(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The King is an attempt to fit the Arthurian tales of Sir Thomas Malory to the situation during the Battle of Britain. In a series of small, unnumbered chapters, Donald Barthelme delineates, in an almost offhand, oral style, the concerns of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and many minor characters.

The first chapter, written in a parody of the medieval Malory’s convoluted style, describes Launcelot riding about furiously in a state of wild and random action. It becomes clear that this story will be something different, however, when Guinevere is shown in the next chapter sitting with her maid listening to Lord Haw Haw, a historical English traitor who broadcasts propaganda for the Germans in World War II.

The story, what there is of one, is told as a series of conversations by an ever-widening number of characters who discuss the Battle of Britain, worry that the war is not going well, and intersperse their comments with talk of love affairs and politics. The main plot is the attempt of Arthur and the few knights to deal with World War II, especially the Battle of Britain. They endure two radio harassments: Lord Haw Haw, the legendary English traitor trying to convince the English to surrender, seems to concentrate his satire on Queen Guinevere, continually harping on her infidelities to Arthur and her frivolous lifestyle. Readers wonder how he seems to know every one of her deviant actions. The other radio annoyance is known only as Ezra, an obvious reference to Ezra Pound, the famous American poet who made pro-Axis broadcasts. He harps on anti-Semitic propaganda, blaming World War II on the...

(The entire section is 664 words.)