It seems to be a requirement of fantasy writers in particular to tackle the issue of King Arthur at some point in their career. I’ve read forwards and prefaces where said authors complain heartily about this fact – yet the stories still exist and keep coming. Some even return to the subject more than once and showcase a different aspect of the tale. They range from attempting to be fairly factual, while still telling a story, to completely fantastical and using only the same names and roles we all know so well.
Black Horses for the King is Anne McCaffrey’s take on the tale, and she chose a facet that is utterly unique in my reading of Arthurian lore. Sure, Mercedes Lackey has talked about the White Horses of Britain as a symbol, and everyone assumes that the Companions (Knights) of the Round Table rode around the country, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen someone look at the horses in and of themselves. After all, the equines native to Britain would be the tough little ponies, which are not exactly the same as thoroughbred horses. Thus Arthur (or Artos as he’s called in this particular book) has to import horses large enough to carry big men in armor.
It’s a simple story that leaves out many classic Arthurian elements and characters. No Merlin, no Mordred, no Nimue, no Avalon, no Excalibur, no Guinevere, etc. However, that is the beauty of having so many different takes on a single story: there is no right answer and the elements can be used or left out as needed to tell whatever tale the author desires.
After all, what is commonly known about Arthur’s story? We know he was a leader in Britain, after the Romans pulled most (or all) of their forces off the island to deal with troubles closer to home. We know that Arthur had a select group of Companions who were his friends, his captains, and his troubleshooters. We know that Christianity was a relatively recent development, likely tied to the Romans, but that much of the island still worshipped other gods.
Frankly, that’s all that I’d say is for sure. Even the rest that is usually part of the tale, such as Guinevere and her betrayal, Excalibur, and Merlin are things that we can’t swear to easily. It’s entirely possible that there was no special sword or wise advisor, that these were fabricated by Arthur’s enemies as reasons why he’d managed to defeat them. After all, if the gods are on your side, your victorious enemy must have cheated, right?
I could make a list of books and short stories I have that tie into the Arthurian mythos, but it would be incomplete and would encompass so very much. There’s a reason why a number authors grumble and point fingers at friends and editors whom they blame for the existence of their own take on King Arthur. In McCaffrey’s place, she blames Jane Yolen.
To be honest, if I was Jane Yolen, I’d be damned proud to be the reason Black Horses for the King exists. It’s a good little book.