Arthur Rex Critical Essays

Thomas Berger


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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 entire section is 530 words.)