Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

Authors familiar with Arthurian legend always have been aware of the potential for irony in it, even during the Middle Ages. Noble aspirations and high-minded ideals, even as they inspire heroic endeavor, do have their comic aspects. This ironic vision dominates a number of modern fantasies that invite the reader...

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Authors familiar with Arthurian legend always have been aware of the potential for irony in it, even during the Middle Ages. Noble aspirations and high-minded ideals, even as they inspire heroic endeavor, do have their comic aspects. This ironic vision dominates a number of modern fantasies that invite the reader to measure not only the heroic achievements of Arthur and his knights but also, more particularly, the gap between expectations and results. Even before he turned to Arthurian legend, Berger had won recognition as one of America’s leading satiric writers, winning praise for a series of novels about his character Carlo Reinhart as well as for his best-known work, Little Big Man (1964), which is set in the American West. This talent ensured that Arthur Rex would prove to be one of the finest ironic novels about King Arthur since Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

Berger demonstrates a keen eye for the ridiculousness inherent in the unrealistic conventions of medieval romance. He remarks, for example, that while the lower classes died from the diseases rampant in that era, knights died only in battle and ladies from love, as the sad fate of the Fair Maid of Astolat demonstrates. The exaggerations of those romances in which the knights perform superhuman deeds of valor are recalled in Launcelot’s attack on Mordred’s army, skewering foes on his lance ten at a time.

The author is particularly fond of mixing exaggeration with ironic reversal. The attempts of Morgan la Fey to murder her brother all go astray, for God, readers are told, protects the innocent. Moreover, when the would-be assassins are forgiven by the king, as they invariably are, they are released from the spell she had cast over them and thereafter lead lives of exemplary virtue. In disgust, Morgan eventually decides to reform in the belief that corruption is spread more effectively among humankind by the forces of virtue.

Although he undoubtedly relishes the humor of the situations in which he places them, Berger nevertheless retains a warm affection for Arthur and his knights. Despite the unscrupulousness with which evildoers seek to take advantage of their generosity, they struggle valiantly to maintain the right. The author adapts his medieval sources to emphasize the nobility of his characters, particularly Gawaine. Most episodes that reflect badly on his heroes he either changes, so that the heroes emerge with more credit, or omits completely, replacing them with adventures drawn from more favorable sources, such as the story of Gawaine’s encounter with the Green Knight. As a result, the knights emerge as heartwarming, if impractical, champions of a better, kinder way of life.

Eventually, however, Arthur and his knights do go down in defeat, mainly because of an inability not only to adhere to their high ideals but even to discern what is the best course of action in a complicated world. Nevertheless, it is their achievements that are emphasized at the end of the novel, and they remain shining examples of how much can be achieved by those prepared to devote themselves to a nobler vision of the world, however foolish it may look to the self-centered.

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