The return of the kings

Modern quest stories win polls and pack cinemas. Christina Hardyment offers a reader's guide to their great ancestors
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The Independent Culture

Quests are all the rage. As The Lord of the Rings triumphs both in cinemas and in the BBC's Big Read, we have never been more hungry for epic tales of heroes leaving home on journeys that will save the world - and the longer, the better. But now that Frodo and Sam have thrown the ring of power into the pits of Mordor, Lyra and Will have solved the mystery of the Dust and retreated to their sadly separate worlds, and Harry is well on the way to defeating Voldemort, where can we feed our apparently insatiable appetite for such stories?

The vaults of world literature are crammed with onetime bestsellers that richly deserve resurrection; and others that don't. The 14th-century epic poem Gawain and the Green Knight is an interesting literary curiosity, but not a good read. So too with Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen: has there ever been a limper hero than the Red Cross Knight?

Seamus Heaney's recent translation has done wonders for the popularity of Beowulf, but it's the poetry, not the story, that makes its attraction. As plots go, I agree with my old 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. After praising the thousand-year-old epic's vivid and imaginative narrative, it says "the general impression produced by it is that of a bewildering chaos". This is a masterpiece to treat like great music, not a tale in which we can find a hero with whom to identify.

A sympathetic hero, preferably a slightly erring one, is essential to a really memorable story. Dragons are indispensable, and yes, there has to be love interest. The Mabinogion, a collection of Celtic stories first written down in about 1300, in Welsh, offers all these and more. The children of Llyr and the sons of Dun are positively Tolkienesque, and there are plenty of splendid women characters: haughty Rhiannon, traitorous, adulterous Blodeudd and noble, wronged Branwen, "the fairest maid in the world".

The Mabinogion was rescued from obscurity by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 1830s. She translated it into mellifluous, if mannered, English prose. In 1903 WB Yeats predicted it would prove a "new intoxication for the imagination of the world". Fantasy writers such as Kenneth Morris, Alan Garner and Susan Cooper have all been influenced by it.

Browsing through the very readable 1948 translation by Gwyn Jones and Owen Jones offers giants and dragons galore and an all-pervading sense of the high fantastical: the black old hall of Heilyn Goch, the nine witches pierced by Cei, piebald horses "white as water-lilies" and "black as jet", Llywch Windyhand and Bedwyr Four Teeth. This revision keeps the best in Guest, but corrects her mistakes, restored omissions and makes the whole much more readable. But it has to be said that the core tale of Pryderi is, like that of Beowulf, hard to disentangle from a web of tangential stories and leisurely digressions.

The legends associated with "Arthur the Briton" are the most famous in Western quest literature. Arthur features in some of the stories in The Mabinogion and at much greater length in medieval French romances. But he was only guaranteed immortality because Sir Thomas Malory (c1400-71) decided to "reduce into English" the "marvelous enquests and adventures, the achieving of the Sangreal, and in the end the dolorous death and departing out of this world" of the legendary 6th-century English king and his knights of the Round Table.

Malory's nobly laconic style has a matter-of-factness that shows that he thought of himself as a chronicler rather than a bard. But what was I think a deep personal identification with Lancelot led him to create an unforgettable and complex hero.

His 300,000-word book, printed by William Caxton in 1485 under the ungrammatical and misleadingly French-sounding title of Le Morte d'Arthur, was hugely popular all through the 16th century, but 17th-century Puritans and 18th-century rationalists disapproved of chivalry and romance. The 19th-century Romantics rediscovered it, and a new edition by Robert Southey inspired Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, Tennyson's Idylls of the King and William Morris's Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

Thanks to A W Pollard's elegant grooming of the text in 1900, Malory retained his appeal in the last century. TE Lawrence carried Le Morte d'Arthur in his saddlebag during the Arab revolt; when Siegfried Sassoon was on his death-bed, he asked if he could hold it in his hands. TH White paid homage to Malory's epic in his 1939 story of Arthur's childhood The Sword in the Stone. In the 1940s, White went on to complete a four-part saga called The Once and Future King. An uneasy mixture of farce and tragedy, it did however convert well to first stage and then screen, as the musical Camelot in the 1960s.

There have been Arthurian spin-offs without number since then, both in fantasy fiction and in film. But none, to my mind, has half the power or the passion of Malory. So try the real thing, preferably in the new Cassell edition. This uses Pollard's retelling, updated and edited by John Matthews. The magnificent illustrations by Anna-Marie Ferguson are as magical as the ones by Alan Lee for The Lord of the Rings.

Approach Le Morte d'Arthur with respect. This is a book to dwell on, not to gobble. Take it in instalments, preferably read aloud, as it was originally meant to be enjoyed.

Most ripe of all for rediscovery, especially now we are minded to be European rather than merely British, is Orlando Furioso by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). A contemporary of Machiavelli, Ariosto did for the popularity of the Charlemagne legends what Malory did for those of Arthur. The relationship between Charlemagne and Roland (ie Orlando) is every bit as interestingly complex as that between Arthur and Lancelot.

The Terry Jones of his age, Ariosto wrote with deliberate irony and what Voltaire later admiringly called "gay badinage". Though he was sending up the pretensions of chivalry, he respected the heart of the matter: the journey of the hero - and the heroine. Ariosto admired women as much as Malory did, and gives the same psychological depth to his heroines, Angelica, Princess of Cathay, and the female paladin Bradamante (who is well overdue for an epic film) as Malory gives to Guinevere and Elaine.

Today, Orlando Furioso is best known as an opera by Vivaldi, but it deserves better. The epic offers much hilarious satire, hippogriffs, hordes from Tartary threatening Paris - and necromancers galore.

Those who want to follow less well-trodden quests than that of The Lord of the Rings might like to try some of these books. The editions I have recommended below are those I have enjoyed most, not necessarily the most recent or the most accurate in the eyes of scholars: Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (Faber, £8.99; also on tape or CD, £14.99); The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (Everyman, £10.99); Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (Cassell, £16.99). Selections are available on audio, read by Philip Madoc (Naxos, £12.99); and Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, translated by Guido Waldman (Oxford World's Classics, £9.99).

Christina Hardyment's biography of Sir Thomas Malory appears in 2005