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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Excalibur: A Novel of Arthur by Bernard Cornwell. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-312-18575-8

This is the final book in the author's Arthurian trilogy. Like the others, Winter King (blogged this past February) and Enemy of God (blogged in May), it is, first and foremost, a great story told once more by a great storyteller. In it, Arthur has his inevitable war with Mordred and meets his fate. We also learn, finally, how his faithful companion, Derfel, the narrator of all three books, ends up as a monk in a Christian monastery, living under the rule of that faithless bishop and one of the villains of the story, Samsun.

By "once more" I mean that there is a long and fruitful tradition of Arthurian fiction of which Cornwell's works are but one of the worthy examples. Just Google the phrase "Arthurian bibliography" to find many wonderful lists of titles. I listed a few of my favorites in my entry on Winter King, but to even attempt to compile a list just of the Arthurian works I've read over the years would be a nearly impossible task at this point.

The library catalog lists the following formal subject headings for Excalibur:

Arthur, King-Fiction
Britons-Kings and Rulers-Fiction
Arthurian romances-Adaptations
Great Britain-History-To 1066-Fiction

Subject headings such as these are generally taken from the Library of Congress Subject Headings list, a massive multi-volume work in print, which can actually be searched online. It is only in recent years that most libraries began adding subject headings to fiction. For many years, librarians assumed that fiction reading was for entertainment, and thus not worth their time in assigning subject headings! Fortunately, this condescending point of view has pretty much gone by the way.

The only heading from those above which gave me pause was the third one. I wondered why the subheading "Adaptations" was applied to this work, since surely it is an Arthurian romance itself, and not a mere adaptation of one! But I assume that the term "Arthurian romances" is probably defined as referring to the historical romances, the early written versions of the Arthurian legend on which later and contemporary authors base their stories, hence the word "adaptations."

I probably shouldn't even be writing about this since my wife is the cataloger in the family, not me. For any non-librarians reading, cataloging is an important sub-branch of librarianship. Authority control is an important part of cataloging—making sure that only "authorized" headings (the officially established forms of names and subjects) are used. Suffice it to say that if you search the Library of Congress catalog for Arthurian romances—adaptations, you will get almost 600 hits!

Finally, from perusing Bernard Cornwell's home page, I see that he has written another trilogy with Arthurian overtones, The Grail Quest. And although these books are apparently set in a later historical period, the Hundred Years War in the 12th century, I'll probably pick one up the next time I'm in a mood for good rip-snorting historical fiction.

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