The publication of Geoffrey Ashe’s The Discovery of King Arthur in February of 1985, his identification of a fifth-century High King, Riothamus, as the most likely historical figure to which stories and legends would have been attached in the following centuries, provides readers interested in matters Arthurian with yet another opportunity to appreciate the age-old dichotomy between history and legend, fact and fiction, verifiability and inner truth, and to respond to the spirit of the Arthurian story that is timeless and universal.1 This dichotomy has been especially fruitful during the last thirty years or so in producing a proliferation of new scholarly insights and an ever-growing body of new Arthurian works in literature, film and the musical.2 Contemporary novelists are able to explore the “interface of history and legend,” as Parke Godwin does with his Firelord (1982) and Beloved Exile (1984); fathom the psychological motivations of traditional characters within the frame of meticulously researched historical novels, as does Mary Stewart in her Merlin trilogy and The Wicked Day (1970, 1973, 1979, 1983); or interpret “neglected” aspects of their importance, as does Marion Bradley with Morgaine/Morgan le Fay in The Mists of Avalon (1982). The 1985 paperback publication of Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel (1978) appears to recognize the general public’s interest in and reception of such modern versions and to challenge the perceptive reader to come to grips with this dichotomy, implicit in the novel’s title and explicit in its closing words: “. . . in these fair laps we must leave King Arthur, who was never historical, but everything he did was true” (499/543).3 Berger’s seemingly self-contradictory statement highlights the dialectical relationship between literature and life, and presents both a summary of the story and a final appeal to the reader to bridge the gap between the real

and the ideal through an effort of the empathetic imagination. But it goes even further than the simple distinction between “history” and “story,” whose characteristics are wittily contrasted in his narrator’s aside, “For it is only in the historical world that a reputation can be gained by talk alone, and in the realm of legend only deeds are counted” (427/467). It recalls John Steinbeck’s view that “Arthur by his nature (as a symbol rather than a character) is a critic of the shortcomings of the present and by his very existence criticizes our failures.”4 For Berger’s narrator-unidentified and omniscient-the present is “the time of the caitiff,” and “it will be a long time yet” before “the world is ready once more to celebrate honor and bravery and nobility” (497/541). This view seems to be shared, “projected,” by Thomas Berger the author, for whom the Arthurian world of his fiction seems to provide a counter-balance to his “loathing of the current reality” and may indeed be “an alternative to it,” as Berger claims to be true of his fiction in general.5 For Berger, the Arthurian matter (i.e., Arthur and the Round Table, the Grail Quest, the loves of Launcelot-Guinevere, Tristram-Isold) revolves around the values of honor, bravery, nobility, and chivalrous principles which may have become nowadays a matter of “quaint curiosity.”