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A Congenial Spot for Tales of Camelot

Greater L.A. hosts two exhibitions this month with all you want to know of the gloried King Arthur legend.

June 02, 1996|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Whether lettered in gold in a fragile 16th century manuscript, glorified in the Lerner-Loewe musical "Camelot" or lampooned in the 1975 movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," the medieval tale of Arthur, King of Britain, has endured for 1,500 years. Though historians debate whether the story of Arthur, Merlin the Magician, Guinevere, Sir Lancelot and assorted Knights of the Round Table can be traced back to a real 6th century chieftain, some argue that it doesn't really matter--the legend in shining armor, they say, has become larger than life.

And in June, King Arthur rides into greater Los Angeles in two related exhibitions: "Arthur, King of Britain," at San Marino's Huntington Library June 3-Oct.6, sponsored by the Los Angeles-based investment counseling firm of Payden & Rygel, and "The Many Realms of King Arthur" a traveling panel exhibition coming to the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library downtown June 14-Sept. 12, presented by the American Library Assn.

"If there was a person, he would have lived somewhere in the 5th or 6th century, and his life would have been so very different from our mental images of what King Arthur is that it doesn't matter, really, if there was a historical person or not," said Ruth E. Hamilton, exhibits officer at Chicago's Newberry Library and guest curator of the two exhibitions. The Newberry held an exhibition called "King Arthur Word and Image" in 1988, which spawned an Arthur exhibition at the New York Public Library in 1991-92. The current traveling exhibition contains panel reproductions of Arthurian materials from the Newberry and the New York Public Library. The traveling exhibition will visit 62 libraries over a three-year period.

"The Arthur that everyone knows, that survives from century to century, that we talk about, write about, sing about, write video games about--that Arthur is the Arthur of story," Hamilton continues. "In some ways, the real King Arthur is the Arthur we've constructed over the centuries."

With Hamilton's long-distance input, the Huntington's chief curator of rare books, Alan Jutzi, and rare books department stacks supervisor Lisa Ann Libby organized an exhibition mainly from the Huntington's own extensive collections to illustrate the Arthurian legend as it was told in Britain, from the first medieval account of the tale in Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain" (circa 1138) through this century's version by T. H. White. Well-known editions of Sir Thomas Malory, Edmund Spenser and William Morris will be on display, along with lesser-known publications from Tudor, Stuart and Victorian England.

Jutzi says one of the most spectacular offerings at the Huntington is a 1907 William Morris illuminated manuscript of "The Defence of Guinevere," each page featuring the intricate shield of one of King Arthur's knights. Other highlights include a 1557 printing of Malory's "The Story of the Most Noble and Worthy Kyng Arthur" and Spenser's "The Faerie Queene" (1590).

The traveling exhibition at the Central Library takes a broader geographical view. "It highlights how many different ways the story has been told--in opera, in comic books, in plays, novels, you name it," Hamilton says. "And in different languages, not just English, but French, Spanish, German. We have a romance from the 17th century in Yiddish about Arthur." Along with the older manuscripts, publications and illustrations, the Central Library also will display additional exhibitions devoted to modern movies, novels and children's books. "King Arthur in the Movies" will include cinema posters, lobby cards and stills culled from Hollywood's Frances Howard Goldwyn branch library and the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "For the movies, the story has been kind of a natural because of the spectacular aspects of the story," said Romaine Ahlstrom, the library's manager of art, music and rare books. "Movies let you do tremendous scenes of jousting and that sort of thing."

The Huntington and the Central Library also will offer lectures by Hamilton and others, in addition to sword fight reenactments and a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game at the public library.

Both exhibitions include items lent by Dr. Charles Monell, a retired Beverly Hills physician now living in Rancho Mirage who has been somewhat obsessed by the Arthur legend for more than two decades. He keeps in his home such items as Malory editions of the legend beginning with the sixth (published in 1634) and a woodblock used in a rare early 18th century edition of the tale.

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