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...
(The entire section contains 530 words.)
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- Critical Essays