthur (1980) is a splendid choice for the illustrations as well as text. For other medieval legends, try Rosemary Sutcliff's Tristan and Iseult, Marie Borroff's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Mabinogion, translated by Jeffrey Gantz. In modern juvenile fiction, the essential work is T. H. White's Sword in the Stone. If time permits, Sutcliff's Lantern Bearers, William Mayne's Earthfasts, Henry Treece's Eagles Have Flown, and Susan Cooper's Silver on the Tree are good choices available in paperback.
Instructors might focus on two aspects--the nature of the hero and the ideals of chivalry. The biography of Arthur follows a pattern common to many mythic heroes, such as Perseus, Siegfried, and Cuchulain. As defined by Lord Raglan in...