Saturday, May 10, 2008

Exploring the wondrous myth of King Arthur

I’m not a monarchist, but on some level I find the prospect of being ruled by a kind and just king comforting. Living the life of a noble knight in which your mission is to be obedient to his word and protect the weak from tyranny is pretty appealing, frankly.

This wishful thinking is, of course, flawed, as its based on a childishly idealized portrayal of authentic medieval monarchies. In order for an actual monarchy to succeed, the king (or queen) must be the human ideal, a paragon of strength, wisdom, justness, and grace--in other words, someone who never was, and probably never will be. With an imperfect man on the throne, we'd see poor policy, unfair laws, or at worst a cruel dictatorship. Real history is rife with examples of corrupt kingdoms.

Nevertheless, this quest for perfection on earth is part of the reason why I find the Arthurian legend in all its forms so powerful and compelling. The other reason of course is that the best of these tales--Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, the film Excalibur, T.H. White's The Once and Future King--are amazing works of art which not only tell a great story, but convey deeper meaning about mankind, the roots of passion and conflict, social and spiritual ideals, and more. These, the best Arthurian stories, are worthy of study and repeated readings/viewings.

I've often wondered whether Le Morte Darthur is at some level an elaborate criticism of monarchies--after all, if ruin afflicts the kingdom of even the near-perfect Arthur, and was fated so from the start, then when can a monarchy ever succeed? But perhaps Malory's intent was to present in his work an honest portrayal of a king who is flawed because he's just a man, after all, but is nevertheless the shining ideal for past and future civilizations. After all, he is the once and future king, and according to Malory will return again at some time of dire need, presumably:

Hic Iacet Arthurus, Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus (Here lies Arthur, The Once and Future King)

Over the years the myth of King Arthur has taken on as many different forms as it has tellers. Each author, director, musician, and artist has his or her own version the Knights of the Round Table and Camelot, a shining, golden kingdom that illuminated a dark period in human history.

I've listed here my own criteria for tales of King Arthur. These elements should make their way into the story in some form:

Arthur (of course), a semi-divine king, a lawbringer, selfless, whose only fault is his love for his knights, which blinds him to Launcelot's indescretions with Guinevere.

Launcelot, the best knight and the stuff of legends, but flawed by his passion for Guinevere.

Guinevere/Launcelot betrayal. The story should in some way depict the love triangle, which played a part in the downfall of Camelot.

Foundation of Arthur’s kingdom/round table/chivalry/code of law. The foundation of right over might, representing a codification of order and peace and light as a bulwark against the chaos and tyranny of the Dark Ages.

  • Merlin, who adopts Arthur and who represents the old guard of paganism and faerie giving way to Christianity.

  • The Quest for the Holy Grail, the literal search for religion and Christ's cup at the last supper, but also the symbolic quest for a spiritual ideal, an internal search to elevate the soul beyond earthly ambitions. The myth of the Fisher King.

  • Mordred, the ill-begotten son of Arthur and his half-sister Morgause. He delivers the fatal blow to his father on the battlefield, and prior, when his betrayal strikes a grievous blow to Arthur's heart.

  • Camlann, the final battle, which must include Arthur’s wounding by Mordred, and his spiriting by boat to the mystical island of Avalon.
This next list are elements that frequently appear in the myth. While not required, I do enjoy them in my Arthurian fiction:
  • Excalibur, which confers a divine right upon Arthur when he draws it from the stone, and is cast into the sea at the tale’s end. Like Arthur it too will be found and return in some shadowy, indetermine future time, a powerful weapon with the singular, paradoxical ability to unite.
  • Camelot, the idealized kingdom of gold and silver spires.
  • Anachronistic elements. While I like the idea of the 5th century “historic” Arthur, as best portrayed by Bernard Cornwell in his terrific Warlord Trilogy, I enjoy more the full plate armor, 14th and 15th century, classic version of the knights of the round table.
  • Mythical beasts. If you like your Arthur with anachronisms, I figure that you might as well go full-bore and throw in serpents and giants and dragons, too.
  • Galahad, the paragon of virtue who succeeds in finding the grail and ascending to heaven. Other versions have Percival finding the Grail.
  • Morgan le Fay, the evil enchantress and foe of Arthur.
  • Sir Gawain, one of Arthur's bravest and perhaps his most loyal knight, whose desire to revenge himself on Lancelot for the murder of his (mostly) wicked brothers helps lead to the downfall of Camelot.
Here are some of my favorite versions of the Arthur myth in book, movie, and music form:

Must reads
  • Any version of Thomas Malory, the wellspring from which the tales flow (yes, I know there are older French sources, as well as Monmouths' History of the Kings of Britain, but these works contain scattered bits of the myth. Malory created the first complete narrative of the Arthur legend. I have a copy of Malory: The Complete Works, as edited by Eugene Vinaver, which retains the old English. But any version of Malory is acceptable.
  • The Once and Future King , T.H. White. The best modern treatment of Malory available. It's simultaneously very readable and focuses on the philosophical and moral underpinnings of the tale.
  • The Warlord Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell. Great three-part series which portrays the "historic" Arthur (who is believed to have existed in some form in the 5th century). Brutal and realistic to the period.
  • Pendragon/The Great Pendragon Campaign, Greg Stafford. A meticulously researched role playing game by Greg Stafford. Unlike Dungeons and Dragons, which contains a mish-mash of elements from fantasy literature, Pendragon's game engine is designed specifically to recreate the spirit and events of Malory. It's a great read besides.
Must views
  • Excalibur. By far the best version of the myth ever put to screen. This is unlikely to ever be surpassed.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Now a cliche, but it remains one of the funniest movies ever made and a great send-up of the tale of Arthur.
Must listens
  • The soundtrack to Excalibur, as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Terrific score that includes tracks borrowed from Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.
  • Mordred's Song, Blind Guardian. Powerful, epic treatment of Mordred that captures the pathos of the villain of the Arthur myth and renders him sympathetic ("No one can heal me, nothing can save me, no one can heal me; I've gone beyond the truth, it's just another lie; wash away the blood on my hands, my father's blood, in agony we're unified")


James Maliszewski said...

Malory fought in the Wars of the Roses and was charged and imprisoned several times for his actions during that time. While I'm not one to engage in amateur psychology on a man long dead, I nevertheless think it quite likely that Le Morte D'Arthur was, at least in part, a commentary on the virtues and flaws of monarchy and on the impossibility of finding an ideal man to wear the crown.

Terry L said...

Another great post!

I too favour the Vinaver version of Malory. I'd argue with your high placement of Whyte me the greatest prose version of the Arthurian story in the 20th century is Clemence Housman's _The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis_. It's pretty obscure, but you can likely still get a copy of the edition published fairly recently by Green Knight press (the former owners of the _Pendragon_ game license actually). It centers on a fairly peripheral knight of Arthur's court, but is heart-wrenchingly moving and has all of the main themes you'd expect in an Arthurian tale (especially that of redemption and the search for truth in an imperfect world). It's also written in the mode of Malory. I highly recommend picking up a copy if you can find it.

I also love Mary Stewart's "Merlin" chronicles. Probably my favourite 'pseudo-historical' take on the cycle.

And if you want to delve into the realm of modern poetry I'd recommend Charles Williams' (of Inklings fame) "Taliessin" cycle (though if you're like me you'll also need his oddly named essay on the Matter of Britain "Arthurian Torso" as well as C. S. Lewis' commentary on the poems: "Williams & the Arthuriad" to make full sense of everything.)

wulfgar said...

I think the most common approach to the story was that the Sword in the Stone and Excalibur are 2 different swords. Of course some treatments have them one and the same.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi James, thanks for stopping by The Silver Key.

Interesting observation on Malory--while I have heard that he was in trouble with the law, I didn't stop to ponder whether that experience may have colored his perception of monarchies and made its way into Le Morte D'Arthur. It makes sense though. I'd like to know what he was imprisoned for and whether he was considered (or personally felt) unjustly punished. That would certainly lend credence to your belief.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Terry, thanks for all the great recommendations. I've never read (nor heard of) Housman's work, but seeing how highly you recommend it and how interesting it sounds I'll have to pick it up.

I read the first of Stewart's books (The Crystal Cave) and liked it quite a bit, but I lost momentum on reading the rest of the series somehow.

As for Arthurian poetry, the only stuff I've read is Tennyson's Idylls of the King, and not all of it, but just selections. But it was excellent.

I also have sitting on my shelf unread Excalibur, a collection of 25 short stories by a host of authors about the history and manifestations of Excalibur throughout time. It's edited by Richard Gilliam, Martin Greenberg, and Edward Kramer, as is the two volume Grails: Quests of the Dawn, and Grails: Visitations of the Night.

Are you not a fan of The Once and Future King? I think it's so well done and easily one of my favorite books.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Wulfgar, I've also wondered what happened to the sword Arthur pulled from the stone. Did he just kick it to the curb when the Lady of the Lake granted him Excalibur?

Not to mention that pulling a sword from an anvil and a stone is a much more impressive feat than some moistened bink lobbing a scimitar at you :).

Terry L said...

Brian, I have to addmit that I've stalled out on Whyte and not read the entire book. I think I end up associating it too much in my mind with the twee Disney-movie version of the story. Also it smacks a bit too much of 20th century allegory for me (I've never been a big fan of allegory when I can smell it), though I may be being unfair to Whyte in that regard. I really ought to give it another try.

James Maliszewski said...

It's been years since I studied Mallory, but this section from Wikipedia at least jibes with my memories:

"Twice elected to a seat in Parliament, he also accrued a long list of criminal charges during the 1450s, including burglary, rape, sheep stealing, and attempting to ambush the Duke of Buckingham. He escaped from jail on two occasions, once by fighting his way out with a variety of weapons and by swimming a moat. Malory was imprisoned at several locations in London, but he was occasionally out on bail. He was never brought to trial for the charges that had been levelled against him. In the 1460s he was at least once pardoned by King Henry VI, but more often, he was specifically excluded from pardon by both Henry VI and his rival and successor, Edward IV. It can be construed from comments Malory makes at the ends of sections of his narrative that he composed at least part of his work while in prison."

Take that as you will. I'll see if I can find some more precise information, though none may exist outside of academic tomes.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Terry, I've actually managed to avoid watching The Sword in the Stone all these years, so perhaps that has worked to my advantage.

If you can't bring yourself to read the entirety of The Once and Future King, may I suggest you read book IV, "The Candle in the Wind." It sounds like you have been turned off by book I, "The Sword in the Stone," in which Merlin educates the young Arthur by showing him the behavior of certain animals and insects and how it relates to human characteristics. It is allegorical, and while I don't mind this, the book gets much darker, much more tragic, and far more powerful as it progresses to book IV, which is a must-read for any fans of Arthurian literature, in my opinion.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi James, thanks for the info. Kind of funny how sheep-stealing is lumped in with rape, burgulary, and ambush :).

I do find it very odd how someone with such a laundry list of crimes would choose to devote so much of his time and energies to Le Morte D'Arthur. He obviously understood and wrote very lucidly about right vs. wrong and the struggle against lawlessness and darkness, but for whatever reason chose to follow a very different path. Not exactly the Arthurian ideal, was Malory.

Mr Baron said...


I in the middle of a blog series examining the paladin, and in today's blog entry the topic is the Arthurian mythos. I wrote my blog earlier in the day, and I just found your entry. In my blog, I mention that any work that atempts to tackle the Arthurian myths need to include the following:

1. The birth of Arthur and the legitimacy of his blood line
2. Merlin
3. Excalibur
4. Lancelot & Guinevere
5. The Quest for the Holy Grail
6. Sir Tristan and the Belle Isolde
7. Christianity and Pagan religions (the rise of one and the fall of the other)
8. Mordred and the downfall of Arthur

Very similar to your list. Upon reading your blog, I am going to add Camelot/Foundation of the Round Table to my list, as I agree with you on this point.


Brian Murphy said...

Hi Mr. Baron, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad to find another kindred spirit with a similar love of the Arthurian myths in all their forms. I'll have to add your fine blog to my roll.

Nicole Alexander said...

Always nice to find a fellow Arthurian legend fan. I hope you do more posts like this! I read your requirement categories with interest, as I'm writing my own Arthurian legend series (centered on Guinevere) and I meet almost all your requirements. My books aren't published yet, but if you can stand a late Celtic/very early Dark Ages setting, you might want to check out my site:

Robert said...

Have you read Stephen Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle? I recommend it, if you haven't.

Brian Murphy said...

I have not read the Pendragon Cycle. Is it closer to Cornwell, or White?

Robert said...

It is a 'historical Arthur' setting, so Cornwell's work is more similar to it, though it is a somewhat more magical world than Cornwell's.