The art of Arthur Rackham

When I was younger, I was very much into the legends surrounding King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. I read stuff like Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes, Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, and the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While in high school, I even became a member of the International Arthurian Society and briefly flirted with the idea of studying Celtic Language and Culture at the University of Utrecht.

It was my interest in Arthur that caused me to delve into British history of the fourth and fifth centuries AD. This in turn led me on a path that was to take me from Roman Britain to Rome proper as I sought to better understand the context in which the Arthurian stories took shape. Once I ended up studying ancient Rome I naturally became curious about those Greeks who left such an indelible mark on Roman myth, literature, and art and, well – the rest, as they say, is history.

The Arthurian stories are interesting because they mix Christian elements with pagan elements. The fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Greek Knight is a good example: the titular Green Knight has been interpreted as the ‘Green Man’ known from Celtic folklore, but the poem uses Christmas – a Christian holiday – as an important point of reference. And like other medieval poems, the story is ostensibly set in the time shortly after the Romans abandoned Britain, but the castles and accoutrements, the theme of a king and his court of knights, and so on, all belong most properly to the High Middle Ages.

But the thing that struck me most when I was younger were the beautiful illustrations that the books in my collection often featured, especially the hard cover picture books that provided summaries of the stories that I would later read in the original language. Among the artists that most impressed me was Arthur Rackham (1867–1939). I loved the illustrative style that he used, which seemed to strike a balance between plausible reality and complete fantasy. Here’s one example:

The picture illustrates a common theme: the knight in shining armour vanquishing an evil dragon. The theme is a common one, and can be traced via St George further back, to ancient times and the story of Bellerophon slaying the Chimaera. It represents order triumphing over chaos, good defeating evil. The shining plate armour, characteristic of the High Middle Ages, has nothing to do with the time during which the story is supposedly set; likewise, the castle is not typical of the fifth century AD.

But it’s images like these that capture and fire the imagination. They serve as a kind of gateway drug – like movies, novels, or games – that take hold of us and inspire us to delve further. In our magazines, we insist that the pictures are historically accurate, but they should also lure you in, and invite you to explore the topic further. I think most of us ended up studying the past thanks to people like Arthur Rackham or, as Jona recently pointed out, more historically-accurate illustrators like Peter Connolly, who managed to rouse our curiosity. And I’d like to believe that our new Art of Ancient Warfare book can help inspire a new generation of archaeologists and historians, too. 

Wikimedia Commons has made a large collection of artwork by Arthur Rackham available online. You should check it out. 

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