I met the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D., while searching online for other Arthurian enthusiasts. When he asked me if I would review his new book, I jumped at the chance.
The book’s title would certainly make me pick it up off a shelf, but it doesn’t do the work justice. This interesting, impeccably researched book profiles several possible sons of Arthur, but also discusses the circumstances in various traditions influencing the actions of Guinevere, Lancelot and Constantine, as well as possible reasons for and outcomes of the battle of Camlann. Interesting twists to the legends explained in this book include:
- Lancelot and Mordred may have been twins.
- In some traditions, King Arthur, like the Biblical King Herod, has all the children born around the same time as Mordred drowned.
- Mordred was not always evil; he was revered in Welsh and some Scottish tales.
- Guinevere took many other lovers besides Lancelot, including several Knights of the Round, depending on the source.
- The battle of Camlann may have been written as a tragedy to make the legends more interesting and memorable.
- Mordred may have lived after Camlann or had sons who did.
King Arthur’s Children is broken up into three sections. The first discusses three possible sons of Arthur in various stories that make up the Welsh collection known as The Mabinogion. These are the likely illegitimate Gwydre; Amr, the child of Arthur’s first wife or mistress/concubine; and Llacheu, who is also mentioned the 10th century poem “Black Book of Carmarthen.” Tichelaar posits that if a historical King Arthur ever existed and had sons, these three are the most likely and were probably later combined to turn history into legend.
Part two of the book is devoted to Arthur’s most famous son, Mordred, who actually first appeared in Arthurian legend without reference to his relationship to Arthur and then as Arthur’s nephew. Only later did he become the son spawned by incest we know today. (Tichelaar’s section on incest in the legends is uncomfortable to read, but clearly illustrates the reasons why it was once a less taboo subject.) Tichelaar does a remarkable job of showing the dizzying number of ways in which Mordred may have been influenced by or have influenced his Welsh counterparts from part 1. This is also the section where he goes into other Arthurian characters and how they may or may not have been related to Mordred. He then studies the honorable Mordred in Welsh legend, his vacillating virtue among the Scots, and the more sympathetic treatment given him by modern writers.
The conclusion to this section is the one weak spot in the book. Here, Tichelaar’s fascination with genealogy draws him away from his main subject into two chapters on how the English Royal Family and the Scottish clan Campbell both have tried to claim succession from King Arthur. I can see why Tichelaar included this – because by claiming to be descendants, these groups could arguably be King Arthur’s children – but I feel like the discussion of their forced (and possibly faked) lineage distracts from the overall point and flow of the book. However, if you’re a genealogy buff, you’ll probably like this section.
The final part of the book details how King Arthur’s children were handled by medieval, Renaissance and modern writers. Here, Tichelaar does a great job of summarizing works most people probably haven’t read or even had access to, and explaining how each successive generation of writers has added to the legend. Interestingly, he points out that the most recent writers are more likely to invent new children, especially daughters. He also gives a small preview of his own forthcoming work of fiction, King Arthur’s Legacy.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book and am proud to be able to include it on my list of resources for my contribution to the legends. King Arthur’s Children is of great value mainly because it expertly explores an area of Arthurian legend that has not (at least to my knowledge) been widely researched before. I would recommend it to anyone who already has solid knowledge of Arthurian legend. To get the most out of it you need a fairly strong background in the legends and at least a cursory knowledge of Welsh legend. My studies of Welsh legend are rudimentary, so some of his comparisons between these and Arthurian legends went over my head. But I’m sure others will be able to better appreciate them.
While Tichelaar plays with (and yearns for) the idea that King Arthur’s bloodline may still exist today, he makes one of his most moving points in reference to the always changing nature of the legends, stating: “Anyone who would be a descendant of King Arthur need not have a fifteen hundred-year-old pedigree to prove it; we need to tell the tales about Arthur, and when people hear these stories, he will then live on in their hearts and his line and descendants will continue to grow” (vi). I, for one, am proud to call myself a daughter of King Arthur in that capacity.