King Arthur and His Knights in Children’s Literature

Lisa Kazianka is a second-year PhD student at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge, focusing on representations of masculinity in contemporary Arthurian fiction for young adults. She is currently on a research fellowship in the United States.

Hello from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where I am currently immersing myself in all things Arthurian!

A brief explanation: My PhD is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). As part of the program, I could apply for a research fellowship at a number of institutions, most of them located in the US. Since it’s the biggest library in the world, I decided to spend three months at the Library of Congress in D.C. – and what a great decision it was!

1_LoC by Cambridge standards, the LoC stands out!

In addition to the library being an absolutely amazing space, and being surrounded by kind and helpful staff and colleagues, I have my very own cubicle here, a desk with a computer, and – drum roll – the ability to order 200+ books from the library’s catalogue, which are then directly delivered to my cubicle! I cannot stress enough how much this fact, combined with the incredible amount of resources here, has increased my productivity.


Library worker peeking into my cubicle: “Oh wow, it looks like a children’s library in here!”

So here I am, two months into my fellowship at the Library’s John W. Kluge Center – which, coincidentally, is located in the main building, right next to the Young Readers Center! – and I wanted to take the time to tell you a bit about my project and share some of the texts and topics I’ve been exploring here so far.

First things first, though – I want to give you a little bit of background information as to what I’m researching for my dissertation. I am sure you have heard of the legendary King Arthur and his knights, and in some form or other have been in contact with the stories surrounding them. I remember growing up, watching Arthur and the knights on TV – don’t ask me what the exact titles of the films or series were, I absolutely cannot recall, but I do recall that in these screen adaptations (directed, as far as I remember, at an adult or family audience), Arthur and his men were known for their courage, bravery, and honour, and that the ladies admired them for these qualities. (Of course, there was also Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, although it didn’t make the list of my childhood favourites. Also, bearing in mind that I grew up in a non-Anglophone context; had I grown up in Britain or the US, for example, I’m sure I would’ve heard even more about King Arthur.)

During my undergraduate studies, I then came across a YA novel called Here Lies Arthur, written by Philip Reeve (2007), which, in all kinds of ways, plays with the legend, addressing, for instance, ideas of truth and storytelling, war and violence, religion, and gender. As I continued to read more Arthurian adaptations for young adults, I found that the representations of masculinity they contained were particularly interesting and, I believe, worth studying in detail. While my focus is now broader, initially I was interested in the figure of Arthur in particular, simply because I found that in each novel I read, he is presented differently, especially in terms of his masculinity. In Reeve’s, he is a petty warlord, a hypermasculine tyrant; whereas in Meg Cabot’s Avalon High (2005) he is reincarnated as a high school jock who is presented as a pacifist and ‘chivalric gentleman’.


My big furry pal Oscar back home in England, posing with some of my YA texts! Fun fact: A couple of recently published Arthurian adaptations have a dog as their protagonist – one has Cavall, Arthur’s dog, and another a talking dog/wizard-in-training named Nosewise. As Middle Grade texts, they are not part of my corpus, but I will have to have a look at them at some point 🙂

The history of King Arthur goes waaaaay back, from early medieval (pseudo-)historical chronicles and Welsh folklore to French and Middle English romances, with more Arthurian material springing up across the European continent. As much as I’d love to give you a more detailed overview of the Arthurian tradition here, attempting that would take a whole blog in itself. One of the most important things to know for our purposes here is the distinction between chronicle and romance tradition (which, for reasons of scope, I am generalizing here). In terms of masculinity, the Arthurian world of the chronicle tradition is violent, focused on war, blood and slaughtering, with Arthur as a national hero, an all-conquering warrior fighting the Saxons. The romance tradition – surprise 🙂 – focuses on the concepts of romance: chivalry, courtly love, and honour, which are reflected in the adventures of the individual knights, with Arthur receding into the background. The chronicle tradition depicts men in relation to other men, whereas, in the romance tradition, masculine identity is constructed in relation to the feminine.

The term chivalry is still commonly used to today, although there is much more to it historically than ‘being a gentleman’ and opening doors for women, and much of it is problematic. Traditional material such as the Arthurian legend, although constantly being reinvented and adapted to new concerns and ideals, continues to carry past ideologies – and one area where this is a particularly pressing issue is gender. Scholars have rightly asked whether the patriarchal bias inherent in the Arthurian tradition –including its models of masculinity – can be adapted to speak to contemporary issues surrounding gender and sexuality. It is my aim to address this question with my project.

So, here we have two big ideals of masculinity – epic and chivalric. In my dissertation, I am looking at how epic and chivalric masculine ideals in my primary texts relate to contemporary traditional masculine ideologies, and how they reflect and relate to contemporary anxieties about masculinities, manhood, and gender relations more generally. Texts for young audiences are shaped by ideology, and it is particularly valuable to look at fictional constructions of gender ideology in texts produced for young readers, since childhood and adolescence are crucial periods of identity formation. The quest for identity is of course a crucial element of YA fiction.

Within children’s literature and education, the Arthurian legend has had a special role in relation to ideals and models of masculinity. Throughout the ages, children were familiar with the Arthurian legend, reading adult versions, histories, ballads and chapbooks. However, it was during the Arthurian Revival in the Victorian era, which was prompted by an increased interest in the Middle Ages, that Arthurian adaptations specifically directed at young readers began to be produced, both in Britain and in the US. The rediscovery of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, originally published by William Caxton in 1485, was a major impetus for the revival and quickly became the primary source for children’s adaptations, a status it has retained to this day. So began King Arthur’s transformation into a hero of children’s literature, despite the ‘mature’ nature of many aspects integral to the legend. (Needless to say, adapters of course made sure to omit elements such as adultery and incest to protect the ‘innocent children’.)


  1. T. Knowles’s King Arthur and His Knights (1862) – the first Arthurian retelling published specifically for children (this is a 1923 edition)

In both Britain and the US, adult gatekeepers, such as teachers, academics, and publishers, repeatedly praised and employed the Arthurian legend for its pedagogical value, using the stories of Arthur and his knights to socially and morally edify the young – especially boys – while highlighting the importance of chivalry as an informing ideal. The US even had Arthurian youth clubs, the Knights of King Arthur, which advocated a strict, specific, and gendered moral code, to deal with what psychologists such as G. Stanley Hall (he was the one who ‘invented’ the concept of adolescence!) referred to as the ‘boy problem’. A few years later, Arthurian boys’ club founder William Byron Forebush established an equivalent organization for girls, the Queen of Avalon, with the purpose of teaching girls about ‘real womanhood’, all under the banner of the Arthurian legend. Even though these clubs eventually dissolved, they had a lasting impact, since they served as an inspiration for the American and British Boy Scout movements.

The retellings of the legend and the youth clubs served to promote chivalric, knightly ideals for boys to aspire to and determined a specific rhetoric surrounding boyhood and manhood, the growth from boys to men specifically – a rhetoric that more recent adaptations inherit – although, of course, texts deal with this inheritance in different ways.

My purpose at the LoC has been to literally look at ‘everything’, as in, everything that I could find in relation to my topic. (And that was A LOT.) I wanted to go beyond my more narrow subject of contemporary YA variations (variations, in comparison to retellings, are adaptations that go beyond the material contained in traditional Arthurian sources, e.g. by inventing new characters or new plotlines, setting the story in contemporary or future times).

To better understand the discourse surrounding Arthurian masculinities, especially in relation to adaptations for younger readers, I looked at various retellings from the late 19thcentury onwards, paying particular attention to the paratexts, such as preface and afterword, which adapters/editors frequently use to explain their inspiration and reasons to retell a story that has so often been retold and/or provide some background information on Arthur and the literary tradition. It was interesting, for example, to see how some adapters explain the lack of evidence for Arthur’s actual existence, whereas others refer to him as if he belonged to ‘real history’.

I also read various, more recently published illustrated versions for younger readers, paying attention to the different visual depictions of Arthur and his knights, and finding that some of these recent texts quite clearly still reflect the tradition of using Arthurian literature for moral, didactic purposes. Additionally, I was interested in looking at texts for young audiences that are not specifically Arthurian, but focus on knights and chivalry, in the form of both fiction and nonfiction.


Old and new – it’s been fascinating to directly compare the vast amounts of retellings by different adapters and in various editions!

This blog entry – although already MUCH longer than intended – only scratches the surface of what I’m interested in, what I’ve been looking at, and what one can look at in relation to Arthur, masculinity, and literature for the young. Hopefully, however, it has spurred your interest in the legend and its many facets! And perhaps, at some point, I will be able to write another post on the YA texts I am actually analysing in my dissertation :). There is SO MUCH to talk about. The coming of age of male protagonist in medievalist, chivalric texts! The portrayal of heroes and villains and their masculinities! The performance of masculinities by female characters! Cross-dressing! Sexual and ethnic diversity! Anyway, that is for future blog posts (and my dissertation!) to cover. For now, enjoy the visual pleasures of Arthurian adaptations that I have included at the end of this post!

Oh, one last note. During my time here at the LoC I get to attend lots of interesting talks at the John W. Kluge Center, most of which are not related to my research topic, yet are enriching in so many ways. At one talk, a speaker made a remark that stuck with me. Reflecting on his experience of archival work at the LoC, he said:

“There’s a lot of material, but it requires someone to look.”

And, yes, that is what we, as students, as researchers, are doing. Looking. Looking for and at materials that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be looked at – or maybe not in the ways that we are looking at them. In my experience, with desk-based research, it is easy to get lost in – and, at times, frustrated with – the process of ‘looking’. My time here in D.C. has reminded me of the great pleasures and rewards of looking at all kinds of old and new, known and unknown sources – primary and secondary – and connecting them to my own and other scholars’ thoughts. I am grateful to the AHRC and the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress for allowing me to look in new places, to discover new texts, topics, paths, and people, and thereby substantially enriching my PhD experience.

Finally – here’s some more Arthur for you! See you soon, Cambridge.


“Whoso pullet out this sword…” – illustrations from various retellings for younger readers, depicting what I would call perhaps the most popular plotline to be adapted in texts for younger readers, which usually focus on one episode or tale (from left to right: Robert D. San Souci, ill. Jamichael Henterly, Young Arthur, 1997; Hudson Talbott, Tales of King Arthur: The Sword in the Stone, 1991; Estelle B. Schneider, ill. Jay Hyde Barnum, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, 1954; David Borgenicht, ill. Luigi Galante, Simone Boni, Francesca D’Ottavi, The Legend of King Arthur: A Young Reader’s Edition of the Classic Story by Howard Pyle, 1996)

 Arthur is crying in the last depiction on the right here – I have not encountered a crying Arthur post-sword-drawing in any other retelling I have looked at, so I found it quite interesting. Finding out the truth about his identity (that he is not Sir Ector’s son, but the late King Uther’s), he says: “I feel as if my life up to now has been a lie. I know not who I am.” (p. 42) By the time he draws out the sword again in front of the whole kingdom, he is already done crying, though (without any further explanation or much happening in between that could have changed his mind), instead beaming with excitement “at those who were soon to be his subjects.” (p.53)


A very humorous adaptation 🙂 (Marcia Williams, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, 1996)


I wonder what Cambridge College Formals would be like if we had a table like this? (Hudson Talbott, Tales of King Arthur: King Arthur and the Round Table, 1995)


And, of course, a damsel promising her love in return for chivalrous deeds! The chivalrous knight, however, leaves her at the end of the tale, riding off “to a new life of adventure.” (Patrick O’Brien, The Making of a Knight: How Sir James earned His Armor, 1998 – this is not an Arthurian retelling, but an illustrated book on a boy’s path to knighthood, aka manhood.)


The greatest honour in the world. (left: Hudson Talbott, Tales of King Arthur: Excalibur, 1996; right: back cover from the 2012 edition of Howard Pyle’s The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, originally published in 1903)


All Photos credited: Lisa Kazianka

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